On the plate of the media’s coverage of Popular Entertainment, books have always been the vegetables. Everyone knows that books are healthy and good for you, and that everyone really should consume more of them—especially children and young adults. But, much like vegetables, books often get pushed to the side of the plate in favor of Film (the delicious juicy cheeseburger) and Television (the salty, greasy fries). And whenever the media does mention books, it’s almost always in relation to how Good they are for society, how Artistic, How Intellectually Stimulating, instead of how fun and entertaining they can be. Eat that spinach, kids! It’s full of vitamins and nutrients! However, genre books like romance and erotica are viewed as little more than the wilted, greasy lettuce beneath the onion rings.
Nowhere has this hypocrisy been more apparent than in the media’s reaction to E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. The book has received mixed reviews, much like the reception to Twilight, the series that inspired it. This article isn’t about whether 50 Shades is good or bad, but the backwardness of its portrayal in the media.
To be specific, let’s look at Entertainment Weekly’s coverage. In their April 6, 2012 issue, one of the issue’s two covers is of a topless woman covering her breast with a copy of Fifty Shades, beneath the title: “FIFTY SHADES OF GREY EXPOSED!” The article itself is accompanied by a photograph of a naked man and woman with the book’s words projected onto their skin. Both photographs are meant to provoke a response by photographing two things that have, traditionally, rarely mixed in the popular media—books and sex.
While the article itself is slightly more respectful than most, it’s accompanied by a sidebar called “Hot Books: a History.” It lists several classic literary novels that have historically come under fire for obscenity—and not one actual romance novel.
For years, the media has been politely pretending that romance, and more specifically, erotic romance doesn’t exist, so when Fifty Shades blew the lid wide open, we got a lot of entertainment reporters wandering around like wide-eyed, innocent lambs who’ve discovered their third-grade teacher is secretly into pegging. There are books...that exist...that people actually read in public—that are about sex? What will they think of next? And once they’ve finished giggling like little boys who’ve found their first nudie magazine, they go back to seriously covering the hype over the second season of the sex-drenched Game of Thrones and advertising Jennifer Love Hewitt’s sex trade worker show, The Client List (the full-page advert of which can be found on the back of the same issue ofEntertainment Weekly that covered 50 Shades!).
You see, the popular media expects graphic sex and violence from movies and TV (the cheeseburger and the fries, remember). But a book with a plot revolving around graphic sex that becomes astoundingly popular is met with prudish gasps of surprise and fascination, the same reaction people might have with, to continue with the food metaphor, a deep-fried zucchini. Vegetables are supposed to be healthy! Books are supposed to improve your mind and make your children smarter! They’re not supposed to be fun and dirty!
Fifty Shades’ popularity could have been a golden opportunity to usher in a discussion of romance and erotic romance as legitimate genres. A large segment of Fifty Shades’ fanbase are women who have never actually read romance, who have, in fact, avoided it for its trashy covers and the social stigma. It’s been a bit like listening to women discover and praise McDonald’s after avoiding the steakhouse next door due to its sleazy front. Regardless of whether you believe Fifty Shades is good or not, this could have been an excellent time for the media to explore the phenomenon and the culture of romance, and show these new readers fascinated with Fifty Shades that there are thousands of romances out there to explore and discuss.
I mean, as much as I personally disliked Twilight, it did have a hugely positive impact on the media’s perception of the YA genre. A quick glance into the hugely-expanded YA section of any bookstore will tell you how far that genre has come in terms of respectability.
No dice for romance, however. The media seem determined to treat Fifty Shades like a uniquely kinky fad, a mysterious phenomenon all on its own, unconnected to genre, which will doubtless fade back into obscurity in a few years. One unsettlingly possible reason for this is that the presence of the female-dominated romance genre in the media forcibly reminds society that women enjoy sex and seek pleasure from it as much as men do. No one bats an eye about the upcoming film about porn star Linda Lovelace’s life – but the possibility of a Fifty Shades movie has the media all in a tizzy.
It’s almost enough to give one scurvy. If you need me, I’ll be here in my comfy chair, eating my sexy, scandalous fruits and vegetables.
Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.