Saturday, February 2, 2013

Let's talk about 50 Shades in a calm and rational way.

I'm asking you, 50 Shades of Grey reader and enthusiast, to come into this post with an open mind. In the past, I've said some pretty strong stuff about you, that was all coming from a place of frustration. Because I am frustrated. But now I'm having a moment of clarity, and I really hope that you give me a chance to explain to you why so many people are so angry about this book.

I know you're not stupid. I know I can write these things, and you can read them and at least entertain the other side of the issue. Because that's what intelligent people can do. And trust me, I've entertained your side a lot, in order to be able to write this post.

Let's start with the most basic reaction I'm seeing from people defending 50 Shades of Grey.

It's just fiction/entertainment! Why are you so mad?

You're absolutely right. 50 Shades of Grey is just fiction, and as such, it's totally open to interpretation. Some people are interpreting it as a touching love story. Others are interpreting it as story about an abusive relationship. And now, those two interpretations are clashing.

If you believe that 50 Shades is a love story, do me a favor and imagine this right now. I want you to imagine the worst thing that has happened to you in your entire life. This could be the death of a loved one, or getting cancer, or being dumped. You might be really lucky, maybe it's just spilling coffee on an expensive shirt. But it's still the worst thing that has ever happened to you, right? Now, imagine that someone writes a book, and in that book you see details of the very worst experience of your life. But the story isn't portraying those events and feelings negatively. And everyone around you is reading the book and talking about how amazing it is, and they wish the things that happened to you would happen to them. Okay, maybe it's not a serious wish. But that almost makes it worse. The people around you are now joking and laughing about how awesome it would be if the most painful, or one of the most painful, harrowing, scary experiences of you life would happen to them.

Dude. That would suck, right? You'd feel really lonely and probably angry. You'd probably be worried that somewhere, someone might think your experience was glamorous enough to try and reenact it for themselves. You don't want anyone to experience what you did, so you feel like should step up and say something.

That's why people who believe 50 Shades promotes abusive relationships get so furious about the subject. Many of them are either currently involved in an abusive relationship, or have escaped from one. Or they know someone who was harmed by an abusive partner, or who are in an abusive relationship and can't leave. And when we hear someone else say, even in a joking way, "I wish my boyfriend was like Christian Grey," all we're hearing is, "If I had the experience that you or your loved one had, I would be happy, so what happened to you was okay."

Okay, but that doesn't mean it's a bad book. That doesn't mean it's responsible for Domestic Violence.

No, and I don't think any sensible person would argue that it is. However, our ideas of what is and isn't acceptable as a society are constantly present in our art. While our ideas and opinions shape what we see in our media, the reverse is also true. For example, we live in a culture where hyper-violent videogames are a normal, celebrated form of entertainment. Some have argued that living in a culture that glorifies violence has led to more real life violence. And while most people can sit down, play a violent game, and never have the urge to gun down someone in public, there are members of our society who can't make that distinction, which is why it's important to keep an open dialogue on the subject.

It's the same thing with 50 Shades of Grey. Because of the way the book has been marketed, both by the author and by the publisher, people are looking to 50 Shades of Grey to fix their sex lives or help them understand their partner. An advertisement for the book ran in Maxim, a men's magazine that gives its readers tips about, well. How to get laid. And the tag line they used for the advertisement was:

"What every woman wants. Read it and share the experience." That isn't a message that promotes the idea that this book is fiction. The sales pitch is that this book is a manual. And the author isn't doing anything to discourage this, saying in numerous interviews that scores of women have credited her and the book with saving their marriages and sex lives. 

 Some people do not see it as a fantasy. There are women out there who are absolutely looking for a literal Christian Grey. And those women aren't going to find charming millionaires they can heal through the power of their love. They're going to find sexual predators who will be more than willing to act like Christian Grey... with the caveat that there is no writer pulling the strings to keep these would-be Anas safe.

So, no one should ever write anything, because someone might emulate it and get hurt?

Not at all. But if someone does produce a work of fiction, be it a violent videogame, or a book with a relationship that could be construed as abusive, the creators and marketers absolutely must be clear that this is a work of fiction. They can't flirt with the line between fiction or nonfiction, or make some outrageous claim about emulating the behaviors in the work being somehow beneficial. Can you imagine how furious people would be if that technique were to be used in marketing a book like American Psycho? Suggesting that people buy it for graduates, like it's a real life How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying? People would utterly reject that. Serial murder is universally viewed as immoral and wrong. But since 50 Shades of Grey is being used to explore an often misrepresented sexual kink, many people don't realize that the BDSM in these books is conducted in an unsafe way, and they don't see anything wrong with using it as a guidebook.

It's true, there are some people who want 50 Shades banned. I may have flippantly suggested such a thing once or twice during my other blog posts. But if someone is seriously calling for a ban on the book, I don't support that. And I don't think most smart people support banning books, or any form of artistic censorship. I want a person who enjoys 50 Shades of Grey to be able to continue enjoying it. I would rather that some of the themes I found present in the series not be so prevalent in our media, but I don't think banning a single book or series is going to solve that problem as much as a healthy, unimpeded discussion would.

Well, what do you want, then?

I want, and I think most people who are frustrated with the phenomenon feel the same, just want E.L. James and Vintage Press to come out and say, "This book is not a self-help phenomenon, and we were wrong to hint that it was. Some of the behaviors exhibited by characters in the book are not behaviors we endorse, and we were wrong in the way we communicated with domestic violence survivors." Or, you know. Something better than that.

