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Can we cool it with the Fifty Shades of Grey hate?

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You are reading a post about Fifty Shades of Grey. It was written in July of last year. It's kind of aggressive. I'm not going to edit it or take it down, mostly because my opinion is still in here (although it has evolved), but yes, this could have been written in a less assertive way. I don't think it had to be, but holy did it make some people mad.

No, I am not actually telling you what to do, and yes, I realize I'm just a 'stranger on the internet'. The title was a stylistic choice and a plea for civility post-backlash from when the trailer first dropped. I found that the ridicule and mockery was reaching epic proportions, and that facet of the backlash seemed like a topic worth discussing with feminists. The main point is the part with the academic reference to patriarchy and whatnot. I don't think things are as bad right now as they were then, so there is some context for you.


Happy (cringes) reading!

(Edit from Feb 11)

I get it. You might be too cool for Fifty Shades of Grey. You hate-read the book, or you read one of the summaries, or you heard about it from a friend, and it's just an absolute tragedy of literature. Right.

It's easy to hate on Fifty Shades now - like Twilight, it's a sloppy romance with some problematic relationship bits that has gotten absolutely *crucified* by public opinion. Hating on Fifty Shades, and Twilight, and whatever comes next, is really damn easy.


But I have to say, it really bothers me. Because both of these franchises got extraordinarily popular because women loved them. Overwhelmingly these audiences have been women. And bashing, ridiculing, and mocking the fantasies of millions of women feels really not cool to me. (Actually millions. In June of 2012, 16 million copies of the first book had been sold in the US alone. And that was more than two years ago.)

Identifying the stupid parts? For sure! For example, Ana (the protagonist) is a meek virgin who has, iirc, never had an orgasm until Christian Grey shows her the light. We feminists know there is a problem with this trope. She has little personality, because she seems to be written to be a stand in for the reader (like Bella, from Twilight). Christian Grey is into BDSM because he was sexually abused as an adolescent. In the end (spoiler!) the happily ever after is them married with children. There are problems here, real ones, just like there are with the emotionally abusive undertone of Twilight.


But you know what? I don't think that justifies the extreme mockery both franchises are receiving. They deserve critique, for sure. But that quickly seems to spiral into ridicule of the sex scenes themselves, which, as I've pointed out, fulfill the fantasies of thousands of women, if not millions at this stage. The "ugly duck that he thinks is beautiful" trope is equally fulfilling for women in a world that tells us we have no value unless we're beautiful - there's a reason why the "you're more beautiful than you think you are" trope absolutely saturates our fiction and popular culture. And again, that absolutely deserves to be critiqued. But the women who crave that fantasy do not.

The intensity of the anti fan movement around Twilight is already being pulled apart in academia, and I know at least one researcher who's in the process of doing the same for Fifty Shades. For a taste of where that might go, consider the following abstract (from this paper, "... It Sucked Because It Was Written for Teenage Girls", which is available for free on Google scholar):

In Western societies, cultural products associated with girls or women, either as the creator or the main audience, have often been positioned at or near the bottom of the cultural hierarchy (Huyssen 1986; Modleski 1986:48). Examples of this include romance novels, soap operas and 'pop' music. This paper will examine the response of 'anti-fans' in on-line communities to the hugely successful Twilight series (both the books and the movie), with a view to demonstrating how the feminine nature of the series is central to the criticisms made of it and its fans. The associated naturalisation of the teenage girl as an uncritical, overly-emotional consumer of culture will be analysed as a form of symbolic violence that helps to reproduce power relations between men and women. The paper will demonstrate that the themes that arise in the discussion of Twilight coincide in many ways with debates within academia, feminism itself and wider society around the value and effects of popular culture, and ultimately contribute to the construction of a hierarchy of tastes that continues to denigrate feminine culture.


Is it just me, or is it kind of important for us, as feminists, to think a little harder about the complete mockery of Fifty Shades that seems to abound in feminist spaces, and where it comes from? Because, like the above explanation of Twilight anti fandom, it is not all coming from the real, legitimate problems with Fifty Shades, but gets boiled down to the whole concept of the novel being silly and ridiculous (and by extension, all of the women who love it being silly and ridiculous).

