Valentine’s Weekend marks the release of the much ballyhooed first movie adaptation of the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy. While we respect the temerity and adventurousness of the E.L. James novels and cannot dispute their popularity, we here at Pop Mythology would like to take this timely opportunity to pay homage to a much earlier sensual trilogy from a favorite author: Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty novels.
On the surface, the two series appear to have much in common: both are trilogies and both contain highly explicit BDSM sexual themes. In fact, Rice’s series has experienced a recent resurgence of popularity, no doubt due in part to bookseller suggestions (“if you liked this book, then try this!”) to 50 Shades readers lusting for more. I do wonder how these recommendations panned out for the readers, though, because I believe that beyond the most perfunctory similarities, these two series actually bear very few similarities, to the extent that I would not even place them in the same genre.
50 Shades is most often classified as “erotica,” but I feel it would more appropriately be described as explicit or erotic romance. The distinction for me is that romance allows for and typically requires relationship problems and difficulties to be overcome. I believe there is no place for troubles in erotica—it should exist entirely outside of reality and its constraints. Whereas although the sex in a romance novel is typically both seamless and flawless, the couple must nonetheless surmount difficult obstacles outside the bedroom, such as Christian’s severe childhood abuse in 50 Shades.
I personally find the juxtaposition of such personal relationship trauma alongside a perpetually priapic male and effortlessly orgasmic female incongruous and disconcerting. Does no one ever struggle with a zipper, slip and fall on their ass while going at it in the shower, or any one of such number of sexual mishaps that often befall us mortals? Not in a romance novel, apparently. But jealousy and anger are de rigueur. And I do wish that 50 Shades could have chosen somewhat more progressive roles for the lead man and woman beyond a CEO that owns and flies his own helicopter and the 22-year-old virgin. All humor aside, though, I do applaud the spirit of exploration in which 50 Shades of Grey was written.
In contrast, Sleeping Beauty begins with a “Once upon a time in a land far, far away” aura that makes it quite clear to the reader that we have departed reality for Fantasy Land. A handsome Prince awakens and claims (yes, physically “claims”) Beauty for his own and brings her to his kingdom to serve as his love slave. The premise is actually in keeping with many scholarly opinions that contend erotic overtones to many well-known fairy tales. Once they arrive, Beauty learns that the Prince’s kingdom takes many royal slaves, both male and female, from neighboring lands to train in a variety of ways of sexual obedience to the court. In the second book, Beauty has disobeyed her masters and has been subjected to punishment in the village outside the Prince’s castle. In the final book, Beauty has been captured and taken to a foreign land by invaders.
Written in the early 80s, a particularly politically conservative time in which nearly all pornography and erotica was viewed as degrading to women, Sleeping Beauty nonetheless enjoyed a significant cult following. Rice considered it her own political statement to the era that women should have the freedom to read and write what they pleased. Indeed, despite Beauty’s role of servitude, it is apparent that the domination and submission have nothing whatsoever to do with gender. In fact, Rice claimed to want to strip away everything extraneous from the story, leaving a world consisting purely of sexual role playing.
Some of the harsher aspects of the play depicted may be difficult for those not naturally inclined to BDSM, however Anne Rice herself is not a proclaimed aficionado of dominant/submission sexual practices, no more than she is a vampire. Rather the series reads as her philosophical exploration of the subject—a search to discover the appeal. And in all cases, Rice emphasizes the aspects of love and affection, rendering what might otherwise be construed as wanton violence into a different kind of tenderness.
The first book considers the freedom from responsibility and potential pleasure afforded from submission to a sexual master. In the second book, Beauty learns the suppression of the ego and the release from the embarrassment and shyness that may stem from it. But in the final book of the heretofore trilogy, Rice seems to have reached her limit of tolerance. Beauty’s captors treat their slaves as less than human, and subject the wives of the court to the abhorrent practice of female circumcision. For the first time, the erotic spell of the story falters somewhat, the sensuality lost with the humanity. (And I’ve left out the usual “spoiler alert” warnings because if you are reading these books for the plot, then you have surely misunderstood my meaning). But never fear, Beauty does live happily ever after in the grand fairy tale tradition.
What’s more, we are soon to be treated to a fourth book that will make this series a quartet. Called Beauty’s Kingdom, this new installment, published by Viking, is set to be released on April 21, 2015 and continues 20 years after the events of the third book, Beauty’s Release. (Keep an eye out for Pop Mythology’s review when the book comes out!). Moreover, with last year’s announcement that the Sleeping Beauty books will be made into a TV series by Television USA, fans of this series have much to look forward to.
Again, I am not at all here to bash Fifty Shades of Grey. I do, however, make the claim that despite the easy surface comparisons the Sleeping Beauty series and the Fifty Shades series are two very different kinds of books. Moreover, it is my opinion that the Sleeping Beauty books are far more effective as erotica according to the definition of erotica that I have suggested above—that is, they are erotic fantasy not bound (pun intended) by an inordinate concern for a veneer of realism or what you might call romance.