Where Is The 50Shades Of Femdom?

Or: When are we going to see a femdom best seller?

I get this as a compliment/question, when people find out about the whole femdom writer thing. People assume that I’m positioned to write the next Fifty Shades of Grey. Only for F/m relationships. Unfortunately as awesome as it would be to produce a work of BDSM erotica that’s so popular that you can buy licensed pyjamas and softcore sex toys based on it, that’s not going to happen. Not without a bunch of variables being taken into account at least.

It’s not just that the average writer no more makes the best seller list than the average person who runs makes the Boston Marathon. The success of 50shades is also part of the genre that birthed it and the cultural underpinnings that define pop culture’s approach to sexuality. But first, before I delve in a little deeper, a back story about the book for those living under a rock.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a trilogy about a BDSM relationship between virgin Anastasia Steele, the sub, and a billionaire hunk dom, Christian Grey. It not only crawled from ebook sales into the mainstream, but more to the point, began as a Twilight fan fiction where the two leads of that franchise were stripped of the supernatural and sent to college. When that got popular, the author changed the names to avoid getting sued and monetized it, building a following from the amateur reader/writer online groups. Pay attention, this origin story is just as important as the BDSM parts of the books.

One of the important things that defines 50shades is how classically part of the romance genre it is, including its parentage and all the various things that combined together, even more than just people wanting to read about kink in general, that pushed it to the forefront. Part of its success is that it is extremely formulaic.

Critics of the books get bogged down in two places, how badly written it is, which I think is unfair even if it’s true, and other critics point out how poorly representative it is to healthy relationships, kinky or otherwise. News articles trying to be click bait hammered the End of Feminism angle, trying to argue that all women are femsubs and that’s because having jobs and personal autonomy is not natural for them,  something they’ve been saying every single time people pay attention to women’s fiction. Which, moving onto my next point, includes the genre of romance, a pretty major segment of the publishing industry as a whole.  (By the way, that’s 39.3% of book sales according to some estimations, while other figures give romance 55% of the paperback book market.)

If you’re a dude, and/or don’t read romances, you probably have a mental image about pirates cutting ladies out of their corsets and really bad writing- and you’d be about half right. Romance has its highlights and low points, including everything from literary masterpieces to the throwaways you can get at the grocery store with titles like “The Millionaire Italian’s Lover”. But, because it’s such a big genre it straddles many other genres, so you may have a fantasy story with a romance in it,  or a sci-fi story with a romance, etc… It’s a little more than the story of a romantic relationship, although that’s one of the things all romances have in common. But, as a bit of a background- the genre is unabashedly female audience dominated, including a fair deal of pandering, and romance novels generally have something to them that compliments the “romance”. In the case of  50shades, BDSM is providing the compliment, and provides the tension to drive the story and create conflict.

While everyone who is not asexual and/or aromantic likes the idea of relationships, the genre gets its power from the fact that historically,  women dealt with the limitations that participating in the world can only be facilitated by the presence of a male romantic partner. Looking at the genre at its earliest days, writers like Jane Austen didn’t just want to pair off people because it was sooooo romantic, but were writing about making the sort of life choices that defined what freedoms their female characters would have. In her time period, Austen was mostly making a point about sensible matches with people you can respect. Okay, so what does Pride and Prejudice have to do with BDSM erotica?

Why, everything of course! Keep reading, I have a point here!

Spousal selection has, increasingly become way less of a big deal. While for centuries, you only really got one shot until the person you picked dropped dead, these days a lot of the story tension (does he love me or not!?) creates less plausible reasons to make a big deal about things. But, a story demands conflict! So romances often provide wish fulfillment and carefully set up scenarios, where there can be conflicts and something to achieve more than in real love relationships.  Outside of the pages of a romance, people tend to pick people just like them, as far as values, money and backgrounds, and the relationships work because the conflict is minimal and communication is strong- it looks like Jane Austen was right, but that’s not much of an adventure novel.

So you can chart a general drift of plotting and heroes towards things that will maximize Passion and Tension and Throbbing LUST relative to what your audience is dealing with. Plots have to deliver a scenario where the reader can imagine the lead actually having a challenge that can’t be resolved by calling the cops, going home or sending the person to therapy and not talking to them until they can show they’re committed to their issues. Following along with this trend for un-realism in romance, is a general tendency to M/f, where heroines get abducted, bossed, etc, etc, etc… This has lead to a parade of Sheiks, rich men, pirates, Scottish Lairds, and most recently the explosion of paranormal romance.