But why? E.L. James doesn't owe anyone anything, and it's not her fault if someone reads her book and does something stupid. Besides, she wrote it for herself and for people who "get it."

Part of being a creator is taking responsibility for your creation. Dr. Frankenstein didn't do that, and look what happened to him. Whether or not E.L. James wrote 50 Shades for herself, when she posted it to, she put it out into the world for consumption. Like Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, she's responsible for what she created, no matter how out of control or huge it gets. By the way, I'm not using Frankenstein to be snarky here. It's just a very easy analogy.

The fact that E.L. couldn't have possibly known that selling her fanfiction to a small publisher would rocket her to superstardom actually works in her favor here. She could easily say that she was overwhelmed by the popularity of her books, and she didn't respond to criticism well. I think most of us would forgive her, and be less hurt, if she just accepted responsibility for spreading a dangerous message by touting her books as being helpful to women.

It's not abuse, it's BDSM!  You just don't understand kink!

Many people in the BDSM community - people who were into kink before these books came along - have found the portrayal of Dominance and submission unrealistic at best and downright dangerous at worst. In a book being sold as a work of fiction, this wouldn't be a major problem, it would just mean that people who were familiar with the lifestyle would probably choose to read something else. However, the popularity of 50 Shades lies in the promise that readers will want to try out these new, exciting sexual scenarios in their own homes. The advertisement above, if not explicitly saying "DO try this at home," is at least winking and nudging at the idea that buying this book will result in great sex.

So, the only thing you're mad about is that E.L. James won't tell people not to try this at home?

Well, it was the only thing I was mad about. But then someone sent me an article in which E.L. had this to say about the concerns over the content of her books:
James says she "freaks out when she hears people say that her book encourages domestic violence. "Nothing freaks me out more than people who say this is about domestic abuse," she says. "Bringing up my book in this context trivializes the issues, doing women who actually go through it a huge disservice. It also demonizes loads of women who enjoy this lifestyle, and ignores the many, many women who tell me they've found the books sexually empowering."
She leaps easily to the defense of the women who have enjoyed her books and offered her praise, women who have helped her attain her meteoric rise. But she doesn't defend the women "who actually go through it." She asks that people not discuss the subject with her, or in the same conversation as her creation. She doesn't want to hear about abused women, because they're not enjoying her book. Even more disturbing, she says that calling the relationship in her book abusive "demonizes" women who enjoy BDSM. She asserts in the wording of that statement that if you suggest someone is a battered woman, you are insulting or degrading them, because being a victim of abuse is something to be ashamed of.

You're just putting words in her mouth! You don't know if that's what she meant. She could have just said it wrong.

I suggest that as a professional author, she should be perfectly capable of expressing herself with the appropriate words.

It's not like she said that to a survivor directly. She probably does worry about those women.

If she does, she has an odd way of showing it. Many abuse survivors that have contacted her on twitter have been blocked. For example, Kody, whose account you can read at this link. When she saw E.L. James advised her fans not to "feed the trolls" in regards to discussions of domestic abuse,  Kody, a survivor herself, sent a single, civil tweet making reference to James's earlier comment about trivializing domestic violence. James blocked her without a reply.

So, I want to ask you a question, 50 Shades of Grey and E.L. James defenders:

What do you get out of defending this woman and her books?

E.L. James has derailed discussions of domestic abuse, treated survivors who have approached her in good faith as trolls and nuisances, yet claims to care about the issue affecting them. When faced with either listening compassionately and accepting responsibility for the way she has behaved in the publicizing of her book, she chooses instead to throw her support behind women who, frankly, don't need supporting. There is a far larger bias in our culture against women who "let" themselves be abused than there is against women who like to masturbate to mild erotica.

I would never, for one second, assume that if someone enjoyed 50 Shades of Grey, they supported and endorsed abuse. No more than I would suggest that my own enjoyment of horror movies meant that I support and endorse chainsaw murders. And no one wants to stop you from reading books you enjoy. But is your enjoyment really impeded by a contrary opinion? If you loved cookies, but I didn't, would the cookies not taste as good to you? Of course not, that's absurd. So where is the danger in me discussing my dislike of cookies?

When you say, "It's only fiction, get over yourself," you are endorsing abuse, because you're trying to silence actual discussion of an important issue, and discussion is how we resolve these issues within our culture. You're telling abuse survivors that the enjoyment you derived from the book is more important than their real life concerns over real life experiences; that you would rather they keep these experiences to themselves so you can continue to enjoy this book. Is that really how you feel? Are you defending the book, or yourself for choosing to read it?

No one wants to ban 50 Shades or tar and feather E.L. James. But it would be nice if she would accept the fact that she has written a book that has clearly hit a nerve for many women, and have the courtesy to not shut down the dialogue just because she doesn't wish to speak about it.


  1. I would have respect for James if she admitted, "My bad, heat of the moment sort of thing." Her people could spin-doctor it. Shit, if she really gave a damn, maybe she'd donate to women's shelters? Time or her dime, either would work for me.

    As I see it, she doesn't care. Fingers in ears, singing away in her own little land.

    1. well lets face it she can afford her own little land now. lucky (if hard working) bitch

  2. A very well-thought-out argument. I think in a perfect world, 50 Shades could exist as both a work of erotic fiction and a discussion point for toxic/abusive relationships.

    I'm intrigued to see how your post resonates with some of the 50 Shades defenders.

