Lounging poolside on a small island off the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico, I cracked open a hard copy of Toni Morrison’s “Home” eager to devour something literary to the sound of the ocean nearby and not my usual soundtrack: the white noise of a Washington, D.C. coffee shop.
Of course, I wasn’t the only one with the same idea, even if with a much different execution.
The woman next to me was just as engrossed in her book as I was in mine. Taking a peek at the cover, I spotted the ubiquitous silver-patterned tie that has cinched the erotic grip of E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” on best-seller lists since the spring.
I groaned at the inescapability of the Fifty Shades franchise all the way in Puerto Rico, happy that my obligatory copy of the book was safely hidden away on my iPad.
Since the books’ April release, James, a 40-year-old married mother whose real name is Erika, has sold millions of copies of the erotic trilogy that she began writing on a lark. If her story sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Remember that other middle-aged suburban wife and mom who paved her way to success by capitalizing on sexual flights of fancy? Her name is Zane. Maybe you’ve heard of her?
The fast and dirty success of “Fifty Shades of Grey” -- a book that Maureen Dowd called “the first smash hit in the era of ‘Mommy’s naughty reader’ “ and whose author, Dowd said, wrote “like a Brontk devoid of talent” -- immediately called to mind that other author, whom the New York Times once dubbed “a purveyor of erotica” with “mass-market appeal.” She was hailed as the next Nancy Friday, a pioneer in feminist erotica.
Since nabbing a deal with Simon and Schuster to publish one of her first novels, “The Sex Chronicles,” in 2002, Zane has sold millions upon millions of books. A decade later, Zane reigns over her own publishing empire, with her own imprint at Atria and a TV show on Cinemax After Dark, “Zane’s Sex Chronicles.” Up next is a Zane-edited erotica anthology, “Z-Rated: Chocolate Flava 3 (Atria).”
So why now are publishers (and Hollywood) heralding mommy erotica as if it’s something new? Universal recently optioned James’ trilogy for $5 million. In May, ”Saturday Night Live” lampooned “Fifty Shades” as the gift every suburban mom really wanted for Mother’s Day. Ostensibly, it’s the book to masturbate to.
But steamy as they are, the sex scenes in Fifty Shades are ho-hum at best.
In a nutshell, the book is 500 pages of light BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission) scenes mixed in with an even lighter “vanilla” love story. Ana is a 22-year-old recent college grad and virgin who falls for 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey, who smells of “body wash” and danger. Christian’s into some “kinky” stuff -- spanking, cuffs, clichis -- and Ana gets dragged into his lifestyle. Most of the book is spent in young Ana’s head as she battles with her “inner goddess” and “medulla oblongata” over the morality of Christian’s freaky fetishes.
“Zane’s Sex Chronicles” and “Addicted” can satisfy a woman’s fantasies just as easily. The difference is all about agency. In Zane’s books, the female characters already know what launches their lady rocket. In James’ “Fifty Shades,” Ana is the female embodiment of a blank slate. The women of Zane’s fantasies are idealized: career driven, smart, financially stable and independent.
In a rare profile of Zane in 2004, a New York Times reporter called the author’s characters complex and “aspirational”: “Rarely is there a shortage of suitable African-American men for the aspirational women in her stories, and when women travel down the economic ladder to couple, they are not forced to do so, but choose to.”
By contrast, James’ “submissive” Ana leaves everything up to her “dominant,” Christian. The fantasy, the big payoff, is that he shows up and, just like Brian McKnight sang in his “adult R&B” song “Ready to Learn,” shows Ana “how her p---y works.” A Zane heroine would already know.
So what does that say about the differences between African-American and white female erotica fans? Each demographic has made a millionaire out of the woman smart enough to tap into them. But what, exactly, have they tapped into?
The idea that black women are seen as strong, take-the-bull-by-the-horns-type heroines and white women are seen as damsels in distress is nothing new. What’s interesting here is that the women themselves seem to be buying into pop culture’s own depiction of them, adopting the fantasy as their own.
The opinionated black CEO who has her way with the delivery guy and then sends him on his. The quiet white college grad who lets someone else take the reins and then smack her with them. Neither is a groundbreaking concept, and yet both have hit a pipeline to the way different women see themselves in their fantasies.