Fifty Shades of Linkbait

newsweek: fifty shades of zero editorial vision

Sometimes people act like Penthouse Letters is the fucking Grapes of Wrath.

In the case of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a trashy novel just somehow gets lucky with a well-timed PR campaign and so people make it out to be way more than it is. But even then, it looks like an impostor in the context of its genre’s history, and can only ever sit at the kid’s table in a banquet of its current contemporaries.

Fifty Shades of Grey is the first book in an amateur pseudo-BDSM trilogy, and it is currently a mainstream media sex-trend darling. It’s like Twilight meets Penthouse Letters. It will be awesome for you if you secretly wish someone would do a Halle-Berry-as-Catwoman treatment to The Story Of O.

Fifty Shades is getting a ton of attention for no actual reason anyone can figure out. I mean, other than the usual appetite for salacious and ungrounded headlines. Most of us are just watching and nibbling popcorn, and going what the huh? while waiting for any kind of actual story of interest or import to come out of the whole fiasco. So far, there’s no there there.

Most articles about Fifty Shades capitalize on the fact that women are reading porn. With BDSM in it. Holy crap! I mean, I still can’t believe we can vote and wear pants. Many articles make much out of the notion that these women [the majority of whom obtained the book in digital form] are most likely ashamed to be reading a porn book – because they consumed it as an easily-concealed ebook. Kindle = SHAME. Nevermind the hundreds of thousands of women that have been consuming porn as porn in ever increasing numbers since the free and open internet has cracked open distribution channels with which women can investigate their sexuality on their own terms for once.

But wait, it gets better. Newsweek’s cover story this week “The Fantasy Life of Working Women” paints the Fifty Shades fanfare as a cultural signifier about independent women, feminism and power-play sex. And while I honestly think that reputations were sacrificed of writer (Katie Roiphe), of editor (Tina Brown) and especially of publication (le Newsweek), I gotta say that Newsweek did a hell of a job making linkbait while the sun shined.

Here’s a roundup of reactions:

  • Bondage/dominance/sadomasochism (BDSM) erotica novel Fifty Shades Of Grey has swept the nation, landing itself on many a Kindle and launching a feeding frenzy for the movie rights. Much digital ink has been spilled on What Does This All Mean? for women and our sexual desires. So naturally, Newsweek/The Daily Beast hired Katie Roiphe, who both loathes contemporary feminism and does not understand BDSM in the slightest, to write about it.
    The Soapbox: Actually, Katie Roiphe, Feminists Are Not Perplexed About Submissive Sex (The Frisky)
  • If every era gets the sadist it deserves—wait, what does that mean?—then it makes sense we got Tina Brown, the wicked, high-spirited and slightly out-of-it editor of Newsweek and the Daily Beast. That’s our Tina: She’s made dupes of her readers—as well as of the highly suggestible writer Katie Roiphe—once again. This time, Tina’s whips and chains can be found on the new cover of Newsweek: “The Fantasy Life of Working Women.” Or as the cover story’s headline puts it, more directly, “Spanking Goes Mainstream.”
    Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek cover story reveals Tina Brown’s S&M editing of women writers (Yahoo! News)
  • Just… excellent – Fifty Shades, spoofed by one of the most respected BDSM novelists of our time:

    (…) “Then you’re really going to be Mine!” he thundered. “Because I Alone can teach you the gift of submission, give rise to your slave heart, grant to you the loving dominance of My Masterful Aggression, all tempered, of course, with rationality and with all due care and attention given to risk-aware negotiation! I will teach you to serve Me with your submissive soul, your passive power, your girly gushiness, train you to come at the snap of My Fingers and find true freedom in your complete subjugation to My Will. Yes…you will even learn…Bad Grammar.”

