It's Hard to Kick "Fifty Shades" When It's Down: Classism, Literary Exploitation, and Women's Fiction

Perhaps few will have sympathy for James with all her millions. However, I would never want to stand in her shoes.
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Aya de Leon
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Perhaps few will have sympathy for James with all her millions. However, I would never want to stand in her shoes.

Up until now, I've kept my mouth shut about Fifty Shades. One factor is that the critic bandwagon has been so filled with literary snobbery. In addition, the book is part of the widespread dismissal of commercial writing by and for women based more on sexism than any good faith engagement. Finally, the work was picked up by a commercial industry and put on blast-for-profit without any real editing that could have addressed some of the limitations of the writing or lack of research on the BDSM content. 

In light of last week's flap with Jessica Williams and "impostor syndrome," it seems to me that E. L. James — who is also a woman of color — is utterly unprepared to have to defend the cultural content of what began as "midlife crisis" fan fiction. James herself said, “I never set out to do this — getting to No. 1 in the New York Times bestseller list wasn't even a pipe dream.” 

Certainly the masses of broke and struggling artists will have a hard time empathizing with the obscurity-to-riches James. Feminists will also have a difficulty dredging up sympathy for the woman responsible for cloaking a new generation of male domination and intimate violence as sexual liberation. However, in the name of intersectionality and as another commercial woman author of color, I can come out as a critic, but with some significant disclaimers on my criticism.

Full disclosure: I have neither read the books nor seen the film. I’ve seen the trailer and read excerpts, but I don’t have a taste for this particular type of story or these images. I’m not commenting on the quality or content of Fifty Shades, but rather the context. I loved two recent pieces about the film: Alex Abad-Santos’ hilarious analysis of the film as a sci-fi romantic comedy, and Soraya Chemaly’s article correlating the film’s popularity in states with the most conservative legislation on sex education. I have also read many critiques of the original books that are shot through with classism. They fall in line with most criticism along the literary vs. commercial fiction divide, holding the presumption that anything with commercial appeal must be stupid, mindless, and trashy. The underlying assumption here is that poor and working class people are less valuable and intelligent. This is part of the systematic and ongoing attacks and derision toward lower-income people.

I have an Ivy-league undergraduate degree and an MFA in creative writing, and I have read and enjoyed plenty of literary fiction throughout my life. But these days, as a working mom, I find myself reading YA spy girl novels and mysteries at night (I do also read serious feminist non-fiction for when I’m cleaning the house). Difficult literary fiction requires time and emotional bandwidth, and is rarely relaxing. For those who have more privileged lives, it’s easier to make space for the layered and complex challenges of literary fiction. For those of us whose work lives are layered, complex, and challenging, our leaning toward work that is more predictable, lighter, or more entertaining isn’t about our intelligence, it’s about our exhaustion. When I have no idea whether my kid will sleep thorough the night, I want to be confident that my protagonist will get the guy or solve the mystery.

Meanwhile, as an author, I am entering into the genre of “women’s fiction” and I always hesitate when being critical of other women artists, particularly those who will be my colleagues. I’m an Afro-Latina woman writing erotic novels. E.L. James is a British Latina woman writing erotic novels. I’m not interested in entering the field by taking down the biggest woman of color.

And James is vulnerable. Just this week Jessica Williams is being accused of impostor syndrome for her lack of interest in taking over The Daily Show. This charge was insulting because the very fierce and ambitious Williams has painstakingly built her career and is wisely letting herself settle into — not settle for — her current high-profile spot. 

E.L. James. JStone/Shutterstock.com

E.L. James. JStone/Shutterstock.com

In contrast, I cannot imagine what it must be like to be E.L. James, to have been anonymously posting Twilight fan fiction on the internet and suddenly have it commercially published as a trilogy, and have people trashing you at every turn. James was ultimately ambushed by success. Further, her publisher provided insufficient editorial support to improve her writing, they just put her on blast. She’s made a truckload of money, but she’s also been subject to widespread public shaming and condescension. 

Unlike James, most artists have to toil for many years before getting a break that offers a fraction of those resources. Perhaps few will have sympathy for James with all her millions. However, I would never want to stand in her shoes. To be in a position where I was making money off some work that was being challenged as damaging and abusive to women, where I was being publicly humiliated and my legacy would be considered a literary joke? I wouldn’t take any amount of money for that.

In the U.S., writing like James’s exists in the context of a society that lacks any systematic means of developing cultural leadership. Overall, scholars in universities are significantly disconnected from everyday people. So in this vacuum, artists get jettisoned into the spotlight as cultural leaders. Their work is analyzed and understood to be speaking for our culture, or in the case of women writers, for the women of our culture.

In 2012, Newsweek published a cover article interpreting the trend of women reading Fifty Shades to mean that women were attracted to this type of erotic novel because women have become so formidable that we need a break from our overwhelming empowerment by fantasizing about sexual submission. The author calls this era “a moment in history when male dominance is shakier than it has ever been.” 

I would argue that the real trend is the use of anything — from Fifty Shades to stay-at-home-dads to the number of women in higher education — to declare that sexism is waning and a feminist agenda may no longer be needed.

On the contrary, James herself doesn’t speculate that women fantasize about being dominated because they are so empowered, she suggests that they might find it appealing because they are exhausted by the dual burden of wage and domestic work on modern women. According to an interview in Forbes: “When you’re a woman stretched to the limit by the demands of work, children, family, home, she says an escapist fantasy makes sense, sexual or otherwise. ‘It might be nice to have somebody else in charge for a bit.’” 

That article and its timing had a profound impact on me. I am a feminist writer who has decided to write a very commercial piece of fiction — fast-paced, trashy, a beach read. I made this decision very intentionally. When the Newsweek article came out, however, I was feeling uneasy. How would I tell all my highfalutin, fancy literary fiction writer friends that I had decided to write something smutty and salable? Yet, this article shook me up and shifted my thinking, helping me clarify my intentions. Deep down, I wanted as many women as possible from the Twilight and Fifty Shades audiences to read my work, particularly young adult women who were still developing their sexual and political identities. I wanted to deliver the same level of sexy, edgy, suspenseful action and engage the tropes of romance but with a very different underlying message. 

Instead of trying to marry the billionaire, my heroine was a Latina Robin Hood trying to heist the billionaire. I want to give women readers the guilty pleasures we want without feeling like we have to embrace female helplessness. Because I believe today’s women want to be sexy and strong, where our value isn’t our virginity, where we get to know what we want, both in and out of bed, by reflecting on our own experience, not by a man violently directing us. Finally, we want a context where our awkwardness can be about authenticity not disempowerment.

So thank you to E.L. James and Newsweek for inspiring me to be shameless and wanton in the slutty pursuit of my women’s fiction audience.