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Fifty Shades: A Way Readers Put Sex Back in Their Lives

This is a guest blog from Gry Høngsmark Knudsen, a former student, who visited my “Women’s Economy” class this winter to report on her project about the reception of Fifty Shades of Grey.  We all enjoyed her report, so I asked her to write a short blog for Double X Readers.

Gry Høngsmark Knudsen is an assistant professor at the University of Southern Denmark.  This is a brief report about her cross-cultural ethnographic research project aimed at understanding the reception of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.

“I know the book says his hair is red, but red-haired men don’t do it for me – so in my world he is tall, dark and handsome”

The words above are translated quote from an interview among Danish readers of E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. I have been interviewing Danish women about their experiences with this popular, but controversial book since last May.

E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey has been a runaway seller in much of the world. Because the book’s focus is sadomasochism, it has garnered a great deal of notice from unexpected parties, such as literary critics.

Though the first Fifty Shades book appeared in the English-speaking countries in 2011, the Danish version only arrived in August 2012.  The response has been contradictory, just as in the English world.  The book was reviewed as if it is a literary work.  The reviewers, predictably, hated it. Yet Fifty Shades sold in high numbers in Denmark, just as it has in many other parts of the Western world.  The book is still all the rage on social media with the film coming out next year.

The discrepancy between readers’ and reviewers’ verdicts has been staggering. My research was intended to find the explanation for this contradiction by going to the readers, rather than merely accept the implied judgment of the reviewers—that the readers were stupid or wrong.  The interviews show that many Danish readers of Fifty Shades of Grey were offended by the reviews.

Fifty Shades falls between porn and romance.  Neither are highbrow genres–Danish reviewers made sure that we all know this.  Yet the question then remains:  why they are reviewing the books if they think the books are not worth their time?

Reviewers forward many assumptions about how the readers of Fifty Shades read and relate to the books. For example they expect readers to identify with the characters and their relationship. Reviewers frowned upon the presumed identification because the characters are shallow and the gender roles in the books are old fashioned and stereotypical! Further, reviewers claim the story is pathetic, the language overly simple and redundant.  Thus, by implication, anyone who enjoys reading these books must be correspondingly simple minded. Reviewers seem to expect there is a direct relationship in the reading process between reading, identifying, and accepting turns of events.

When I began my research, my strategy was simply to tell everyone I know, colleagues, friends, and family.  As if by magic, people started referring their friends to me. Women were keen to talk about what reading Fifty Shades trilogy gave them. Not all were happy readers who loved the books, but I talked to all of them and listened to their opinions and experiences.

Some of the women wanted to talk to me because they had been reading the books so passionately.  Most of these had read all three books (about 1,500 pages) in a week or two. These were the readers who were offended by the reviews that Fifty Shades had gotten in Denmark.

Does this guy do it for you? If not, fine. Change him.

Readers did not identify at all with the main character.  In fact, they hardly remember her! Anastasia, the female protagonist, is described as pretty, but other than that the readers have very little to say about her. Mostly, she is just forgotten. The readers have more to say about the male protagonist, named “Christian,” but their imagined version does not necessarily reflect what is in the book.  The introductory quote to this post is illustrative.  The reader describes a very conscious move away from the text rather than into the text.  She does not care for red-haired men, so she imagines Christian to have dark hair. A similar, but less self conscious, remark, comes from another reader who described the male protagonist in the following way: ”He is older, bald, rich – like the friend in Californication” and later ”like 35-37 years old.”  Yet in the book, Christian is described as 27, rich, and with “unruly dark copper-colored hair.”

I also asked the readers about the gender roles the reviewers had bemoaned. I got quite a variety of responses. If the readers did not like the books, they were usually also quite concerned about the gender roles and felt they were a barrier in the reading process. But the readers who liked the books had different answers:

 ”I couldn’t care less about the gender roles – it’s fiction!”

”I felt like I had to not like the gender roles – be conscious about it – but I had a hard time, because I thought it (the book) was fun.”

So if the readers liked the books, they decided to read through the gender roles without really taking them into account. That is, they were aware of the gender roles, but they ignored them because otherwise it took the fun out of reading. It seems like the readers do not read the books very carefully, even if the language is simple enough. And they certainly do not seem to identify with the characters or immerse themselves in the relationship.

What was the fun about then? It was not about the characters.  It was also not really about the story.  Like the characters, the narrative was usually described in very few words:  “it’s a love story.”

Mostly the fun was about sex. As one of the readers explained:

”I don’t have time to think about sex, so sometimes you forget. The books reminded me that sex is fun.”

Another of the readers claimed that just having the books on the nightstand put sex in the room and on the agenda in her relationship.

”Suddenly my husband blindfolded me – and he hasn’t even read the books!”

Hair good, clothes not right? Up to you.

Fifty Shades gave many of these readers an opportunity to remind themselves of sex and even actually to have sex.  Many had, for one reason or another, fallen out of the habit.  Maybe the birth of children had stalled out their sex life, or maybe their relationship had flattened it.  The forbidden fun of Fifty Shades put them back in the mood.

One reader explained this phenomenon in detail to me. She and her husband had had problems with intimacy after their kids had been born. They had seen a therapist and now she was a lot more careful to create time for sex in her life. She had given up on the idea that sex would appear on its own. She had also given up on the idea that her husband was the one to create the mood for her. What had happened was that she had started to take responsibility for sex into her own hands. So, for example, when going on vacation, she would find books to bring along that could put her in the mood for sex. And Fifty Shades had been part of that emancipation, because it was just such a book that could help her in focusing on her mood and her own needs.

Interestingly, hotels now report a noticeable number of copies being left behind in rooms. The books are simply handy when it comes to transporting yourself from the routine of everyday life to the hedonist space of vacation.

When the women are angry about the reviews of Fifty Shades, it’s often because they feel the reviews take this kind of agency away. Reviewers seem to allow women only limited ways of experiencing and relating to soft porn. Actual readers experience Fifty Shades in a number of different ways. Some like the books, some do not like the books.  Some read the books primarily for the sex scenes, some read it for the romance.  But all have a lot more nuanced understanding of their readership than the reviewers suggested.

I guest that’s why so many Fifty Shades readers in Denmark wanted to talk to me.  And, that is why I can trust the stories they tell me—because of the urgency with which they tell them and the passion they share with me.

This summer I will be in England, where I hope to interview more women about their experiences with Fifty Shades. Linda’s doctoral students told me that I should not expect the same kind of openness from British readers. Maybe not, but it will be interesting to understand the differences and similarities in readership across cultures when it comes to precarious genres such as Fifty Shades.

Fifty Shades readers in England who would like to be interviewed can get in touch with Gry Høngsmark Knudsen at the following email address:

(Amazon link for Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy)


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