WARNING: This blog entry contains some pretty frank discussions of sexuality, pornography and erotic fiction. Reader discretion is advised.
So I heard somewhere (okay, it was my lurking on Oh No They Didn’t) that they’re aiming for an R Rating on the Fifty Shades of Grey movie.
Fifty Shades of Grey, what is the point of you if not for Charlie Hunnam’s cock?!
Okay… Truthfully, I’m not into Charlie Hunnam. I’ve got some friends who are, but he’s not my cuppa. I couldn’t remember his character’s name in Pacific Rim. I renamed his character “the one I didn’t care about” or “The one who isn’t Idris Elba, Ron Pearlman, Burn Gorman, Charlie Day and is obviously in love with Rinko Kikuchi.”
But even if I were into Charlie Hunnam, you couldn’t pay me to see Fifty Shades.
I’ve read a lot of bad books in my time. Being a speed-reader, if I start a book, more likely than not I will finish it. I’ll do it fast, but I’ll finish it. Hell, I even sped through two of the Twilight books (the first and the last one, for those keeping score), so I could better understand what I was making fun of.
I cannot say that for Fifty Shades. It utterly defeated me. It was so terrible I couldn’t get through it. I couldn’t even enjoy it on an Ed Woodian ‘So Bad It’s Good’ level.
Since I despised the book so much based on attempting to read it, rather than just a vague description, I always wondered: why the hell is this thing so popular? Is my finger so far from the pulse of pop culture? I hardly think so. What made this book such a success?
I think I’ve come up with the answer: Fifty Shades owes its popularity to sexism.
I am not talking about the sexism that is rampant in the book. Believe me, there is quite a bit of that in there. Ana slut shames her “best friend” Kate. Kate is actually comfortable with her sexuality, unlike the blushing, lip-biting heroine. Ana needs Christian to mould her sexually, because it is wrong for a woman to actually be in possession of her own body and know what she wants. It is up to a man to tell her what she wants and if she resists, force it upon her.
It is this attitude that I think made Fifty Shades successful. This is an attitude that is prevalent in society today. Women’s sexuality is shameful and something that they shouldn’t indulge in. Men have a freedom to get off any way they please without fear of reprisal. Yeah, they might get ribbing from friends that the only date they can get is their hand, but it’s always harmless joshing.
Women who are in tune with their sexuality are treated as pariahs and made to feel ashamed.
I am the only girl of three siblings. My dad has never had a problem joking around with my brothers and their friends about their relationships and sexual activity. Yet once, he overheard me having a discussion with a friend about a paper she’d been working on for school and I expressed an opinion on ravishment in romance novels vs rape fantasy, he was absolutely horrified that I expressed an opinion on a sexual topic. I was expressing an intellectual observation rather than any personal desire or experience, but still it was distressing to him.
I don’t think my dad is a bad guy. But the incident stuck with me as an example of the double standard that is very deeply ingrained in the collective subconscious. A guy can talk about actually having sex, but a woman isn’t even supposed to have an opinion on it.
Being physically sexually mature and not having an opinion on sex is a dangerous thing. I’m not saying you have to have sex. That is up to the individual. But you should be informed on it. It is a basic human function, a biological imperative. You should know enough to be able to say, okay I don’t want to do this or yes, I want to do this and this is how I would like to explore it.
That is one of the biggest problems in Fifty Shades. Ana Steele is twenty-one years old and she is a sexual blank slate. She’s never even had an erotic dream and becomes distressed when she does.
This allows a predator to take advantage of her.
And yes, Christian Grey is a predator. There have been slews of domestic violence survivors who have expressed their disgust over the success of these books. Just look at this quote from Christian:
“I like to whip little brown-haired girls like you because you all look like the crack whore – my birth mother.”
This isn’t a line that belongs in an erotic romp. The bad guy in an episode of Criminal Minds should say it. Christian Grey isn’t a kinky Prince Charming– he’s a serial killer in progress.
But Ana is so sexually inexperienced that she can’t see how Christian is damaging her.
