Fifty Shades of Mansplaining

At a recent party, a friend introduced me to two men as “a fellow writer.” One of the men wrote “experimental Sci-Fi” and the other was planning to write something, someday, eventually. When the men found out I write romance, they gave me advice on the plot structure I should use to get published and in the process explained why women like “that kind of smut,” even though neither of them had ever read a romance novel. If you are a woman, you have most likely experienced a situation like this: A man explains something to you that you either already know, have more knowledge about than he does, or is so self-explanatory that you don’t know why he’s explaining it in the first place. To use a term that first popped up on feminist blogs after Rebecca Solnit published her 2008 essay Men Who Explain Things, someone has “mansplained” a concept to you.

The men at the party wanted to discuss/tell me about the phenomenon that is Fifty Shades of Grey. Luckily, I was out of wine at this point and escaped with the excuse of a refill, so I missed what they thought about this book has sold over 100 million copies worldwide in last three years. To put that number in perspective, the vastly popular Girl With a Dragon Tattoo took four years to sell 20 million copies, a milestone Fifty Shades hit in four months.

The audience who exercised this mind-blowing purchasing power was almost all women, mostly in their 30s to 50s, but about a third of the US market were 19-29 years old. What surprised some market researchers is that 9% of practicing Christian women in America have read at least the first book in the trilogy, corresponding to the same percentage of overall US women who picked up a copy of Fifty Shades. If you’re not one of those women, you may wonder why your sisters are so enamored with this story about the virgin college student Anastasia Steele who falls in love with the young handsome billionaire Christian Grey. You could of course read the book and make up your own mind, but why exert yourself when men can explain it all so much better? The Internet is filled with wisdom from males who may or may not have read the book, or seen the movie, but nevertheless can explain why women must be delirious because the book is terribly written and not sexy at all. As a matter of fact, the author E.L. James “doesn’t understand what women find erotic and sexual.” She is just “wrong, and worse, wrong to a very large audience.”

I didn’t completely fall in love with the book because I couldn’t truly relate to either of the two main characters, the story structure at times felt contrived, and the prose was often repetitive. However, I do love that the book incited a worldwide discussion about female sexuality. To me, the story is about a young woman who explores her sexuality and then makes a hard decision when it turns out she will have to sacrifice too much of who she really is in order to be with the one she loves.

Imagine my surprise when I found out this makes me an anti-feminist and that I have a “fear of feminist association.” But I was relieved to find out that it actually is a feminist story, and then bewildered when it turns out that the story is really about the evils of consumerism and women are only attracted to Christian because he’s a billionaire. But actually, he’s a fake billionaire so maybe it’s okay that women like Mr. Grey? I’m so confused.

Either way, the billionaire and Anastasia have severely upset the religious right-wing community. While learning that E.L. James may actually be Bill Clinton’s pen name, the story is a “dangerous distortion of God’s design and intentions for sex,” and that for Christian women, marriages should be only black and white and not include shades of grey, I realized I should re-read the novel because I had completely missed the part where the couple experiment with boiling oil. This exciting scene had been cut from my edition, but that’s probably okay because even without it, the book is “more dangerous than ISIS.”

It’s easy to see why conservative religious men are threatened by a story about female sexuality, but they are not the only ones. The internet is filled with horrified cries of “Is this what women really want?” and confused men who wonder whether “we might often stand a better chance in the arena of dating and sex if we appear to be a bit more like Mr Grey” and how we can celebrate a story about “a predatory billionaire punk” in the first place.

I could calm those men by explaining that escapism and fantasy are not related to what women look for in a partner in real life. I could tell them that not only are women intelligent enough to know the difference between fiction and reality, we are actually able to read a book or watch a movie purely for entertainment. Even better, we don’t crave or expect to act out in real life what we experience on the pages or on the screen. Unfortunately, my voice would be drowned out by the men who have already analyzed Fifty Shades of Grey can explain to other men (and women) “Why 50 Shades’ Christian Grey Turns Women On” and “The REAL Reason Women Want To See ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey‘” and the “7 Things Men Can Learn From Fifty Shades Of Grey.” One man even figured out “Everything You Need to Know About Being a Husband From Reading 50 Shades of Grey.

