Just to bring closure to last month’s column, I did indeed see the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey and I enjoyed it just fine. No doubt Universal held back some extra sex scenes to add to the DVD release. I predict the movie will top $1 billion when it goes to instant download and DVD. Viewers who are too embarrassed to be seen in their local theater will indulge their curiosity—many of these viewers will be men—and if there are extra sex scenes, lots of people who saw it in the theaters will be back to see if this time Hollywood really, truly changes our lives forever with a choreographed show of two more or less naked people pretending to have sex. My fingers are crossed.
Now, I hear you, my dear readers, we’re all sick of Fifty Shades of Grey. But I’m still reeling from all the hate out there, which seems so out of proportion to its target—a humble erotic-romance novel that, in spite of its purported BDSM theme, isn't nearly as violent as most of the stuff we see on TV. I’m kind of taking the hate personally, to be honest, as an erotica writer, a woman and a person who believes all of this fear, shame, and anger around sexuality is harming the world. Thanks to the bullying curriculum in today’s schools, I know an honorable bystander is supposed to intervene when they see someone being victimized. So to finish up my Focus on Fifty Shades series (this is my last column on this topic and that’s a promise), I felt I had to stand up for five special victims whose rights and well-being are suffering from the phenomenon.
Victim #1: Traditional Publishing
All of us here write and publish erotic books. So how come people all over the world aren’t clamoring to write scathing reviews about how our work is stupid and badly written and people only want to read it to masturbate and also destroy Western civilization, so the reviewer didn’t actually read it, but recommends no one else does either? We wish. Of course, first we have to sell over a hundred million copies of the various books in our trilogy, become a household word, and thus draw the attention of the voracious and endlessly snarky media. In fact, I’d argue that one of the more important reasons for all the snark is that the traditional power structure of publishing is under attack by hoards of sex-crazed women, both menstruating and menopausal.
Alas, the traditional ways were so elegant and righteous. Aspiring writers would genuflect before teachers and agents and editors and marketers and publishers who would tell them if they were good enough, mess with their stuff to make it more salable, skim off a cut, and conveniently blame the author if money wasn’t made. In return, the power structure would give readers deathless prose, edifying stories about family dysfunction and sex that is always punished, and an endless supply of the “new voice of our generation.” This indeed gave us many first novels by brilliant young men who masturbate with the English language, thus assuring that the reader is too confused to replicate the physical act at home. Morality was thus preserved.
But along comes E.L. James with a built-in fan base and the negotiating power to avoid the usual slave-labor contracts and insist the “experts” keep their hands off of her story. Plus her fans are not behaving like ladies. They are refusing to be shamed. Best-selling popular novels are not new, but novels that get there without the midwifery of the establishment are far more shocking than whips and chains. No wonder everyone in the literary establishment is in a bad mood about it, archly observing in so many words, “Maybe E.L. James will learn to write well after the Revolution.” I wouldn’t predict that editors and publishers will totally disappear, but the power dynamics are in interesting flux and many are running scared. Let us bow our heads for a moment for the passing of the old ways.
Victim #2: E.L. James’ Control in All Things
There is an irony in James’ desire to “exercise control in all things” Fifty Shades, or so the news stories present her as protective of her story against those who want to “improve” it. However, once any story becomes this popular, it belongs to everyone. Although Fifty Shades is soundly criticized for the weakness of its prose, sometimes an author’s distinctive voice can get in the way of making a story our own. Few readers can maintain hours and hours of pure admiration of someone else’s wordplay (Finnegan’s Wake?). We want a story that comes to life in our own heads.
Recently there actually have been thoughtful articles about the book and movie, some even by men. The few males who aren’t compelled to slam both lest their testicles shrink to the size of chickpeas do something similar to what fans do. They explore how the story is personally relevant to them. A.O. Scott’s “Unexpected Lessons From ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’" compares the movie critic’s role to Christian and the audience’s unpredictable tastes to Ana. Robert Hoatson’s “Fifty Shades of Grey is about the trauma of childhood abuse, not sex” empathizes with Christian’s shut-down emotions. And Richard Brody’s “The Accurate Erotics of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’” points out, without contempt, that one thing Fifty Shades has that most movies don’t is foreplay. The story has taken on the stature of public myth, becoming much more than itself.
I’d like to talk about one of the ways I personalized the story. I’m a hopeless analyzer. I get through the superhero movies my kids choose for family outings by analyzing the arc of the fight scenes and measuring the contrived sentimental punch of the scenes with dying parents and lonely, but gifted children. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of my favorite parts of Fifty Shades, book one, is that much-maligned contract Christian presents to his submissives. Many people call it boring, ridiculous and unromantic. For me it was the first time I felt a real connection to the book and decided to keep reading. Some readers and critics have been outraged that Christian would seek to control Ana’s schedule, clothes, grooming, eating habits, and sexuality, including masturbation, and justify it all as being for her own good. Around the “Availability” clauses, it struck me through the legalese that all women must negotiate these issues as we take our place in a patriarchal society. Ana’s lucky enough to be able to negotiate directly, but the rest of us have to find more creative ways to say no, some of which bring dire consequences to our well-being. And the enforcers in real life—our families, our peers, our religion and, worst of all, women’s magazines--are often more exacting than boyfriends. Throughout history and across cultures, women are constantly under scrutiny to look right, eat right, and limit our sexuality to the proper partner. The whole series of novels is about Ana’s negotiation of a contract, which she never signs. In real life women don’t have to sign to be shackled in those handcuffs.