    1. "A very well-thought-out argument."

      Really? No wonder we pay you ladies less, and not have you do any significantly important jobs like be president.

    2. Hey, NoGood, go fuck yourself.

    3. I love you, Ms Trout. :D

    4. mr nogood, word

  3. Worse than treating this book as a manual, there is literally an official line of official, OFFICIAL, sex toys. Did I mention official?

    She lost ALL right to EVER claim that she's not endorsing the actions in these books, and ALL right EVER to claim that these books aren't meant to be manuals, when that happened. The kits and official items are an official endorsement of modeling relationships after Christian and Ana. One of the paddles is even called the "Twitchy Palm."

    I'm terrified how actions that used to be condemned are now considered okay. I remember, before landing in an abusive relationship myself, a friend being abused in the same ways Ana was. I was scared and she only felt okay talking about it because she knew she wouldn't be judged. I'm scared that women in these relationships TODAY may be told that they're lucky they have someone who loves them soooooooo much.

    Yes, these books are fiction. But even Plato realized millennia ago that fiction has the ability to alter public perception about matters and how people internalize and process various situations. James et. al. can't claim that these books are just works of fiction and can't influence anything while also claiming that these books are influencing women to be more sexually outgoing. Either they influence or they don't, and as that link above shows, she's banking on people being influenced.

    Did you hear about the couple in the UK who used this trilogy as a manual? It went wrong enough for criminal charges to be brought against the man. He beat his partner enough that she couldn't use their little safe word, and in the end, he was off the hook. But the evidence is there that people are being hurt by trying to emulate these characters, and James is endorsing it.

    If there is a god, my manuscript will be reped and published soon just so women can have the exact opposite to look up to (two of my beta readers now have taken the earliest chapters to heart enough to leave their own abusive relationships). My heart literally aches thinking about how the relationships women look up to are Christian and Ana or Edward and Bella. How sad is it that so many people long for when the worst of it was Edward and Bella because at least he didn't beat or rape her?

    1. has it occured to you, she does not care

  4. I love your recaps and in general I agree with you about these books.


    I don't think E. L. James should have any responsibility to listen to and/or respond to people on Twitter, especially for something as polarizing as this. As anyone who has read comments on a YouTube video knows, the internet is full of trolls - and it's much harder to shake the one personal attack than it is to accept the fifty compliments you find in response to your work. I don't blame her for blocking people who want to provoke her on this issue, even if they're "just trying to start a dialogue" - she's presumably on a public Twitter account to promote her writing, not to make friends.

    1. I disagree. She has written a fiction based on the characters of another woman abusers. She has published and she has a profile on Twitter in which insults women who have suffered domestic violence. She just wants to be praised and women keep buying your fic. That is horrible. To say that women who have experienced domestic violence are trolls and witches, is something horribe. She is a disgrace.

      She has her Twitter account to make friends. She her profile. Is full of nonsense. Even people who practice BDSM have said that this fic is not about that. It's a sick and abusive relationship and James has not investigated before writing anything about an alleged relationship based on BDSM. Ana is afraid of Grey! That is love? James is a disgrace and her fans too. I am shocked to see that there are so many immature and unsatisfied women in the world.

      James and her fans not deserve respect for anyone. It's amazing that they call "cunts" women who have suffered domestic violence. Her fans are witches and contemptible women. Women who have survived domestic violence deserve respect.

    2. She doesn't have to sit down and have tea with survivors, though. She just needs to stop shaming them and trying to silence them so she can make more money and be surrounded only by compliments. Also, to not call them names like a popular fifth grader trying to shun a classmate.

  5. Isn't the point of art to evoke a response? The artist may have a specific reaction or set of reactions they want people to have. Don't they owe it to themselves, the piece of art and the people that experience it to at least acknowledge reactions they may not have intended? Instead she just dismisses anyone that tries to engage in a discussion by saying they don't get it.

    I am seriously baffled by the popularity of these books, not to mention the speed with which they gained popularity. I wish more people could see your post Jen and the rest of your blog. Maybe compiling a digital download of your recap for each book. Keep up the good work and thanks for all the laughs.

  6. Since this is an issue that so many feel passionately about, I thought about posting for a while. I thought that maybe I am not the right one to comment since my feelings about 50 Shades can best be described as ambivalence. I read 50 Shades before it became the phenomenon that it has become. I didn't love it but I didn't hate it. It is not the best of what I read last year but it is far from the worst thing I read last year either.
    You brought up many issues in your blog post and I'm not going to take them on one at a time but I wanted to address two of them. I think the most important issue here is perception and whether or not there is a responsibility for an author (or anyone who creates anything) when it comes to how their work is perceived. Instead of simply being a work of fiction, 50 Shades has been perceived as a manual for men to get laid, a manual for couples to improve their sex lives, or a treatise on domestic abuse. Those seem to be the most common perceptions and reactions or at least these seem to be the ones that make the most blog postings and topics for talk shows. It is human nature to take our personal experiences and apply them to what we read, see or hear. We all have triggers. We all respond to things in a different way depending on our past experiences, our beliefs and our values. It doesn't mean that the way others see things is wrong. It's not. It is simply different. I don't think it is the creator (in this case either the author or the publisher) to have to explain to anyone that their perception is wrong. To come out and say "this story is fiction...domestic violence is wrong" is ridiculous. Anyone who has read these books should be able to have the minimum understanding that these works are fiction. I, as a reader, am insulted by anyone that thinks that I cannot figure it out for myself. This is simply a genre that has previously not gotten a lot of attention because of the type of fiction that it is. Whether or not it reflects BDSM accurately is an argument for another time but this is no different than several years ago when vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts, exorcists, demons.....(I can go on for days) etc came into such extreme popularity. There were people who got so far into this type of "lifestyle" that they were drinking each other's blood. I find that both creepy and unhealthy but I don't think anyone was calling on Charlaine Harris to come out publically and say "My books are fiction...please don't drink each other's blood". I see no difference between that or anything else. Don't even get me started on how some people seem to lose their minds when they read the most popular book ever written...The Bible.
    If you've read this far, my apologies for being so long winded but there is only one more thing I want to address. Telling someone they are stupid or insulting someone for what they think is wrong. I don't care what someone thinks about 50 Shades, or any other book for that matter. It pisses me off to no end to see anyone say that someone who enjoyed it is a bad person or is stupid. I have the same reaction when someone says that the reason someone didn't enjoy it is because they are stupid or "didn't get it." Insulting someone who has a difference of opinion is ALWAYS wrong.
    One last rant before I finish.......If I hear the phrase "Mommy Porn" one more time, I'm gonna barf.

