I’ve been debating over whether I should write this post or not. I’m still not sure, but–since the Internet provides us with such an easy avenue for (over)sharing of opinions–it’s happening. Why the uncertainty? Well, for one, this post was inspired by a certain movie, based off of a bestselling book, that released on Valentine’s Day and has, in a short time, grossed bajillions of dollars (I may be exaggerating, slightly…). That’s right–the both much beloved and reviled Fifty Shades of Grey. And, to some degree, I–as some of you may also be–am simply getting sick of hearing about it, period. So I will try to make this post a little more broad than just this book/movie, but I can’t ignore it completely. Secondly…if the Fifty Shades controversy has shown us anything, it’s that some people can’t engage in a critique or debate without being just plain mean. More than likely, only my friends will read this post and few others will actually come across it–and fewer still will leave a comment–but there’s always that nagging fear that someone will just respond with something nasty and counterproductive.
And, third…I don’t really feel strongly about this book either way. I read all three of them out of sheer curiosity (I jumped on the bandwagon after they became popular). I haven’t seen the movie, yet. I’m nowhere near a super fan…nor am I an extreme “hater,” either. It’s been awhile since I read them…I reviewed all three of them (you can read my review of the first book here). I was surprised when I went back and read my critiques, because my opinion has changed (somewhat) over the last several years.
I will tell you upfront what this post is not about: the quality of E.L. James’s writing. Did I feel like they were the most well written books ever? No. Did I like the main heroine, Anna? Not particularly. Like the franchise the Shades books were inspired by (Twilight, if you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know that by now), Anna is sort of a bland character, if you prefer strong, vivid, interesting characters (and I hope you do)–then again, she’s the perfect character if you are seeking to “insert” yourself into the book in place of Anna for the purposes of fantasizing. Look, there’s a lot of bad, poorly written porn (even if it’s more visual rather than literary) geared towards men’s fantasies–and I don’t think I’m exaggerating this time when I say it’s probably a billion dollar industry. My point is, just because Shades is in a book form, doesn’t mean it’s required to have outstanding style. Its purpose is to titillate (and, most likely, shock).
(As an aside: That’s definitely not to say that a book can’t have all the things–be well written, with strong, interesting, dynamic characters, and also be sexy. I’m just saying that, when it comes to what may be a book with mediocre writing that is written by a woman intended for a bunch of other women to read–suddenly everyone has exceedingly high standards of the written word and cinematography.)
I’m going on off a tangent–as I’m prone to do, with posts like this–so let me bring it back to today’s intended topic: art and culture. Because, while some dissenters criticize James’s writing, and others call it a Twilight rip off and accuse her of plagiarism, much of the criticism has been over Christian’s personality, his relationship with Anna, and how that might affect impressionable readers.
I don’t think any of us can deny that art can affect us, and can do so deeply. In fact, as artists, writers, singers, performers, etc., we’d be doing our crafts a disservice by trying to argue otherwise. We’re usually willing to accept this when we find other people who consume and enjoy the art we put out into the world, but it becomes a little harder to stomach when we have to admit that it can also affect some people negatively. So I think we can all agree that, yes, art can evoke both positive and negative responses–including unintended ones–and that the culture surrounding us in turn affects art, maybe sometimes in ways we don’t even realize.
At its core, art is also a very selfish activity. Before you put your art out into the world (whether it’s a painting, a short story, a book, a song, a movie)–before you have readers, listeners, viewers–it’s just you and your idea. In the case of writing, you’re writing characters and themes that are, for whatever reason, interesting to you–you’re expressing yourself and your emotions. (I’m not trying to speak for all writers when I say this, but…to be completely honest, I haven’t always worried about what others might say/how others might interpret my books, or how they might affect people (in the negative sense). Recently, I’ve started obsessing over this, but, if I’m going to get anything down on paper, I have to block it out. I’m not going to censor myself because I’m worried about what someone else might think.)
What motivates the people consuming said art can vary widely and, often, be at odds with the creator’s self-expression or intention. I’m going to try to stick to the book example because a book inspired this post, and, as a writer, it’s what I can speak to best. Fans may fall in love with the book for any number of reasons–the style, atmosphere, and characters drew them in, the characters really spoke and jumped off the page for them, they see themselves as one of the characters, the book got them through a difficult time, whatever. For some others, it may be the opposite–it could be that a situation or character reminds them of a difficult time in their life, or something about the book clashes with a believe or value they cherish–whatever the case, they find the book offensive. Critics analyze the book and, not only consider aspects like the style and quality of the writing and characters, but also perhaps what it reflects about our society–and how it might affect other readers. This is all fair. The artist also has to be aware that, once that book or painting or song goes out into the world, it’s open to different and varied interpretations.
I guess where I’m going with this is: Critique is fine. I’m not about to say that we shouldn’t critique Fifty Shades, or talk about what kind of impact our society has had on it–and the kind of impact it could have on our society or even certain individuals. Art and culture are intertwined. I’m just wondering why, as a society, we can’t seem to have a reasonable discussion about a book written by a woman, seemingly intended for and read by millions of other women, without being mean. And not just mean–ugly and horrible. (I mean, E.L. James (as other famous people have) gets harassed a lot on Twitter. Which is one thing I hate about social media–although it has its perks, it also makes it really easy for people to anonymously harass other people and say things they would never, in a million years, have the guts to say to someone’s face.)
Okay, I was going to try to keep this general, but my brain keeps coming back around to Fifty Shades, in particular. Most of the cultural criticism I’ve alluded to centers around Christian and Anna’s relationship–some interpret it as abusive (well, I guess they wouldn’t say “interpret,” they would say it is abusive). I think it’s fair to say there may be undertones of that.