Also known as “Fang Fucker”, this genre succeeds not just on being exciting because hey cool, Vampire-Werewolf-Wizard-Fairie!, but also because the audience has only been getting more feminist and smart about the shit they’ll tolerate in real life. Much like, as a culture, we’re getting better at defining rape VS consent, old media, where it was romantic when the hero did something rape-y is now liable to have itself flung across the room.

Today’s femsub doesn’t traipse blindly into a relationship with a guy who is bossy because that’s how men are. Instead, she can label herself, and discuss with her potential partners about the kind of relationship she wants. A real dom is generally pretty safe, and nothing like Christian Grey. The Vampire, or whatever, provides a new possibility for a hero who can provide tension without being easily solved by being maced and having a restraining order put on him- this sort of power imbalance and rules change is a cheap trick to force drama for the story.

Twilight, in particular, being worth considering as the mother of 50shades, is criticized for how darn creepy the leads’ version of love is, with stalking, violence, etc, etc… But at it’s core is a story about becoming a nice housewife written by a nice housewife, and it’s telling that none of the human men do the Sooooo violent I must protect you from my wild ripping lust shtick. Because suspension of disbelief no longer allows that.

50shades male lead is similarly a bundle of fail as far as being a good real partner or real dom. He’s an abusive ass who can wield his vast wealth to get whatever he wants, and behaves in a  reactionary fashion that makes many people experienced with kink to grind their teeth. In this case, being a dom with money is being a stand in for the same sort of passion-and-pathos that was previously being propped up by being an immortal undead schoolboy, or a member of the 18th century upper class. And, he’s also true to the traditions of romance novels that he becomes a doorway through which the heroine can get everything she wants and desires on a silver platter- not just a marriage, but toys and social power. It’s self indulgently silly, but so is marshmallow fluff, and fluffy-whip has its place in culinary consumption too.

Femdom 50shades has a number of challenges to break into the romance field. First of all, it has to have a lead that the readers can insert themselves into. This does not mean a one-to-one representation of a real woman. Generally, in romance the lead  is made hyper naive, virginal, etc… This is very relevant for examination, when the average reader, these days is competent enough to look after herself and probably left her maidenhead on the condom wrapped penis of another teenager many, many awkward fumbling years ago. The idea is to be likeable, non-threatening and primed to be absolutely blown away by the male she’s meant to be with.

So our dominant heroine has to be a little bit of a ninny, ideally awkward and shy, but mysteriously loved by all and sundry except designated villains and antagonists. And she may already be dom-ish in the bedroom! In actuality, if you read as many romances as I do, she’s already tying her lead to the headboard from time to time. Sex in romance novels, despite the virgin thing, generally tolerates a bit of light spank-and-tickle or even can wander into dark places, especially during the rape-y 80’s. They just tend to dis-empower their female lead so she can have heavy conflict, rather like how action heroes tend to not be well adjusted men with lots of friends outside work and a reputation for being a reliable co-worker (in anything other than merciless killing and being a maverick), and a vastly unrealistic number of kids in stories are orphans or have neglectful parents.

And this is one of the barriers to your femdom romance bestseller. Disempowered heroines are hard to push into the dom model, since doms generally have competence as one of the things people wank over about them. Additionally, our cultures, on average, doesn’t do women in charge well. From underpaying, to the glass ceiling, to treating pink collar work as lesser, through to acting like aggressive women are crazy psychopaths, setting the female lead up as Christina Grey pursuing Antony Steele is going to require a lot more sign waving, letters to congress and women in upper management.

In the mean time, if you want a femdom heroine in a romance novel, you need to create a problem that needs to be resolved by the dude becoming her forever-partner and you need to create a series of conflicts that allow her to come out on top and get everything she wants, be it ipads and ending up at the helm of a major publishing company, ala 50shades, or marrying Lord Somesuch, or becoming a detective, or whatever. It’s not hard to get a male lead tied up; at the moment, there’s actually some tropes that do this- for example you can make your sub a master thief she has to chase down, or a spy, or a magical servant, or whatever. The problem is that it is not very envelope pushing in its own right.

