It’s well known that Fifty Shades of Grey began as a work of “Fan Fiction” published online, closely based on Twilight. The resemblance between Twilight and Fifty Shades is indeed striking.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that Fifty Shades is loaded with graphic sex, while the Twilightcharacters never saw each other naked until volume 4. The romantic and erotic ingredients of Twilight are closely copied in Fifty Shades.
Like Twilight’s Bella, Fifty Shades’ Ana Steele is a sexual and romantic tabula rasa — a virgin in the purest sense of the word. Ana has never before felt sexual attraction, never been in love, never masturbated, and never had an orgasm.
Like Bella, she comes from a silent, unexpressive father and a childlike, disorganized mother who have long since divorced — and from whom she can expect very little.
In an interesting twist, given what’s usually assumed about the importance of women’s social networks, both heroines are fairly solitary. They are bookish creatures, somewhat out of step with the popular crowd.
The emotional solitude of the female lead has been a staple of the romance genre since Pamela in 1740. Twilight and Fifty Shades are no exception. As discussed earlier on these pages, there’s something compelling about virgins locked in towers. (More on that later.)
Fifty Shades’ Christian Grey is a near-clone of Twilight’s Edward. Like Edward, Grey is uber-sophisticated, plays the piano beautifully, knows how to do everything well, and smells divine.
He is never too tired or too busy for the woman he loves, and never without sexual desire for her. He too has never known romantic love before they met.
Like Twilight’s Edward, he also has a curious maternal streak. He’s over-protective, a bit of a nag, and worries she doesn’t eat enough.
The exact correspondence between Fifty Shades and Twilight extends even to the hero’s parents. They are, well, perfect: Gracious, relaxed, lovable, and most of all still very much in love. They live in a dream house — sophisticated but comfortable — and like their son have impeccable taste in all things.
As in Twilight, the parents of Fifty Shades are eager to welcome the heroine into their family. She is the fulfilment of all their fondest hopes for their son.
Ana’s and Bella’s new dream families more than compensate for any disappointment in their respective original sets of parents.
We could spend much time in these pages discussing how all these romantic ingredients — and many more besides — contribute to what one might call the Twilight/FiftyShades narrative. And I hope we’ll be able to do so in the future.
But for now I’d like just to consider the fact that such a narrative exists. And how effective it’s been in engaging female readers.
Last year I spent many months reviewing a new book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts, that sought to uncover the secrets of human sexual motivation — by counting and categorizing what people sought on the internet in such realms as online pornography and amateur online erotic fiction (the same “Fan Fiction” that spawned Fifty Shades).
I never got a chance, though, to discuss A Billion Wicked Thoughts’ most original and thought-provoking idea. And as far as I can tell, none of the book’s other reviewers have mentioned it either.
Maybe that’s because one has to read all the way to Chapter 11 of A Billion Wicked Thoughts to find it.
The first ten chapters of A Billion Wicked Thoughts are an account of the principal human “erotic cues” — the specific attributes of the other that drive sexual attraction. Some of these cues are obvious — such as a woman’s breasts and youth; or a man’s height, social dominance, and popularity. And some are less obvious, such as small feet on a woman.
But A Billion Wicked Thoughts’ most original and provocative contribution is its Chapter 11 — entitled “Erotic Illusions.” There the authors discuss how human inventiveness and modern technology have enabled us to combine ordinary erotic cues into extraordinary mixtures not previously found in nature.
And how these novel erotic creations possess a power to attract that’s greater than anything found in the natural world.
Twilight’s Edward, says Chapter 11, is an erotic illusion. He is the epitome of male dominance, with just the right amount of dangerousness added. But at the same time he is the best listener in the world. How often do those qualities come together in reality?
Christian Grey is the same erotic illusion, reimagined. If Edward, to use the language of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, was the Cream Cheese Sushi of the female sexual soul, then Christian Grey is its Chili’s Texas Cheese Fries.
Grey’s dangerousness comes from his need to physically punish women, rather than from a craving for human blood. But it’s the same basic erotic ingredient that Twilight used so successfully.
And that special blend of Grey’s scariness with his utter goodness, sincerity, and attention to detail — well, it’s a special formula designed to make women want . . . more.
As in more volumes to read, plus tickets to the movie when it comes out.
Later in this series, we’ll spend some more time on the individual erotic cues that make Fifty Shades of Grey so appealing.
And we’ll look at how the combination of these erotic cues, in patterns not found in ordinary human experience, gives Fifty Shades its special erotic power.