Geek Girls, 50 Shades of Grey, and Why I Hate the Term “Mommy Porn”

Books GeekMom
Psst….hey….this is a romance.

I’m someone who straddles two cultures that are often mocked by the mainstream media. And sometimes, one even mocks the others.

First, I’m a geek.

Second, I’m also a published romance writer.

When people ask me what my books are like, clearly meaning “oh, those books,” I tell them my idea is romance is The Terminator except (spoiler!) Kyle lives at the end.

And like the author of  suddenly explosively popular 50 Shades of Grey, I’ve written an erotica story Alas, my book isn’t on the cover of Entertainment Weekly and movie producers aren’t knocking down my door. I know! It’s a grave injustice. But, if you like History Channel’s Vikings series, you may want to check out the pagan fertility ritual.

But there’s a reason women, especially female geeks, should be paying attention to the inevitable derision engendered by 50 Shades of Grey and the label “mommy porn.”  Because this is a feminist issue, part of the society in which women’s rights are under attack.

First, some background. I didn’t always think well of romance. Being a girl geek, especially in the generation I grew up, the one right after Title IX, wasn’t easy. I liked all things dubbed “boy stuff,” from Star Trek to comics to sports. I was a firm tomboy and in reaction to girls who thought I was weird, I took a perverse pride in hating “girly stuff.” Anything pink or frilly and especially dresses, bah, I didn’t want them.

That included romance stories.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I started reading books primarily shelved in the romance section of the bookstore and that was by accident. I was a member of an online reader’s group for the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton (back before the series morphed into something else) and someone recommended the In Death series by J.D. Robb. I found the first book, Naked in Death, and was instantly hooked by the main character. The lead is a cop in futuristic New York City who takes no prisoners, kicks all kinds of ass, and is struggling to survive way in the world alone. The book struck me a SF/Future noir, complete with a romance with someone supposedly unsuitable–i.e. from the upper class of society.

Except this time, the lead was a woman. Eve Dallas, one of my all-time favorite characters in fiction. And J.D. Robb wasn’t another hard-boiled mystery writer. Robb is actually best-selling romance novelist Nora Roberts.

Maybe I’d been going about this all wrong. How come I don’t like romance again? Why was I writing off a whole genre without even trying it? Sure, there are the covers. But lots of stories have bad covers. Have you seen the awful covers to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series? (Buy it anyway.)

So now when people, particularly geeks, ask me why I like romance, the conversations goes like this:

“You like The Princess Bride, right?”


“That’s a romance.”

“But it’s about pirates and sword fights and it’s not–”

“it starts with Wesley and Buttercup kissing and ends with them together riding off into the sunset, kissing. One of the most famous quotes is ‘Death cannot stop true love. It can only delay it a little while.’ Of course, it’s a romance. It just happens to be a really good romance.”

Twilight isn’t lousy because it’s a romance. It’s lousy because it’s not particularly well-written. Just as The Hunger Games isn’t good because the romance is only a subplot. It’s good because it’s a well-written. I could write a whole post on how annoying it is to see comments about how the later movie is so much better because the romance is in the background. No, Hunger Games is good because it’s GOOD. There are a lot of bad dystopian future science fiction novels. They’re not bad because they don’t contain romance. They’re just bad.

To summarize, it’s not the genre that is an indication of quality one way or another. It’s the quality of the writing.

All of us geeks who grew up in the era before liking science fiction and fantasy were cool know what it’s like to feel their entire genre dismissed and mocked.

We shouldn’t be so quick to do that to another genre.

I’m the first to admit there are a lot of badly written stories out there, and a lot of them are romances. In fact, there may be more badly written romances out there than in other genres because romance fiction sells like crazy. And so there’s more of it. Romance fiction had an estimated annual total sales value of $1.08 billion.

Which brings me to 50 Shades of Grey and the “Mommy Porn” label.

Because that’s all kinds of wrong. Not the erotic story but the nickname the media gave it, as if it’s just discovered that women or, even worse, Moms, are writing and reading erotic stories with edgy content. Horrors! Moms might like to read stories with sex in it. Or, the other implication, that only moms want to read this stuff because their sex lives are over. That’s just wrong in so many ways I don’t have space to talk about it.

