It's hard to believe that Fifty Shades of Grey was only published back in 2011, but here we are five years later... and I am grateful. Yes, you read that correctly: Grateful. Am I a fan of Fifty Shades of Grey? Not really. Do I know people who are? Of course. Do I judge them for it? Not one bit.
Fifty Shades triggered a reading revolution the likes of which we hadn't seen since J.K. Rowling dared children to call themselves “readers” without mockery or Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series challenged women and teens to choose a side in an epic reading war. In fact, it was because of Twilight that we are here today talking about this phenomena. It got teens reading, and six years later, it got them intrigued in its published fan fiction, Fifty Shades of Grey.
Women who were told they weren't readers, who were too busy to read, who only thought books were those recommended in your English lit class—they all became book lovers. Teens and grandmothers alike were reading Fifty Shades of Grey and talking about romance in a way that hasn't been seen since its first rocket to the mainstream consciousness in the 1970s and '80s. In 2011, the book community was about to embark on a reading rebellion like few of us have ever seen—and that the majority of us were fully prepared for.
What was Fifty Shades' Influence?
As one of my friends on Twitter mentioned, Fifty Shades not only had us talking about it among fellow readers, but also took the conversation to a large national stage with widely respected and “legitimate” news outlets. It wasn't just niche readers who were talking about it, but mainstream news outlets. It was talked about in every newspaper, magazine, and morning show. The author became a celebrity, and shortly after, a movie was made—bringing the series to even greater global attention.
While many outlets talked about it in a derisive way, the books also had people asking questions: Why is romance so popular? Who is actually reading it? Is everyone secretly a sexual deviant?
Okay, that last probably wasn't asked all that often, but who can forget the Today show feature calling Fifty Shades of Grey “the dirty secret in the suburbs,” but don't worry, Dr. Drew (the biggest opponent of the book in that segment) quickly got schooled by the internet on the subject.
However, in starting the discourse—condescending as it was at first—the series allowed us to change the conversation and correct some long-held misconceptions.
Is everyone a sexual deviant? No, of course not—only the fun ones. All joking aside, it’s called fantasizing, and it’s actually quite healthy. Who is reading romance? Everyone! The romance genre is made up largely of women, but there are male readers—and writers. Readers range in age from early teens (we all know that there are still kids stealing their mothers' books) to people in their 90s. Those people are reading everything from the sweetest inspirational romance to the raunchiest erotica. Why is romance so popular? Perhaps it has something to do with richly developed characters, emotionally satisfying endings, and complex plots. For the first time, romance readers had a chance to tell people everything they felt about a genre they deeply loved—and had a chance to educate new readers too. Readers who, up until Fifty Shades of Grey, rarely read, but now call themselves bookworms.
A Note on Female Sexuality
People often joke about about Fifty Shades of Grey babies and “spicing up the bedroom.” However, the power of Fifty Shades regarding female sexuality is stronger than that. Note that “spicing up the bedroom” meant that women were being autonomous in the bedroom. They were turning to their partners and saying “Dear Sir or Madam, please spank me and/or tie me up while we have sex, I'd like to try something different and I think that might get me off.” And enough men and women said “yes”—because if that gets everyone closer to orgasm (and a guarantee of more orgasms later) then who would say no? Well, plenty of prudish people did, we're sure, but that's far less fun.
As Toni Bentley so accurately put it in her examination of Fifty Shades of Grey (both the book and the movie):
The success of Fifty Shades leaves me with two irrefutable conclusions: that women are still not having good, orgasmic sex with anything resembling regularity, and that their disappointment in the romance of The One that is supposed to deliver the former is massive.
For the first time, many women were openly talking about orgasms—both the ones they read on the page, and the ones they were, or were not, having in real life. Women were talking with other women about their sexuality, about what turned them on, about what didn't. They were having conversations—both high-brow and low-brow—about likes and dislikes. Words are power, and Fifty Shades handed a dictionary to the unschooled.
Fifty Shades of Grey told women they had had the power all along—they have the power to read what they choose and have sex the way they like.
Who was reading Fifty Shades? Literally everyone. Okay, not literally everyone. But with 60 million copies sold, it was a large percentage of the world population. Of those 60 million copies—and let’s apply the “newspaper” rule that for each copy sold, roughly three other people read that same copy, bringing us up to 180 million readers—many of those readers were brand-new to romance. They had likely never read anything in the romance genre before, and Fifty Shades acted as their gateway drug. To them I say: Welcome. I hope you've enjoyed the last five years.
When I went to the Fifty Shades of Grey movie screening, I sat next to women who had travelled from Spain to be there for the screening. They were not there for Jamie Dornan or Dakota Johnson, they were there for the books—and for the woman behind them. These women had traveled halfway around the world for a book. Can you think of many other books that have worked people up to this much of a lather? Certainly Twilight and Harry Potter achieved this level of devotion, but a phenomenon such as this has rarely been seen in the romance genre.
