You liked 50 Shades of Grey and its sequels. You enjoyed the movie. You log onto Facebook to tell people how much you liked it, and BAM! You’re slapped in the face with shared articles about how it promotes abuse, about how Christian Grey is a stalker, about why the books aren’t a good example of a healthy D/s relationship. It almost feels like you, personally, are being called into question. You get defensive. You type, “It’s just a movie! Get over it!”
I’d need both my hands, my feet, and someone else’s hands and feet (preferably not severed) to count the number of times “Get over it!” has appeared on my Facebook timeline this week. The same for “It’s just fiction!” I understand where the impulse is coming from; 50 Shades of Grey has caused some women to have a “sexual awakening,” or began their interest in reading altogether. Maybe you read the books and thought they were the most gripping, well-written pieces of fiction ever. Maybe you were shocked at how closely they resembled your own fantasies. For whatever reason, these books captured your imagination and brought you a large amount of enjoyment. They became special to you–possibly the most important books you’ve read in your entire life–and now it seems that the world is against them.
I never thought 50 Shades of Grey would receive the kind of whiplash reactions in movie form as it did when the books were first published. I clearly underestimated the mass appeal of the film medium and the ticking time bomb that was set to explode the moment anyone showed any small amount of excitement or derision over the franchise. There’s so much frustration on both sides, but I can really only speak from one viewpoint. So that’s what I’m doing today. I want to give you, the 50 Shades of Grey fan, a primer on how not to argue with a 50 Shades of Grey critic.
Don’t assume that critics haven’t read the books or seen the movie. I’m consistently amazed when people tell me that because I don’t share their opinion, I must not have read the books. “You probably just read the first book! You didn’t read the others, or you’d see that he changes!” But I did read the book, so now your argument is… well, it’s over. If you assume ignorance of or unfamiliarity with the material is the sole cause of criticism, I have bad news for you. A lot of critics have read all three books, specifically so that we’re armed with knowledge to back up our opinions. And we still think the relationship is abusive, warped, and chock full o’ rape.
Don’t tell us that the books created new readers. Whenever any book sells the way 50 Shades of Grey sold, obviously it’s not selling only to “career readers.” It’s absolutely selling to people who weren’t readers before, and we all know this already. But having readers come to the genre because they like one specific book doesn’t improve anything for readers or authors. These readers don’t want romance novels. They want one specific romance novel. They are going to read and buy any copycat of 50 Shades of Grey they can get their hands on, but that’s all they’re going to buy. Which is good news for those authors who were already writing D/s romance with über-possessive Dom heroes, but bad news for anyone writing in any other genre. Ditto for the readers; when the demand is for books that are exactly like 50 Shades of Grey, publishers are going to be all too happy to supply them, until the market is saturated and it’s hard to find anything that isn’t about a sexually inexperienced college student and her abusive billionaire boyfriend. How does that benefit readers or authors? It just doesn’t.
If you’re engaging with an author who is critical of 50 Shades of Grey, don’t tell them to be thankful for the money they’re going to make. I’ve never made it a secret that my current financial success wouldn’t have been possible without 50 Shades of Grey. But you know what? I’m sure the funeral director who has an unusually successful quarter isn’t thankful for that train derailment. 50 Shades of Grey existing isn’t something authors can magically undo. We weren’t asked, “Would you like to make more money? Here’s the catch: a horrible, copyright infringing, abuse and rape glorifying train wreck of a novel is going to become a runaway bestseller and everyone is going to fight about it endlessly on all forms of social media. Still game?” We didn’t have that choice. I’m sure there are some people who would have said, “Yes, I’m comfortable with that. But as it stands, if authors are making money hand over fist because of 50 Shades of Grey, they never asked to. They don’t have to give thanks if they morally object to the content of the book or the plagiarism controversy surrounding it. We don’t owe E.L. James anything, and it’s insulting to tell someone that they should be thankful for a favor they never asked for. “Thank you” is not an obligation.
Don’t assume that the person you’re talking to doesn’t understand what BDSM is. I know that 50 Shades of Grey makes it seem like BDSM is this dark, secret thing that not many people are aware of, but it’s been out there for centuries and it’s more common than you’d think. Make sure that the person you’re discussing the books/film with is actually confusing BDSM with abuse before you try to educate them on the fact that BDSM isn’t abuse. Also, don’t assume that because you have experience with BDSM and you enjoyed the books that your experiences are being called into question. It’s perfectly fine to enjoy the book, but from a factual standpoint the BDSM practices are poorly represented. You may have twenty-five years of experience paddling asses, but that doesn’t make the kink in 50 Shades of Grey any more accurate.
