I’m asking you, 50 Shades of Grey reader and enthusiast, to come into this post with an open mind. In the past, I’ve said some pretty strong stuff about you, that was all coming from a place of frustration. Because I am frustrated. But now I’m having a moment of clarity, and I really hope that you give me a chance to explain to you why so many people are so angry about this book.
I know you’re not stupid. I know I can write these things, and you can read them and at least entertain the other side of the issue. Because that’s what intelligent people can do. And trust me, I’ve entertained your side a lot, in order to be able to write this post.
Let’s start with the most basic reaction I’m seeing from people defending 50 Shades of Grey.
It’s just fiction/entertainment! Why are you so mad?
You’re absolutely right. 50 Shades of Grey is just fiction, and as such, it’s totally open to interpretation. Some people are interpreting it as a touching love story. Others are interpreting it as story about an abusive relationship. And now, those two interpretations are clashing.
If you believe that 50 Shades is a love story, do me a favor and imagine this right now. I want you to imagine the worst thing that has happened to you in your entire life. This could be the death of a loved one, or getting cancer, or being dumped. You might be really lucky, maybe it’s just spilling coffee on an expensive shirt. But it’s still the worst thing that has ever happened to you, right? Now, imagine that someone writes a book, and in that book you see details of the very worst experience of your life. But the story isn’t portraying those events and feelings negatively. And everyone around you is reading the book and talking about how amazing it is, and they wish the things that happened to you would happen to them. Okay, maybe it’s not a serious wish. But that almost makes it worse. The people around you are now joking and laughing about how awesome it would be if the most painful, or one of the most painful, harrowing, scary experiences of you life would happen to them.
Dude. That would suck, right? You’d feel really lonely and probably angry. You’d probably be worried that somewhere, someone might think your experience was glamorous enough to try and reenact it for themselves. You don’t want anyone to experience what you did, so you feel like should step up and say something.
That’s why people who believe 50 Shades promotes abusive relationships get so furious about the subject. Many of them are either currently involved in an abusive relationship, or have escaped from one. Or they know someone who was harmed by an abusive partner, or who are in an abusive relationship and can’t leave. And when we hear someone else say, even in a joking way, “I wish my boyfriend was like Christian Grey,” all we’re hearing is, “If I had the experience that you or your loved one had, I would be happy, so what happened to you was okay.”
Okay, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. That doesn’t mean it’s responsible for Domestic Violence.
No, and I don’t think any sensible person would argue that it is. However, our ideas of what is and isn’t acceptable as a society are constantly present in our art. While our ideas and opinions shape what we see in our media, the reverse is also true. For example, we live in a culture where hyper-violent videogames are a normal, celebrated form of entertainment. Some have argued that living in a culture that glorifies violence has led to more real life violence. And while most people can sit down, play a violent game, and never have the urge to gun down someone in public, there are members of our society who can’t make that distinction, which is why it’s important to keep an open dialogue on the subject.
It’s the same thing with 50 Shades of Grey. Because of the way the book has been marketed, both by the author and by the publisher, people are looking to 50 Shades of Grey to fix their sex lives or help them understand their partner. An advertisement for the book ran in Maxim, a men’s magazine that gives its readers tips about, well. How to get laid. And the tag line they used for the advertisement was:
Some people do not see it as a fantasy. There are women out there who are absolutely looking for a literal Christian Grey. And those women aren’t going to find charming millionaires they can heal through the power of their love. They’re going to find sexual predators who will be more than willing to act like Christian Grey… with the caveat that there is no writer pulling the strings to keep these would-be Anas safe.
So, no one should ever write anything, because someone might emulate it and get hurt?
Not at all. But if someone does produce a work of fiction, be it a violent videogame, or a book with a relationship that could be construed as abusive, the creators and marketers absolutely must be clear that this is a work of fiction. They can’t flirt with the line between fiction or nonfiction, or make some outrageous claim about emulating the behaviors in the work being somehow beneficial. Can you imagine how furious people would be if that technique were to be used in marketing a book like American Psycho? Suggesting that people buy it for graduates, like it’s a real life How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying? People would utterly reject that. Serial murder is universally viewed as immoral and wrong. But since 50 Shades of Grey is being used to explore an often misrepresented sexual kink, many people don’t realize that the BDSM in these books is conducted in an unsafe way, and they don’t see anything wrong with using it as a guidebook.
It’s true, there are some people who want 50 Shades banned. I may have flippantly suggested such a thing once or twice during my other blog posts. But if someone is seriously calling for a ban on the book, I don’t support that. And I don’t think most smart people support banning books, or any form of artistic censorship. I want a person who enjoys 50 Shades of Grey to be able to continue enjoying it. I would rather that some of the themes I found present in the series not be so prevalent in our media, but I don’t think banning a single book or series is going to solve that problem as much as a healthy, unimpeded discussion would.
Well, what do you want, then?
I want, and I think most people who are frustrated with the phenomenon feel the same, just want E.L. James and Vintage Press to come out and say, “This book is not a self-help phenomenon, and we were wrong to hint that it was. Some of the behaviors exhibited by characters in the book are not behaviors we endorse, and we were wrong in the way we communicated with domestic violence survivors.” Or, you know. Something better than that.