    1. The problem with your analogy here is that vampires aren't real, and BDSM is. And yes, actually, people pretending that they're vampires and drinking each others' blood is a thing, and yes, as an author of vampire novels I know that I have been called upon to point out that such roleplay is extreme. So yes, all authors are, at some point or another, called upon to defend some aspect of their creation. Just as Nabokov was called upon to defend "Lolita," so to is James called up on to defend the controversial elements of her novel. It's part of the job. If she didn't want it, she needed to not publish.

    2. I suppose I simply see this differently. If I was a writer, I might see this more in line with your logic. For me, as a reader, it is much easier. If I start reading something that triggers something for me or that I find offensive, I simply stop reading and probably won't buy or read anything else from that author. I don't need an explanation. I know that it is fiction based on whatever world that an author wanted to create that I simply have no iterest in persuing.
      Since you mentioned that BDSM is real and that vampires are not, I'll simply say that I am a huge fan of vampire fiction, including yours but that I know very little about BDSM. However, I do know that if all of a sudden I wanted to explore that with my husband it takes a heck of a lot more than just getting online and buying a whip.
      I'm probably not articulating this properly. I can imagine you reading this, rolling your eyes and saying "no shit" to yourself :) I suppose that the two points that I'm trying to get across, poorly, are first the question of "where is the line"? What shoud be explained and what should not? If James should defend and explain her book, who else should? Should anyone who writes about those who are in the military have to go out of their way to explain that what they write is fiction and that reading romance novels about Navy Seals is not a manual for how to meet, fall in love and marry one? Second, fads come and go. Next year there will be a new fad. Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy have dominated for several years. Now, it seems to be books that lean more toward erotica. What is next? Cowboys? Who knows?
      You mentioned Nabokov, specifically. Lolita is considered one of the greatest literary works of the 20th Century. I hope that 50 Shades won't be considered one of the greatest literary works of the 20 minutes that it took me to post this reply.

    3. No, I get what you're saying perfectly, it comes across fine. The line, I think, is drawn when a creator begins to hint that their work of fiction is going to achieve some greater purpose than just, you know. Being fiction. James has said in numerous interviews that her books help women explore their sexuality or introduce them to BDSM, and as another commenter pointed out, you can now buy 50 Shades BDSM-themed sex toys specifically so a reader can act out the scenes in the book. At that point, I feel she's crossed the line from "It's just fiction," and is now using that line as a shield. If someone says, "Your book saved my marriage!" her attitude seems to be, "Oh, that's great, I'm so happy for you! Look at what an amazing person I am for liberating female sexuality everywhere!" But if someone else says, "I read your book and it reminded me of my abuse experience," she uses the "It's just fiction, I never intended for anyone to take it seriously," defense. It's either "just fiction" or it's not. It can't be "just fiction" only when she's being criticized.

    4. Carla, I think I, for one, would be less outraged if E.L. James herself wasn't touting these books as having helped save marriages and given a boost to women's sexuality without even being willing to have a dialogue about the issues that other people see with these books.

      If she would simply say, "This is fiction, I don't recommend that naive young women allow more experienced men to make sexual decisions for them. This is fiction not a guidebook," it would go a long way. That's all I would need to not be so furious about the blatant abuse in her books.

      Nothing she can say or do would alleviate my anger at her chicanery; re selling her fan fiction as an original work of literature, or the fact that she calls herself an author and can't put together even the most simple of paragraphs properly. The fact that these books depict an abusive relationship is only one facet of my deep loathing for this woman.

    5. "It doesn't mean that the way others see things is wrong. It's not. It is simply different."

      I disagree, Carla. If someone's viewpoint is that women are property who exist to sexually service men, even by force, is this really okay? Hell no. Erica advocates roleplaying her characters, as evidenced by the link I posted about about officially licensed products to help. The manual is the 50 Shades book.

      The line between fiction and reality was completely blown apart by her books being referenced as a manual and advertised as such. Maxim didn't run that add for the hell of it. They were paid. They were paid to promote the relationship in that trilogy as what all women want and encouraging men to reenact it.

