'Fifty Shades of Grey' has led to many discussions about its content, and its relationship to the role of women.
A recent blog entry, Fifty Shades of Prey, criticized the series, generated a huge level of comments - and a response. Here's both sides of the argument. Read, vote and then let us know what you think in the comments.
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'Fifty Shades of Grey' is bad for women
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Who makes the better argument?
The central problem is that you cannot go where you are going and yet not arrive there. If young women are taught or encouraged to indulge certain bad choices regarding men they will eventually arrive at the wrong house, with that creepy music playing in the background. And we can tell it is the wrong house because the wrong kind of guy is in it.
A few years ago, when Twilight was doing its Warholian tap dance in the spotlight, as one of the greatest NYT bestsilliers of all time, I wrote a review of it for another publication. A central problem I had with the book was how it encouraged young women to think in such low terms about themselves. The book functioned, in its fictional setting, as a sort of training manual for young girls on how to become an abused woman. I said this:
"And Meyer acts like Bella knows what [misogynist] means, even while she walks her step-by-step through what might be called truly 'idiot choices for a female.' When she goes to school next time after this 'decision,' she is confronted with the fact that Edward is not there, 'Desolation hit me with crippling strength' [p. 145]. Anything but that. Anything but the absence of the one who wants to hurt me so bad. So sure, foolish parents, encourage your girls to look up to a protagonist like that. What could go wrong? It's just a fictional book, you stupid Puritan."
Now as many know, the publishing phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey began as Twilight fan fiction. This is no accident at all. The train not only leaves one station, but it usually arrives at the next one. The two publishing phenomena are using the same basic device -- women who learn to view themselves as prey. And it's working (like crazy) this time around as well.
Like Bella in Twilight, the protagonist in Fifty Shades feels frumpy, dumpy, and entirely unworthy. Ana Steele in Fifty Shades is one of the "little people below." Christian Grey, the twerp of this sorry business, is way too beautiful for her, and his beauty justifies however he may want to hurt her. She is unworthy of the perfect one -- that man over there with straight teeth and crooked desires. If a man hurts you, then what did you expect? Isn't he worth it? And did you deserve any different? Haven't you finished the Twilight series yet?
"I don't want to lose him. In spite of all his demands, his need to control, his scary vices, I have never felt as alive as I do now. It's a thrill to be sitting here beside him. He's so unpredictable, sexy, smart, and funny. But his moods... oh -- and he wants to hurt me" (Fifty Shades, p. 259).
Yeah, well, there's that. "Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?"
It is all there, just like Twilight -- the moodiness that keeps the woman off balance, the aggression that makes her blame herself, the straight teeth, the deadliness, the desire to hurt. Christian Grey doesn't sparkle though. Not even in the dialogue.
Now someone might want to intervene in these our enlightened times and say that such things are all a matter of personal choice. Of course, he might hasten to add, bondage and degradation and torture are bad if you are not dealing with volunteers. But if such a course is mutually chosen... well, who's to say and all that?
The first concern is that if you create a world defined by the excitement of breaking taboos, then how is an insistence upon "mutual agreement" anything but the creation of the final taboo? And if there is no standard outside the mutually-expressed desire to play this game of destroy-the-woman, then there is no standard that will condemn somebody who decides to start playing this game for reals. It is dangerous to play rape in a world with real rape. In short, don't start what you can't finish.
But the second thing is that people do not arrive at the moment of such an emotional/relational choice with a clean slate. There are many women who accept men into their lives who treat them like dirt (and sure, they technically choose it), but they got to this point because their entire outlook and view of themselves was shaped by fathers who treated them like dirt, or that neighbor boy, or that leering uncle, and they most certainly didn't choose that. So do we seriously want to maintain that kicking a woman when she is down is not a problem provided she has previously been so battered and discouraged that she has stopped trying to get up? Of course not. And the fact that an abuse-prepping catechism like this one clearly appeals to millions of women is grand news for predatory (straight-toothed) men everywhere.
This Fifty Shades phenomenon has been called "Mommy porn." Sure -- Mommy porn for women with daddy issues, for women already trained or currently training, to view themselves as prey.
About a month ago, I was sick in bed and wanted to read a book that entertained me, but didn't exhaust my brain. I chose Fifty Shades of Grey. I had bought it on my Kindle when all the hoopla began, but was too much of a book snob to dig into its pages. I thought, "Why would I waste my time reading something that has been said to degrade women, is terribly written, and called 'mommy porn'?" I was wrong.
While I wouldn't exactly call Fifty Shades of Grey 'mommy porn,' I would also discourage women from thinking that reading the trilogy will harm them or make them feel terrible about themselves. It will, however, entertain them--and why shouldn't it? I don't know about you, but I've been reading Jackie Collins books since I was a teenager, and no harm was done. I'm calling for a moratorium on people writing pieces about why Fifty Shades of Grey is bad for women/selling like crazy/makes all of us want to try BDSM.
There is a simple explanation for the success of Fifty Shades of Grey: It is brain candy that allows women to escape the humdrum of everyday life. Yes, it gets a little weird (okay, a lot weird) when a female member of your family starts talking to you about benoit balls, but the fact is you already know about them because you read the same book. A handsome, young billionaire who, while likes to get his kink on, but also takes care of a woman's every need? Sign me up!
While I won't deny Fifty Shades is a bit sanitized and poorly written, I can't criticize author E.L. James for creating a romp of a trilogy. Sure, there are erotic books that are literary or much more down and dirty: Zane has been writing erotica for years; Anais Nin was the goddess of erotic writing; Siri Hustvedt's book The Blindfold could certainly teach women a thing or two about eroticism.
Let's be real, though. We are talking about a book that has appealed to the masses because it feeds women the fantasy they want: being swept of their feet. Fifty Shades is so much more about that than it is about degradation of women. In fact, I don't believe it gives women any reason to question their worth, appearance, sexual prowess, or to view themselves as "prey."
Fifty Shades does do one very important thing, which is empowering women to take some badly needed "me" time and be entertained.
And there's nothing wrong with that.
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'Fifty Shades of Grey' is bad for women
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