Fifty shades of genre

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Stereograph, A Girl in Arms, c. 1924, Library of Congress, No known restrictions on publication

Narrative and pornographic elements combined may account for Fifty Shades’s popularity.
Image: Stereograph, “A Girl in Arms,” c. 1924, Library of Congress, No known restrictions on publication.

The market popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy is undeniable. Starting life as Twilight fan fiction and published as original fiction after some slight alterations, the trilogy has by turns delighted, scandalised, and drawn derision from its readers. What is less clear, though, is what genre the Fifty Shades trilogy occupies. With its emphasis on monogamy, love, and the idea that BDSM is something only emotionally damaged people practice, Fifty Shades does not sit entirely comfortably within the genre of erotica. Likewise, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey are clearly recognisable not just as Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, but as archetypes from the world of “Harlequin Presents” category romances: the shy virgin and the emotionally damaged billionaire. But Fifty Shades is not a Presents book or a Twilight-esque young adult fantasy. One reason for the popularity of Fifty Shades may be the way it occupies a strangely liminal position at the crossroads of several genres, adopting structural elements from both modern popular romance fiction and 19th-century pornography.

One of the key differences between romance and pornography, as genres, is their structure. Romance has a finite structure: the defining characteristic of romance is that it ends (happily). This is one of the reasons why sequels in romance very rarely feature the same central couple as their predecessors: while couples from previous books may reappear, once a couple has achieved their happily-ever-after, the conflict that drives a narrative is over. To use the words of Pamela Regis, it is highly unlikely that a couple who have been given a happy ending will reach a second “point of ritual death.” Pornography, on the other hand, has an infinite structure. Steven Marcus remarks in The Other Victorians that the ideal pornographic novel is one that never ends (1966: p. 195). It has a flimsy excuse for a beginning, and where a plot exists, it is as an excuse for sex scenes. Put simply, romance builds towards an emotional climax while pornography is based on repetition of sexual climaxes.

Structurally speaking, Fifty Shades contains elements of both romance and pornography. On the one hand, the plot of Fifty Shades, while thin in many places, certainly exists, and the relationship between Anastasia and Christian is its focus. However, the point of ritual death takes place quite early in the trilogy—at the end of the first book, Ana, terrified and angry after Christian spanks her, leaves him, because she believes that he is emotionally sick and that they are incompatible. They get back together at the beginning of the second book, less than a week later. After that, their relationship is rarely in question. (This mirrors Twilight, the source material: Edward and Bella’s commitment to each other is not in doubt by the end of New Moon.) While they do face problems (such as Anastasia’s pregnancy), it can be argued Anastasia and Christian’s happily-ever-after, if we think of this to mean “enduring long term commitment to each other,” occurs at the beginning of Fifty Shades Darker. And yet the series continues, with a growing emphasis on sex scenes. It would seem that the romance plot is co-opted into the pornographic structure—Christian and Anastasia’s relationship is used to engender the repetitive climaxes on which pornography relies. The romance plot is used to create what Steven Marcus calls pornotopia: a world in which social institutions and textual events are used merely to create sex.

The pornotopia Marcus describes is one where emotions are rarely heightened: it is largely free of jealousy, anger, rage, and passionate love. Pleasure is its chief concern. The pornotopia of Fifty Shades is different, since while sexual pleasure is arguably also the chief concern of the text, strong emotions are used to beget it. Likewise, the way Anastasia uses love and sex to heal Christian of his emotional damage is a pattern which can regularly be observed in romance, but has no real place in pornotopia.

One final thought on structure may help us understand the odd, compelling mix of genres in the Fifty Shades trilogy. Fifty Shades was originally published as fan fiction: it was first read not as a novel, but chapter-by-chapter. This strongly recalls the way pornography was serialised in the 19th century in magazines like The Pearl and The Oyster. Early readers of Fifty Shades were looking for gratification in every chapter as well as following the overarching romantic relationship. Serial form may be more open to generic mixing and matching (and mashup) than single-volume publication.

Fifty Shades takes advantage of this flexibility and effectively offers readers the best of both generic worlds. It co-opts romantic archetypes and the romance plot and uses them to reinforce its pornographic structure: it locates the repetitive climaxes of pornography within the overarching emotional climax of romance.

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Jodi McAlister is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. She is working on a thesis on the history and evolution of the virgin heroine in literature.

If you enjoyed this post, you can find you can find Jodi McAlister on Twitter at @JodiMcA.

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Marcus, S. (1966). The Other Victorians. A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth Century England. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, p.195.