Obviously nobody cares what a female reader has to say about a book written for women by a woman. So instead of trying to soothe these men’s anxiety, I’ll just escape into another book. Maybe I’ll even write my own. I’m experimenting with a piece of Fifty Shades fan fiction. It’s about a self-made billionaire dominatrix who ties up young men, gags them, and then makes them listen to her opinions all night long.

32 Comments

  • Melissa says:

    The title of this post made me laugh out loud, and it didn’t stop there. So many great lines here. I think the theory about E.L. James being Bill Clinton’s pen name is my favorite– so much so that I didn’t follow the link to read the insane explanation. I just want to savor it in and of itself.

  • What a novel concept – that someone should have actually read something before forming an opinion…that said, Dave Barry’s piece made me laugh.

    I think men have been trying to figure out what women want for millenia. They still don’t know. Probably because we all want something different. Or….because we change our minds.

    Asa, you should have asked for their opinions on physics.

    • I get physics mansplained to me all the time too! :-)

      Dave Barry’s piece was funny, but also very condescending. Whatever people’s opinions are about E.L. James’ book, it feels like it’s open to cheap shots because it is written by a woman and for women.

  • Virginia says:

    I never read any of the series. Not for any reason other than I read the descriptions and thought ‘Meh, not for me.’ So I get to live with people explaining to me what it says about me that I didn’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t read them. Sheesh. It’s like everybody thinks they’re an FBI profiler and they can take one little aspect of your life and read all kinds of things into it. Too bad ‘Live and let live’ seems to be such a radical idea.

    • I didn’t read the book until the movie came out and the internet came alive with theories on what women really want and whether or not the book/movie was hurting America. I came away pleasantly surprised by the novel because Anastasia is actually a very strong character and not submissive.

  • Suzanne says:

    Interestingly, Dave Barry’s article made me angry. And people slamming romance doesn’t normally upset me–I’m a huge proponent of “to each her own.” I respect that we all have different opinions. And I love Barry–few people can make me laugh as hard. What bothers me about his article–and this kind of mansplaining (not just 50 Shades but romance in general)–is that he said he’d read the book in order to understand his wife better. He could’ve done just that, but he failed. Why is romance so compelling? Well, first you have to be compelled by the romantic journey–and if you’re not, no problemo. But secondly, what’s compelling is that heroes LISTEN to their women. Some have said Christian is creepy for buying her a car, appearing out of nowhere at (in) her home–and, no, in real life we wouldn’t like that super stalkerish behavior–but in fantasy that kind of interest strikes the deepest chord. The bird with the prettiest feathers, strongest wings, and most capable beak chooses us out of all the women in the whole wide world. And once he realizes he’s found his one true love, he will stop at nothing to win her. That’s hot. Forget how many times Anna blushes or whatever’s wrong with the prose/storytelling, a powerful and desirable man chose HER above all others. And was willing to give up his predilections to keep her. It’s the ultimate fantasy, right? He loves me so much, he’ll stop doing (fill in the blank). So, Barry had a chance to see that what his wife really wants is for him to pay attention to her deeply. Put down the remote/cell/car keys and just be there with her, thoroughly enjoying her company. He could’ve learned something–instead, he lost that opportunity by his lazy assessment based on a superficial read of a possibly not all-that-compelling-to-him story. If men truly wanted to figure out what women wanted, they’d read romance–and pay attention. All our fantasies are written on the page. And it’s not in the sex scenes.

    • I normally find Dave Barry funny as well, but by the end of the article about Fifty Shades, I felt uncomfortable. The whole piece was condescending toward women and what they find sexy. Because he didn’t understand why women found Christian Grey attractive, it wasn’t worth a serious consideration. I understand that he is a humorist and therefore will look at things from that angle, but this seem to be the attitude overall. Because men doesn’t understand why women love this story and because they feel threatened by it, it deserves ridicule, or worse, protect women from their own sexuality. And you are so right about this: ” If men truly wanted to figure out what women wanted, they’d read romance–and pay attention. All our fantasies are written on the page. And it’s not in the sex scenes.”