The influence Fifty Shades of Grey had on the genre as a whole is massive. The ripple effect continues to influence so many books in the genre. From the covers of the books to the types of novels being published to the tropes and archetypes being implemented, the Grey effect can still be felt.
How did Fifty Shades Shape Contemporary Romance?
Are you a fan of Alice Clayton? What about Christina Lauren? All of these authors started their books as Twilight fanfic—just like Fifty Shades of Grey (formerly known as “Master of the Universe”) itself. While Clayton had already seen success with her Unidentified Redhead series, her book Wallbanger took her to another level. As for Christina Lauren? Their career started with Beautiful Bastard back in 2013, and in just a little over three years they've written 17 books and novellas across two genres (adult and young adult).
What are your feelings on Samantha Young or Colleen Hoover? These authors may have still found success in the romance genre under different circumstances, but their trajectory to superstardom was accelerated by the post-Fifty Shades boom. Like Alice Clayton, Samantha Young had been publishing books long before Fifty Shades of Grey, but it wasn't until On Dublin Street that she became a household name among romance readers.
What does that have to do with Fifty Shades? Like Fifty Shades' Ana, the characters in these books were college-aged, or fresh out of high school and struggling to find their footing in an “adult” world. With the publication of Fifty Shades, we saw the birth of a subgenre. New Adult, though a term coined back in 2009, did not see an explosion until 2011 with the success of Fifty Shades. If you're confused about what New Adult is... don't worry, you're not alone. No, really, no one knew what it meant. As I said, this term already existed, but the genre would not exist the way it does without the help of Fifty Shades.
Would publishers have taken a risk on these authors otherwise? Of course, because they are all incredibly talented writers. Would it have been at the same accelerated timetable we saw after Fifty Shades? Probably not.
What Was the Fifty Shades Effect on Erotic Romance?
To correct misconceptions by other media: Fifty Shades of Grey was not the first erotic romance. In fact, it wasn't the first BDSM romance, and it wasn't the first novel to depict a billionaire...or to follow a single couple over multiple books...or have a virgin heroine hypnotized by the overwhelming masculinity of a hero. However, like with New Adult, Fifty Shades of Grey led to an increased interest in erotic romance by readers and, therefore, publishers. Many authors changed genres to start writing erotic romance—either from publisher urging or because of their own personal interest—or they found themselves turning up the heat levels to appeal to readers who had come in under the Fifty Shades umbrella. Sylvia Day's Gideon Cross came to us a year after we were introduced to Christian Grey, though Day had been writing and publishing in the genre long before 2012. We saw a re-branding of covers so that readers who had come in through James' signature silver tie facade could look at authors like Maya Banks and Lora Leigh and know immediately “These Books Are For You, Too!”
Let's not forget that every hero seemed to be a billionaire for at least a solid year. We loved them! We ate them up! And we have Christian Grey to thank.
Why are we talking about this five years later? Like all academic research, we now have lots of data we can refer to when looking at the impact it had on the genre. The trend is starting to ebb—though what will come next, at this large of a scale, is up for debate—and so this gives us a chance to look back at its impact. Much like Kathleen Woodiwiss's historical romances before her, E.L. James's Fifty Shades books have had a deep impact on the genre. Also like Woodiwiss, James is an incredibly polarizing author. Many people are either on one side of the line or the other—loving it or hating it.
The people who are neutral on it are a little harder to find. When asked my opinion on Fifty Shades of Grey, I usually say I am thankful for what it has done for the genre. Fifty Shades of Grey revolutioned romance. It seems so ironic in a country so inhibited about sex (and where our society guards female virginity like a dragon with a virgin sacrific) that a romance novel depicting a dominant/submissive relationship would become the biggest topic of conversation. Not only was it talked about among people “like” you—a.k.a. fellow romance readers—but you were talking about it with your mother, your neighbor, your church group...that random guy on the subway who saw what you were reading and decided to strike up a conversation. (That one totally wasn't from personal experience. Definitely not. That. did. not. awkwardly. happen to me. Never.)
Whether you like Fifty Shades of Grey is irrelevant. Many people don't like Kathleen Woodiwiss (sheepily raises hand—what can I say, I didn't read it at the right time). On the flip side, for millions—and I mean, millions—the same can be said for Fifty Shades of Grey. For them, Fifty Shades of Grey did happen at the right time—just like The Flame and the Flower happened at the right time for millions of readers a generation before it.
Learn more about or order a copy of the books mentioned in this post:
|Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James|
|Wallbanger by Alice Clayton|
|Beautiful Bastard by Christina Lauren|
|Bared to You by Sylvia Day|
|On Dublin Street by Samantha Young|
|Slammed by Colleen Hoover|
H&H Editor Picks:
Jennifer Proffitt is a Midwest transplant to New York City. You can usually find her wishing time-travel was possible so she could go back to Victorian England or that she was a paranormal creature. But in the meantime, she fills her time being the Community Manger for Heroes and Heartbreakers, and reading and writing romance. You can find her on Twitter at@JennProffitt