You know what I’m NOT going to be doing this weekend – or ever, for that matter? Watch 50 Shades of Grey, the silver screen adaptation of the first book of E.L James’ trilogy. I am also not going to touch that entire series with a foot-long pole, and it is likely that I will not read any other thing written by that author in my lifetime.
This merits a little explanation. My decision to boycott these works comes not from the fact that the movie and its source material are, by the standards of most anyone with a discerning brain, mediocre and boring. It also doesn’t come from the fact that 50 Shades is supposedly THE mainstream pornographic work that people should turn to if they want to spice up their love lives with a little kink. It ALSO doesn’t come from the fact that I believe it to be religiously offensive (yes, there are dissenting voices on the Internet who have attacked 50 Shades from an angle of faith). I refuse to give any money or support to this entire franchise because I believe that 50 Shades is offensive on several fronts: as a product of today’s publishing industry, as a story that implies that an abusive relationship is “romantic” and “hot”, as a misrepresentation of practitioners of BDSM and the BDSM community as a whole, as a former work of fanfiction, and as a work of fanfiction that has been produced by an INCREDIBLY irresponsible author.
Many brilliant articles and reviews have already tackled some of the reasons why I cannot stand 50 Shades. Jenny Trout, for one, clearly presents her personal position on why she cannot endorse the work in “Let’s Talk About 50 Shades in a calm and rational way”. Emma Green, writer for The Atlantic, discusses BDSM and how 50 Shades represents it at length in “Consent Isn’t Enough: The Troubling Sex of Fifty Shades”. Rose Waterland articulated her personal discomfort – one shared by many – in this review. There have also been some very interesting reactions from professional dominatrixes, found here, here, and here. As such, I don’t think I need to mince more words on these matters. What I’m going to focus on, instead, are things that hit very close to home for me: my issues with 50 Shades as a writer, a not-so-casual Fandom Studies academic, and as a fan.
50 Shades is, by far, not the first work produced by an author who can trace her roots back to a particular fandom. Cassandra Clare, author of The Mortal Instruments series, used to write for Harry Potter. Naomi Novik, author of the Temeraire saga, used to write for Harry Potter and Star Trek, among others. I have absolutely NO issue whatsoever with fanfic writers getting “serious” and trying their hand out at producing original works for the general public. I actually think that it’s great that more of these authors are getting attention, even if I would not touch some of their works as a matter of personal taste. What is problematic about E.L. James, however, is that she didn’t ACTUALLY produce an original work that can be viewed as a separate entity from her fanfics. 50 Shades is, at the end of it, an Alternate Universe fanfic for Twilight that she sold to a publishing house.
Does anyone else think that this is bad? If so, maybe we can be friends. If not, then let me break it down for you. Her series is reputedly derivative, careless, and poorly written, and most people are blaming it on the fact that she used to be a fanfic writer. Furthermore, instead of taking some proper time out to attempt to write something totally new, James basically went “Oh, I’ll just change the names and hand this over to a publisher”. That can say a lot about her (lack of) discipline and skill, can’t it? Now, because of her (I’m just going to say it) carelessness and lack of discipline, readers and critics alike who have no previous exposure to fanfiction or have come to believe that fanfiction is not creative at all will walk away with a pretty bad impression of what fanfic writers could be capable of doing for a larger body of creative work. James and Fifty Shades, I believe, is the embodiment of all of the bad stereotypes and examples that plague any fanfic writer who is attempting to be taken seriously as authors, and it’s likely that the very existence of Fifty Shades has just set back any progress we’ve made in this field by a couple of hundred steps. This is a Problem, guys.
Here’s another problem to consider. Fanfiction has always, in its essence, been about fantasy production: fanfics are living and breathing expressions of a fan’s devotion to a particular series. On one hand, they can be the explorations of possibilities that aren’t really elaborated upon in the work that they’re derived from. On the other hand, they’re wish fulfillment for the original writer, disseminated among his or her peers in the hopes of finding that one fellow of fan (or several) that will read their work and go “OH MY GOD, THIS SO MUCH”. At best, fanfiction is both. As a general rule, most members of any fandom ascribe by the rule of “whatever floats your boat, man” – that is, we acknowledge that we all love the same thing, but each one of us has our own personal preferences and kinks that others may not necessarily share. And that’s okay. In fact, one of the so-called golden rules of posting one’s fan work online is to place warning labels as a means to respect the individual experiences and positions of other fans.