  • What an insightful, fabulous read. Now, you have me searching the Internet for D. Barry and more mansplaining:). Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective as well as articulate some points about Fifty Shades I truly enjoyed. I’m tired of so many authors knocking the book. It freaking changed the face of publishing in ways that are still unfolding, and most of those ways are in the win column for authors. Excellent post, Asa!

  • Amy Patrick says:

    What a fantastic last line! And what a lot of work you put into wrangling all that mansplaining into one hilarious piece. I think my favorite part, though, is at the top of the article where one of your “fellow writers” who was so full of advice for you has yet to write anything. Typical.

    • Maybe I have some sort of naive face, but men explain a lot of stuff to me. At that same party, another male writer–who was not published–explained how to get published, after my friend had introduced me as “This is Asa, she just signed her first publishing contract.” :-)

      I’ve also had people explain physics to me when they hear I teach physics. Maybe I should just not have conversations at parties and just go for the drinks and the food. ;-)

  • Jere says:

    OMG. So funny. Please write that book. I will buy it for all my male pals. None of them mansplain, because I would kick their arses. Sharing this.

  • Hi Asa! Great blog – the last line made me spit out my tea. :)

  • Fabulous piece, Asa!

    I often find myself listening to a guy mansplain something to me, even though he should realize I know a lot more about the subject than he does, simply by virtue of me being a woman or a romance author and reader. Talk about frustrating!

    Most guys discussing 50 Shades have never even read it. *smh*

    I like your idea for that new billionaire Dominatrix book. If you write it, it will surely it will be a big hit. :)

    • For a while I thought maybe it was the romance writer thing that had me on the receiving end of mansplaining, but when people (men) would also explain physics, I figured it must be that I’m a woman. I’m sure the gesture comes from a good place. The men want to help me understand how the world really works. At least, that’s what I tell myself or I’d be bald and mute from screaming and tearing my hair out. :-)

  • sarah b says:

    Asa, I truly cannot wait to read that book you’re writing! I love this column. Thank you.

  • Debra Elise says:

    Asa, there is nothing I don’t love about your post. You are one of the most insightful women I know and you’re cute as a button too…no wonder all those men want to ‘mansplain’ things to you. LOL ;)

  • Terri Osburn says:

    This is brilliant! Now someone should write an article about how, based on the movies and video games that make all the money, men want superpowers and to kill indiscriminately and only want mindless, big boobed woman who will do their bidding without saying anything other than how awesome they are.

    Because obviously.

    • Yes! Why doesn’t anyone ever complain about how Tom Clancy’s novels are obviously going to ruin western civilization because all men want to be Jack Ryan and will have no time to propagate the population. :-)

  • Jaime R. Wood says:

    Asa, I laughed out loud at the last line. Please write that! As others have said, it will sell. I get mansplained to all the time, too. Maybe because I look younger than I am, but also, I’m sure, because I’m a woman and so must be coddled and nurtured. I often hear my inner voice saying, “Just nod and pretend to be interested. Being a smart ass won’t get you anywhere.” So I nod and watch the (often older) guy’s chest swell in satisfaction that he’s been such a guiding light for me. (Barf)

    • It’s a tricky balance. When do you nod and smile and when do you speak up for yourself and other women? I usually make a determination on a case-by-case basis. And it also depends on how much wine I’ve had. :-)

  • Kelli Wiseth says:

    Asa, what a wonderful and funny analysis! perfect. I love your writing style, and even though I’m not a fan of romance I’ll look forward to reading your books. Congratulations!

  • Gina Conkle says:

    Hi Asa, I love the website look and your “Mansplaining” …entertaining. I confess, I couldn’t make it past page 20 of the 50 Shades book, but I’d read your Dominatrix 50 Opinions. :-D

  • Hi Gina!
    I think I made it through Fifty Shades mostly because the hype about the book was so big by the time I read it that I found it surprising that I didn’t burst into flames for reading it right away. :-) Also, most of what was written about it wasn’t true, so I kept on reading to see what else people were lying about. And I was astonished by some of the stuff James got away with. Like a 3000 word contract! Talk about inflating your word count to your editor. Brilliant!

    I’ll let you know how the Dominatrix 50 book progresses. ;-)

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