Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fifty Shades of B.O.: The Olfactory Fetishes of E.L. James

* * *

UPDATE: Welcome, readers of The New Yorker and fans of Alastair Gee! If you like olfacto-literary deconstruction, you might also want to have a look at Eustace Tilley Cogitates or The Bad Smells of Toni Morrison.

* * *

It’s a monster bestseller. It’s pissed off the feminists. And it may be why all the soccer moms in our neighborhood are eyeballing the checkout guy at the ShopRite. In other words, there were more than enough reasons to leaf through volume one of the Fifty shades of Grey trilogy. As we did so, we couldn’t help but notice that author E.L. James is fully engaged on the olfactory front.

Here is the opening of the infamously spicy Chapter Seven:
The first thing I notice is the smell: leather, wood, polish with a faint citrus scent. It’s very pleasant, and the lighting is soft, subtle. In fact, I can’t see the source, but it’s around the cornice in the room, emitting an ambient glow. The walls and ceiling are a deep, dark burgundy, giving a womb-like effect to the spacious room, and the floor is old, old varnished wood.
OK, so the heroine-narrator sounds like the Century 21 lady leading you through a classic center-hall Colonial with updated detail work. Soon she’s pointing out the furnishings—wooden cross, iron grid on the ceiling, padded bench (oxblood leather!)—and then Mr. Grey’s accessories: whips, riding crops, restraining cuffs, yadda yadda.

Yet such attention to ambient scent is, in fact, relatively rare in the book. E.L. James is much, much more interested in body odor. You might say she’s obsessed by it.

Mr. Grey, the super-fabulous, super-hunky, super-wealthy object of Anastasia Steele’s affection is a very fragrant fellow. His is a “clean, wholesome scent” with some additional features:
He smells of freshly laundered linen and some expensive body wash.
Whoa. He has a driver, a live-in housekeeper, and his own helicopter, but he doesn’t . . . wear cologne.

James invokes Grey’s B.O. at every turn.
. . . brushing his hair with my nose, smelling his clean, fresh smell. 
He’s close enough for me to touch, for me to smell. Oh my . . . sweat and body wash and Christian. It’s a heady cocktail . . . 
I reach for the body wash and it smells of him. It’s a delicious smell. I rub it all over myself . . . 
He smells clean, fresh, heavenly . . . 
His jacket is warm, far too big, and it smells of him . . . delicious. 
I’m lying on top of him, my head on his chest, and he smells divine: freshly laundered linen and some expensive body wash and the best, most seductive scent on the planet . . . Christian. I don’t want to move. I want to breathe this elixir for eternity.
Alright, already! Clean and fresh. We get it. And enough with the linen and body wash.
His proximity is heavenly. He smell of body wash and Christian, an inebriating mix . . . 
He runs the tips of his fingers down my cheek. Oh my, his proximity, his delicious Christian smell. 
“My pleasure, Anastasia.” He kisses me, and I inhale his sexy Christian smell. 
. . . I know it will take an eternity to expunge the feel of his arms around me and his wonderful fragrance from my brain.
Christian, divine, heavenly, eternity. Wait, are we in Bible class?
I nuzzle up against him, eyes closed, my nose at his throat, drinking in his sexy Christian-and-spiced-musky bodywash fragrance, my head on his shoulder. 
It’s a delicious smell. I rub it all over myself, fantasizing that it’s him—him rubbing this heavenly scented soap into my body, across my breasts, over my stomach, between my thighs with his long-fingered hands. 
  . . . turning my face into Christian’s chest, I inhale his unique scent and nuzzle him . . . 
I am curled on his lap, my head against his chest, as we both calm. Very subtly, I inhale his sweet, intoxicating Christian scent. 
Our tongues entwine, our passion and ardor erupting between us. He taste divine, hot, sexy, and his scent—all body wash and Christian—is arousing.
Whew! That’s one good smelling dude. But it leaves us wondering about the endless olfactory tropes. Is this repetition a feature of romance novels? Perhaps so. (And despite all the soft-porn BDSM hype, Shades of Grey is totally a romance novel. We had to skip past large swaths of gag-inducing emotional narration, boring phone conversations with supportive family members, and page after page of “does he like me?” and “do I like him?”)

