Has E.L. James created the latest commercial genre for our age – what the commentator India Knight has called “the porn version of cupcakes and Cath Kidston”? Or does her racy trilogy answer a deeper, unmet need among women readers?
The feminist writer and academic Marina Warner believes the unexpectedly wide appeal of this explicit fiction could be a sign of how difficult people now find it to feel aroused in an era when sex and nudity have become so commonplace. “There has been a general unveiling of the body in our culture and there is a connection between prohibition and arousal,” she said. “It is in some way linked to our feelings about the sacred and the profane. I definitely don’t want to go back to censorship, but I don’t think the answer is to reach for extremes either.”
Warner, like the late writer Angela Carter, has a strong interest in the power of myth and folklore. “Women should be allowed to read what they want, and to write what they want, but maybe they should not be so confident that they are not just playing a part in some larger commercial nexus.”
The nature of a myth or a fantasy always has something to say about society, she argues. “It is an effect of sexual politics and I don’t think it is neutral. In fact, I rather believe in the power of fantasy. We are driven by what we dream and by what we desire and hope for. I don’t think fantasy is hermetically sealed from the rest of our lives.”
Warner cites Carter’s provocative 1979 essay, The Sadeian Woman, as a smart approach to the politics of abusive fantasy. In it the writer suggested provocatively that de Sade merely mirrored honestly the male-dominated hierarchy of his times.
“A book like Fifty Shades of Grey can collude with the status quo, where men are still largely in charge, even though it appears to be playful,” says Warner.
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