And, finally, the implication that the only reason women are interested in a romance story is for titillation.

erotica, BDSMWomen are interested in the romance genre because the stories feature women, something that’s severely lacking in other genres and sorely lacking still on the movie screen.

The fact is that the largest single segment of the U.S. consumer book market is being derided because it’s fiction written by women for women or dismissed as “mommy porn” should be concerning to all women or all those interested in judging someone not on their gender but as an individual.

It’s yet another way in which female sexuality or girl parts can be derided or dismissed as unimportant.

I can guarantee if an edgy romance written by a guy suddenly took off, it would be looked at with far different eyes. Don’t think so? How many of you know of Nicolas Sparks? How many have heard of Nora Roberts, only the most prolific fiction writer in the U.S. today?

How come so many Nicolas Sparks movies get made and we don’t yet have an Eve Dallas movie? It’s not a difference in quality because the In Death series is vastly superior.

Is 50  Shades of Grey a good book? I’ve read some bits and pieces and it’s definitely not one that interests me. Reviews among the romance community have been mixed. If you’re interested in finding a good story dealing with edgy bondage and the changing power dynamics in a relationship, I’d recommend reading Emma Holly instead, especially Menage.

So pick on the book all you like if you’ve read it and hate it. And there are valid reasons to hate it, particularly the portrayal of the BDSM culture, which is all wrong. But don’t pick on it because it’s a romance or even because it’s not an erotic romance.

Still  not convinced? Then I will send you to a writer far superior to me:: New York Times Bestselling Author Jennifer Crusie’s essay “This Is Not Your Mother’s Cinderella: The Romance Novel as Feminist Fairy Tale.” 

And romance writers themselves are awesome. I’ve found many,  many kindred geeks spirits among them.

I’ve learned that real geeks can be romance writers. As Nicole Wakelin said in her post about Proving Geek Cred, it’s time to move past preconceptions.

Judge the book. Judge the story. Not the genre.

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20 thoughts on “Geek Girls, 50 Shades of Grey, and Why I Hate the Term “Mommy Porn”

  1. Awesome! One note. Nora has had lifetime channels movies made of her books. A lack of feature film is actually because she has declined every offer for artistic reasons, not because Hollywood didn’t come a ringing.

  2. I suspect that declining might have something to do with the fact that certain Hollywood producers don’t want to stay true to the world Nora Roberts created.

    I’ll just point out that Stephen King gets miniseries and movie events made from his book. Nora Roberts has the Lifetime movies.

    There’s an essay in today’s NY Times section which has a similar premise, about the lack of respect but, natch, it excludes the romance genre to focus on “women’s literary fiction.” Still, the NY Times will sometimes devote a page to mystery or SF. Never romance. So I think it’s all part of the same issue.

  3. Amen, Corrina, and WORD, and preach it, sistah! I completely agree–well said points all!!! And nothing against women’s literary fiction (which sometimes I read also) but romance trumps them all for me. (But of course, as there are good and bad books in ANY genre, there’s good and bad romance, too ;))

  4. Great post Corrina and I agree with you 100 percent. I too wasn’t reading romance novels until I accidentally read a paranormal romance and really enjoyed it and then got into the Anita Blake books(and yes I’m still reading them – I’m hoping they go back to the type they were before the detour). I do think alot of the derision about romance books has to be that it’s mostly written by women for women as you stated.

  5. Great post Corrina. I’m part of the generation that actually Star Wars in the movie theater on its first release day. I was 10 years old and I love science fiction. I also love romance.

    Personally, I have not intention of reading 50 Shades. I’ve read the reviews, read the articles and had friends tell me about it and it just doesn’t interest me. If I want to read that sub genre, I’ll read Cherise Sinclair or Eden Bradley/Eve Berlin.

    Again…embrace your geekdom and love romance, too.


  6. “The fact is that the largest single segment of the U.S. consumer book market is being derided because it’s fiction written by women for women”

    Not true. Similarly, the biggest segment of Internet publication (porn) is derided because its porn! That is the real reason here also. “Mommy porn” is the same as “guys’ porn”: there is a lot of it, but you don’t put it into the mainstream.

    1. Mikael, there is a world of difference between romance and porn–one is a story about people’s emotional journeys; the other is naked bodies together. There may be some stories that call themselves romance but aren’t, and yes, there may be some porn that is actually a romance, but true romance is about the emotions. I doubt true porn is focused on the same thing.

