Consumer Culture and Fifty Shades of Grey

(originally published on http://www.demandnothing.com, now defunct)

I get a lot done because of sheer obstinacy. When I got accepted to my graduate program, we were supposed to go around and talk about what we were interested in and things we did for fun. For my thing I did for fun, I (honestly) said, “I’ve been tracking product placement in the Fifty Shades series.” People laughed. Big mistake, since that was the moment that ensured I would never, ever drop this. Later in the semester, in one of my classes, I said I was writing a paper about Fifty Shades. People laughed, again, and I said, “You’re laughing, except that it’s the most widely circulated series in the world right now and sold faster than Harry Potter, so it’s probably a good idea to pay attention to it.” Well, so there.

So here I am, a humanities graduate student who has read Fifty Shades of Grey at least five or six times in its entirety. I have swaths of creepy badly-written sex scenes basically memorized. I know by heart the number of times “Audi” is used in the second book. Thanks to its appearance on pretty much every page, the only interjection I use anymore is “Holy cow!” And all because people decided to laugh when I said that something terrible was worth studying. In fact, I’d argue that something this terrible is more worthy of study than a lot of other things I’ve researched in the past. There are hundreds of thousands of other romance novels in the world, but no other series has gotten this kind of circulation. Why? I don’t know if I have an answer, but I do have a suggestion for one kind of cultural idea that it is not only reflecting or reinforcing, but actively participating in: consumerism. What follows is my love letter to the apparently revolutionary idea that something can be both absolutely awful and extremely culturally significant.

“Do you have a philosophy? If so, what is it?”
“I don’t have a philosophy as such. Maybe a guiding principle – Carnegie’s: ‘A man who acquires the ability to take full possession of his own mind may take possession of anything else to which he is justly entitled.’ I’m very singular, driven. I like control – of myself and those around me.”
“So you want to possess things?” You are a control freak.
“I want to deserve to possess them, but yes, bottom line, I do.”
“You sound like the ultimate consumer.”
“I am.”[1]

Provenance

The Fifty Shades series was originally distributed online as a piece of fan fiction[2] in two parts called Master of the Universe. Using the characters from the Twilight series, Master of the Universe told the story of a woman who falls in love with a young millionaire and their developing BDSM relationship. When it rapidly grew in popularity, the author renamed all the characters, split the first book into two, and published it as a trilogy called Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed. The trilogy has achieved remarkable circulation, selling over 60 million copies.[3]

For obvious reasons, most public discussion about Fifty Shades focuses on the romantic and sexual relationship between the two main characters (Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey). There has been little attention paid to how the books are situated within culture, apart from a lot of mom jokes. On close reading, it becomes apparent that much of the narrative focuses not on the characters’ sexual relationship, but on Christian’s identity as an entrepreneur and member of the upper class. Anastasia, who begins the books as a standard middle-class college graduate, becomes over the course of the books the same kind of upper class consumer.

The Fifty Shades series is not only a product of consumer culture, but a participant in a cultural cycle. It contains a distinct social universe that is then circulated and disseminated widely throughout the culture that produced it. Branding and materiality are deployed as narrative tools that influence readers and effect real socioeconomic change on the world outside the novels. The series’ constant association of happiness, sexuality, and material ownership is a simultaneous product and construction of modern consumerism. The resolution of the plot depends on Anastasia’s final transformation into a consumer; her final domination by Christian is not only sexual, but cultural and financial.

Consumer Culture and Literature

Consumer culture here is “a type of material culture, that is, a culture of the use or appropriation of objects or things” in which the “consumer emerges as an identity.”[4] While the idea of consumption implies the using up or depletion of resources, critical study of consumer culture focuses on “the significance and character of the values, norms, and meanings produced in [practices of consumption]…Material goods are not only used to do things, but they also have a meaning, and act as meaningful markers of social relations. It is in acquiring, using and exchanging things that individuals come to have social lives.”[5] Lury traces the roots of modern western consumerism to the Industrial Revolution, a “revolution in consumption.”[6] Mass production practices made possible the emulation of nobility through the purchase of luxury goods. Lury also emphasizes the importance of not only consumerism but the cultural cycle; and the “prosumer” as a participant in both consumption and production.[7] James Annesley’s Blank Fictions: Consumerism, Culture and the Contemporary Novel explores the literary response to consumer culture through “blank fiction” authors such as Bret Easton Ellis, who utilize excesses of violence, sex, brands, and cultural reference points to critically engage – or disengage – with western consumer culture. Graphic sexual scenes link violence and commercialism, and “speak of a culture in which the need to objectify is of paramount importance.”[8] An excess of brands and mass cultural references serves “only as the sign of an empty, impotent postmodern culture.”[9]

