Feb 052013
 

After writing more than 87,000 words on this trilogy (some of it excerpts), what can be said?

Someone once asked me if Fifty Shades had any good points. I thought a moment and said, “It’s very good at making money.”

That’s ultimately what is most baffling about Fifty Shades: its phenomenal commercial success, particularly in light of its inferiority to so many other romance or erotica books on the market. You’d think people had never read a sex scene before. Why it is so popular is a mystery, even after reading the entire thing.

It’s possible that Fifty Shades‘ popularity is a fluke or fad, one that has, as of this writing, already slipped from the top of the bestseller charts. Some day we will look back on this and say, “What was that about?” Like Pet Rocks or Zima. Presumably there will be another media frenzy if and when the movie adaptation is made.

It’s also possible that Fifty Shades fans’ devotion is broad but shallow, and we will not see a rise in domestic violence cases over the next few years as abusive men find a target-rich environment full of women primed to think that stalking, threats, and surveillance are expressions of love. It would be intellectually lazy to assume that this series represents the actual desires of women, any more than men with interracial cuckold fantasies really want Mike Tyson to impregnate their wives.

Still, it is troubling that such a widely popular book, one that has broken sales records and is being published in languages other than English, is not only such a poor piece of writing, but it presents such a blatantly abusive relationship between such a childish and witless heroine and such an arrogant and volatile leading man. Even worse, the book is being taken as some profound statement about love or sexuality or gender roles, instead of just a disposable masochistic daydream.

Over 250 years ago, Samuel Richardson tried to disabuse people of the idea that “reformed rakes make the best husbands”, an idea he himself had promulgated in his earlier novel Pamela. In that book, a Beauty soothes the Beast through passive resistance. Dissatisfied with the concept he had presented, Richardson wrote Clarissa, a novel which locked the Beauty and the Beast in symbolic combat that will leave both of them mortally wounded. The epistolary format of the novel lets us into the subjectivities of the leads Clarissa and Lovelace, and we know, from his own thoughts and reactions, that Lovelace is a monster, a sociopath in modern terms.

And yet, even as he wrote this, Richardson received requests from female readers, saying that Mr. Lovelace wasn’t really bad, that he could be redeemed and Clarissa should be the one to do that. Despite the fact that Lovelace built world of lies around her, that he eventually drugs her senseless and rapes her, women read his story and wanted to save him and forgive him.

That’s how deep this concept lies in our culture. 250 years ago, Richardson stabbed this thing in the heart and it just wouldn’t die. Women won the right to vote, the right to abortion, and recently the right to serve in frontline combat and they still fall for this bullshit.

There was a recent dustup in the blogosphere over a non-fiction book called The Cowboy and the Feminist, by Alisa Valdes. From the Atlantic’s Sexes blog:

Earlier this week, I reviewed Alisa Valdes’ memoir The Feminist and The Cowboy, in which she rhapsodized about her relationship with a manly, traditional, conservative ranch manager who had taught her to submit and renounce anti-male feminism. Yesterday, Valdes published a post on her website (subsequently removed) updating readers on her relationship with the cowboy. In earlier public statements, she had mentioned that she and the cowboy had broken up. What she hadn’t said until now is that she left him because he abused her.

For readers of The Feminist and The Cowboy, this is not exactly a shock. Despite Valdes’s enthusiasm for the man, it seems fairly clear in the book that he is a liar, a bully, and a creep. At one point Valdes discovers that he has been texting the exact same flirtatious sexual fantasies to her and another woman at the same time, changing nothing but the name of the girlfriend in question. When she confronts him, he bullies her until she decides it’s all her fault for contacting the other woman.

Valdes’ Cowboy and EL James’ Christian Grey both exemplify masculine ideals: competent, powerful, fearless, self-disciplined, independent, un-needy, capable of violence. Their emotional palettes don’t include humility, nurturance, compromise or vulnerability. (Christian’s moments of vulnerability, as when he is shown as a helpless, abandoned child, appeal to Ana’s nurturing side; it’s a sweet and sour combination that millions have people have paid money for.)

That the cowboy turns out to be abusive is hardly a surprise. You’d think somebody would have figured this out by now, but the alpha male retains his appeal. That’s what’s so troubling about Valdes’ book and her subsequent disavowal, and recanting even that. This is what happen when you don’t keep this line of thinking safely contained in fantasyland, or moderated by the rules and agreements of BDSM. The steel-hard man turns out to be hard everywhere.

Harlequin Presents’ writers guidelines have this at the top of their list of “key elements”:

A hero who will command and seduce. There’s nothing in the world his powerful authority and money can’t buy… except the love of a woman strong enough to tame him!

Apart from the idea that heterosexual romance is a process of bringing a man in line with femininity/domesticity, there’s the assertion that the hero must be powerful (presumably far more powerful than the woman.)

Perhaps this is a self-correcting problem, and women are falling out of love with men who they thought were their male ideals but then abuse, abandon, neglect or disappoint them.

Perhaps somebody is rewriting the script for heterosexual romance right now. Fittingly for a text that began as fan fiction, while reading Fifty Shades I had a recurring urge to write another derivative work that would correct what I see as its flaws. I want to write something that would either show how a BDSM relationship should work, or Ana realizing what a nightmare her relationship with Christian is and escaping. I never even started it. However, I hope that somebody right now is writing something that will, from their perspective, fix what is wrong with Fifty Shades and create something new, something revolutionary.