      Are you familiar with the Sleeping Beauty trilogy Anne Rice wrote? The sex abuse in that is much worse than 50 Shades, but that trilogy was never pegged as a how-to, as ideal, or as anything attainable. There is no kingdom with hundreds of princes and princesses kept in sexual captivity for the pleasure of the kingdom's citizens to do with as they please. SB is considered by many to be the first mainstream book pushing sexual boundaries to the point that they cease to exist. But the promotion was nothing like with 50 Shades.

      Look, we live in a country where a quarter of our women have been victims of sexual abuse and a third victims of domestic abuse. There is no defending how she promotes these books as manuals. She can claim all she wants that she doesn't, but she has endorsed the products covered with the 50 Shades logo.

      It doesn't matter if she intended this all to happen, though her products indicate she's just fine with it. What matters is what has happened, and she needs to step up to the plate and plainly say abuse sucks and needs to end instead of telling us survivors that we are witches and trolls for talking about the blatant abuse in her books. We hold others accountable for the outcomes of their creations (though how much of this is really hers is debatable since it's fan fiction), and authors aren't above this. We need to take responsibility for what we write. She not only refuses to do that, but continues to endorse the relationship in her books when it will make her money, and then claim that it's just fiction when called out on the harmful aspects.

      Even aside from this, she has been rotten in the fanfic community, from getting pissed when asked to contribute a short story for a charity fundraiser (asking why she should do anything for free even for charity) to threatening legal action against people who use the names Ana and Christian in their own fictions. Pot calling the kettle black there, considering she originally published with the names Edward and Bella. She even stiffed conventions held in her honor if she wouldn't be paid to be there.

    6. Carla, you seem like an intelligent, rational and articulate woman. Not everyone is as sharp or reasonable or savvy as you are, however, and therein lies the problem. You say that if you feel something is offensive, you will simply stop reading. Very sensible. However, what I'm worried about is not those who find it offensive, it's those who find the abusive relationship portrayed in the book as alluring and exciting as EL James is apparently intending it to be.

      No, I'm not saying that anyone who reads these books and goes "Wow, I want a man like that" is stupid, even if I find Grey totally repellant myself, but there is a certain amount of naivete involved. Like it or not (and I certainly don't), there ARE a lot of women out there seeking men as near to the Grey character as they can find. I even know a few myself.

      Problem is, a man who exhibits that sort of firm-handed, "you will do as I say" behaviour *is* likely to be abusive - in fact, the characteristics that draw Ana to him are stuff like the way she feels a thrill of fear when around him. Sure, that's fun when you're on a rollercoaster or watching a horror film, but in a loving relationship it rings massive warning bells for me when someone goes "shit!" and freaks out every time she realises her man isn't going to like something.

      OK, so guys like that are going to be drawn to impressionable women (or men) and potentially trap and abuse them no matter what. But what I'm worried about that those who've read these books will not only accept the way they're treated as the norm or even the ideal, but might think there's something wrong with *themselves* if they're not enjoying every minute, because omg Ana is soooooooo happy with Christian so it must be my fault if I'm not.

      I know this makes it look like I'm saying women are daft, childish, overly impressionable sheep. I'm not. This mindset is already implicitly part of our society and has been for a very long time, but these books have made it explicit. No, people aren't stupid. But the human mind is a scarily powerful thing, especially when love is involved.

      Totally agree with you about the term "mommy porn." Makes me want to barf too.

    7. "Instead of simply being a work of fiction, 50 Shades has been perceived as a manual for men to get laid, a manual for couples to improve their sex lives"

      Perceived? It's been marketed to be that.

      "To come out and say "this story is fiction...domestic violence is wrong" is ridiculous."

      Except that that's not we want. We want, "This story is fiction and may present behaviours unacceptable in reality". And it should never have been MARKETED as a manual!

      "I simply stop reading and probably won't buy or read anything else from that author."

      Yeah? Then try having people around you rave about the book, ask if you've read it, ask why you didn't read it, and then not understand your reasons. See the book *marketed* as a manual for real life.

    8. intelligent rant. jenny, you're being a twit. get over yourself.

    9. Immature, seeing you don't have anything solid to counter her 'intelligent rant'.

    10. Immature, seeing you don't have anything solid to counter her 'intelligent rant'.

  7. All very good points, Jen, and made far more sanely than I could ever manage.

    You meet people, going to gaming conventions. I've met several women who were or are involved in the lifestyle. Including one woman who is in a female dominated relationship. So this book kind of makes me sad on an entirely different level - because rather than celebrating that, this book is reinforcing the idea that they aren't the right sort of people to enjoy kink.

    They're older women, they're a happily submissive man, they're a woman who is sexually active despite not being married, and a female dominant. And I've become good friends with some of them. And the sorts of people who claim to have been liberated and have their eyes opened by this book would probably hear all of that and go "eeeewwww!"

    This book claims, its writer, and its publishers claim to celebrate BDSM and alternative sexuality, but it portrays it as something ugly, something only fucked up people would ever enjoy, something you need to be cured of.

    And you're right, Jen - James isn't obligated to write a how-to BDSM manual. Anyone who reads romance novels probably knows going in that they're going to have to suspend disbelief, and people love a "redemption arc", myself included. But if she isn't going to, she has no right to claim that she has. Because that is misleading, and it means she's speaking for people she is not equipped or capable of speaking for, and people are listening. A dominant woman does not need to be "cured" of her dominant nature by the love of a good man.

    People are capable of deciding and learning for themselves, but only if they know they need to look, if they don't have some snake oil saleswoman telling them she has all the answers.

    1. On a different note, is that article on "what women want" available online? I'd like to read it, if only so I know precisely what about Christian Grey's mentality is being impressed into the heads of the men of the world so I know what warning signs to run away screaming from.