What is Not Okay is when a fan shames another fan for having these preferences, and – worse yet – said offender shames the other in a public venue, or resorts to attacking them personally through intimate channels of communication. This happens so often that it’s becoming uncomfortable for the larger and saner demographic of the community, especially since some have come to believe that it’s just part and parcel of our “culture” as fans to bully someone whom we don’t agree with. What is also Not Okay is failing to call a spade for a spade, and not properly labeling the themes that readers might find in your works. An honest mistake is understandable; a deliberate omission or outright denial is not.
Unfortunately, this is what is happening with Fifty Shades: outright denial. Many dissenting voices have come forward with carefully written and intelligent critiques of this series on the basic premise that Fifty Shades equates domestic abuse and violent sex as ideal and romantic. James, for the lack of a better term, has been a fucking irresponsible brat about this entire matter. While she says that she is in full support of promoting awareness of domestic violence, she is “horrified” at the fact that the romance she wrote up between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele is viewed by a body of readers as an abusive relationship. She has also, on several instances, called readers who have attempted to start intelligent discourse on the matter “trolls”.
James isn’t the only person we should blame. Random House and the marketing team that it has assembled for James is now marketing Fifty Shades as the go-to instructional manual for how to have kinky sex. They have all tiptoed or outright ignored the points that critics and readers alike have raised, and continue to tell everyone the same damned thing: “It’s not domestic abuse! It’s a redemption story! It’s love!”
I think I can see what is happening here. Random House wants to make a fuckton of money in a very offensive and irresponsible fashion, and this reflects poorly on their entire company. Like Jenny Trout, I do not think that banning the books or the movie outright is the solution, nor do I think that it’s entirely fair for us to do that. What I DO think, however, is that the least they could do is take a long, hard look at the issues at hand, and deliberate upon it in a professional fashion. Heck, I’d be fine if they just went up there, said “yes, it is possible that Fifty Shades of Grey endorses domestic violence”, put warning labels on their books, and left it at that. But they’re not.
James, on the other hand, has decided to expose as all to her immaturity by acting like a special snowflake. Instead of attempting to see the bigger picture, she is reacting to the “attacks” that people have made against her personal fantasies (as written in her work), and is doing the metaphorical equivalent of clapping her ears over her head and singing her favorite song at the top of her lungs until the offending parties remove themselves from her presence. This kind of reminds me of one of my nieces when she’s having a tantrum. Note: the niece in question is six.
I’m only going to say this once, guys: the actions and statements made by James put ALL fans, especially those of us who are aiming to produce creative works in the future, in a bad light. Through the popularity of her work, James has effectively become the new face of fandom entitlement, and may be instrumental in leading many to believe that everyone who shares a background similar to hers will as tasteless, as reckless, and as immature as she is, beyond being a pretty crappy writer. I will even go so far as to say that they may use James as an excuse, yet again, to deny the legitimacy of fan works, and their place within art, criticism, and discourse.
At this point, some of you guys might be wondering if this discussion is futile simply because Fifty Shades garnered such a big reader base, and will likely just get bigger due to the existence of the movie. Demand begets supply; that a lot of people bought the thing means that there must be something in the work that speaks to them. However, it is on that very point that I want to say that discussing Fifty Shades in a critical light becomes necessary. Its popularity leaves us with several questions. Why DOES Fifty Shades speak to such a large audience? Why DO a lot of people think it’s a great work? If we follow the idea that works of erotic fiction play upon our own desires, the next logical step, in my opinion, would be this: maybe a lot of people who like Fifty Shades do believe that the creepy, abusive relationship between Anastasia and Christian is what love and romance out to be about. Either that, or a lot of people have been led to believe that Fifty Shades is, indeed, a desirable love story that ought to be emulated.
Once upon a time, a number of discerning readers were worried that Bella Swan and Edward Cullen of Twilight would become a generation’s standard for love and romantic relationships, beyond becoming a fictional presentation of the code of behavior by which two parties engaged in an intimate relationship ought to act. Fifty Shades makes those two look harmless and almost socially acceptable. There already exists a prevalent culture of domestic violence all around the world, and there are alarming figures that show how many believe that in some cases, raping somebody may actually be okay. The kind of effect that Fifty Shades seems to be exposing all of us to some pretty ugly realities, and we might just be able to do something about it.
Still don’t think that any of this is a problem?