An Interview with Jenny Trout about the Dangers of Fifty Shades of Grey, Part 1
By Margaret Bates
Quick note — this interview was done in 2012 and is being republished from our original site to Medium for the first time since the first (you read that correctly) of the three greenlit Fifty Shades films comes out this month…
1) Can you give us some background on yourself and why you wanted to review this novel in particular?
I’m a USA Today Bestselling Author of urban fantasy or paranormal romance, depending on who you ask. I also write erotic romance and contemporary romance under my pen name, Abigail Barnette. I started writing professionally at age twenty-three, so I’ve been able to really watch my attitudes evolve along the way. All told, I’ve written eight traditionally published novels and thirteen e-books, and a handful of short stories, all written with women as the target audience. Since 50 Shades has been touted as “mommy porn” (a term I absolutely loathe) and “porn for women” (yet another term I loathe — I didn’t realize traditional pornography was off-limits or universally unappealing to women), I thought it would be professionally negligent of me to not read it. Once I did read it, I knew I had to express my thoughts on it. And when all the things I wanted to touch on didn’t fit into a reasonably sized book review, I decided to comb through it chapter by chapter.
2) We’re not against romance when done well as it is a privilege of any woman to safely express her sexuality or indulge her sexual fantasies in any way she wishes. However, one of LW’s big issues with the book is that Ana is presented as unbelievably innocent, having never even touched herself at age 21. Do you feel this reinforces an possibly outdated trope of untouched virgin led by experienced man? Why do you think she was presented as so inexperienced in her own desires?
It absolutley reinforces that trope, and it’s obvious that it still appeals to a large number of women. I know that virgin stories, or unexperienced, unfulfilled heroines appeal to me on an emotional level, even though intelligently I know that a woman’s sexual past doesn’t matter in the context of the romantic relationship I’m reading and enjoying. But I think it’s fairly common for a person, male or female, to long for that excitement of discovery that comes when you first start exploring your sexuality. I hate to speculate on the author’s motives or personal life, but I think maybe E.L. James was tapping into that longing, and it obviously struck a chord with readers. We also have to keep in mind that this book is not an original work, no matter how much its publishers have argued to the contrary. It’s a fanfiction work with the names changed. The main characters in 50 Shades of Grey are Bella Swan and Edward Cullen from Twilight, and in Twilight, Bella was very innocent, because she was a teenage girl. It was believable innocence. E.L. James upped Ana’s age in 50 Shades in order to write the steamier bits without breaking taboos. It’s more difficult to suspsend disbelief that a twenty-one-year-old has never masturbated than it is to believe that a seventeen-year-old has never been kissed, so I feel Ana’s virginity and total inexperience was a bad choice on her part. It might have been more believable for Ana to have had a few unsatisfying partners before she met Christian. At least she would have had some sexual agency in the plot, that way.
3) There’s also a sense of shame in open sexuality. For one, after her roommate, Kate Kavanaugh has a one night stand with Christian’s brother, Elliot, Ana’s inner monologue is rather judgemental even though she, herself, has just spent time with Christian alone and is contemplating more. What are your thoughts on what could be seen as “slut-shaming” in what is being hailed as a “liberated” sex novel?
What are my thoughts? It’s bullshit. Can I say that? I found Ana Steele extremely unlikeable in this aspect, but again, I think it’s something that, sadly, appeals to a lot of women. There’s such a tendency among women to support this very negative kind of thinking — “The sex I’m having is okay, because I can justify it. The sex you’re having is dirty, because I refuse to apply my same justifications to your situation, as it makes it more difficult to judge you in this competition I am enjoying in my head.” It all boils down to the fact that Ana is with her first and only love. Kate has had and enjoyed consensual sex with multiple partners in the past. She isn’t sexually “pure” like Ana is, and I believe she’s used intentionally as a foil to reinforce Ana’s sexual “purity” and the alleged romance of the relationship between Ana and Christian. If Kate is a slut, then her relationship with Elliot isn’t as romantic and their love isn’t as true as Ana and Christian’s. It’s part of that virgin trope we discussed earlier. We know that Ana “belongs” body and soul to Christian, because he’s the keeper of her sexuality. If Elliot cannot be the keeper to Kate’s sexuality, because she’s owning it, well, what’s left for him? Just her as a thinking, feeling individual? Pfff, who wants that? It’s one of the aspects of the book that disgusted me most.
4) There also seems to be a running theme of subtle bashing of fellow females. Ana constantly mentioning Kate’s looks, demeaning the blonde women working for Christian with numbers as if they aren’t fully realized people. There’s also the fact of her female rivals being given derogatory nicknames and descriptions. Do you find that at all troubling that the heroine seems to have such little respect for her fellow women?
I’m on the fence between condemning Ana’s attitudes toward other women and praising E.L. James for staying so true to the character of Bella Swan. If you remember, in Twilight, Bella interacts only grudgingly with other females, and feels constantly threatened by the physical beauty of the female Cullens. James definitely takes it a step further, and I think that both authors were laboring under the delusion that female readers would identify more with a blatantly insecure heroine. What have we been taught to do when we’re feeling insecure? Cut down another woman, because it will somehow make us better by comparison. When we see a heroine do this in a novel, we’re supposed to say to ourselves, “I will root for her, because she’s just like me.” I think there are better ways to make our heroines likeable, or even to show the reader that they’re insecure. I’m reading a great book, Tempest Rising by Nicole Peeler, where the heroine is very insecure, not about her looks, but about her past and the way she’s treated by the insular world of the small town she’s lived in her entire life. It’s refreshing, specificially because she has solid relationships with two female characters without being threatened by their looks or their sexuality, and it’s more believable. As for Ana’s derision of blondes, the blonde thing drives me crazy. Because blondes are our cultural gold standard of beauty, we see them villainized over and over in books written for women. I thought the blonde receptionist bit in 50 Shades was a particularly hamfisted “blondes are evil!” moment.
Join us tomorrow when Ms. Trout discusses red flags for abuse in the novels, homophobic aspects of the novel, and also the severe misrepresentation of BDSM in the series.
Jenny Trout is an author, blogger, and funny person. Writing as Jennifer Armintrout she made the USA Today bestseller list with Blood Ties Book One: The Turning. Her novelAmerican Vampire was named one of the top ten horror novels of 2011 by Booklist Magazine Online. Jenny writes award-winning erotic romance, including the internationally bestselling The Boss series (written as Abigail Barnette), as well as young adult and new adult novels.
As a blogger, Jenny’s work has appeared on The Huffington Post, and has been featured on television and radio, including HuffPost Live, Good Morning America, The Steve Harvey Show, and National Public Radio’s Here & Now.
She is a proud Michigander, mother of two, and wife to the only person alive capable of spending extended periods of time with her without wanting to kill her.
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