And of course you need popular momentum. Self publishing helped 50shades leap, from successful fan fiction, to successful ebook and thence from the book covers you can still find cluttering up the walk in table of your local mass market bookstore chain (as well as enough copycat knockoffs to sink a ship).  These are backed by an army of amateur authors trying out writing their own stories, which are generally close to what is being published. Femdom stories don’t have that same engine behind them- there are the stories, but there’s simply not enough of them to break through yet, or possibly ever.

If you want to break through in romance, your challenge will not be making your heroine a dom, because there are already women who do this, albeit in the minority. Your challenge is getting thousands of people to like the idea enough to write for free and then create the Christian Grey of subs, a male lead who can justify the highs and lows of these stories enough to make even people who aren’t doing this in real life masturbate. And that… is simply a challenge that only trial and error could solve, and really beyond my ability as a lone pornographer.

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14 Comments

  1. Interesting perspective.

    Just a couple of points.

    1. The reference to Jane Austen leads automatically to Charlotte Bronte and ‘Jane Eyre’, which on one level is also a piece of ‘girl meets boy’ romantic fiction. What’s fascinating about this novel is that the problems of the ferociously independent heroine are solved by the catastrophic fire set by the ‘mad’ wife of Mr Rochester.

    This has the simultaneous effect of getting rid of the wife and absolving Jane of guilt. The wife set the fire so it was her own fault that she died.

    But more importantly, it leaves Mr Rochester blind, crippled, and helplessly dependent on Jane who, by happy circumstance has become financially independent due to an unexpected inheritance.

    Is it being too fanciful to see this as a symbolic enactment of a Fm relationship, in which a powerful and desirable man is reduced to being the helpless possession of a strong woman?

    2. The only femdom scene I can think of in mainstream literature is the forced feminisation of Leopold Bloom in Bella Cohen’s whorehouse in James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. But then this is part of Joyce’s contention that the ‘feminine’ Bloom, an alien among a bunch of macho Paddys, represents the hope of a new definition of masculinity.

    Reply
    • Given I have talked at length at the D/s in Jane Eyre on fetlife I’m delighted you also noticed. Makes me feel vindicated!

      It’s also present in their courtship, where she is written as joking about chaining him up as part of a harem revolt, and after accepting his first proposal, physically torments him to stop him from getting fresh with her until the wedding and has a deep abiding dread of losing control. However it’s very classically of the pattern of the genre of romance- it’s about a female character succeeding with a big, thrilling and naughty idea (bigamy). 🙂

      There’s loads of examples of females being dominant in popular culture, but the problem is generally that the happy ending of the story requires either their death or dis-empowerment if she had real power, but how we write about sex certainly permits a bit of kink in the sex. The problem is that romance has a poor tolerance for masterful heroines, and other genres cast a woman with power as more villainous than sympathetic unless she’s a doting wife cleaning up after her mate’s antics. When the story is about the guy, not the girl, he might end up tied to chair or enthralled and weakened by a woman, but the best you can generally hope for is generally that the love interest will be wise, sassy or maternal- for example the recent dish up of super hero movies had the canonical love interests like Pepper Pots, Lois Lane or Betty Ross being comforters to allow the high powered hero to whimper a bit for character depth.

      I can certainly think of a number of ways to make the heroine a dom and vulnerable, I just can’t think of a way to create a big sexy idea the way that romance novels can justify the silliness, that isn’t being mined by other sub-genres. I can write a story *with* femdom in it, but one where it is a BDSM best seller is a bit more of a challenge.

      Reply
  2. Hi Ms. Pearl –

    Followed you here via the Tweet from @Poor_locked. You’re writing is great – how have a missed it?

    I reblogged this post because I enjoyed the points that you made. You’re on my RSS list now, too.

    Regards,

    Reply
  3. Thank you for this piece, which helps restore my peace of mind (pardon the pun). I am one of those poor souls who is currently trying to write something like this, and I am constantly on the verge of thinking that I can’t make it – until now, I thought it was due to poor writing skills, but yes I guess you’re right, this is an undertaking of hellish challenge, riddled with clichés and the constant danger of becoming too abstract, for fear of avoiding them.