The Fifty Shades series includes most of the hallmarks of consumer culture and blank fiction. It is littered with references to popular culture, e.g.: “He presses a button, and the Kings of Leon start singing”;[10] “‘I’ll have a gin and tonic,’ Christian says. ‘Hendricks if you have it or Bombay Sapphire. Cucumber with the Hendricks, lime with the Bombay’”;[11] “Opening the case, I find an iPad. Holy shit . . . an iPad.”[12] References to products sometimes appear in the course of graphic sex scenes, e.g.: “His dark copper hair is a mess, his shirt hanging out – his gray eyes bold and dazzling. He steps out of his Converse shoes and reaches down and takes his socks off individually”;[13] “’Don’t leave me again,’ he implores, looking deep into my eyes, his face serious. ‘Okay,’ I whisper and smile at him. His answering smile is dazzling; relief, elation, and boyish delight combined into one enchanting look that would melt the coldest of hearts. ‘Thank you for the iPad.’”[14] Unlike blank fiction, Fifty Shades is not a critical engagement with consumer culture, but a celebration of it.

Situating Fifty Shades in a consumer cycle is best served by, as Terry Eagleton suggests, moving beyond the idea that literature is a “direct image of social conditions.”[15] Fifty Shades is a prosumer object, a product of consumer culture but also an actor within it. Branding serves important narrative functions in Fifty Shades, notably the development of character identity and the resolution of the plot’s tension. While the explicit narrative arc in Fifty Shades is about the main characters’ sexual and romantic relationship, this narrative is shaped by and tied to an implicit narrative that heroizes entrepreneurship and rugged individualism, and closes with Anastasia’s transformation into a successful prosumer.

Branded Narrative

Over 50 individual brands and products are mentioned by name throughout the Fifty Shades series, including vehicles, alcohol, clothing designers, and technology.[16] The number increases to over 100 if classical composers, musical artists, and local landmarks in Portland and Seattle are added. Brands and products are heavily incorporated into the text: “Lying down on the bed, I gaze at my Mac, my iPad, and my Blackberry. I am overwhelmed with technology. I set about transferring Christian’s playlist from my iPad to the Mac, then fire up Google to surf the net.”[17] While many of the brands receive only one or two mentions, there are at least three brands that receive over 40 mentions throughout the series, and one that receives 130 mentions over the course of all three books. Table 1 shows some of the most common brand names used in the Fifty Shades series.

Table 1: Common brands in Fifty Shades

Term Book 1 Book 2 Book 3
Blackberry 25 50 55
Audi 16 33 18
Heathman 19 6 10
R8 3 3 20
Beetle 20 2 1
Dodge 0 1 20

Branding in the books is so ubiquitous that frequency of mention directly corresponds to narrative arc. After Christian buys Anastasia a BlackBerry, much of the story takes place via their e-mail communications. He also buys her an Audi A3 to replace her old Beetle (and later, an R8). Their first meeting is at the Heathman Hotel, where he is staying in Portland; the resurgence of the mentions of the Heathman in the third book occur during flashbacks and reminiscing about their first meeting. Finally, Dodge is the brand of vehicle driven by Jack Hyde, the antagonist in the second and third books.

Consumer Identity

Identity in Fifty Shades is developed through branding. The three most notable examples are Christian Grey, who is linked to high-price brands; antagonist Jack Hyde, linked to working-class brands and activities; and protagonist Anastasia, who begins the series with little branding and throughout the story is transformed into a high-price consumer like Christian. This branded characterization is also closely linked to the sexual interactions between the characters.

Christian is not only a sexual Dominant, but also a millionaire who started his own company at twenty-one after being adopted out of an abusive home. By his own reckoning he employs over forty thousand people and earns “roughly one hundred thousand dollars an hour.”[18] The story of Christian’s upbringing is a classic American narrative of rugged individualism, emphasized further by his dialogue: “So are you going to invite me in, or am I to be sent packing for exercising my democratic right as an American citizen, entrepreneur, and consumer to purchase whatever I damn well please?”[19] He explicitly refers to Ana as his asset: “‘Don’t be mad. You’re so precious to me. Like a priceless asset, like a child,’ he whispers, a somber reverent expression on his face.”[20]

Christian’s socioeconomic status is heavily branded by traditional signs of status. Many of the vehicles mentioned throughout the books are his; he drives an Audi R8 and flies a Eurocopter. High-end brands are explicitly linked to social status in his dialogue:

He summons the waiter. “Two bottles of the Cristal please. The 2002 if you have it.”
I smirk at him.
“What?” he asks.
“Because the 2002 is so much better than the 2003,” I tease.
He laughs. “To the discerning palate, Anastasia.”[21]

Christian’s foil is Jack Hyde, the antagonist introduced in the second book. While both were abandoned as children and ended up at Ivy League schools, Jack Hyde failed at establishing the same kind of financial empire as Christian. His attempted sexual assault of Anastasia is wrapped up in his attempt to blackmail Christian; while both he and Christian attempt sexual and economic domination, Jack fails to do so through the appropriate channels. Jack is working-class, and is associated with brands with lower price tags than Christian. He drives a Dodge, smokes Camels, and drinks Bud beer.

