Cupcakes, Pinterest, and Ladyporn: Feminized Popular Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century

Cupcakes, Pinterest, and Ladyporn: Feminized Popular Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century

by Elana Levine

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252081088
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 09/30/2015
Series: Feminist Media Studies Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 931,568
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Elana Levine is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is the author of Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television and co-author of Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status .

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Cupcakes, Pinterest, and Ladyporn

Feminized Popular Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century

By Elana Levine


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09766-9


Fifty Shades of Postfeminism

Contextualizing Readers' Reflections on the Erotic Romance Series


The Fifty Shades of Grey (Fifty Shades) book series has dominated best-seller lists and sold more than 70 million copies worldwide since Vintage Books, a division of Random House, published the series in April 2012. Written by Erika Leonard, a British, middle-aged television executive using the pseudonym E. L. James, the three-book series began as Twilight fan fiction (a fan's rewritten version of the popular young adult vampire romance series by Stephenie Meyer). Initially called Master of the Universe, the series was released in August 2009 on Master of the Universe was so popular that the author removed the story's most obvious ties to Twilight and reworked the story; this new version was published in May 2011 by the Australian Writer's Coffee Shop, a print-on-demand company. The series received many positive reviews from online sites like, which drew the attention of Hollywood executives interested in buying the series' film rights. Leonard quickly found an agent, who helped negotiate the sale of her story to Universal/Focus Features for a rumored $5 million and to Vintage Books for worldwide distribution. The series' unusual path to print and the bestseller list has raised questions about possible new models for the ailing publishing industry-but it is the series' content that has drawn the most attention.

Fifty Shades chronicles the love affair between inexperienced and naive virgin Anastasia ("Ana") Steele, a 21-year-old college student, and Christian Grey, a wealthy entrepreneur in his late twenties whose BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism) practice is tied to a dark past. The erotic romance's popularity with adult women, and the series' graphic descriptions of Christian and Ana's sexual encounters, has led to its frequent description as ladyporn and mommyporn. Although these flip labels trivialize women's interests in the series, they point to one of the series' major controversies: the appeal of the unequal sexual relationship to female audiences. Writing about the series in a contentious cover story in Newsweek, New York University professor Katie Roiphe argues that the series' popularity suggests that contemporary women, who experience more power and freedom than their mothers and grandmothers, have a secret wish to be spanked: "It may be that, for some, the more theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender offer a release, a vacation, an escape from the dreariness and hard work of equality." Roiphe's titillating suggestion that Fifty Shades' representation of a dominant-submissive sexual relationship has become "the modern woman's bedroom fantasy" may have sold copies of Newsweek, but it fails to consider what feminist cultural studies research has already shown about the blending of patriarchal domination and love in women's romance reading, precisely that, "The romance's preoccupation with male brutality is an attempt to understand the meaning of an event that has become almost unavoidable in the real world. The romance may express misogynistic attitudes not because women share them but because they increasingly need to know how to deal with them."

In response to Roiphe's suggestions, I argue that to understand Fifty Shades' popularity, it is necessary to understand the postfeminist environment in which early-twenty-first-century western women live. Angela McRobbie describes postfeminism as "a process by which feminist gains of the 1970s and 1980s are actively and relentlessly undermined." Rosalind Gill asserts the importance of understanding contemporary media culture, which she argues has a "postfeminist sensibility" composed of a complex mixture of feminist and anti-feminist themes. Among the features of a postfeminist sensibility is the increasing sexualization of culture, or "the extraordinary proliferation of discourses about sex and sexuality across all media forms ... as well as to the increasingly frequent erotic presentation of girls,' women's, and (to a lesser extent) men's bodies in public spaces." Susan Douglas also explores the sexualization of media culture and suggests that media texts like Cosmopolitan and Sex and the City. IT Land music videos produced by sexualized celebrities like Britney Spears, teach that it is precisely through women's calculated deployment of their faces, bodies, attire, and sexuality that they gain and enjoy true power-power that is fun, that men will not resent, and indeed will embrace. True power here has nothing to do with economic independence or professional achievement (that's a given): it has to do with getting men to lust after you and other women to envy you.

The impact of this postfeminist sexualized media culture on everyday attitudes and behaviors has also been chronicled in more mainstream venues, like Kathleen Bogle's Hooking Up and Carmine Sarracino and Kevin Scott's The Porning of America Bogle suggests that "hooking up" or casual, nondating sex, changes the previously normative pattern of dating before having sex, "With hooking up, the sexual interaction comes first; going on a date comes later, or not at all for those who never make it to the point of 'going out' or at least 'hanging out.'" Sarracino and Scott argue that porn has become so absorbed into daily life that it impacts sexual practice: "Simple male-female couplings begin to seem old-fashioned, quaint, like holding hands on a porch swing.... [T]hreesomes of various combinations, bondage and domination, sadomasochism, group sex, public sex, and so on, become the new standards of sexual excitement." Both demonstrate that the sexual environment has been changing in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and that women have had to adjust to new sexual standards and expectations.

