As the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy makes itself comfortable on the New York Times bestseller list, feminists and cultural critics are asking why. Plenty of books offer up heady cocktails of wealth and sex, so why the particular appeal of 50 Shades right here, right now?

The answer might just lie in the books’ tantalizing renderings of a world of maximum power with minimum responsibility.

Power is sexy. Thrilling.  Hot, as Anastasia would say. In a radio interview, Russell Smith, author of the erotic novels Girl Crazy and Diana: A Diary in the Second Person, pointed out power is a part of all sex, no matter how “vanilla”. B&D merely forces that power out into the open and makes it the plot-point of an erotic encounter.

What’s interesting is that the power at work in 50 Shades isn’t the power of a dominant man over a submissive female, or at least, it’s not only that. We learn early on that Christian’s first relationship was with a much older woman with whom he was the submissive. From the outset, this orients us to think of power as something fluid, malleable, less about gender than about experience. It’s a position one takes, rather than a blunt force. Notwithstanding Christian’s relative sophistication and real economic power, this creates an exciting tension in the book. In any act in which Christian is dominating Anastasia, we can imagine Christian himself being dominated. This sort of instability is fun. And sexy.

But the true appeal of the way power is wielded in 50 Shades might actually lie in the narrow delineation of responsibility attached to it.

When Christian has Anastasia utterly in his power, he has only two responsibilities: her pleasure and safety. This model of maximum power with minimum responsibility is the obverse of the way many of us experience life in the early 21st Century. Scholars say that we live in an era of “responsibilization”. Practically, this means that, since the 1980s, governments and institutions have shifted responsibility for the well-being of individuals and societies away from themselves and on to individuals.

For example, in the 1990s, the UK introduced a law making parents responsible for their children’s school attendance. By 2009, a parent was jailed every two weeks for a child’s truancy. As pension programs are cut across the developed world, governments are warning people that they’re going to be responsible for their own retirement. In the USA, where food industry lobbyists have fought to label pizza a vegetable, healthcare “consumers” are increasingly expected to take charge of their own health management. Regulators all too often serve other interests.

This has created real practical pressures on people.  It’s also created an ethos of burden from which the average person might reasonably wish to escape.

The vexing thing about these greater responsibilities is that they are arguably occurring at a time when many of us perceive ourselves to have decreasing power. As every good manager knows, to give responsibility and power is to have a happy employee. But to assign responsibility without power is a recipe for frustration and anxiety.

Yet this is precisely what seems to be happening in society writ large. It’s hard to feel like an effective agent in the world when so much feels out of one’s control. The economy, global warming, constant busyness – often we feel like we’re simply on survival mode rather than getting out there and shaping our lives and communities.

Hence the delicious appeal of 50 Shades.  It’s the perfect 21st Century fantasy. The normal burdens of workaday life are magicked away by Christian’s billions, leaving the requirement only to obey. Responsibilities shrink to pleasure and immediate safety, something comfortably within Christian’s considerable sexual toolkit. And power, ah, power is absolute and intoxicating, however it’s configured and reconfigured between the two of them.

With 50 Shades, the default analysis seems to be that it’s simply a new version of an age-old trope about the erotic – even redemptive – potential of female submissiveness. As Maureen Dowd said in the New York Times, we’ve seen this script before in The Story of O, 9 ½ Weeks and Exit to Eden. Dowd and others see the modern twist that makes this book red hot right now is that, with women actually wielding more power than ever, it’s a relief to fantasize about setting aside work, childcare and decision making to imagine ourselves submissive objects of pleasure. Didn’t make the Board meeting, pick up the dry cleaning and get the shopping done? So sorry, I was tied up by my naughty billionaire.

This perspective makes sense. But we also have to consider that 50 Shades is alluring because it reverses a power-responsibility ratio that’s sometimes hard to swallow. And as readers thrill to Christian – and Anastasia’s – power, maybe it offers a glimpse of individual agency that could be just as pleasurable in the real world.

 

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