The 50 Shades Problem
So the 50 Shades of Grey trailer came out the other day, setting off another round of conversation about the books and what’s within, to the point that, for some reason, I feel compelled to write about it. Partly because I don’t see my thoughts on the matter represented anywhere, and because thousands of people are at each others’ throats over it and seem to be missing the point. And partly because I have mixed feelings on it myself. I should stress I’ve probably read significantly more about it than I have of the actual books, and am happy to be corrected on any points. So here we go.
1) 50 Shades of Grey presents an abusive relationship
It does. The folk at 50 Shades of Abuse cover this pretty well, even though I disagree with their belief the book should be banned, for reasons that will become clear. But the relationship, as portrayed, is abusive. Now here is important distinction A: it is not abusive because it involves whips, pain, nipple clamps or bondage. It’s abusive because of everything around that. The way it gets to that point, the lack of consent, the way those things are used to control her in a way she does not want. It is perfectly possible to have a healthy, loving BDSM relationship, but that is not what 50 Shades depicts. Indeed, anyone who knows anything about BDSM tend to be very unhappy about how it depicts BDSM relationships, especially because for many people, it’ll be the first time they’ve read about anything like it.
2) It’s totally okay for 50 Shades of Grey to present an abusive relationship
Because it is a piece of fiction. A fantasy. And it’s a novel, with a plot, a plot that has to go somewhere and thus requires drama and conflict. If you have no knowledge of the BDSM lifestyle, it’s quite possible you’d find a book that documented a real-life, loving BDSM relationship pretty interesting. But those books do exist. And they don’t sell as well as 50 Shades because, ultimately, once you get over the novelty, without conflict and things actually happening there’s not much of a story to tell. This isn’t about how BDSM works, it’s about how storytelling works.
The second thing to note is that the book is, in many ways, a literal sexual fantasy. Now, our brains are capable of amazing feats of cognitive dissonance. We’re able to get off on stuff in fantasies that we know in real life would be abhorrent. Somewhere between 31% and 57% of women have rape fantasies but it goes without saying that those women do not actually want to be raped. It doesn’t mean that “what women really want is to be raped!”. Yet after 50 Shades was published, the media got all excited and started talking about how “what women really want is their own Christian Grey”. No they don’t. Speak to anyone who enjoyed the fantasy of that book, and ask them if they would actually want to be Ana, with all that entailed. The answer will be ‘no’. They enjoyed the fantasy of Christian, perhaps even enjoy the idea of someone doing some of the things in the book to them, and should maybe explore that with a partner in a safe, sane and consensual fashion. But they don’t want to be in that relationship. This is important distinction B: enjoying the fantasy of being Ana, or even trying some of the techniques show in the book, does not mean someone wants to live out the fantasy wholesale.
To me, that’s where the media excitement around the book has been far worse than the book itself. Holding up Grey as some sort of role model is harmful. At this point, it’s worth noting that EL James has been problematic herself in some of the statements she’s made after the book came out, claiming that the relationship show isn’t abusive, when it clearly is.
3) Ignorance breeds confusion
So what we end up with is a clusterfuck of ignorance. Some people don’t see that that relationship is abusive (remember: it can be abusive and still make you horny without making baby Jesus cry), and so try and defend it. Some of those people have a vague notion that people actually have similar BDSM relationships that work and are not abusive, and so think that the same applies here. People in those relationships get angry because now people think they are like Christian and Ana, when actually they’re nothing like that. It’s a mess.
And it’s problematic. The idea that what’s depicted in the books isn’t abuse is a problem. But the solution to that problem isn’t to ban the book. There are plenty of books that depict abusive relationships, either as a side-plot or the main thrust of the story. We don’t ban them. The problem is when we (or the media) start treating that abusive relationship as aspirational, rather than just a cheeky fantasy. When “actually, I want to try being whipped” somehow becomes “I want to be unwilling seduced and pushed into a world I know nothing about with no way out”.
I once went to a Buffy The Vampire Slayer convention and dressed up as Spike. I don’t actually want to be a soulless vampire. Is that so hard?