It is in the context of this postfeminist sexualized culture that I examine the meaning of Fifty Shades of Grey to the women who read it. Like the Twilight series upon which it is based, Fifty Shades has resonated deeply with readers around the world, and although the popular press has endlessly ruminated about the meaning of the series' popularity, no study has yet explored what Fifty Shades means to readers. To investigate Fifty Shades' appeal, I interviewed 36 readers and grounded their reflections with feminist media research that explores women's use of romance reading. In the process, I explore the series' messages about gender roles, romance, and sexuality, bringing crucial attention to the cultural and social aspects of the Fifty Shades phenomenon. Overall, I argue Fifty Shades' appeal is rooted in women's use of the series' recurrent themes of fantasy, romance, and sex to make sense of the sexualized cultural environment in which they are immersed.

Understanding Romance Reading

Although more has been written on the content of romance novels than on the people who read them, scholarship on romance readers has been a foundational component of feminist cultural studies. Such scholarship has critically engaged with feminist debates over romance reading, female sexuality, and pornography, and offered compelling responses to Carole S. Vance's insistence that to better understand the relationships between pleasure and danger, we need to ask, "[H]ow does the audience perceive sexual representations?" Janice A. Radway's Reading the Romance is the most influential example. Using ethnographic methods, Radway explored why women in the suburbs of the pseudonymous mid-western city, Smithton, read romances and the kinds of romances they preferred. The Smithton readers described that their favorite novels contain an emphasis on the development of a loving relationship between an intelligent heroine and strong hero who comes to realize his need for and dependence upon the heroine. They preferred to read stories about heroes who are both gentle and tender and to imagine the details (rather than read a thorough accounting) of the couple's sexual encounters. Radway argues that what women most want out of romance reading is "the opportunity to project themselves into the story, to become the heroine, and thus to share her surprise and slowly awakening pleasure at being so closely watched by someone who finds her valuable and worthy of love." Radway's study also demonstrated that women enjoy reading romances because the act of reading allowed them a quiet time and space away from their families to relax, escape, and recuperate from the demands of their daily lives.

Although Radway's work on romance readers has been critiqued, her study usefully complicated previous feminist work that, primarily through textual analysis, disdained romance reading for its assumedly negative impact on the women who enjoyed it. Radway refuses to offer a decisive conclusion about the role of romance reading in women's lives; instead, she suggests that there are competing forces at play in the meaning of the act of reading romances (which she understands to be somewhat resistive of patriarchy) and the meaning of the texts (which she asserts uphold patriarchal values).

In her work on readers of erotic romances, The Romance Revolution, Carol Thurston is more celebratory of the impact of women's romance reading. Thurston's work, which traces the emergence of the erotic romance genre in the United States between 1972 and 1982, is based upon a content analysis of more than 100 romance novels and 600 surveys with erotic romance readers in 1982 and 1985. Grounding her arguments about erotic romances in the impact of feminist politics and scholarship on the changing sexual norms of the 1970s and early 1980s, Thurston argues: "[T]he huge increase in romance reading over the past decade and more took place coincidentally with changing lifestyles, which have put increasing pressures and stress on women.... [T]his increase occurred during a time when women have been exploring and learning about themselves as sexual beings." Thus, Thurston sees erotic romance reading as a feminist-influenced, if not fully feminist, practice that engages messages about women's sexual freedom and packages them into a romantic story.

Although the sexual nature of erotic romance is at the forefront of Thurston's analysis, her work on erotic romance aligns in many ways with Radway's work on romance readers. For example, like Radway, Thurston found that erotic romance readers primarily read for entertainment. Thurston also found that erotic romance readers consciously used the novels' female heroines to "[try] out their own ideas about interacting with the hero and [resolve] conflict, free of the constraints of dangers of the real world." Thus, erotic romances, like romances generally, allow readers to imagine how they would navigate the situations in which the novels' heroines find themselves.

In contrast to Radway's insistence that the practice and the content of romance reading are at odds with each other, Thurston emphasizes the significant cultural contributions of the empowering messages about sexuality in erotic romances. In particular, Thurston demonstrates the importance of the novels' impact on readers' sexual practices by highlighting readers' reports of using erotic romances "for sexual information and ideas, to create a receptive-to-sex frame of mind, and even to achieve arousal." Such findings ground Thurston's insistence that erotic romances are "one of the most effective channels for communicating feminist ideas to the broad base of women who must be reached if the women's movement is to continue to effect significant social change." Although Thurston is more celebratory of romance reading than Radway, her insistence that erotic romances can have positive impact on readers' lives is an assertion that, in conjunction with Radway's findings, can offer support to the present examination of Fifty Shades readers, which endeavors to examine how and why readers enjoyed the series.