By the way, there’s an equally problematic version of the social/sexual contract for men, including expectations about work, emotions, sexuality and so forth. It would probably be more authentic for a man to explore this in detail, but Christian’s character is a decent illustration of these expectations and how they can mess you up.
Victim #3: The Pretense that Women Get Respect in our Society
Some of the loudest voices calling Fifty Shades a danger to society are those that argue it encourages women to pursue abusive sexual relationships and more damaging still, read bad prose. In an effort to save us from this fate, so many commentators have felt compelled to insult women and female tastes without restraint. One particular critique amused me. Basically this man said we all know Fifty Shades is written badly and the story is stupid. But we also have to figure out why it works so well so we can duplicate its success. Excuse me, but how can you expect to understand, not to mention bank on, something if you despise it?
Now I know one of the main ways we define ourselves as cool is to feel contempt for others. But as a recovering I’m-too-good-to-read-Fifty Shades snob, I’m really glad I read the books. At the very least, it means I’m not a total jerk for opining about something I know nothing about.
As Alyssa Rosenberg wrote in “Men, stop lecturing women about reading romance novels” (a rebuttal to William Giraldi’s infamously misogynistic screed against Fifty Shades in The New Republic), “Romance novels are attractive not just because they are a gratifying escape but also because they sometimes feel like a respite from the significant hostility that a lot of literature shows women.” Isn’t it the truth? All too often female characters are ornamental girlfriends, the reason for the hero’s quest, or the evil castrating witch, but seldom a character we can relate to and respect. Okay, maybe if we look good in a black leather bodysuit, we’ll get the token female lead in the superhero buddy film. In any case, Rosenberg continues, “Romance novels are a tonic, a form of reassurance that someone is interested in ordinary women’s inner lives and is rooting for us to resolve our conflicts about work, love, and what we deserve from our relationships.”
So, yes, if you want women to buy your writing—and women are the fiction market by a big margin--you have to create a compelling story that treats female characters and their concerns with genuine respect. Should be easy for you, right, buddy? Now go get rich.
Victim #4: Christian Grey
We’re all familiar with the characterization of Christian Grey as a stalker who creepily appears at Ana’s side at whim, due in part to his vampire ancestry. Some insist that thanks to the popularity of Fifty Shades, controlling, abusive men will now have women lining up outside their doors.
If we allow that the Fifty Shades novels are guides to real-life relationships as these critics apparently do, I think we need to look at Ana’s behavior as well. In the first book and movie, she insists Christian show her the worst the pain can be in his playroom. He--though not very wisely for a supposedly experienced Dom dealing with a very inexperienced sub--whips her six times with a belt on her bare ass with no warm-up. She then calls him a sick pervert and breaks up with him. Did this bother anyone else? Not the belt part, because Ana explicitly asked for something that. But if you pressure someone you care about to make himself vulnerable then immediately recoil at his repulsiveness without any meaningful discussion or processing, this is emotional abuse. So, to all the young men out there, let this be a lesson—if a woman does this to you, it is not a promising foundation for building trust in the relationship.
Except of course, it turns out to be the right move for a continuing relationship because (spoiler alert!) Christian decides to let her determine the nature of their sexual encounters, thus giving up the sort of BDSM he was trying to sign her up for. Yet Ana is hardly more trustworthy emotionally in the later books. From a “realistic” view, Ana is in her early twenties and has never had a boyfriend. But Christian gets blasted for his possessiveness and jealousy, when she is just as guilty. Her deep love is supposed to be the salve to heal Christian’s damaged heart, but she is jealous of every woman past or present who even makes eyes at her handsome but romance-novel-loyal boyfriend, so jealous that she regularly contemplates leaving him. The second and third novels swing between Ana wanting to save his wounded inner child with every fiber of her being then wondering on the next page if she should dump him when the going gets even a teeny bit tough. Another shockingly thoughtless act is when she forces him back to the playroom because of her own curiosity, although he has avoided it like a recovering alcoholic stays away from booze. Christian’s life was ruined by a “crack whore” birth mother and a Mrs. Robinson type who seduced him into the BDSM lifestyle at 15. These are bad ladies to have in your life, but I wouldn’t be so sure his luck with women had changed all that much with Ana.
Our young men deserve more maturity and kindness in their relationships. I hope the guardians of our social order will speak up for their welfare when the sequels come out and it’s Ana now jerking Christian around by the emotional leash.
Victim #5: Me-Too Books and Movies
There are some benefits to getting older. I know when something is advertised as the sexiest book or movie ever, it won’t be. Or when a magazine promises to teach me the four tricks that will blow a man’s mind in bed, I won’t learn anything new. And I know that because of the success of Fifty Shades that New York and Hollywood will green-light many projects that won’t do so well. The decision-makers will not conclude that in their rush to cash in, the appeal of Fifty Shades was not carefully analyzed and respected. They will more likely say that women actually don’t like sexy stories as much as we all thought or feared. Having lived through several cycles of excitement over the profit potential for erotica followed by disappointment when a project that receives no support doesn’t sell, I sense we’re bound for another round of the same.
I don’t want to end this column on a negative note by suggesting that all erotica writers will suffer when the publishing and movie industries make the same mistakes all over again. In other words, that we are victims of the Fifty Shades frenzy. I prefer standing up for the victim rather than identifying as one. Let’s just say I hope the clear evidence that women will pay good money to see their fantasies and desires portrayed in the media will create a permanent shift in our favor in the plans of the powerful scions of the Imagination Business.
In the meantime, we must keep writing what we love and support each other and a sex-positive culture. The fight for honest erotic expression continues!
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman and a collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor