The ‘mommy porn’ myth: who are the Fifty Shades of Grey fans?

Some criticism of Fifty Shades reveals a disdainful attitude toward fans of the franchise. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick - © Universal Pictures

The ‘mommy porn’ myth: who are the Fifty Shades of Grey fans?

Some criticism of Fifty Shades reveals a disdainful attitude toward fans of the franchise. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick - © Universal Pictures

With the release of Fifty Shades of Grey in cinemas this week, serious questions have been raised about whether the film depicts abuse – including on The Conversation.

Some feminist groups have staged protests at screenings and a campaign has been launched to encourage donations to domestic violence shelters instead of seeing the film. There has also been debate about whether the film depicts Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism (BDSM) practices negatively.

What has been given less attention is why Fifty Shades has been popular, and how it has resonance with its predominantly female fans. Instead of condemning or praising the film we might ask: “who are the Fifty Shades fans, and why?”

Fans take pictures at the premiere of Fifty Shades of Grey in London. EPA/Andy Rain

Audience studies

Studying fans of popular culture is not a new idea. Work done in the field of audience studies suggests that fans often have dynamic ways of interacting with texts, renegotiating meanings, providing commentary and extending stories with their own fan fiction. To ignore fans and focus on the storyline alone suggests that texts have a singular meaning that is merely “downloaded” by viewers.

The importance of considering fans of romance fiction in particular has also been argued for previously. Researchers in the field of romance studies have argued that criticism of the genre often involves patronising female readers.

Similar levels of critical concern are rarely turned on texts marketed to male audiences, or those seen as part of high culture. Studying romance fans themselves has been a way to recover the agency of female readers, in part by seeing female fans as active meaning-makers.

Fifty Shades as “mommy porn”

Authored by E.L. James (Erika Mitchell), Fifty Shades started as fan fiction inspired by the Twilight series and was published online as Master of the Universe.

The book trilogy has, to date, sold more than 100 million copies and the film adaptation of the first book grossed US$81.7 million in its opening weekend. Those figures suggest that Fifty Shades has mainstream exposure, if not appeal.

Many critics refer to the series as “mommy porn”, alongside jokes about the poor literary quality of the novels. This reveals a disdainful attitude toward fans of the franchise, who are often dismissed as bored, borderline illiterate housewives.

Some researchers argue that the idea Fifty Shades fans are sexually repressed housewives is a myth which allows critics of the series to experience feelings of superiority.

According to this research on “anti-fans”, critics can gain enjoyment from perceiving themselves as having greater knowledge of literature and sexual practices compared to the “ordinary” fans. But research also suggests this pleasurable culture of mocking the series means even the most critical anti-fans have usually read all three books.

Complex responses to Fifty Shades

Research that considers the Fifty Shades fan base suggests fans engage with its themes in complex ways. A survey of readers in the UK found that many first started reading because of negative responses to the books: people wanted to join in on the conversation and make their own assessment.

Image from the advocacy group Pornography Harms Facebook page.

It showed that many women are critical of the book’s style and content at the same time as finding it enjoyable. The survey also found that fans challenged some aspects of the story, such as the acceptability of certain character actions, as well the accuracy of the representations of sex.

At the same time as interrogating the text, fans reported enjoying elements of the romance as fantasy, as well as finding pleasure in the story’s sexual elements.

Indeed, reports from the film’s opening weekend suggest audiences responded with mixed emotions throughout the screenings, with reports of “explosive laughter”, groans and applause.

Fan sites and podcasts dedicated to Fifty Shades, as well as research interviews with fans, suggest women are also using the series as a way of bonding and openly discussing sex with each other and their partners, particularly focusing on BDSM practices.

Research has found that discussions of the book series open up space for readers to reflect upon their own experiences of sex and relationships.

Critical discussion versus shaming fans

Taking into account fan responses should not mean shutting down critical conversation. It is important to be able to discuss how issues of abuse and domestic violence might be relevant to fictional works such as Fifty Shades. The text’s entry into the mainstream can be used to start conversations around consent, relationships and exploring various sexual practices.

We know from fan studies that women are engaging with the series with some scepticism, but also enjoy the story for various reasons.

But considering fans means being mindful of exactly what (and whom) we might be critiquing when we are critical. The idea that it is morally correct to boycott the film and stage protests at its screenings suggests that there is only one possible way of seeing the film: as a representation of abuse that harms women.

Those kinds of tactics do little more than patronise and shame those who wish to see the film, and risk alienating people from the critical discussions that might be had.


See also:
Fifty Shades of Grey and the legal limits of BDSM
Violence dressed up as erotica: Fifty Shades of Grey and abuse