Anastasia begins the books as both a sexual and consumer blank slate. At 23, she is a virgin who has only been kissed twice and has never used a computer. Her main hobby is reading old books, and her sole significant possession is a Beetle nicknamed “Wanda.” Her relationship to her possessions is an intimate one; she values her books for their contents, and her car because it was a gift from her stepfather. Anastasia goes through a three-stage transformation: from nonparticipant in consumer culture, to Christian’s economic “possession,” and finally to a full prosumer. This is mirrored in her transformation from sexual virgin, to contracted submissive, to equal sexual and romantic partner.

Transformative Gift-Giving

Gift-giving rituals are an important part of developing identity through consumerism. Movement of goods is a “movement of meanings,” because gifts “possess the meaningful properties [the gift-giver] wishes to see transferred to the gift-receiver.”[22] In Fifty Shades, gift-giving is the mode by which Christian encourages Ana’s consumerism. His first round of gifts imbues her with commodity properties, including an emphasis on keeping her safe. After she settles into a position as one of his “assets,” his gifts instead begin to groom her to join him in his position as a wealthy prosumer.

The most obvious example of this transition is Anastasia’s changing vehicles. Her Beetle has sentimental value, but Christian does not approve of this “deathtrap [she calls] a car.”[23] He replaces the Beetle with an Audi A3, which he buys for all of his submissives because “it’s one of the safest cars in its class.”[24] While driving the Audi, Ana notices that it’s more appropriate for her position as a submissive: “I can drive the Audi in high-heels…I check my seldom-worn mascara in the light up vanity mirror on my sunshield. Didn’t have one of those in the Beetle.”[25] She later nicknames it the “submissive special.” In the third book, Christian replaces the A3 with an R8 – the same car he drives – demarcating her transformation into a full economic agent. Anastasia’s employment follows the same three-step trend: Anastasia begins the book as an unemployed writer and gets a job at a publishing agency that Christian then purchases. In the third book, he gifts her the publishing agency, transforming her from one of his assets into an entrepreneur and prosumer like him: “No, you are not an asset, you are my beloved wife.”[26]

Conclusions and Effects of Fifty Shades

The frequency of brand use in Fifty Shades has not gone entirely unnoticed by readers. Searching over 14,000 user reviews of the first book for “product placement” yields 4 results. One reviewer writes, “The author must have shares in Blackberry and Audi.”[27] Other users add that the product placement is “atrocious”[28] and “immense”[29], and that the book is “one big commercial for Audi, Converse, Twinings Tea.”[30]

While it is tempting to assume that brands paid for product placement in the books, one of the main brands – Audi – maintains that it “did not pay a dime to be part of the book series…and were stunned when they found out about the write-in of the cars.”[31] In fact, an attempt to create a “Shades of Romance” package including a drive through landmarks mentioned in the books in an Audi was shut down after Audi received a “call about copyrights.”[32] One article calls Audi’s appearance a “totally organically branded-placement that came about merely because Audi stayed true to its brand positioning as the high-end, luxury car of choice for users who want both design and performance.”[33] An Audi manager anecdotally attributes the company’s 28% increase in sales this July to the books.[34]

Audi is not the only brand that received a real-world sales boost from an “organic” product placement. Thomas Tallis, a classical composer whose music is featured in the books, shot up to the number one classical slot in the UK this year.[35] Sex shop Babeland has started selling the sex toys mentioned in the books in a Fifty Shades section on their website, and hosting workshops on “how to bring their ‘Fifty Shades’ daydreams to life.”[36] Cultural references in Fifty Shades have a measurable real-world economic effect; the book series is not only a reflection of the importance of commodities in consumer culture, but it also plays an active role in producing and influencing consumer culture.

The Fifty Shades series is what Lury refers to as a “prosumer” object. Brands and material consumerism are closely linked to narrative arc and identity in the world of the novels, and this “organic advertising” is manifested in the world outside the book through measurable economic changes. Because the books are so widely-read, it is useful to remain cognizant of their underlying meanings and effects. Rather than simply dismissing the series as just another set of erotic novels, it is important to understand the cultural mechanisms at work in shaping the narrative and the reader response. Understanding popular literature as an active agent in consumer culture opens up new paths for studying books as participants in cultural processes, rather than static objects that only engage with culture at a critical distance.