It doesn’t matter that it’s “just fiction.” Before Jaws hit theaters in 1975, great white sharks weren’t the villains we now believe them to be. But when the movie–which was purely fiction–became a blockbuster, it directly caused humans to seek out and kill sharks, causing widespread population drops in shark species across the board. The influence of that piece of fiction (coincidentally also based on a novel) even coined its own name: The Jaws Effect. When Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was published, it was perceived by the public to be an erotic novel, despite the fact that it told the story of child sexual abuse through the viewpoint of an unreliable narrator. The result? To this day, we refer to sexually precocious teen girls as “Lolitas,” despite the author’s intent. Yes, 50 Shades of Grey is fiction, but fiction isn’t created or consumed in a vacuum. It is influenced by our culture, and influences our culture, and 50 Shades of Grey isn’t an exception. Even though something is “just fiction,” it can still have detrimental effects on society or expose problems that already exist in our perceptions. So when someone says “50 Shades of Grey promotes abuse as romance,” they’re not saying, “50 Shades of Grey is a totally real thing that happened and is a cautionary tale.” They’re saying that this work of fiction is having, or has the potential to create, real world effects.
Don’t assume that people can only care about one thing. “Why are you worried about 50 Shades of Grey? There are homeless people dying in the streets! There are people in Africa who are starving! There are child molesters and drug dealers and terrorism and you’re complaining about a harmless fantasy!” You know what’s interesting about all of that? Me liking 50 Shades of Grey, or even just me not talking about 50 Shades of Grey, would not solve any of those problems. I could go for an entire day not talking about 50 Shades of Grey and there would still be starving people and abused children in the world. You know what’s another interesting fact? I care about all of those issues, as well. I’m sure you’re capable of caring about all of those issues while simultaneously enjoying and defending 50 Shades of Grey, right? Are we operating under the assumption that people who don’t like 50 Shades of Grey are incapable of being informed about and sympathetic to more than one cause at a time? If your demand is that I change all the ills of the world before I express an opinion about 50 Shades of Grey, then I’m going to have to ask you, respectfully, to fulfill the same quota before you express yours.
Don’t say, “If you don’t like it, don’t read/see it!” It’s not like there’s some commune somewhere that we can escape to in order to not be aware of 50 Shades of Grey. It’s in the news, magazines, on the internet, everyone is talking about it. There is no escape. Some people (like me) read the books out of curiosity because everyone was talking about them. And we didn’t know we wouldn’t like them until we read them. Like Harry Potter or Twilight, everyone is forced to know about them.
Don’t call into question the feminism of someone who dislikes 50 Shades of Grey. Yes, E.L. James is a woman. Yes, she is a successful woman. But so is Sarah Palin, and, like Sarah Palin, E.L. James has said and written some things that are pretty damaging to women. It’s not anti-feminist to criticize the actions of a woman if those actions are harmful to other women. If someone says they believe that 50 Shades of Grey is harmful to women, the answer is not to tell them they’re not being a good feminist. They’re being great feminists; they’re questioning our cultural perceptions of relationships, gender roles, and heteronormativity, and how they affect all women.
Comrade Twerk brings up a good point. You may feel patronized by women wanting to protect other women from the messages in 50 Shades of Grey, because you already know that the behaviors depicted in the books are unhealthy. But that doesn’t mean all women know that the behaviors in the books are unhealthy, and their ignorance could be exploited. In the same vein, you might know not to mix chlorine bleach and ammonia, but someone else might not know that. Do you find the warnings “DO NOT MIX WITH BLEACH” on your household cleaning products patronizing? To the point that you would be willing to risk someone killing themselves with mustard gas by accident, just so you never had to see those warnings in the future?
When someone is pointing out the problematic content, don’t tell them to “get over it.” So many people who have taken issue with the themes of abuse and rape in 50 Shades of Grey are speaking from personal experiences of abuse and/or rape. When you tell them to “get over” their problems with the books, you’re telling them to “get over” the abuse they experienced. Is this true of every critic? No. But even if the person you’re talking to didn’t experience intimate partner abuse, you’re still telling them to “get over” caring about the prevention of rape and intimate partner abuse. Yes, even if you didn’t see that element present in the novels. You’re still trying to silence discussion of some very serious issues.
We know you’re tired of seeing people complain about 50 Shades of Grey. We’re tired of seeing you sing its praises. You know how you just posted a wall of text status update about how great 50 Shades of Grey is and how haters need to get a life? People who don’t care for 50 Shades of Grey, or who don’t want to see anything about it because they’re plain disinterested, had to see it. If you don’t want to hear people complain about 50 Shades of Grey, then you need to stop talking about it, and we wouldn’t have to hear your side, either. Or, you could simply accept that when millions of people discuss a world-wide phenomenon, they’re not all going to agree with you. The people who don’t agree aren’t attacking you by not enjoying something that you enjoy. They’re not calling into question whether or not you’re a good person. They’re exercising their right to voice concerns that, like it or not, are shared by millions of people.
If you truly believe that fiction cannot shape or be shaped by our culture, find a piece of fiction that is wholly devoid of culture context, commentary, or influence and use it to back up your point. If you find a tender love story at the core of 50 Shades of Grey, try to present it to us without accusing us of misunderstanding BDSM or not reading the material. If you can’t defend the books without dancing around the criticism by invoking larger issues, guilting critics, or silencing the conversation all together, then you can’t effectively defend the books or movie at all.
And if you don’t like that… “get over it.”