  8. I think one point that needs to be made is that BDSM is an intimate lifestyle that two people agree to living. To readers of 50 Shades, it doesn't seem like Ana actually agrees to it. The marks on her wrists in #3 were not agreed on. Ana doesn't have a choice in the matters such as what she eats and all that. The thing with BDSM and living that lifestyle is that the two partners agree to certain terms. If the woman WANTS the man to order her food for her, that gets agreed upon beforehand.

    There are people who prefer to keep the lifestyle in the bedroom only, while out in the world they are free to do as they please. I'm no expert, but I do get the basics of BDSM and in the 50 Shades books it can be construed that in this type of relationship, one partner has all the power. That should not be true for any relationship. If a woman WANTS to give up her power to make decisions, it is her right to do so, but Ana has not made this decision and voiced it to Christian. That is why these books are about abuse. Christian takes advantage of her. If Ana would have said at some point, "Yes, I want you to make all decisins for me and do what you think is right. I give you all power." Then we would not be havig this discussion. But since she is constantly angry that he makes decisions for her and second guesses letting him do things she clearly doesn't want him to do, it is not right. He has forced her into a BDSM relationship, and that's where it crosses the line into abuse.

    1. Ana explicitly says she doesn't want it 24/7, but Christian ignores that. Even if a woman given a man the ability to make decisions for it, it's only until she changes her mind. This is an aspect of trust in BDSM. Ana doesn't get to make decisions for herself, even when she wants to and insists. She gets lubed up with alcohol and hurt instead. A telling moment about her feelings is in the first book when she says she immediately thinks about how to get away when he walks in the room. She's not sexually excited. She's terrified.

      She ultimately gives in both out of fear that worse will happen, and because she's been manipulated into believing she's the only woman ever who has touched him. In return, Christian doesn't love her. He just feels possessive.

  9. I mostly just dislike the book because of the poor writing. The ambiguity of the nature of the relationship between the two main protagonists, the ephemeral and inconsistent behavior of the secondary characters, and sheer lack of an over-all arch in the individual books is frustrating.

    I'm also very biased against Fan-fiction, so the fact that this used to be one makes me quite annoyed. I'm afraid that it argues that writing fan-fiction is one step away from legitimate creativity, making your own characters and story.

    I can't speak for those in abusive relationships, but I totally understand why they would get angry reading this as well.

  10. Trinab
    I'm with you. I think I understand what E L James tried to do (bad-ass romantic interest, sophisticated characters, shocking revelations, psychological explanations), but she failed terribly and this book is just travesty.
    I tried to read it while also reading Lolita and even though both books have elements of erotica and shock the difference is abysmal.

  11. I wish E.L. James would just admit that the relationship she portrays is abusive and that the abusive nature of the relationship has little to do with the BDSM. If this book is to be used as a learning tool, it should be a "what not to do". She wouldn't lose anything by admtting that it is an unhealthy relationship.
    I wanted to cry yesterday when the man in front of me on a flight was reading 50 Shades. Just what society needs is men trying to immitate Christian Grey.

    1. Can't tell if that guy on your flight is better or worse than the guy reading a Tucker Max book on my flight last summer.

    2. Rebecca: While completely agree that EL should admit that the relationship is abusive, or at least be willing to have an open conversation about it rather than giving a defensive two-line response to shut the conversation down (ie, the quote Jenny posted up there), I disagree that she has nothing to lose by doing so.

      The sad thing is I 100% understand why EL is so cagey about having a conversation about the similarities between the Anna/Christian relationship and an abusive one, and why she calls people who try to bring it up "trolls." She has EVERYTHING to lose if she even comes close to admitting that Ana/Christian relationship is abusive, because her success is hitched on the idea that this book is a sexy how-to manual. She'll lose her sales and her fans if she admits that maybe this isn't the best romantic and sexiest way to interact with your significant other. And as Alys pointed out in a previous post, EL obviously doesn't love anything more than herself and her money. So actually taking some responsibility for what she has written in a way that might hurt sales will probably never happen.

  12. Oh, Jenny, why do you have to be married already? I want to marry you for just what you've said in this post.

    Thankfully, I don't know a single person IRL who likes these books. The two people I do know who've read the first book (none of us have been able to get past the first book) and I hate these books equally for many reasons. I would have to rethink a friendship with someone who actually loved and defended these books.

    1. I've got friends who defend these books. They claim it's just fiction and don't understand how it is having a real impact on pop culture and don't think that these books being promoted as manuals effect anything.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Alys, do you find it hard to continue to talk to those people? Has it effected the way you see them? I'm curious, because I can't imagine having to try to carry on a friendship with someone who defends these books.

  13. The thing is: no one in the chainsaw slasher movies thinks the chainsaw slashing is ok. Patrick Bateman is meant to be sexy, yes, but also repelling and creepy. His creepy, controlling, chainsaw slashing is not meant to be seen as a “benefit” to being with him. They’re not shorthand for Bateman needing a hug. Everyone involved realizes, “this is a chainsaw slasher movie, and we aim to entertain, but there will be slashing and chainsawing. We don’t think slashing and chainsawing are ok, but they’re important to the kind of story we want to tell.” That doesn’t happen in 50 Shades of Grey.