And what of Grey’s olfactory take on Anastasia?
“You smell so good,” he murmurs . . . 
“You smell divine.” He nuzzles behind my ear. 
“You smell so good, Anastasia,” A tremor runs through my whole body. 
“Do you know how intoxicating you smell, Miss Steele?” he murmurs . . . 
“You smell so good, Anastasia. So sweet.” His nose skims past my ear down my neck, and he trails soft, featherlight kisses along my shoulder. 
“You smell as divine as ever, Anastasia,” he whispers as he places a soft kiss beneath my ear. I moan.
Well there you have it: she smells pretty damn good herself, although in a completely banal, non-specific sort of way. She doesn’t seem to wear any perfume of her own. Nor does Mr. Moneybags bother to buy her any.

What are we to make of all this? E.L. James uses olfactory imagery to drive home the point that Mr. Grey, despite his outrĂ© sexual habits, is intrinsically a good man, i.e., one worthy of Anastasia’s affection. James layers on the fresh linen and expensive body wash to underline Grey’s wealth and freedom from the mundane. How dreamy would it be if he smelled like Tide® and some no-name brand of shower gel from Walgreen’s?

On the other hand, Anastasia’s blandly positive B.O. merely restates her inherent purity (she’s a virgin as the book begins) and intrinsic desirability as a woman. No worries about smelling fresh or whether Grey will approve of her choice in perfume. No need to make an effort to impress. It’s the ultimate chick-lit fantasy: “Mr. Wonderful loves me just as I am!”

E.L. James is already hawking a CD of all the music mentioned in the trilogy. We imagine high-end body wash brands are pounding at her agent’s door, looking for product placement in the upcoming film. Can a film tie-in fragrance be far away? The female fan-base may want their man to smell like linen and body wash, but given the nature of the Fifty Shades fantasy, they may not see the point of an Anastasia Steele perfume.


Mrs. Scents said...

Unlike most women (it seems) I haven't had the chance to read 50 Shades yet, but from what I've read here you're spot on with how E.L. James has used olfaction to further define her characters. Anastasia, the virgin, is sweet, good, and divine while Christian, mr. charming and suave, is sexy, hot, inebriating (etc). These descriptive words definitely set a different tone for each character!
Also, I wonder if it will be Molton Brown's Recharge Black Pepper Body Wash that will win the product placement! (although, at $30 a bottle, is that premium enough for Mr. Grey?!)

Avery Gilbert said...

Mrs. Scents:

A shrewd guess.

From the Molton Brown ad copy: "Fiery black peppercorn oil with bergamot and oakmoss. Our award-winning bodywash fires up the senses in an instant. Hot. Spicy. Rousing."

Lather up!

elizabeth said...

I love this close-reading! I haven't read the trilogy yet either, but was grateful & intrigued to get these fragrant excerpts. It's curious how, even with these repeated mentions of Christian's Christian-y smell, there's so little sense of what he might smell like. Clean and fresh and delicious and "unique" and like that luxurious spiced body wash, but mostly he smells of him.

I sometimes wonder if writers avoid describing smells because it's a case of the monster you imagine being more terrifying--the "delicious" and "unique" smell a reader imagines may not include any of the same scents the writer imagines, so let readers dream up delicious for themselves--perhaps especially important in erotica/romance novels to let the reader fill in what's delicious. But the circular he smells like him description makes me feel cheated in the same way I do when a writer opts to sum up an entire, necessary sex scene with an ellipsis and a "later"--not, I'm sure, a problem here.

Avery Gilbert said...


You make a good point. James's failure to describe Anastasia's natural scent is purposeful. Her scent neutrality makes it easier for the female reader to put herself in Anastasia's place. (Same reason real estate agents don't want family photos on display when they're showing a house . . .)

Gray smells clean and fresh and bodywashy because, in fact, he's always taking showers and pays attention to grooming. Picture a soccer mom on Sunday afternoon, curled up with a cup of tea and volume two of Shades, fixing her husband with a withering gaze. He hasn't shaved ("it's the weekend!"), his hair is greasy, he's wearing a sweaty T-shirt with salsa stains, and he's burping Budweiser. The idea of him smelling like fresh linen is already in fantasy territory--no need for more olfactory detail.

elizabeth said...

Ah, so it really is Porn for Women!

Thanks for such an engaging post.

Perfumaniac said...

On what planet is "he smells of body wash" erotic? It's probably Axe, too!

I cannot bring myself to read one word of this drivel. Especially after reading this, which you must, Avery:

"50 Shades of Argh!"

Avery Gilbert said...


Quite amusing, the "argh!" thing.

Personally, I found Anastasia's repeated use of "holy cow!"--also delivered at moments of arousal--to be rather . . . quaint.

But I didn't blink at "argh"; figured it was James attempting to phonetically capture sexual vocalizations. Which isn't easy to do.

P.S. For some reason, this reminds me of National Lampoon's "How to talk dirty in Esperanto".