But I also have to say I’m not sure why we seem to be so afraid that millions of women can’t separate a book or a fantasy from reality. Like I said, it might affect some people negatively…and, maybe to try to prevent that, we should point out and discuss the seemingly questionable material (as we’ve been doing).
There’s something about the amount of criticism we’ve been heaping on James and Fifty, though, that I’m starting to find just as disconcerting as some people find the books themselves. For one thing, there does seem to be this element to it that we’re talking about it so much because, again, it’s a sexy book written by a woman for other women…and that we usually seem to be overly concerned with, not how art is affecting us, but how art is (negatively) affecting women…because somehow we’re more prone to messages (“hidden” or otherwise) in art and the media. (I guess the flip side to this is not that we feel women are more susceptible to these messages, but that the formula in Fifty Shades is outdated and patriarchal, and that these themes are being perpetuated by the fact that the books are so popular.)
The other element I find disturbing is that I’ve started to see posts and things encouraging boyfriends/husbands to not to take their girlfriends/wives to see the movie because it’s not really “romantic,” and we don’t want them to get the wrong impression (because, see above comment)! I think that’s a terrible and counterproductive suggestion and could actually backfire. Your boyfriend does not get to decide for you what guilty pleasures or fantasies you choose to indulge in. I also read this article by some guy who went to see the movie and also seems to be overly concerned that a woman (again, I’m talking about adult women, here, not preteens or teenagers) is going to get the wrong idea about romance from watching this movie. Which brings me to what will hopefully be my last two points, because I didn’t expect this post to get so massive.
Why do women like Fifty Shades? Why do they “like” Christian Grey? Perhaps women like Christian because he sounds f***able. He’s hot, and he’s rich, and it sounds like he’s good, at, you know…doin’ stuff. ;-) I think it’s perfectly possible to like a fictional character and realize that not all of their traits are ideal traits for a mate in real life. Romance novels (we’ll get to the genre term “romance” in a minute), like those of other genres, are read for pleasure and escapism. At least when I read them, I’m not looking for the hero (or antihero) to have traits my next boyfriend is going to have. (And I don’t think anyone has ever expressed any concern or fear over whether men are going to date women like those in the porn they watch.)
And, finally, the other argument the crux of the Fifty Shades criticism seems to depend on is that it is a “romance” novel, and many of Christian’s actions are not romantic. Which…they’re not, really, but I think this is an even more complicated issue than you might think. For one thing, women in our culture are expected to enjoy stories about romance and not just necessarily those just about sex…so the couple often tends to have a deeper connection than just a physical one. If it is true that most women tend to need both the physical and emotional connection in their porn or erotica…that’s fine with me. Again, it’s a complex issue–is it true, or is it what society tells us is true?
A related issue: I know that, as a woman who writes stories with strong “romantic” themes, I feel compelled to put the “romance” stamp on it even if it’s not necessarily romantic, in the traditional sense. Romance, as a genre, encompasses more than you might think. Sure, much of it still follows the formula of your archetypal, charming, strapping hero falling in love with the sassy, buxom, virginal heroine…maybe they feel a mutual dislike towards one another at first even as they fight down their growing passion for one another…until one sweltering, starry night they give into that fiery passion…and, after a few more obstacles are thrown in their way–just when you think all hope is lost–they finally overcome all, get together, and live happily-ever-after. Formula romances are great. Often, they’re exactly what you need; sometimes you just wanna know things are going to work out for the best, and not be disappointed when they don’t.
But not all stories that get this “romance” stamp are like this–and they’re not supposed to be. Well, at least not to me. I do know firsthand that there are readers who see “romance” and expect the formula, expect the HEA ending–and, when they don’t get it, are confused, at best–and at worst, pissed. But I think the romance genre has expanded and can evoke more raw emotions than just “awwwww….how romantic!” “Romance” novels can be dark, shocking, or even disturbing–and the characters aren’t required to be cookie cutter heroes and heroines who only do good things and have sound morals. (Maybe what we really need is a new genre name.) Personally, I enjoy writing deeply flawed characters–it’s more fun and challenging to imagine what might motivate someone to choose wrong over right.
I guess what I’m trying to say is…what the heck am I trying to say, anyway? When I read Fifty Shades, I noted that Christian was controlling and some of his behavior disturbing…but I didn’t think this behavior was supposed to be traditionally romantic. To me, it was an author pushing a certain type of character–a controlling, manipulative one with some deep, dark demons and a Red Room of Pain–as far as he could go in that direction. At its core, Fifty Shades is just a forbidden lust story. Anna knows that Christian has flaws and is maybe into some stuff she’s not sure if she can handle, but she’s intrigued by this darker, forbidden aspect. Christian isn’t supposed to be a role model or dating material.
Then again, I could see where maybe a more impressionable reader might be more easily influenced by a story like this than I would be. Not everyone would share the same outlook going into the book, or probably even feels the same way about the genre. Even so, I just personally don’t think there are many types of situations or characters (if any) that are completely off-limits in fiction, although context is also important. I just take Christian to be a (rather poorly constructed) antihero who has a lot of skeletons and not too many redeeming qualities.
So some will love, some will critique, and some will be offended. And some, like myself, will be totally wishy washy and kinda understand where the criticism is coming from, but then again, not really. I just wish we could all discuss it in a civilized way. Because, really, when is the last time you’ve ever heard of a male artist, writer, or anything getting so much slack? (Robin Thicke? He’s really the only example I can come up with.) I don’t think the answer is to ban the movie, either, as others have also suggested.
What I’d hoped would be a more general post kind of just turned out to be about Fifty. For that, I am sorry…but it’s been on my mind lately, and, you know…must…vent…on…Interwebz. I’d love to hear your thoughts…as long as you can keep it rational and civil.
But I have to go, for now…actually, because I’m going to the movie…