Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Uses of 50 SHADES, Women in Charge!

Women have minds of their own!

Man on a pedestal?
     Trends in fiction reflect society's changes. Never is that more true of women's fiction.
     We could begin with PAMELA, the first female-centered novel, which to many literates is the first romance. Far from it in terms of proper treatment of a woman as an equal, PAMELA nonetheless reflects much of the behavior toward women during that 18th century period.
     So too are Jane Austen's works in which blue-stockings like her heroines might be imbued with an intellect, wit as well as charm. JANE EYRE shows us a women beset by social mores and economic conditions (as well as legal issues of inheritance). But Jane learns the error of accepting social strictures, especially and almost simultaneously with her financial windfall and freedom. She decides to opt for love and viola! She returns to Rochester to learn that he in many (horrible) ways has been relieved of his social and marital burden and is, himself, free to love her and marry her.
     As we progress through the Victorian period, we find a few examples of women freed of their strictures, but not until the early sixties do we see the rise of Harlequin romances. (In fiction aimed at men, the hard boiled mystery starring dames show women as ruthless, cunning and not at all worthy of a man's respect or affection. My reference here are the works of Mickey Spillane.) In the Harlequins, the norm was woman gets man, marries man, lives happily ever after. But that formula soon was challenged by economic conditions that saw the rise of divorce, the incidence of women going to work in greater numbers and the inception of birth control.
     While we see these elements portrayed clearly in the period piece tv show MAD MEN, what we see in fiction aimed at women is the proliferation of the Harlequin type category romances with various houses getting into the marketplace. Once Rosemary Rodgers and Kathleen Woodiwiss hit us with historical romances wherein the woman was the honorable lead character and the hero was a dashing fellow, the market exploded with Happily Ever After Romances. In the US, this was the late 70s and 1 80s, when women had to return to work, driven by 20% inflation and 75% tax rates. As we know by many studies of this female readership today, she wanted a viable romance with a hero who was dashing and honorable himself. Moreover, this reader needed this ending because she was (and still is) overworked and underpaid. Overworked at her 9-5 job. Underpaid yet today, earning in the US 74 cents on the dollar compared to her male counterpart. And still she went home and does now to do the laundry and cook dinner!
     (Hey, I am tired simply remembering what I did back then!)
     And what has happened since the 1990s? We have had more frequent and more open conversations about such no-no topics as abortion, partial abortion, homosexuality, marriage rights, and invitro fertilization. Ancillary to those "sexually" oriented topics, we now converse (or in some cases, on cable news, we argue and bully each other) about individual rights vs. the common good, typified by the famous (or infamous, depending on your view) law demanding inter-vaginal sonogram of women seeking abortions, most notably argued in the State of Virginia and passed in the State of Texas.
     No surpass then, that we are now at the point in our public discussions of eroticism. While erotic literature has been around since the Ancient Greeks, and erotic art since the Chinese depictions during the reign of Chin Shih Huang-ti, the Victorian period saw numerous publications devoted to it. 
     But the modern proliferation of it aimed at this female readership can be marked in publishing with the advent of Virgin Books' Black Lace line in the 1990s and the establishment of Ellora's Cave in 2000. While the Black Lace line focused on readers who were upscale, literate and adventurous, the EC outreach spanned that market segment as well as the reader who wanted science fiction, paranormal, contemporary and historical aspects to her escapist fiction. The success of the EC model, in  focus and method of digital delivery, is acclaimed by the proliferation of other houses which adopted the EC business model and cultivated that same readership.
     Today, while 50 SHADES, et al, sits atop the Best seller lists every where in every format, we see that beneath her sales sit thousands of authors with thousands of erotic romances earning hundreds and thousands of dollars each month.  The sales persist because the readers exist. They want to know about their bodies and their possibilities for enjoyment of sex and for the happy ending to their relationships. Their enthusiasm for this knowledge cannot be dampened. The public discussions about sexuality are too numerous. From the debate over whether or not Planned Parenthood should receive federal funds for women's health care to the passage of bills requiring women to do one thing or another with their own bodies, women are engaged in discovering their abilities, their potentials and their happiness.
     Indicative of this demand by women is the case of the Florida library system that tried to ban 50 SHADES from its shelves. The library had to reneg. Why? Because women in the US continue to be the ones who read more than men. They read fiction more then men. They have a higher reading level and a higher literacy rate. They also encourage their children to read. And they contribute to local library fundraisers.
    Yes, 50 SHADES as a best seller is a phenomenon. But as we already see, other erotica titles are on the best seller lists, too. A few before 50 SHADES hit. Many more to come.
     Why? Because women will demand the reading material they need to relax and to become informed.
More than that, they will use it to become more powerful in their own sexuality and more comfortable with it.
     As many do know, you can't keep a good woman down. Or away from a book that stirs her imagination and educates her at the same time!


Tina Donahue said...

A few years back I reread Jane Eyre and was stunned at how feminist it was. I'd read it in high school and though I loved it at the time, it hadn't struck me as particularly modern in its thinking. How wrong I was. Jane was her own woman, even though she was in love.

That's probably why it's a classic. It speaks to real women, no matter the time period or the particular restrictions by any given publisher.

Great post, Cerise! :)

Amy Gregory said...

Great post Cerise!
I totally agree. While 50 is a good series, and ER is my favorite genre to read for sure, I've found lots of authors that deserve that kind of attention too!

Kathleen O said...

I love this post..
And as far as 50 Shades goes, well it goes without saying that Woman will always rule the publishers. Because woman know what other woman want to read. And if Erotica Romance is what we want, we will have it...

Fiona McGier said...

Very interesting post, but you forgot E.M. Hull's "The Sheik" and "Sons of the Sheik". I still have my mom's dog-eared copies of both books, published in the 30s! True, all sex is behind closed doors, and it reflects the bigotry of the day, because even though the sheik looks and acts like an Arabian, he is actually the son of British nobility whose plane crashed in the dessert when he was a baby and he was adopted by a sheik.

But still, the movie role made Rudolf Valentino into the first real sex symbol in movies! Women the world over wanted to believe that a man who forcibly seduced them would be so sexy they would fall in love with him, and would realize he had fallen in love with them also!

My mom and all of her sisters and friends had read the books and I was told I could, finally, when I was about 13. I found it kind of dated, because I didn't want the door to be closed...I wanted to know just what it was he did to her! ;-D

jean hart stewart said...

A thoughtful and provocative post. I must be one of the few who haasn't read Shades of Gray. Love anything that promotes women...

Delicious Romance From Cerise DeLand said...

Tina, I am eager to read this new JANE EYRE LAID BARE. Dear god, let it be in the Queen's English and NOT See Spot Run.
Amy, ER is a treasure trove of very fine writers.
Kathleen, I agree. We buy 80% of everything sold in every bookstore everyday. We buy one for our kids, one for our friend who has the birthday, one for our hubbie, and finally ONE FOR OURSELVES! (these are stats, not making this up!)
Fiona, Now you have me. I must find this book!
Jean, I have read so many "reviews" of it, I feel put upon to read it.