Apr 9 2012 2:00pm

Read This, It’s Good For You: The Media’s Reaction to E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey

Vegetables image by ConstructionDealMktingOn 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. JamesFifty 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.

Entertainment Weekly’s Fifty Shades of Grey coverTo 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 of Grey by E. L. JamesFifty 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.

Vegetables image courtesy of ConstructionDealMkting via Flickr


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.

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
Well said! I haven't read Fifty Shades OR the EW story yet, but I was annoyed as soon as I saw that issue in my mailbox. Between this and the "shippers are 'TV's weirdest fans'" article, EW is not on my good side right now.
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
I love the veggie analogy--it's weird that books are "supposed" to be good for you. I mean, how many readers have read something, loved it, and been embarrassed by it?
Are they just as embarrassed by loving the great entertainment that is HBO's Game of Thrones series, for example? Or Justified, which is based on an Elmore Leonard short story?
I'm only embarrassed by my choice of entertainment if I'm consuming it without actually enjoying it.
3. Magdalen
Here's the irony: I'm adapting my manuscript, Blackjack & Moonlight, as a screenplay. Not because it's a viable movie, it's not. (No car chases, so nothing to pull in the 18-30 male demographic.) I'm doing this as a way to help me see what's working in the novel and what's not.

Of course, it's a challenge taking a 370-page book and making a 105-page screenplay. Entire scenes get skipped or conveyed in a 5-second visual. Easy cuts of all? Sex. Pages and pages of sex scenes are conveyed with a little sexy banter and some skin, and then the obligatory L-shaped top sheet scene, where the heroine is tucked up to her armpits and the hero's chest is bare.

Trust me, in the book, it's all there. What they do and how they do it...because it's actually important for the plot and characterization. (No, really. It is.)

So books are actually sexier than TV and movies, because our imagination is more powerful than the plain words on the page. In effect, we're casting, lighting, designing and directing a mental movie as we read. (Well, visual learners like me are doing that. Auditory learners may be providing the Foley editing...) And we can make that mental movie as R-rated as we like. Or we skip the sex scenes because that's not the movie we're enjoying as we read.

Books: Sexier when you want that, or less sexy when you don't.
4. Lege Artis
So true.
I feel there's media overload about Fifty Shades and it's quite tiring... I'm starting to avoid TV talks and articles about it. As seasoned romance/erotic romance reader, I was hoping that talk will boost the entire genre and open people to other great works, but that didn't happened.They shuffled this trilogy on deserted island "where all the strange and peculiar things are."
Veggie analogy- priceless!
Jami Gold
5. jamigold
"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."

Yes! This exactly. Great article, Elizabeth!

I agree with your theory about many of the readers of this series. From what I've been able to tell, those who treat these books as better than sliced bread seem to fall into two camps: those who were uber-fans of the fanfic version and those who have never read romance.

Those in the second camp tend to defend these books as being great for exposing a complex relationship, yadda yadda. Yeah, except those tropes have been explored in THOUSANDS of romances--many of them better written. They act like these books have unique characters and interactions, which isn't true (even ignoring the fanfic/stolen characters issue), as the dominating, stalking, aggressive, alpha male and the woman who "tames" him have been a cliche for longer than those readers have been alive.

I hope those readers will go on to discover other romance stories. I wonder if once they see the true breadth of the genre, they'll still feel the FSoG books are fabulous, or if the books' specialness will be limited to the fact that they acted merely as their "intro" to the genre?
6. Roni Loren
Yes. THIS. I read an article the other day on what to read if you want more like 50 Shades and the reporter listed all books that were written before I was even born--literary books, of course, no romances. I wanted to shake my laptop. Are the rows and rows of romance novels in bookstores invisible to the public? Are all those romance authors on the NYT list imaginary? How can the media turn such a blind eye to the genre that makes the book industry most of their money?

When people start talking about how shocking and different 50 Shades is, I want to direct them to any of the major publishers or e-publishers who have entire lines dedicated completely to erotic romance, some even with lines specifically for BDSM erotic romance. *shakes head* So frustrating.
7. Janet W
Here's a link to a recent media story (from Canada actually) about Fifty Shades of Grey.

Eric Selinger and Sarah Frantz, both professors with a special interest and expertise in the field of popular romance are quoted. It's hard for me to read the condescending and dismissive tone that is used to describe the reading habits of (we're asked to believe) many women who have purchased E L James's bestseller. Is it any wonder that the new-to-this discussion media is so dismissive of 50 Shades?