    THAT is biggest problem for me, not the romaticization of an abusive relationship. I can understand people being turned on by things in fiction that are beyond the pale in reality. It’s the complete refusal by James or the fanbase to acknowledge that this relationship is abusive in the first place. This is loving “American Psycho” while insisting it’s really the story of a misunderstood sexy young man looking for love in all the wrong places. On some level this is technically correct, but it’s also the least of a much larger picture. And this time, the author thinks it too.

    I suspect part of it is total ignorance on the part of the writer and audience for what BDSM is, let alone a healthy BDSM relationship, especially since the book explains that Christian’s kink is caused by “damage” and now that he’s found “love,” he doesn’t have those desires anymore. Ana puts up with his proclivities because she wants to “fix him” and by god it will be sexy fixing! Part of it is also reluctance on the part of the readership to admit that the abuse turns them on. Plenty of women have rape fantasies that they don’t bring up because they’re ashamed this thing arouses them; they worry their partner will be repulsed; that people will assume because you like the fantasy of being raped, you want to be actually raped. It makes you a “bad woman” (and definitely a bad feminist, depending who you talk to).

    By saying, “this book is about an abusive relationship,” I am NOT also saying, “it is wrong for you to be turned on by this.” Hiding behind a smokescreen of imaginary BDSM and OPT is troubling, because it makes me think that people don’t understand what abuse really is. People in abusive relationships sometimes have trouble getting out because to the outside eye, everything is "fine." "He's so handsome, so charming, he doesn't hit you, look how much he loves you. He buys you clothes, jewelry. Why are you trying to leave this wonderful man? What is wrong with YOU?" The victims begin to question if they're misinterpreting all the horrible things. If the good times are really good, does it matter how bad the bad times are? Yes, you flinch whenever he stops smiling, but what is it YOU did to cause that? I worry more about the readership dismissing their friends because this book reinforces a dangerous cultural norm that none of the fans are willing to acknowledge.

    I get that these books have in some ways normalized mildly deviant sexual practices and made a whole host of women more comfortable talking about their desires. I also think that conversation would still happen and dare I say it, be even healthier, if those same people could also acknowledge the problematic dynamics of the Ana/Grey relationship.

    And it’s really terribly written. Just terribly. I had to throw that in there. It’s just piss-poor quality.

    1. I know I'm late, but just adding a drive-by WORD to your fourth paragraph. I fairly recently got out of a super unhealthy relationship that looked apparently wonderful and happy to a lot of my friends on the outside. I swear, the first recap I came back and read after we finally broke up was uncomfortable - in the "holy shit, I recognize that feeling" way.

  14. I'm just going to passive aggressively share this post on Facebook so the friends I'm not close enough with to feel comfortable confronting them about their love for Christian Grey might see this and understand. /runonsentence

  15. Since I've been active in the fan fiction community for years now, and stumbled upon my fair share of abuse or rape stories written by women (and not roleplay, I mean stories about characters being actually raped and portrayed as a titillating thing), I ended up developing a theory to explain why this happens (something that doesn't involve the words "internalised misogyny" either), and 50 Shades would fit right in. However, I'm not sure if theorising and speculation are welcome here.

    Other than that, I don't really have anything to say. I completely agree with you, Jenny. I couldn't say anything better than you did up there.

    1. As someone who's mind goes to a weird place sometimes, I think it's a combination of things. For one thing, violence in our media is often sexualized, and much sex in media has an element of violence to it. For women, sexual abuse is seen as an inevitable thing that they or someone close to them will endure. I think our brains process all that in a strange kind of way. I personally won't make public any of my "fantasies" (they're not really that, but I'm not sure what else to call them) because I don't want to contribute to that part of this culture. But some people feel the need to share theirs, I guess. I think not every friggin thought a person has needs to be shared and embraced, but that's just me.

    2. Yeah, I would agree, Alex, with that, but in my case, what I was thinking about wasn't necessarily about the rape/abuse fantasies themselves, but regarding why people write stories of actual rape and abuse instead of stories of people roleplaying a rape fantasy.

      The best way I can explain it is something I'm calling the One Step Away theory, where someone having a rape fantasy is one step away from the rape itself, so a story needs to portray actual rape in order to remain one step away from the reader. If the story portrays a character engaging in rape roleplay, that's two steps away from the reader (one step is the characters themselves, the second step is the fantasy they're engaging on), so for people who aren't used to really immersing themselves in a story, two steps away is less satisfying than one step away (people who immerse themselves in a story can easily find satisfaction in in-book situations that are two, three or more steps away from themselves).

      This is like reading a story about Chris, an actor who plays someone named Bob in a movie, and then trying to sympathise with Bob's plight. Bob is two steps away removed from the reader themselves, so everything about that character is more detached and less emotionally compelling (unless you're trained to immerse yourself deeply into a story).

      Therefore, I argue that all the people who are defending 50 Shades as harmless or not having to do with abuse at all are just untrained readers (and EL James is an untrained writer). They are insisting that the abuse is hot because they treat it the same way as a fantasy (one step away from them) and they don't engage in the immersive practice of imagining if Anabella and Chedward were actual people. If a writer were to write a book about a man and a woman in an egaliarian, abuse-free relationship engaging in abuse/rape roleplay, it would probably enjoy very limited success, as the fantasy would begin two steps away from the reader, forcing the reader to engage in immersive reading first, imagining the characters as actual people, in order to have the roleplay one step closer.

      Sorry for the length, it's just a theory that has been percolating in my mind for a couple of years now, and it's still hard for me to explain properly.

