Studying a grey area
IT MIGHT not be everyone’s cup of tea but erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey is certainly a conversation starter.
At least that’s what AUT psychology honours student Emma Griffiths is banking on as she undertakes a study to see what heterosexual women think of the topselling book and its sequels.
Ms Griffiths is conducting interviews with women who have read some or all of the Fifty Shades trilogy.
‘‘I wanted to do focus group research and be interactive and actually speak to people about it and have their opinions, not just have my study academically based,’’ she says.
The project was conceived by psychology lecturer Pantea Farvid, whose research interests include examining the intersection of gender, sexuality, power, culture and identity.
It is part of a broader study into the books which is being overseen by Dr Farvid.
Both believe it may be the first study of its kind into the popular novels, which have attracted a mixed critical response.
‘‘It’s helping us understand the Fifty Shades phenomena,’’ Dr Farvid says.
‘‘Obviously it’s a very popular text and there has been so much debate and controversy about it in popular culture and the media.
‘‘So I’ve been interested for a little while in actually looking at the content in great depth and talking to people about how they’ve engaged with it.’’
The Fifty Shades trilogy is written by E L James and has reportedly sold more than 70 million copies worldwide.
The first instalment tells the story of a virginal young woman who meets an extremely wealthy entrepreneur.
Dr Farvid says the behaviours described in the novel may have shocked or intrigued some readers, but the book essentially leans on archetypal characters and storylines.
‘‘I think one of the reasons why it sold so widely is because it actually took on the old-fashioned romance narrative and tweaked it,’’ she says.
‘‘The older, troubled, strong, silent man who meets the pure, lovely, naive girl and they become interested in each other.
‘‘They go through turbulence, and they don’t know how to solve it.
‘‘It’s similar to things like Mills & Boon, the stuff that has been marketed to women for years.
‘‘But the added bondage and kink made it appear titillating and exciting.’’
Dr Farvid says there has been some academic discussion about the books but not with the actual readers.
She says the focus groups address questions such as: What kind of messages did readers get? What did they think of those messages? Is it a big influence, or it is just disposable fantasy fiveminute read and then they don’t think about it again?
‘‘It’s getting to the nittygritty of what these representations mean and examining how the representations are taken up or rejected by Farvid says.
‘‘They are certainly not harmless, but also probably not as harmful as some people are having the moral outrage about.
‘‘I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that.’’
Ms Griffiths had to read the trilogy as part of her research and says there is an assumption that because the characters are adults the dynamics of their relationship is acceptable.
‘‘I don’t really think that it’s that black and white,’’ she says.
‘‘I’m not that saying it’s horrible, but there is more greyscale in it and you’ve got to have a bit of debate around it.’’