Forget the media -- the people with the chequebook (Vintage Press and Universal Studios) bought a book and a story because they know that readers have and are enjoying it. I agree that the list of books the mainstream media is suggesting that readers read after Fifty Shades is pretty laughable -- they don't seem to really get it. On the other hand, if the suggestions on what to read next -- that are made from within the romance community (since Fifty Shades is a romance) come with the warning label that 50 sux but these books don't, don't be surprised if the mainstream media doesn't do any better a job than perhaps we are.

My thought when Fifty Shades really hit it big was that the big romance houses (Harlequin, Avon, Random House ...) should have printed up huge ads congratulating E L James, welcoming her readers to the party and that might indeed have been a story the mainstream media might have picked up on. That's what happens at Oscar time ...

Loved the vegetable analogy altho it's a hard one for me--I'd rather read than just about any other form of media.
Amanda Bonilla
8. Amanda Bonilla
Awesome post! Seriously, the media isn't intersted in anything they can't sensationalize and if they actually took the time to acknowledge the romance genre's longevity and success, it would totally steal their scandalous thunder. The vegetable analogy is spot on! What a shame that this is how the romance genre is getting attention.
9. pamelia
Great article. My feelings about this whole phenomenon are mixed. On the one hand I loved the books to bits. On the other hand if they had actually been, you know, EDITED before they were published that would have been nice. So we have loads of new-to-romance readers experiencing the utter connection to characters and love that they can find in many romance novels which is great. On the other hand we have loads of people deriding the poor-quality of the editing/writing with phrases like, "It's only a romance novel, you shouldn't expect quality." Then as you so aptly point out the mainstream media refuses to acknowledge this is a romance novels and there are in fact loads of great romance novels with "romance" and "sex" abounding. If I hear one more person recommend "The Story of O" or The Sleeping Beauty books as a viable alternative/follow up (as if those books contain any hint of relationship/character development or romance) I might just lose it and start arguing (futilly) with the internet once again.
10. Liz Mc2
Thanks for this. So much of the coverage has been offensive on many fronts and I appreciate your take on why. A lot of it, especially early on, also seems to have been based on interviewing "my sister-in-law's cousin's book group that read this" rather than any real reporting. I wonder if that is why we've gotten so many sweeping (and dismissive and condescending) generalizations about readers of the trilogy. Some of them may not read much, or never read romance, but not all of them.

For that reason, I feel the need to declare publicly my gratitude to readers like Janet W and pamelia, who have made sensible comments about these books in several online venues I frequent. They are smart, they read a lot, they read romance, they are discerning readers, and yet somehow--gasp!--they managed to read and like 50. I don't want to read it myself, but their reasoned responses have helped me to be open-minded and non-judgemental about those who do. Would that media pundits performed as well as you two!
11. AnimeJune
Magdelen - You just reminded me of another reason why books rock over movies: there's no MPAA rating system. Sure, there's always the banned book issue, but books have remained mercifully free of any pretentious, condescending age-rating system that restricts who can buy or read it.

Screenwriters can write sexy movies - but they're not allowed to be TOO sexy or else they get slapped with an NC17 rating which cuts down on their audience and thus their profits. Novelists, however, can write pretty much anything without having to worry that a large segment of the population will be banned from reading it.

As for 50 Shades - I don't want to slam the book itself. Despite its fanfiction origins, people have enjoyed AND responded to it. Wouldn't it be great it we got all these women to discover romance and see that it's a legitimate, wonderful thing? So what if 50 Shades is "bad"? I read a lot of "bad" books as a teenager (RL Stine for example) that led me to some really great authors. The main thing that's pissed me off about the media coverage is that this PERFECT opportunity to do for romance what Harry Potter and Twilight did for YA has just been completely and utterly missed.
12. Annie Quinty
Elizabeth, great article!
Janet W. thank you for posting about the link from
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
13. tnh
Janet W -- Forgive me for the intrusion, but I recast your link. Displaying it was making the back-end user interface hard to read.
Megan Frampton
14. MFrampton
One thing I was thinking about, though, in terms of the vegetable analogy and the news that the average e-reader--who read more than people who read only in print--read 24 books a year is that our response, as readers (and probably non-readers) is that that is deplorable. That people should be reading more than 24 books a year. Do we say that about movies? Or television? "Really, so-and-so, you only watch an hour a week? You really should watch more."
Maybe if we all started treating it like less of a rarified form of entertainment, a better form of entertainment, it wouldn't be so vegetable-y.
That said, I agree entirely with how ludicrous the media's response has been to this, but it's just as ludicrous as the readers who have read this book--and only this book--and think they know what romance or erotica really is.
15. KT Grant
Badly written and poorly excuted sex sells well, I guess. And fan fiction is the type of things people eat up. So no surprised these two combinations would lead to a best selling book.