There are few other sustained analyses of adult women's romance reading in the feminist cultural studies literature, in part because subsequent feminist scholarship on female audiences continued with a focus on a range of different feminized media texts, like women's magazines and televised soap operas. Additionally, new subgenres of women's fiction, such as chick lit, which became popular in the 1990s, became hot topics for scholarly exploration because of their reworkings of familiar romantic frameworks. Although there are no published studies of chick-lit readers, the genre is worth mentioning in relation to Fifty Shades of Grey because chick lit has "transformed the dominant romantic formula of the Harlequin," reworking it for a postfeminist context. This is not to argue that Fifty Shades is a chick-lit series-it is not-but it does contain many of the postfeminist themes present in the genre. In fact, Fifty Shades as a rewritten version of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, is a descendant of what Stephanie Harzewski calls "paranormal chick lit," a lucrative offshoot of the chick-lit genre.

Chick lit is characterized as a semiautobiographical, confessional, humorous style of writing that, while romance-focused, emphasizes the ironic culture of single life for urban, working women in their twenties and thirties. Shaped by two of its most famous titles, Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary and Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City, Stephanie Harzewski suggests chick lit is "a post- feminist alternative to the Harlequin." Chick lit is recognized for its assumedly "realistic" portrayal of dating norms in the early twenty-first century, and for its portrayal of female protagonists as sexual agents with "a number of sexual partners and experiences." As one of the first genres to be labeled "postfeminist," chick lit is characterized by a complex and contradictory relationship with feminist values. Harzewski concludes that the genre ultimately positions itself against feminism, painting feminism as "an outdated style and misread as a bilious monolith, its strident tendencies embarrassing and not fully compatible with chick lit's ties to the values of romance fiction and its embrace of commodities, especially beauty and fashion culture."

Although both sales and best-seller lists demonstrate that romance overall remains an incredibly popular genre, market saturation and the increasing popularity of other genres have led to changes in the chick-lit genre, resulting in the production of romantic stories that lack the irony and self-reflexivity of its earlier work. These recent transformations in the popular romance genre demonstrate that some romance narratives have changed significantly since Radway's and Thurston's explorations, and Fifty Shades exemplifies the ways contemporary novels blend familiar romantic formulas with postfeminist elements. Given this shifting context, it is especially important to evaluate how the postfeminist sensibility that has altered some instances of the romance genre, as well as the cultural milieu of the early twenty-first century, has impacted readers' uses of erotic romance.

To explore how Fifty Shades of Grey, written and read in a postfeminist context, resonates with readers' lives, I conducted 8 group interviews in April and May of 2013 with 36 Fifty Shades readers recruited from a midsize, midwestern college town. The interviewees were female, White (29), and heterosexual (33). Their ages ranged from 18 to 55, with an average age of 27. The majority of participants were single (28), had no children (26), and did not identify as feminist (20). All had read the series' three books; many considered themselves to be fans of the series (23), although a majority stated that they would not like to have a relationship like Ana and Christian's (23). To preserve the participants' confidentiality, all names have been changed.

The group interviews lasted from 90 to 120 minutes. Each interview typically began with participants' discussions of when, why, and how they read the books. Following this, participants were asked to describe and evaluate the series, its characters, and Ana and Christian's relationship. Finally, the participants were asked to discuss how the book series impacted their relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners and the series' larger impact on American culture. In what follows, I discuss the major themes that emerged from the focus group conversations I had with Fifty Shades readers.


Excerpted from Cupcakes, Pinterest, and Ladyporn by Elana Levine. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, vii,
Introduction: Feminized Popular Culture in the Early Twenty-first Century Elana Levine, 1,
1. Fifty Shades of Postfeminism: Contextualizing Readers' Reflections on the Erotic Romance Series Melissa A. Click, 15,
2. ABC's Scandal and Black Women's Fandom Kristen J. Warner, 32,
3. Television for All Women? Watching Lifetime's Devious Maids Jillian Báez, 51,
4. Women, Gossip, and Celebrity Online: Celebrity Gossip Blogs as Feminized Popular Culture Erin A. Meyers, 71,
5. Mothers, Fathers, and the Pregnancy App Experience: Designing with Expectant Users in Mind Barbara L. Ley, 95,
6. Fashioning Feminine Fandom: Fashion Blogging and the Expression of Mediated Identity Kyra Hunting, 116,
7. Women's Nail Polish Blogging and Femininity: "The girliest you will ever see me" Michele White, 137,
8. Dance, Dance, Dance, Dance, Dance, Dance, Dance All Night! Mediated Audiences and Black Women's Spirituality Beretta E. Smith-Shomade]TC1 TC1[157,
9. Working Girls: The Precariat of Chick Lit Suzanne Ferriss, 177,
10. After Ever After: Bethenny Frankel, Self-Branding, and the "New Intimacy of Work" Suzanne Leonard and Diane Negra, 196,
11. Keeping Up with the Kardashians Fame-Work and the Production of Entrepreneurial Sisterhood Alice Leppert, 215,
12. Pinning Happiness: Affect, Social Media, and the Work of Mothers Julie Wilson and Emily Chivers Yochim, 232,
13. Sweet Sisterhood: Cupcakes as Sites of Feminized Consumption and Production Elizabeth Nathanson, 249,
Contributors, 269,
Index, 273,

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