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[1]. E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey (Waxahachie, Texas: The Writer’s Coffee Shop, 2011), 13.
[2]. Fan-authored fiction, often distributed online, about pre-existing characters. Often short story or novella length but many authors produce longer works; the two Master of the Universe pieces combined comprise over 400,000 words.
[3]. Caitlin Dewey, “Random House employees get $5,000 bonuses, thanks to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’,” The Style Blog, December 7, 2012 (6:26 p.m.), http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/arts-post/post/random-house-employees-get-5000-bonuses-thanks-to-fifty-shades-of-grey/2012/12/07/803dcfda-40a5-11e2-a2d9-822f58ac9fd5_blog.html.
[4]. Celia Lury, Consumer Culture (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2011), 9.
[5]. Ibid., 11-14.
[6]. Ibid., 81.
[7]. Ibid., 11.
[8]. James Annesley, Blank Fictions: Consumerism, Culture, and the Contemporary American Novel (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 40-41.
[9]. Ibid., 85.
[10]. James, Fifty Shades of Grey, 60.
[11]. Ibid., 291.
[12]. E.L. James, Fifty Shades Darker (Waxahachie, Texas: The Writer’s Coffee Shop, 2011), 33.
[13]. James, Fifty Shades of Grey, 81.
[14]. James, Fifty Shades Darker, 54.
[15]. Annesley, Blank Fictions, 5.
[16]. Brands were manually identified and then tracked using Laurence Anthony’s concordance software AntWordProfiler. Trends across the corpus of texts were identified using Sinclair and Rockwell’s Voyant Tools.
[17]. James, Fifty Shades Darker, 85.
[18]. Ibid., 80.
[19]. Ibid., 46.
[20]. E.L. James, Fifty Shades Freed (Waxahachie, Texas: The Writer’s Coffee Shop, 2012), 153.
[21]. Ibid., 284.
[22]. Lury, Consumer Culture, 15.
[23]. James, Fifty Shades of Grey, 168.
[24]. James, Fifty Shades Darker, 130.
[25]. James, Fifty Shades of Grey, 217.
[26]. James, Fifty Shades Freed, 150.
[27]. Quicksilver, “Spare Me,” customer review of Fifty Shades of Grey, Amazon, May 25, 2012, http://www.amazon.com/review/R3GPLVWR6XHPJR/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B007L3BMGA&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag=.
[28]. H. Cunningham, “20% in and wondering if I should continue,” customer review of Fifty Shades of Grey, Amazon, May 28, 2012, http://www.amazon.com/review/RJFL6XEQ1GGS0/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0345803485&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag=.
[29]. Melanie, “If she bites her lip one more time, I’ll beat her too,” customer review of Fifty Shades of Grey, Amazon, May 22, 2012, http://www.amazon.com/review/R3S6626EJ5P05U/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0345803485&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag=.
[30]. Zacharyba, “Lost respect,” customer review of Fifty Shades of Grey, Amazon, June 24, 2012, http://www.amazon.com/review/R2NNIZTC8WRCYZ/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0345803485&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag=.
[31]. Rupal Parekh, “How Audi Scored a Starring Role in ’50 Shades of Grey’: Luxury Messaging, Sales Success Helping Car Brand Drive More Pop Culture References,” Advertising Age (blog), August 13, 2012, http://adage.com/article/news/audi-scored-a-starring-role-50-shades-grey/236650/.
[32]. Rene Wisely, “Audi Gets a Free Ride in Fifty Shades of Grey,” Inside Line (blog), August 16, 2012, http://www.insideline.com/audi/audi-gets-a-free-ride-in-fifty-shades-of-grey.html.
[33]. Parekh, “How Audi Scored a Starring Role.”
[34]. Wisely, “Audi Gets a Free Ride.”
[35]. Charlotte Higgins, “Fifty Shades of Grey sends sales of Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium soaring,” The Guardian, July 16, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/jul/16/fifty-shades-of-grey-tallis.
[36]. Emma Gray, “‘Fifty Shades of Grey’-Inspired Sex Workshop Held at Babeland In New York City,” Huff Post Women (blog), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/14/fifty-shades-of-grey-sex-workshop-babeland-new-york_n_1516225.html.
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Bibliography
Annesley, James. Blank Fictions: Consumerism, Culture and the Contemporary American Novel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
Anthony, Laurence. “Software,” Laurence Anthony’s Website. Last modified 2012. http://www.antlab.sci.waseda.ac.jp/software.html.
James, E.L. Fifty Shades of Grey. Waxahachie, Texas: The Writer’s Coffee Shop, 2011.
—. Fifty Shades Darker. Waxahachie, Texas: The Writer’s Coffee Shop, 2011.
—. Fifty Shades Freed. Waxahachie, Texas: The Writer’s Coffee Shop, 2012.
Lury, Celia. Consumer Culture, Second Edition. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2011.
Sinclair, Stéfan and Geoffrey Rockwell. Voyant Tools. Last modified 2012. http://voyeurtools.org/.