I will not go into the portrayal of BDSM within the series. This territory has been covered well before. I’ll sum up: BDSM practiced safely between two consulting adults is a perfectly fine expression of sexuality. However, what is depicted in Fifty Shades is a dangerous mockery. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of BDSM can tell you that what is practiced in the story is not harmless kink, but systematic sexual abuse.
The abuse in Fifty Shades is sorely overlooked. And I blame the repression of female sexuality on that.
For the most part, literary erotica is the domain of women. There have been studies that show that women are more turned on by written erotica, while men prefer visuals. Porno chic started in the 1970s and it’s just grown to the point where it’s essentially mainstream. For a long time, the closest women could get to mainstream erotica was romance novels. Despite the fact that mainstream romance novels are filled with euphemistic couplings so couched in purple prose you don’t know what you’re reading, these are still treated as shameful.
I’m reminded of two separate episodes of FRIENDS. In one, Joey and Chandler magically get free porn on their television. The crux of the joke is that if they turn off the television, it’ll go away. No one ever judges them for watching porn. They don’t even get tired of it. They just become so inured to it, they are surprised when real life situations do not play out like porn.
Later on in the series, Joey finds a romance novel Rachel is reading. While it’s the subplot of the episode, that’s basically the extent of the joke: the guys make fun of Rachel for reading ‘a dirty book’.
But women are as interested in sexuality as men are. Yes, the avenues that they often take to pursue it are different, but it’s there all the same. And if Fifty Shades sales are anything to go by, women want more than ‘he crushed to her to his chest and the wafting curtains surrounded them, shielding their nudity’.
A quick look at the internet will show that there are a lot of women as interested in explicit sex as men are. Erotic prose– both fan fiction and original– has taken a foothold on the net and it is predominantly women.
It’s a safe environment for exploration. Maybe they’ll find an aspect of themselves in the fiction that they’ve never had opportunity to come across in their everyday life. Or maybe they’ll go into avenues they would never in a million years try in real life, because it’s safe. No one gets hurt in prose. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about filmed porn. Just look at the news on the recent HIV outbreak affecting the industry.
When Fifty Shades was released, these groups made no secret their distaste for the book. I heard of one brave soul who went into bookstores and stuck slips of paper inside copies that said something to the effect of, “If you want to read actual good porn, there’s a ton on the internet and it’s FREE.”
Fifty Shades of Grey was successful because there was a need that wasn’t being fulfilled. While erotic fiction has become more prevalent, it is still mostly confined to the internet or eBooks. Fifty Shades was published by a subsidiary of Random House. It was accessible to people in a way higher quality erotica wasn’t.
And Fifty Shades is just bad on so many levels. I know there have been many jokes that it is bad because it’s sex, but that is not it at all. A story with explicit sexuality is not inherently badly written. Sexuality is a natural part of being alive and can be handled just like any other aspect of the human condition by a decent writer.
Am I admitting I’ve read explicit sexual material? Hell yes I am. It would be disingenuous at this point to pretend these were the observations of a mere bystander. I don’t think anyone would believe that if I said it anyway. Besides, the whole point of this rant is I don’t need to be ashamed of it. I’ll even own up to having written it. I think it’s a shame that people will judge me more for the fact I’ve written explicit sex than me writing a story where several characters are murdered by having their eyes cut out. Sex is a far more natural act than taking someone’s life.
When I’ve seen Fifty Shades mocked in popular culture– outside of the sphere of the internet– it’s never that it’s badly written. It’s never that it glorifies abusive relationships. It always comes down to the kinky sex. Women are getting off on it and that’s something that should be made fun of, because it’s wrong.
But the stigma feeds the beast. Fifty Shades is an aberration still in popular culture. As long as it’s the only popular erotica out there, it will continue to be read and get movies and be allowed to romanticize the unhealthy relationship of Ana and Christian. We need the freedom to say ‘There is nothing wrong with erotica, but here is why THIS relationship is wrong and here is something much better for you.”
Knowledge is more powerful than a billionaire with a whip.