One last thought: is it possible that the contempt for Fifty Shades emanating from certain BDSM quarters (myself included) is not because of the series’ literary flaws or its idealization of abuse, but because it doesn’t come with the right credentials? EL James doesn’t have the queer, counter-cultural, transgressive cachet of Anne Rice or John Preston or Laura Antoniou or Pauline Reage or Poppy Z Brite. She’s thoroughly bourgeois and comes from the most scorned and marginalized literary genre, fan fiction. Not only that, it’s fanfiction derived from the de-queered, abstinence-until-marriage, Mormon romance form of vampire fiction, the Twilight saga, which made undead bloodsuckers safe for tween girls. EL James is deeply unhip, someone who has no business writing BDSM fiction, or so we say. Encountering her is like bumping into your mom at a play party; her mere presence makes you and everybody else there that much less cool.

Even worse, we the kinksters have somehow been hijacked into her heteronormative, monogamy-normative media project. We, who thought ourselves too edgy for the mainstream, are on the defensive, having to explain to the general public that, no, that’s not BDSM, that’s abuse.  We have been dragged out of the dungeons and forced to sit on pastel couches and explain ourselves on mid-afternoon talk shows.

Well, too late now. Groups often don’t get to choose who or what is our ambassador, what becomes the embodiment of our brand. For the next few years at least, BDSM educators and authors will encounter new people whose first exposure to BDSM concepts was these books. We can turn our noses up at them, and create a rift between generations in the subculture, or we can welcome them in and gently correct their misunderstandings. One might be born with the desire for kink, but there is always a learning process, and that happens best with a good teacher. That teacher would also accept that our students don’t always look like we imagined them. Just remember what you were like when you were a mere newbie.

The next time you have a moment of first contact, in which you tell somebody about BDSM and they say, “Oh, like Fifty Shades of Grey?”, count to ten, or twenty, or however long it takes, and say, “Yes, somewhat like that, but in actuality, it’s like this…”

  6 Responses to “The Curious Kinky Person’s Guide to the Fifty Shades trilogy: afterword”

  1. Peter,
    I love your work on the History of BDSM (much less the overlong critique of this trilogy). In the light of your expertise, I am surprised by your comments on Fifty Shades and I would like to offer my interpretation of this phenomenon.

    To sum up what I wrote in my own website (ayzad.com), a quick analysis of the extensive marketing and merchandising of the series clearly shows that E.L. James’ books weren’t exactly “a lucky dare”, but more a well-orchestrated international branding and franchising operation. In other words, non-English publishers just don’t invest so much on a possible fluke unless a proper business plan is in place, contingencies and all – and in fact the coordinated merchandising came out much earlier than it would if it wasn’t prepared at the same time of the books.
    This is no wonder, mind you. Sensibly managed franchises are routinely dealt in this fashion. But to keep thinking of this phenomenon as “unexpected” will skew all of your analysis.

    Now on to the merits of the books. They have one, and it is to be excellent specimens of Harlequin-style romance novels – in itself the best selling genre of them all. They follow the genre rules perfectly, and fit the needs of its readers. What could you ask for more?
    What they are not is “proper” BDSM – because they aren’t meant to. Try looking at them in this light, and everything will make sense.

  2. “…and they still fall for this bullshit”
    we fall for it for the same reason people fall for religion
    the same reason people believe there’s only 2 sexes and that that’s the same as gender
    the same reason you think that saggy bummed pants look bad (ie the idea that people are dressing for others not themselves)
    the same reason people believe that xtype of persons exhibit ytype behaviour/qualities etc
    the same reason people assume life’s path is school school uni/college job marriage babies work work retire die

    we (many) are taught it actively or passively
    as part of our culture and as some kind of universal truth

    my grandmother, my mother, my older sister, some of my cousins (but none of the guys as far as i know) all read harlequin romance. i started reading them between gr6 and gr7.

    the older ones (1950’s/1960’s) often followed a structure that basically amounted to powerless young innocent woman in an even more vulnerable position than usual meets a guy (named rafe). often she actively dislikes him because he is a “brute” or a “rake”. they are thrown together again and again (or he stalks her) and he takes these as opportunities to violate her boundaries and sometimes essentially raping her. over time during the story they grow closer and she begins to see a softer side and that he’s broken (eg the death of or betrayal by his first love). then there’s a dramatic incident that makes her question herself and his feelings for her so she runs away. after a period of time apart they are thrown back together again. sparks fly and she responds (she can’t help but love him after all). it comes to pass that it was “all some misunderstanding” on her part and when she learns the “truth” of whatever he is redeemed and they live happily ever after. there are other various structures that were quite common (eg children being central supporting characters or perhaps a sexual rival causes the “misunderstanding” out of maliciousness). More modern ones are more diverse and i don’t think the heroes actually rape the heroines anymore.

    before i stopped reading them in 10-15 years ago i’m sure i read hundreds of these books

    it damaged my sense of boundaries and my understanding of how relationships work.

  3. I’ve been thinking about writing an Anti-Fifty Shades of Grey myself. Mind you, mine involves voodoo and class warfare.

  4. Ana escapes and finds new life: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/8969664/1/Intervention-of-Ana

  5. In response to your wish that someone would write an anti 50 shades of grey, Jenny Trout under the pseudonym Abigail Barnette is writing a book called the boss, she is releasing this chapter by chapter for free. It is how 50 shades should have been and she has recently announced that there will be three more books released later at a set your own price.

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