50 Shades of GrAU

Over the summer, I was interviewed for an article on YourTango regarding stereotypes and misperceptions about female sexuality in light of the 50 Shades phenomenon. As I began talking and writing more about the trilogy, I started thinking about how to frame the books in an academic light. Could the 50 Shades series be used as a case study in a college class? Could the issues that the trilogy raises be examined in a critical and intellectual way?

Ever the optimist, I decided that the books could serve as an effective case study. I thus drafted the following course description:

The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is a publishing phenomenon that has dramatically impacted American culture and sexual health. Using the series as a case study, this course examines the interplay of sexuality, health, public relations and marketing. Topics covered include feminism, addiction, social media marketing, sexual expression versus sexual repression, targeting the mom demographic, domestic violence, literary criticism, and relationship and identity forming. The course also relies on academic texts, online resources, lectures, and guest speakers.

I'm happy to report that The 50 Shades Trilogy class is on the books for the spring semester at American University!

AU student, Chloe Johnson, recently wrote an article about the class for the campus newspaper. In compiling information for the article, she asked me several questions related to the substantive nature of the course. Those questions and answers are posted below for those who are interested in more details about the class.

1. Why do you think the 50 Shades trilogy has become such a cultural phenomenon?

The 50 Shades trilogy was strategically marketed to a target demographic of women. These women, predominately in their 40s and 50s, responded to the fantasy world that the book presented. As word-of-mouth spread, the audience for the book did, too. The trilogy has impacted the fields of public relations, social media marketing, health, publishing and sexuality. It has also opened up dialogue about previously uncomfortable topics.

2. What sort of connections do you wish to make with the text in class? What do you think students will learn from using this specific text, as opposed to other contemporary works concerning sexuality?

There are many connections that I hope to make with the text in class. To name a few:

a. Double standards abound with respect to female sexuality. Does referring to the book as "mommy porn" further belittle women's sexuality? Are men's publications subjected to the same judgments about sexuality?

b. A common criticism of the book is its poor writing style and editing. What are our expectations when it comes to reading fiction? Do we expect less from online writings? Would E.L. James's writing have been judged to the same extent, if she wasn't a female writing an erotic trilogy? How would you revise an earlier chapter of the first book to sustain a more discriminating reader's attention?

c. Evaluate the relationship in the book in light of our readings on domestic violence. Are the leads in the trilogy in a healthy or abusive relationship? Why or why not?

d. Why is the trilogy a public relations success story? Would sales have been as high if e-readers didn't exist? Given the studies we looked at regarding the buying power of the mom demographic, do you think the book series would have been as successful if the mom demographic hadn't been targeted?

e. What was the role of social media in perpetuating the trilogy's success? If you were in charge of marketing the upcoming movies, how would you utilize social media?

20 million copies of the 50 Shades trilogy were sold in less than four months. No other contemporary text on sexuality has transformed American culture the way that this series has. It never crossed my mind to use another book for a case study.

3. How was the curriculum designed?

I'm still developing the curriculum, but I'll be incorporating historical texts regarding female sexuality, journal articles, marketing studies regarding the mom demographic, and health textbook chapters. Students will be required to write a sexual genogram and three papers, totaling 25 pages.

I'm excited for the spring semester already, and I look forward to seeing how the curriculum and class discussions evolve. I promise to keep you posted every step of the way!

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