Can you criticise something effectively without ever having read it? Normally I would say no, but fortunately with 50 shades of grey enough people seem to have read it and written about it already that I can observe a clear consensus that the trilogy is an abysmally written pile of tripe about emotionally unstable and one-dimensional characters, which feeds off of our blind obsession with wealth and materialism, and worst of all potentially glorifies domestic violence, (although that last claim is more heavily debated).
Maybe you think I should actually read it/watch it before reiterating these claims, but I think that would be kind of like pressing a button that says “get punched in the balls” while surrounded by hundreds of people hunched in the foetal position and yelling not to press it.
Some people might object to this negative characterization of their beloved 50 shades, they may even feel personally affronted. However my reading of articles and blog posts both defending and bashing 50 shades has only led me to conclude that the BOOK is bad, whether or not it is bad to like it is another matter entirely and that’s what I’m going to pontificate on here….
50 Shades of Grey seems to have stoked a general furnace of controversy, not just from the traditional ‘down with this sort of thing’ wet blanket brigade, but also from otherwise liberal feminists and particularly the BDSM community itself. As someone who enjoys BDSM I can confirm that it is really quite galling to have your sexual tastes represented to the world by a book about the manipulation of a boring sounding chick called ‘Anastasia’, by an apparently insecure child called ‘Christian’ (Ok I watched the trailer, and him saying “I exercise control in all things” makes it abundantly clear that this is not a man who has made his peace with the chaos of the universe).
To put yourself in my shoes (i.e. the shoes of a kinky guy who likes to cause women consensual pain), imagine you really like bird watching while wearing a spiderman outfit (I know, a weird hobby but hopefully inoffensive…) Then someone writes a book about a fictional character who’s obsessed with bird watching while wearing a spiderman outfit but who also rapes people.
I mean you can’t help but resent whoever writes a book that creates an ugly paradigm right in your own backyard. It also doesn’t help when they make a shit tonne of money out of it and you’re left despairing for humanity.
One question in my mind is kind of like a chicken v egg problem which goes: Was 50 Shades of grey successful because a swathe of women are really turned on by fantasies about abusive behaviour? OR are a swathe of women so sex starved that a book containing edgy erotica has subtly tricked them into getting turned on by these fantasies? I mean it must be the former surely? How else could literary effluent sell so many copies? Maybe there is an element of the later too though; BDSM can be seen as such a taboo subject that it is easy for those in the spotlight to come along and say ‘Look at THIS! This is how this works! Do it this way or you’re doing it wrong!’, while the rest of us can only look on aghast. Getting into BSDM after reading 50 shades of grey is kind of like finding out that you’re interested in genetics after watching an X-men film; it’s all very well and good but someone really needs to sit you down and explain ‘Most gene mutations don’t actually give you superpowers!’ before you start guzzling radioactive waste.
Now I pass no judgement on 50 shades fans; there is not a thing wrong with getting a kick out of dodgy erotica or being into BDSM, and fuck anybody who tells you otherwise. In my opinion desires to both dominate and submit are driven by perfectly natural instincts that get shaped by society and our upbringings into our own personal kinks and fetishes and there is nothing defective, shameful, or ‘fucked up’ about being turned on by bondage, pain, and power exchange, (I’ve written out some of my thoughts on why people like BDSM here). However the danger comes when people go and pursue these fantasies without due regard for their safety and sanity. It’s not fucked up to have submissive fantasies but it is kind of fucked up, or at least incredibly ill advised, to follow them into an inescapable, violent, and manipulative situation just because it turns you on.
Perhaps the dangerous thing about 50 shades of grey is that it appears to blur the lines between erotic fantasy and regular storytelling. It creates an absurd universe containing non-human characters that act in outlandish ways. The risk follows that readers may be fooled into believing that there is something to be learnt about real life from this, as if somehow reading about the interactions and behaviours of the 50 shades non-people can tell them something about how real people in their lives work, and consequently how they should behave towards them. 50 shades may also give the impression to the impressionable that if you want to ‘get your kink on’ the best way to do it is to seek out a sociopathic billionaire to trap you in a web of manipulation and abuse… I’m 98% sure this is not the smartest way to get ones kink on. As an alternative one could write a book about a girl who signs up to fetlife, goes to a local munch, makes some great friends, and eventually finds a play partner who’s the right level of D to her S and S to her M. Sure maybe that book wouldn’t be as thrilling, but at least whoever wrote it could sleep at night without worrying how many naive unfortunates are currently lifeless in trunks of limousines thanks to them.
I wouldn’t suggest for one moment that a book should be banned or repressed, however stupid it is (although a warning label might not go amiss). Like a fart in an elevator, 50 shades of grey has happened, and now we all just have to deal with it. On the plus side the odour has sparked a conversation, and it seems like some kind of social progress has come out of it, it’s just a shame that the smell in here still shows no sign of going away.