The Power of The Submissive: Tech Professor Answers Why “Fifty Shades of Grey” is So Successful

With more than 100 million book copies sold, almost three million movie tickets pre-sold worldwide, and a spot in the U.S. Nielsen Top Ten Book Sales list for adult fiction since its April 2012 publication, E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy is one of the most — if not the most — successful sex franchises of all time.

Patricia Hawley, a professor of educational psychology at Texas Tech University, decoded the reasoning behind the book’s success, and the formula is simple: The alpha warrior lover wins over the pure and innocent heroine.

Although Hawley said this formula is not uncommon in the romance genre, the bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism — known as BDSM — elements add novelty for the general audience not accustomed to such elements.

“From my view, it was a formulaic romance novel,” Hawley said. “That can account for a good deal of its success.”

Anastasia Steele played by Dakota Johnson. Photo courtesy of and Universal Studios.
Anastasia Steele played by Dakota Johnson. Photo courtesy of and Universal Studios.

In a press release from Texas Tech, Hawley outlined how early literature regarding forceful submission fantasies painted such fantasies as being unique to women and indicative of a dark, shameful sexual secret, whereas current feminist writings focus on the belief women always see sex as an act of subjugation.

Hawley, who researches power and the idea people seek to increase their power, said her research indicated these fantasies are not unique to women. Men fantasized about being submissive sexually more than they fantasized about being dominant, and they fantasized about being submissive more than women did.

Hawley said romance novels, including “Fifty Shades of Grey,” do not dictate a twisted sense of sexuality or patriarchy but instead bring to life the kind of passionate exchanges many people – men and women – experience in their fantasies.

Christian Grey played by Jamie Dornan. Photo courtesy of and Universal Studios.
Christian Grey played by Jamie Dornan. Photo courtesy of and Universal Studios.

In regard to the idea “Fifty Shades” demoralizes women, Hawley said it actually does the opposite. She said such stories actually enhance the power of the “submissive” heroine because her desirability leads the wealthy, older, attractive alpha male to want her so badly that he changes for her, ignores more beautiful women for her, and must have her — and only her.

Therefore, even though Anastasia Steele is the submissive character in the trilogy, she actually has more power than Christian Grey — who is the dominant — which Hawley said is attractive to women reading the series.

“She’s an everyday girl, and she attracted the attention of the alpha male,” Hawley said. “The average girl is appealing in ‘Fifty Shades,’ because if it can happen to her, it’s not such a ludicrous fantasy for me to think about as an average woman of average age and average appearance.”

“Fifty Shades of Grey,” the movie rendition of the first book in the popular series, opens this Saturday on Valentine’s Day. Many news outlets are reporting the Hollywood Reporter’s $45 million opening weekend projection, but is projecting $89 million.

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