    “Triple crap!” Tiffany declaimed. “All that? But…how is that possible? It all sounds crazy! And yet…when I look into your charcoal eyes under that irrepressible lock of ebony hair, as I run my searching, trembling fingers across the steel buttons on your sable silk shirt, all I can think of is…Jesus Christ, I am so horny I can die. I think. But i don’t really know, because of the virgin thing?” (…)

    50 Shades of Sell Out (Laura Antoniou, Facebook)

  • Update: add Katie Roiphe’s perversion of feminism on Guardian UK to this list. Jaclyn Friedman writes, “Roiphe casts feminists as moralising killjoys policing women’s fantasies of sexual submission. I’ll submit – that she’s way wrong.”

Congratulations to Newsweek for a hit and run piece that re-cast sexually empowered women as feminists that “just need a strong man.” That’s exactly the negative attention Newsweek needed to shore up its shaky invite to being part of any meaningful conversations these days. Especially for really culturally needed print magazines like Newsweek.

I always wonder what the carbon footprint is on bullshit like this.

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  1. Thank you! I was beginning to think I was crazy thinking why the big hype over an erotica book. I’ve been reading erotica for years and years (I have quite a few that were edited by you!). And I just can’t understand why this book has come out of nowhere all of a sudden and selling like crazy. Erotica isn’t new!!! I find it very annoying that all of a sudden erotica has become ‘mainstream’ and is now ‘acceptable’???? Ugh.
    But I did today just buy the first book to see what the freakin’ hype is about. I realize I shouldn’t complain until I actually read it. But I have a feeling that I already have better stuff in my library.

    The most frustrating part, for me, is that Christian/Edward “discovers” his interest in BDSM after being molested as a fifteen-year-old by his mother’s married friend. He maintains a personal and business relationship for over a decade later. There are some responsible BDSM-themed stories out there. This is not one of them.

  3. When I read about BDSM and the men who like to be dominated, I’ve come across in numerous places the assertion that a good number of these submissive men have high octane jobs where they boss people around and make the big decisions all day. The argument goes that they enjoy being submissive because they want a break from all that, and enjoy not being in control for once; they enjoy surrendering that control.

    Now, I don’t know if any of this is true or not, statistically; but no one seems to have a problem with that characterization. I realize that women carry a lot of historical baggage when it comes to the notion of submitting and surrendering, but that doesn’t make the assertion that there may be women with high powered jobs and significant professional responsibilities who enjoy the little “S” in D/s any more bunk than when that assertion is made about men. If people are willing to entertain the notion on the one hand, they ought to on the other as well.

  4. The only problem is – despite how ordinary, uninspired, even silly the book is – we’re all jealous and frustrated. Would any of us fight this kind of media circus if it were about one of our books? Sigh. I can’t honestly claim that *I* would. So everything we say (or at least I say) has a sour grapes component.

    I can only hope that FSOG opens the eyes of some new readers and inspires them to search for more – and better – BDSM fiction.

  5. What surprises me in this whole thing is people act like this is something new. That there has never been erotic romance or books with BDSM. It is like they are just waking up. There have been books like this for a very long time. People have just not been talking about them.

  6. My absolute favorite thing about 50 Shades is that it was literally Twilight fanfic. The author just changed names and a few details and published it.

    Someone should write a script that would flip the names back to Bella and Edward and whatever the shirtless werewolf’s name is.

  7. I was wondering where you were going to come down on the 50 Shades thing. I read it and thought that while it wasn’t ALL bad, pretty much everything that had to do with a BDSM relationship was total and complete crap. Ah well, it was too much to expect that the main stream media would pick up on something that was actually useful.
    Oh, and just for the record, the subs I know — you know, people in REAL life — own their sexuality. They aren’t ashamed of it and trying to hide it to placate main stream ‘Meerka.

    As always, love your articles and thanks for writing!

  8. Hang on, my mom used to get trashy porn delivered by the boxload 30 years ago. It was called Harlequin. :P I am not saying romance novels are High Art or anything, but let’s be fair, a large part of it was smut, and this seems no better or worse or, moreover, NOTEWORTHY than any of that.

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