50 Shades of Grey‘s Success: It’s Nothing New, Just the Oldest Archetype in the Book

50 Shades of Grey’s unsurprising success and the archetype that will not die

Everyone who talks about 50 Shades of Grey sounds bewildered. 

When the books outsold the Harry Potter series in the U.K., the publisher sounded mystified, saying it was “perhaps one of the most extraordinary experiences of my entire publishing career. . . . The speed and sheer size of the sales is incredible.” Cultural critics were confused as to why a novel that wasn’t written well was still so enticing. Even the film’s star, Jamie Dornan, has been looking disconcerted and uncomfortable on the promotional trail, as if he’s not sure what’s going on here.

That this is a terrible movie based on a terrible book goes without saying. Yet no one need be surprised. Start with the premise that sex sells, add a brilliant marketing plan, whatever theory you like about why fads spread, the lure of the forbidden, human curiosity (Are you curious? asks the billboards. Of course we are!), and voila, even grandma knows what BDSM means. And if grandma regularly watches HBO, she probably wasn’t all that shocked.

Aside from giving every marketer in the country a tie-in to hawk their wares, 50 Shades of Grey also brought up a host of issues and became a veritable touchstone for all our cultural challenges. Though written at a grade-school reading level, it was interpreted and theorized like a graduate literature assignment. How could that many people buy something without it saying something about society?

But no one could agree on what. Feminists complained that the series was little more than a sexed-up Disney princess movie where the young, virginal heroine wins the high-standing, wealthy male. They cringed at charges that the series showed women were “tired” of feminism and needed a man to rescue them. Cultural conservatives said it revealed women’s desire for men of strength and determination. Christians worried that women’s sexual fantasies could be as damaging to relationships, souls, and psyches as pornography viewing was for males, though with results less violent and law-break-y. Activists against domestic violence warned that it glorified abusive relationships, making women even more vulnerable to male predation and cruelty. It was really a social-climbing story about our desire to be members of the One Percent, some said. Even BDSM practitioners complained that it wasn’t an accurate representation of their practice and that the controlling and sadistic Christian Grey in no way represented their dear old Dominants.

If you followed the controversies, you might think no one really liked this book at all other than the millions upon millions and millions and millions of women who loved it. Then came counter-arguments from people who didn’t particularly like the book or the movie, but still felt a need to defend it. This was fantasy, people, a category that, by definition, owed no allegiance to reality or the way things are supposed to be or any kind of sense at all (see Furries). And anyway, it wasn’t the sex but the romance that spurred women’s interest. Something movie marketers were wise to, as evidenced by the film’s posters, close-ups showing a man and a woman gazing into each other’s eyes, the universal symbol of romantic love between equals. And then some feminists came back and said it wasn’t as bad as we thought. It was a feat for feminism with its portrayal of the woman doing the saving of the poor, damaged male, and finding out what she really likes in bed to boot.

Is this really better? If being rescued by the equivalent of Prince Charming is an enduring theme in literature, then capturing and reforming the Bad Boy is its dark twin refrain. Heathcliff, Hamlet, Mr. Rochester, James Dean, Dylan McKay. The Bad Boy, or Demon Lover, brings out a woman’s nurturing and empathetic side and, well, other sides of her, too. As Taylor Swift has said, “I think every girl’s dream is to find a bad boy at the right time, when he wants to not be bad anymore.” And before Taylor Swift, the Shangri-La’s were singing:

They told me he was bad

But I knew he was sad

So popular is this type with women that Jane Austen had a bit of fun with her novel Northanger Abbey, a lampoon of the Gothic novels prevalent at the time. It could even be traced back to the Garden of Eden, perhaps, with Eve’s inability to discern when someone was lying to her face. Fans of The Last Days of Disco will remember one character’s theory that it influences women in childhood, starting with Disney’s Lady and the Tramp. Even the 50 Shades of Grey screenwriter is under the Bad Boy spell, saying, “There is something about Christian that is old fashioned and romantic.” That might be a stretch. It reminds one of Jeff Foxworthy’s comedic bit about a survey of women that found their No. 1 fantasy figure was a dangerous man, and his response that in real life, “when you get a dangerous man, you’re on an episode of Cops in a tube top hanging out a trailer door going, ‘Lock his ass up! Lock his ass up!’”

