50 shades“There’s something about you.”

That’s why Christian Grey wants to fuck Anastasia Steele hard. There’s something about her.

Part of that something ends up being the fact that she is a virgin. Of which much has been made in critiques of the book, right? It’s genuinely true that not a large percentage of American women get to college graduation never having had sex.

So why is Ana a virgin? Two reasons, I think:

1. the history of the genre; and
2. drama goes to extremes.

The history of the genre, right back to Pamela (tellingly subtitled “Virtue Rewarded”), is virgins being seduced by and then, with their purity and goodness, reforming the wicked hero/villain. That’s the genre. Of course it is. Women weren’t allowed to be sexual agents in their own right; on the contrary, their sexual purity was their single most valuable asset, and in fiction this purity was so powerful it could make a bad man good.

Of course the culture has changed and women need not be virgins to be good people now, which brings us to the second reason. Stories are most compelling when there is something substantial at stake and the action is extreme. The duke and the quaker. The king and the commoner. The rich, dominant, experienced dude and the shy nervous virgin student. Of course. That’s just how it works, especially when you’re not trying too hard to be creative within the genre.

In fact, she’s a virgin at, like, EVERYTHING. She’s never been kissed, never been drunk, and apparently she’s never seen a commercial for British Airways or Ghirardelli chocolates, since she’s never heard the Flower Duet.

In short, I think we need not read too much into it. It’s just the “higher stakes” within the formula of the genre. Her virginity per se is not why the book sold 100,000,000 copies – it’s the overall going-to-extremes that does the trick.

And hey, Christian Grey loses a series of virginities in these chapters too: first time sleeping-literally-sleeping with a woman, first time flying a woman in his (eyeroll) helicopter, first time having vanilla sex.

So okay, but here’s what that last one turns into in my head:

A million years ago during a clinical internship, there was this het couple, these clients, and the guy had a fetish. In fact, he had never had sex WITHOUT involving the fetish. The woman had been going along with the fetish but she was getting a bit fed up with it and so now they were in therapy. They did standard Sensate Focus, and IN A FLASH this guy let go of the fetish and just loved, ya know, touching his naked body against his partner’s naked body.

Based on that, I’m going to predict that what happens is that gradually Our Hero gets more and more into vanilla sex while she gets more and more into kinky sex and they find a middle place.

Which brings us right back to standard romance genre trope: heroine magically heals the wounded hero with her sparkly pure vagina.

EL James wrote a fantasy that set the old stories in a new context. It’s a dumb story, in my opinion, badly written, objectively, but it does the tension/discrepancy reduction/info gap thing successfully, and it’s familiar enough yet new enough to be comfortably compelling.

Which brings me to another standard mechanism of romance novels and of sexual stimulation: brakes and gas at the same time.

Ambivalence is powerful in your emotional brain. Yes-but-also-no. “I want him and at the same time I’m totally wigged out by the fact that he’s saying he wants to whip me,” etc.

Ambivalence = tension. Tension = readers.

That’s really the end of this post, but I have to at least MENTION that there were some really, REALLY problematic things about these chapters. I’ll just say one of them, very briefly, because again, describing all the problematic things is not what I’m trying to do with these posts. But you may remember that I mentioned Tess of the d’Urbervilles in my first post. I wrote a paper on it in 1998, and I got an A. I like that book. But let’s be perfectly clear here about something that would have seriously risked Ana’s grade on her paper: Alec doesn’t “debase” Tess, as Christian puts it. Alec rapes Tess. Either Ana or Christian or EL James or all of the above have SERIOUSLY MISSED THE POINT of that book.

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