Required Reading

‘50 Shades of Grey’ Is the Subject of a Course at American University

The publishing phenom will be the subject of an American Studies course in the spring semester. By Rachel Kramer Bussel.

Will Oliver/AFP, via Getty

Sex educator and American University adjunct professor Stef Woods didn't see "mommy porn" when she first heard buzz about the E.L. James erotic romance bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey at a doctor's office, where the receptionists, nurse, and doctor were all reading the book. She saw a potential class topic. Having taught college classes on activism and social media and sexuality and social media, Woods found the combination of number of books sold, media hype, and issues related to female sexuality, fan fiction, and social media compelling enough to successfully propose “Contemporary American Culture: The 50 Shades Trilogy,” which she will teach to 25 students starting in January.

“It never crossed my mind to use another book for a case study,” she wrote on her blog, City Girl. The class already has a waiting list, and is filled mostly with senior honors students (22 or 23 of whom, according to Woods, are female). “No other contemporary text on sexuality has transformed American culture the way that this series has,” Woods told student newspaper The Eagle, where, in the comments, she offered an anonymous student commenter the opportunity to sit in on the class.

In her blog post, Woods outlined several key areas the curriculum will cover, with students answering questions such as “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?” and “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?” Students will be forced to read, write, and analyze critically.

Contrary to a USA Today claim that they’ll be rewriting the first 150 pages, students will instead be asked to rewrite one of the introductory chapters, before Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey consummate their relationship, with an aim to improving it. "That's a useful skill in almost any job. Someone who has just graduated will be tasked with editing and proofreading and reviewing over and over again for their superiors in the office," claimed Woods, who said most of the class's students are enrolled in the school or communications or are studying sexuality.

This is not AU's first foray into teaching about pop culture, and Woods said she has received support from colleagues and no opposition from within the university. "They teach a class on The Wire, they teach a class looking at vampires in history and literature incorporating the Twilight series. American Studies recognizes what's driving American culture and how to study that critically."

This is backed up by other universities’ curricula. Brown University sociology professor Carrie Spearin included Fifty Shades of Grey, along with Foucault’s The History of Sexuality and Mary Roach's science journalism tome Bonk, in her required reading for fall 2012 course “Human Sexuality in a Social Context.” Macalester College’s American Studies department offers “Hunger Games: Map and Mirror for the 21st Century,” while the University of Delaware’s English department features “Fighting the Future From The Hunger Games to The Matrix: The Dystopian Tradition in the 21st Century.” Even reality-TV shows such as The Apprentice and Survivor are fodder for the modern college student. I fondly recall taking classes like “How to Read The New York Times” and one on female detectives while attending the University of California at Berkeley. “I love when people incorporate social media and pop culture,” said Woods, “because that’s how the field is ever evolving. It makes academia more relevant; you want something that resonates with students and inspires them to think in different ways.”

With Fifty Shades being cited as a corollary to real-life news stories related to BDSM, such as one in The Telegraph about an Italian woman suing her husband for physical abuse and stalking, despite signing a “slave” contract, while the husband “argues that she signed the pact entirely of her own volition and that their activities were always consensual,” the book’s themes seem especially relevant.

Dr. Shira Tarrant, associate professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at California State University, Long Beach, sees the need for this and similar coursework: “There’s a long history of using sexually explicit or provocative material in university classrooms. Art history is full of nudes, and pornography is a recognized genre in film classes. My course on gender and pop culture involves R- and X-rated material at times. That’s the world we live in, and it serves us well to know how to make sense of it with an awareness of gender, class, race, age, capitalism, and—of course—sexuality.”

Feminist sex writer Susie Bright, who taught the first university class on pornography in the ’80s, also sees the book’s merit on campus. “It’s a marketing phenom, the app killer for Kindle, the emergence of ebooks as heavy players. It reminds me of the VCR and VHS tapes," said Bright.

When asked whether the sexually explicit content is inappropriate, Woods strenuously objected. “Much like any reading you have for a college class, with very few exceptions, you aren’t analyzing every line,” she said. “We’re looking at overall themes. We’re not doing dramatic readings, we’re not discussing personal preferences—mine or theirs.” Though she hopes to have a sex educator as a guest speaker to tackle “healthy sexuality” in an intellectual way, Woods wants to make it clear that “this is not a sex-shop book club. We’re not looking at how these characters can inspire us to expand our sexual boundaries. The sexual themes are there and I’m not going to ignore them or only read chapters that deal with character development. Much like a journal article, they might not like every page, but it’s necessary to have the full perspective.”

Woods felt it was important to move forward while E.L. James, recently deemed one of Barbara Walters’s most important people of 2012, is a household name. “There's a shelf life on this topic; it might not even be relevant in three years, but it’s definitely relevant now.”