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Author Offers Insight into “Fifty Shades of Grey” Phenomenon

Communication expert suggests book trilogy helps readers communicate with partners, improves relationships

February 9th, 2015

Story Contact: Jeff Sossamon, 573-882-3346, sossamonj@missouri.edu

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The bestselling book, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” is being released as a major motion picture February 13th. The book and others in the trilogy depict the relationship between the naïve college graduate, Anastasia Steele and business magnate, Christian Grey. Melissa A. Click, a communication researcher at the University of Missouri, found that the book series—known for its racy content and adult themes—actually opened the channels of dialogue for female readers with their partners and friends and also helped strengthen the way they see themselves.

“Critics zeroed in on the more salacious scenes in the book and shamed readers by suggesting that they craved the more violent aspects of the relationship depicted,” Click said. “Instead, readers suggested that even with the power women have in contemporary culture, women still need to find ways to make sense of their highly sexualized environment. Overall, readers I questioned considered the books very graphic and elements of the relationship between Ana and Christian were undesirable. However, most readers also believed the books helped them open dialogue with their friends and partners about the types of relationships they wanted.”

Readers also indicated they would apply what they learned from the books to deepening relationships with their partners, Click said. She plans on observing and talking with fans at the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie on opening night.

In April and May of 2013, Click interviewed 36 female readers ranging in age from 18 to 55 in small groups. Many of the women were single with no children and considered themselves fans of the series. Most did not identify as feminists.

Most of the women interviewed stated they read the series because of its popularity in the media or out of curiosity because of the word-of-mouth advertising. Women interviewed indicated they kept reading because of the extravagance of the lifestyle portrayed and the diversion it offered from their everyday lives, but escapism is just one of the reasons fans kept reading, Click said.

The “Fifty Shades of Grey” book series has sold more than 70 million copies worldwide since Random House published the series in 2012. The three-book series began as “Twilight” fan fiction (a fan’s rewritten version of the popular young adult romance series). The original version, called “Master of the Universe” was released in August 2009 on fanfiction.net and was later available as print-on-demand. It was so popular, the author, E.L. James, reworked the story and released it in its current version.

“The book series came out of nowhere,” said Click, assistant professor of communication in the College of Arts and Science. “The path to publication was unusual, yet it became an overnight sensation. Given the nature of the narrative—and the fact that readers often were ridiculed by the press and popular outlets like ‘Saturday Night Live’—I wanted to examine why the series was so popular with women.”

Click’s peer-reviewed chapter on the “Fifty Shades” trilogy will be included in an upcoming book, which will be published this year by the University of Illinois Press.

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