In the next year or so, we're going to see more of these books. Looks like readers prefer "bodice ripper type stories with emotionally disturbed heroes who treat the heroine horribly.
16. BeeMW
Love the analogy. Great article.

Love the Fifty trilogy. Tired of the "Mommy porn" angle. Im a 34 yr old who is not a mom and i've been reading erotica / romance genre for a long time. It's not a new concept... to most savvy intelligent women!
17. Shark with Lasers
I read that EW article, and while the pictures and sidebars are undeniably irritating, the interview with the author is actually quite good. What there is of it. I think I would have preferred a Q&A style interview over what the writer chose to do, which is to bookend an article about the phenomenon of the series with parts of the interview. I like a frame narrative as much as the next gal, and that is actually a clever conceipt in an article tangentially connected to Twilight, but James's comments were honestly interesting enough on their own to warrant more thorough coverage. If she was relaxed enough to toss off a frankly ridiculous comment about smoking, then she was ripe for a more extensive interview, and the interviewer dropped the ball.

I'm also intrigued by what KT Grant just said about the possibility of more fanfic based stories hitting the market. There are a number of fandoms in which this type of AU is extremely popular, and there are generally a few very talented writers posting in those fandoms. I agree that there will be more fanfic based ebooks hitting the market soon. The thing is, there have been times when I've been reading published work when I've felt positive that there was already some fan-based influence in the work. A peripheral character who brings up a strong association with a TV character here, a description that sounds an awful lot like a popular movie star there. I'm now curious not so much where the line is drawn, but rather whether or not there is a line at all.
18. DianeN
I think KT Grant is right that we are going to see more fanfic repackaged and advertised as the next Fifty. What makes me saddest about this is that back in the days when fanfic was young it was a point of honor among writers that they would never attempt to make money from their writing. It was understood that fanfic writers exist on the good will of the legitimate owners of the characters and settings they appropriate. Making a profit on someone else's work just wasn't done. You didn't repurpose your fanfic by changing names and a few details and present it to some publisher as original work. Obviously those days are gone, and Ms. James's success must have many fanfic writers licking their chops as they attempt to make Bones and Booth or the Battlestar Galactica crew less obviously who they really are.
19. tapp
I agree with all of the above, but have we failed to see the ginormous grey elephant in this room?
I give you... romance cover art.
Really... do you truly feel comfortable reading some of these erotica books (and yep, I read 'em) that have a pair of womens' bare legs stretched out, a man's butt cleavage, a pair of breasts seductively gathered under arms? Do you really want to be seen in the office breakroom, where your boss walks in ? How about on public transportation, with the clump of eighteen year olds snickering...?
I think romance publishing needs to take a lesson on cover art.
One of the biggest reasons erotica has exploded is because of the privacy of the ereader! Not that I'm kidding myself that my teens don't know what lies between the pink leather covers of my Kindle, but at least it's not a billboard for body parts I fantasize having for myself.
In my opinion, these reporters finally deigned to allow themselves to read an erotica because of the tasteful cover. It's easier to giggle behind a tasteful silk man's tie than it is to hold up a cover of a barebacked woman trussed up in red Japanese bondage in the carpool lane.
Elizabeth Halliday
20. Ibbitts
I have not made specific observations concerning this trilogy before now because I hadn't read the literature in question. I read "Fifty Shades of Grey" and "Fifty Shades Darker" rather quickly, but I read "Fifty Shades Freed" in ARC format, which made it a more difficult read for me. My first observation is that I didn't find the books to be particularly erotic. Oh, there was plenty of sex, and some of it was pretty far left of vanilla, but it didn't elicit much emotion from me. I liked the story very much, but I felt the characters more during the scenes where Christian and Ana just talked to each other.
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