I'll be honest. I found Fifty Shades on major sale when it was still just an ebook (because this book only got physical publication due to fans. That's kind of something). When I thought it was some obscure trashy novel, I fucking loved it. Yeah, Ana is a dumb attempt at a character, but her personality is so bland I could just imagine her as me, with my actual personality. And in case you aren't an erotica/romance novel fan, the quality of the characters isn't always suuper important. The set up of the dominant, successful businessman seducing a woman to explore her submissive side is scattered across SM erotica for a reason. (Sylvia Day's Crossfire series does it much better, but the premise is practically identical, and it has gotten a lot of coverage as the "better" Fifty Shades of Grey.) And from my perspective, that does not deserve to be ridiculed, because women have sexualities. Some women like kink. Many, many women are pretty vanilla, but find power play intriguing, and for those women, such popular erotica making it to the mainstream is crucial - it might be the first erotica they've ever read, if they only buy books at Chapters and stayed away from the risqué section. It's not great that their first exposure might be to a relationship that isn't a great model of a healthy SM relationship, but at risk of being boring, let me repeat myself: that is not the theme of the common criticisms of this book (even here!) and, again, is not the responsibility of the individual people who found this book so arousing.


So, I don't appreciate the war on Fifty Shades. By all means, let's talk about what a healthy SM relationship actually looks like. Let's talk about the fantasy of virginity and purity and what that says about female sexuality. Let's talk about how problematic it is to imply that someone needs to be a victim of abuse to be a Dom.

But let's remember that women made this book popular, and the majority of mainstream ridicule of this book is not centering on an unrealistic representation of BDSM, but the utter triviality, pointlessness, and bad writing of a sex book that appeals so much to so many women. Because mainstream media really needs to get up in arms because a character in an erotic novel bites her lip too damn much, and because mainstream media always cares so much about the quality of our pop fiction, right? (Wrong.) Let's not forget that one term used to denigrate this book is "mommy porn". Let's be critical feminists about this, and critique the bandwagon just a bit sometimes, instead of unquestioningly jumping on board.


Today, the Fifty Shades of Grey trailer came out. (Watch it here, if you're going to - there are a ton of fakes on YouTube right now, and they're convincing but very horrible.) This movie might not be for you. These books might not be for you! But maybe, just maybe, before you groan about the cheesy premise and the awkward (to you) sex to your friends, family, and social networks, think about some of the dynamics involved here. Think about the people you know that have to keep their enjoyment of this book secret, because they're ashamed of liking something so thoroughly trounced in mainstream media and many, many social circles. And maybe, just maybe, avoid contributing to the problem - or at least make it a discussion about the actually problematic parts.


Images found here.

ETA: I'd like to apologize to anyone who felt like this post was aggressive or shutting down conversation. I have a strong opinion about this, because I've become increasingly upset and appalled at the way this series is mocked in women-friendly spaces. As you can see, I think that some critique of this franchise is deserved, and I think some of it is influenced by the sort of dynamics feminists might be interested in. If you think I'm totally wrong here, that's fine, and I'm not going to dismiss or attack anyone who feels like posting that - you're (obviously!!) free to converse with me or other people about it as you see fit. I wrote this because I have an opinion, but also because I don't think I've captured all of it and am probably missing something (or a few somethings), so I am really open to dissenting opinions. Thanks for reading.


ETA2: Bolded some key parts. A lot of people seem to be thinking I'm saying the books are actually good. I'm not. One angle (a huge angle) of the mainstream anti fandom does not mention or seem to care about the abusive aspects of this book. It gets a bizarre degree of public vitriol for poor writing when we have plenty of badly written books that make lots of money, and really, mainstream media doesn't really care (unless you're Dan Brown, but that wasn't to this extent). Maybe something else is going on there, eh? If you and your friends and your social circle only hate the book because it's a horrible model of a relationship for women, this article is not about you!

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