But why? E.L. James doesn’t owe anyone anything, and it’s not her fault if someone reads her book and does something stupid. Besides, she wrote it for herself and for people who “get it.”
Part of being a creator is taking responsibility for your creation. Dr. Frankenstein didn’t do that, and look what happened to him. Whether or not E.L. James wrote 50 Shades for herself, when she posted it to FanFiction.net, she put it out into the world for consumption. Like Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, she’s responsible for what she created, no matter how out of control or huge it gets. By the way, I’m not using Frankenstein to be snarky here. It’s just a very easy analogy.
The fact that E.L. couldn’t have possibly known that selling her fanfiction to a small publisher would rocket her to superstardom actually works in her favor here. She could easily say that she was overwhelmed by the popularity of her books, and she didn’t respond to criticism well. I think most of us would forgive her, and be less hurt, if she just accepted responsibility for spreading a dangerous message by touting her books as being helpful to women.
It’s not abuse, it’s BDSM! You just don’t understand kink!
Many people in the BDSM community – people who were into kink before these books came along – have found the portrayal of Dominance and submission unrealistic at best and downright dangerous at worst. In a book being sold as a work of fiction, this wouldn’t be a major problem, it would just mean that people who were familiar with the lifestyle would probably choose to read something else. However, the popularity of 50 Shades lies in the promise that readers will want to try out these new, exciting sexual scenarios in their own homes. The advertisement above, if not explicitly saying “DO try this at home,” is at least winking and nudging at the idea that buying this book will result in great sex.
So, the only thing you’re mad about is that E.L. James won’t tell people not to try this at home?
Well, it was the only thing I was mad about. But then someone sent me an article in which E.L. had this to say about the concerns over the content of her books:
James says she “freaks out when she hears people say that her book encourages domestic violence. “Nothing freaks me out more than people who say this is about domestic abuse,” she says. “Bringing up my book in this context trivializes the issues, doing women who actually go through it a huge disservice. It also demonizes loads of women who enjoy this lifestyle, and ignores the many, many women who tell me they’ve found the books sexually empowering.”
She leaps easily to the defense of the women who have enjoyed her books and offered her praise, women who have helped her attain her meteoric rise. But she doesn’t defend the women “who actually go through it.” She asks that people not discuss the subject with her, or in the same conversation as her creation. She doesn’t want to hear about abused women, because they’re not enjoying her book. Even more disturbing, she says that calling the relationship in her book abusive “demonizes” women who enjoy BDSM. She asserts in the wording of that statement that if you suggest someone is a battered woman, you are insulting or degrading them, because being a victim of abuse is something to be ashamed of.
You’re just putting words in her mouth! You don’t know if that’s what she meant. She could have just said it wrong.
I suggest that as a professional author, she should be perfectly capable of expressing herself with the appropriate words.
It’s not like she said that to a survivor directly. She probably does worry about those women.
If she does, she has an odd way of showing it. Many abuse survivors that have contacted her on twitter have been blocked. For example, Kody, whose account you can read at this link. When she saw E.L. James advised her fans not to “feed the trolls” in regards to discussions of domestic abuse, Kody, a survivor herself, sent a single, civil tweet making reference to James’s earlier comment about trivializing domestic violence. James blocked her without a reply.
So, I want to ask you a question, 50 Shades of Grey and E.L. James defenders:
What do you get out of defending this woman and her books?
E.L. James has derailed discussions of domestic abuse, treated survivors who have approached her in good faith as trolls and nuisances, yet claims to care about the issue affecting them. When faced with either listening compassionately and accepting responsibility for the way she has behaved in the publicizing of her book, she chooses instead to throw her support behind women who, frankly, don’t need supporting. There is a far larger bias in our culture against women who “let” themselves be abused than there is against women who like to masturbate to mild erotica.
I would never, for one second, assume that if someone enjoyed 50 Shades of Grey, they supported and endorsed abuse. No more than I would suggest that my own enjoyment of horror movies meant that I support and endorse chainsaw murders. And no one wants to stop you from reading books you enjoy. But is your enjoyment really impeded by a contrary opinion? If you loved cookies, but I didn’t, would the cookies not taste as good to you? Of course not, that’s absurd. So where is the danger in me discussing my dislike of cookies?
When you say, “It’s only fiction, get over yourself,” you are endorsing abuse, because you’re trying to silence actual discussion of an important issue, and discussion is how we resolve these issues within our culture. You’re telling abuse survivors that the enjoyment you derived from the book is more important than their real life concerns over real life experiences; that you would rather they keep these experiences to themselves so you can continue to enjoy this book. Is that really how you feel? Are you defending the book, or yourself for choosing to read it?
No one wants to ban 50 Shades or tar and feather E.L. James. But it would be nice if she would accept the fact that she has written a book that has clearly hit a nerve for many women, and have the courtesy to not shut down the dialogue just because she doesn’t wish to speak about it.