    Reply
    • The thing about cliches in writing is that they are okay and are as much a part of good story craft as using words- it’s like there’s a time and place for experimenting- but if everyone does it it’s like never knowing if you order a steak if you’ll get a slap in the face, an interpretative dance about cows, a pancake or a t-bone. In creative fields we get hung up on being “unique” or making art, but actually most creative work is made to serve a specific purpose.

      Reply
  4. endymion

     /  July 19, 2013

    If I understand you correctly, writing a “femdom-enabled” version of 50shades should be pretty easy (if one it already writing romance novels): it’s not about empowering the female lead into a position of power, but about pushing her into it. One can take the exact same starting point for such a romance (e.g. naive overkitched and underfucked young woman vs. mysterious powerful wealthy man). The only difference would be how the tension is resolved. Instead of “We can never consume our lust. I’m a monster and would tear you to shreds” the male romantic interest would demand to be bound “for her safety”.

    If that’s the case, I don’t see why a femdom-themed romantic novel could not be successful in the market. Or am I completely missing the point?

    Reply
    • My point was that there are loads of female heroines who tie up the male lead, or who end up dis-empowering the menace of the hero by the HEA (50shades, in particular, is supposed to end with the dom learning to balance his controlling side better). Romance novels are a female journey to success, by whatever the audience and writer considers success, with a romantic relationship as the fulcrum.

      In fact a lot of novels about romantic relationships already cast women as the man tamer, albeit it’s generally powered by being the best at being Female (her kindness, her nurturing, her beauty!), or standing up to the hero with about the conviction but general utility of Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Jane Austen’s heroines didn’t upend the social order, but they definitely delivered heroines who ended with the victory conditions being a husband that respected them at a time when their peoplehood was dubiously protected.

      She can tie up the hero, she can shoot him, she can even interrogate him or even thump him one. Something like the rom-com “The Proposal” can make her a hell bitch and publishing juggernaut.

      But it does not push the envelope and it makes for lousy femdom because of all the sexism that tends to bookend it and the habit of puncturing her gravitas to make her likeable. This is to the extent that when we go looking for DIY porn, you either have to squint really hard at examples of women in leadership roles (who are by in large supporting and background characters unless the story is about how the mantle of leadership is a heavy cross to bear) and wish hard, or wank to the villians, or suffer through yet another “sassy” heroine.

      If that were the only problem you could simply bash the forumula, a million monkeys on keyboards style, until a reasonably talented writer delivered something during the right publishing window. But we’re also missing the million monkeys.

      This problem comes from the fact that people are way more frightened of women in actual power than men in actual power. Any woman who has ever been told she sounds “angry” for disagreeing with someone can attest that we generally approach genders differently by what we permit them to express and do. Christian Grey, etc… aren’t just doms, they’re also fabulously wealthy and powerful in a way that women generally don’t get to enjoy, and that harms femdom romance and means way less manuscripts in the slush pile are likely to float to the surface at the right time.

      So there’s less amateur versions being created in the by-women-and-for-women pool and the Elise Sutton man focused porn is winning. Since publishing success has a huge luck component, while it’s possible that the adventures of a female dom (ie Cassandra French’s Finishing School for Boys was a success but didn’t get noticed) is a marketable success, femdom PJs will take more than just a dominant heroine. It will take millions of dom heroines the way that 50shades is just a particularly successful variant on the “captive to a millionare” trope.

      Reply
      • endymion

         /  July 21, 2013

        Thanks for the detailed reply. I guess I get it now…

        Reply
  5. Googled my way in here while researching my next project. This is a very useful post.

    As a man, I’m probably typical in that I’ve consumed more romance through movies than prose, so these are my reference point.

    Where there is a power imbalance in favour of the woman, the plot usually seems to be about her stepping down from that position – what was that movie where the CEO had to marry her male PA for residency reasons, then subsequently fell in love with him?

    I suspect this reflects a growing issue of (relatively) high powered women finding it hard to find equally or higher powered partners. The culture still says they should find Alpha men, but is there room in a relationship for two such people?

    I wonder whether we won’t get a 50 Shades Femdom, but will get Romances with an FLR element:

    Something like executive woman meets flaky but hunky male actor/waiter and initially treats him as a disposable fling. As she becomes attached to him, it becomes clear that he likes the power imbalance between them. Is he a male gold digger? Does he want her for her? And the resolution is that the wealth and power *are* her and that it’s OK to be with him.

    Reply
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