  7. you lost me when you wrote the hunger games is “good because it’s well written.” it’s a nice kids book, young adult fiction officially. it has a story and plot, and it’s a fun adventure, but it’s not well written. perhaps it’s not poorly written and that gets us excited enough these days.

    but the characters (after 1000 pages) are under developed and it reads as complicated-ly as a choose your own adventure book.

    princess bride is a romance novel, and i love it. and i agree that 50 shades is blech. but i think i may need to read that one to flesh out my full argument against that book…

  8. So NOT MommyPorn:
    Introducing a film about irreverent, reluctant superhero FiFi Parker who’s gasp–over 35 and doesn’t define herself based on sexuality! FiFi tends to land right in the middle of political blunders–requiring her to clean up the mess. That takes a lot of scotch, sex and ass-kicking!

    The trilogy is feminized pulp, high-camp and lowbrow. I think we can both agree, it’s time for FiFi to enter the media landscape.

    Any help spreading the word about this campaign is so much appreciated, we are running out of time with only 17 days left! Thank you!

    Kind Regards,
    Kristi & Beth

  9. Please stop writing articles. I know you’re just going to read a motivational quote somewhere (or you already have one in the back of your head) about how it’s important not to listen to naysayers, but I’m telling you, you’re terrible, despite the fact that you’ve published. You can definitely pander to an ignorant group of people, but ultimately you have nothing important to say that isn’t melodramatic to a certain extent. To be specific about one of the many faults you present in this article, you define yourself using stereotypical terms to make it easier for people to understand who you are (presumably, or you think calling yourself a “geek” is cool?), then criticize people for understanding how stereotypical the majority of romance and fantasy novels really are (even though a minority really are very very good). The only reason I read this is because I was linked to it from some other website that gave this piece a much more interesting headline and was terribly disappointed at just how bad your article was. You’re ruining my pool of content and making 5 minutes of my day a bit worse.

    1. Is this the only article you’ve read by the author? You cite one example and then state the article was disappointing and ruined your day.

  10. I’ve never been a romance fan, but you are right – maybe i’ve just never read romance books that are good. It might be time to change my opinion since it’s based on stereotypes rather than experience. Great article!

    1. Thanks. If you read monthly comics, you know there’s a lot of really bad stuff on the shelf along with the gems. The difference is that comic readers usually can sort them out via creative teams. That’s basically how it works with romance readers thought there are some who will pick books up just because they like a certain plot, just like comic readers always buy the latest Batman issue, no matter who the creative team.

  11. no, the billion dollar mommy porn industry isn’t about the few outliers mentioned, it’s called female porn for a reason: It fantasies how men should be and act, which is unrealistic to real life, just like male porn is about male fantasies, of which is unrealistic to how women are in real life. They are both fantasies, they are both porn and they are both arguable destructive to the psyche of those who participate. That’s why they call erotic “romance” novels, female porn. You are so far off, it’s not a “womens right” issue.

    1. I’m so glad you explained exactly the kinds of stories that are a billion dollar industry to all the women who read and write them. We’re so glad to have that cleared up.

  12. Thanks for this really thoughtful article .

    I came to romance novels via comic books. First through the Superman/ Lois Lane (and Wonder Woman/Steve Trevor) relationship in the bronze age, aka 1970s then reading those pulp True Romance comics that were once all the rage.

    I think judging the genre by the worst does a huge disservice not only to the genre itself but to the audience.

    There are some really good books and there are some really terrible ones. Of course it’s all subjective what is good and what is bad. I think 50 Shades of Grey represents the worst of the genre but that is just my opinion!

  13. I really appreciate you writing this blog post. A lot of people don’t realize that romance is a specific genre of fiction. No matter what the heat level anything that is written in the romance genre is not porn – it does not fit the definition because it has a plot – characterizations, and many other elements that porn does not have. To write a publishable romance novel an author must have a strong knowledge of and a well developed skill in the art and craft of writing fiction. The trash talking statements against the romance genre – statements are made all the time about the genre in general regardless of the heat level of different books in the genre – are clearly anti-female based. As are the terms like Mommy porn and bodice rippers, which are both incorrect and inappropriate descriptions of the romance genre. Which by the way is one of the most financially successful book genres with an estimated annual total sales value in 2013 of $1.08 billion (source: BookStats)

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