So when it came to 50 Shades, what were women to do with a premise that spoke so directly to something in their DNA plus longstanding cultural and media conditioning that made it all cat nip to the female soul? Those trying to dissuade women from the 50 Shades movie even went so far as to take a bait-and-switch approach, similar to a diet that recommends swapping a piece of rich chocolate fudge cake for a gluten-free carob rice cake. Wouldn’t women prefer a nice movie about a nice man who woos a nice girl? No they wouldn’t, but thanks. Some even said erotic fantasy wasn’t that bad and could be healthy within the confines of marriage, which might be a hard sell in a country where half of all adult Americans are not married.

But the naysayers brought up some good points. In The Fantasy Fallacy, author and faith-based therapist Sharon Ethridge writes that sexual fantasies are a kind of masturbation, because they are more about the fantasizer than what is on the screen and are often a way to numb some kind of pain. In that way, she suggests, they can be masking people’s underlying problems, which is why she asks patients to “look directly into the pain itself” to reveal “what still needs to be ‘made right’ in our minds.” She also posits that the objects of fantasies can sometimes be clues to something the fantasizer wants or qualities she wishes she had. Looking at it from this angle might help offset the clarion call sent out by 50 Shades proponents who claim that it’s simply helping women own their sexuality and get more of what they like, as if sex was about men and women’s separate needs, something custom-made to order like a personal pan pizza, and not the most relational of all human activities. 

And in real life, it’s exactly this need for relationship that makes women vulnerable to the Bad Boy’s dark charms. While evolutionary theorists and jaded men may think women are drawn to bad boys because of perceived virility and our collective drive to reproduce, psychology suggests that it’s a little more complicated than that. In her book, How to Spot a Dangerous Man Before You Get Involved, counselor Sandra L. Brown talks in depth about bad boys in real life. While Christian Grey is refreshingly up-front about his personal issues, dangerous men in real life aren’t so easily identified as such. They don’t always come with tattoos and prison records, nor do they appear like Grey with strange requests, legal contracts, and overt warnings such as, “I don’t do romance.” She states that women fail to recognize these types because our knowledge of them “comes to us in the form of watered-down, naivesounding warnings about ‘bad men’ from our mothers and other elders . . . mythical seeming generalities that have failed to help women sense, see and avoid dangerous men when they show up.” She says that women often override red flags because they’ve come to believe that some of them are typical male behaviors. Another common reason is that the behaviors women have learned in order to be kind and compassionate adults are the opposite of the behaviors needed when dealing with a dangerous person intent on breaking down a woman’s boundaries. Heeding Brown’s advice means that women need less help in avoiding secret pain rooms and more awareness of subtle signs of danger and the importance of acknowledging a general feeling that something is “off,” even if the reason why can’t be readily explained.

In fact, a real dangerous man might look more like Peter Sarsgaard’s character David in the movie An Education. Nice, friendly, but with a few things that don’t add up, David charms his way into the life of Jenny, a bright young woman with her sights set on Oxford. Their affair, full of exciting trips and people, makes her forget her studies as well as her modest background and middle-class morals, before she realizes the extent of his dirty dealings. Luckily for her, Jenny finds her way out, in part because of a visit to a former teacher that reawakens her earlier ambitions for herself. This realization makes her understand that far from being an escape into a glitzier, more sophisticated world, David is a disruption that has gotten her sidetracked. At the end of 50 Shades of Grey, Anastasia also appears to come to her senses, but the next two books show her coming back for more. All you need is Wikipedia to see that it only gets dumber and weirder from here on out. No need to wait for the next two movies. Anastasia’s “triumph” consists not in escaping the dark side, but in healing the bad boy and living a life of luxury — something Brown says can never happen. “If your man is diagnosed with something called a ‘personality disorder,’ you should think of it and refer to it as a ‘permanent disorder,’” she writes. But the bad-boy fantasy, once dropped, can serve as a powerful trigger. Instead of making women think about what they want in the sack, it could make them think about what they might want in life. Yes sex sells, and we’re all curious. But let’s put this bad boy to bed.

— Allison Elliott is a writer living in New York City.


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