    3. I'm not saying you're wrong in all cases, but I have rape fantasies and I'd rather read an actual rape erotica than a roleplay.
      Fucked up? Absolutely, but offering a watered-down version of what I'm into just isn't going to turn me on anywhere near as much.

  16. There's a point I wanna make, regarding the Maxim's blatant advertisement of saying "buy this book and re-enact it for great sex". You know how you mentioned video games? Well, on a lot of the violent ones, there's usually a disclaimer, where the makers will basically say they don't endorse the behaviour, its crime so don't copy it etc. Well, what if, instead of that, they said "murder and violence and crime is awesome! Go out and do it to get money and woman, just like in this game!" I'm almost certain there'd be a massive uproar about it, but really, that's what Maxim have done. Maybe not intentionally as they don't see the abuse side behind the book, but that's what they've done and if E.L. cares so much about domestic abuse and sufferers, then she or someone else should've stopped or changed this. The attention her book is getting should make E.L. at least believe there might be elements of domestic abuse in her books and her response to sufferers (i.e. ignoring them) shows that deep down, she knows that her book has domestic abuse in it, so letting people say "copy this behaviour for great sex" really contradicts her whole "I care for you and your suffering, let's not trivialise the issue" shtick.
    Also, for calmly and rationally discussing this, I salute you. Because Lord knows I just fly off into a rant everytime someone mentions Fifty Shades around me.

    1. "The attention her book is getting should make E.L. at least believe there might be elements of domestic abuse in her books..."

      Not necessarily. She's an untrained writer from the halls of fanfic. Some fanfic authors never learn (or are incapable of dealing with) criticism. They didn't go through the rounds of critique partners, beta readers, 50+ query rejections, etc. to be published. Especially as a fanfic "Big Name Author," she could easily be used to ignoring the few criticizing comments.

      Now put that person into a situation where 90% of the world seems to be fawning over her and her success. She feels justified for everything she's done and said. She sees that reaction as the ultimate proof that she's *right*. It's oh-so-easy to continue ignoring those few critical remarks. To think they're crazy and don't know what they're talking about. To dismiss them with name-calling.

      EL James will NEVER say the relationship in the book is unhealthy because if you go back to her earliest interviews, she's outright stated that Christian is her dream guy. *SHE* wants a Christian Grey in her life. She doesn't recognize that her writing skills weren't up to the task of getting her readers to buy into the fact that Ana wants it too. She doesn't understand why others *wouldn't* want Christian too.

      FSoG is her personal sexual fantasy, and to her, any criticism of the story is criticism of her fantasy. She's defensive because she takes it personally. "What do you mean there's something wrong with MY fantasy? It's MY fantasy and it can bloody well be whatever I want it to be."

      The problem is that because she's so close to this fantasy, she can't see how it would be dangerous in real life. Or how a Christian Grey not under her authorial control would be a completely different person.

      I wouldn't be surprised if psychologists are having a field day over the fact that maybe her pushing to make this story become REAL is a reflection of the fact that she wants her husband (who comes across as very beta in interviews) to be more like Christian. I'm not saying that her pushing the FSoG lifestyle is all a passive aggressive attempt to influence her husband, but I'd be lying if I said the thought hadn't crossed my mind. :)

    2. To be fair though, if E.L. James wants to publish a book to the whole world, then she HAS to learn to take criticism. If this was just still a fanfiction, then her reaction of "It's my story, I don't care what you guize think!!!!" would be more acceptable. She's an established (term used loosely) author. People have paid money to read her books. She cannot reasonably expect no-one to critique it, and then get all defensive if someone does. Also, if in her adult years she cannot accept rejection and criticism, even about something personal to her, that just furthers the notion that she should not have entered into literature in the first place.

      Personally, I'd go as far as to say that her inabilty to accept criticism stems not from the fact that she's a fanfic author, but from the fact that she herself is arrogant and/or small minded. And while I agree that everyone telling her she's the best thing since sliced bread would have deafened her to comments, what she has received is more than comments. Sufferes have come out and told her outright "my experience was exactly like your book". If she can disregard this as people just trying to ruin her "amazing" book, then she is incredibly callous and delusional

      However, I do have to put some of the blame on the people who are telling her she is fantastic just to make money from FSoG. Ignoring quite valid criticism is one thing, but telling someone to ignore it, knowing it will anger lots of people and get E.L. into a lot a sh*t, just to make money is actually probably worse.

  17. Jen, you are a fantastic writer. That is all.

  18. Well said, Jen!

    I'm afraid I do believe that people who like these books, while perhaps not "stupid", do have poor reading comprehension. To see it as a romantic love story, while either ignoring or not getting all the horrible abusive elements, means they must read on a very shallow level. While I can't actually blame anyone for that, I do find it very sad.

    And, no, I don't want to tar and feather EL James (not after watching that episode of Carnivale, years ago), but I would love for her to be forced to take responsibility for her creation and show some empathy for those readers she is, in effect, abusing.

    Sadly, that will probably never happen in this lifetime. Karma is my only hope.

  19. The other problem with these books is that there is a kind of self-awareness that Christian's behaviour is abusive. It's justified because he's an abuse survivor. Also? He does BDSM because he's an abuse survivor. He's "fifty shades of fucked up" because he's an abuse survivor.

    I've survived abuse. In fact, the early abuse I survived was similar in some ways to that which Christian survived. Except I was two years younger, and it wasn't the end of the abuse I endured in my childhood.

    I won't pretend it didn't affect me - it did, in many ways. But it did NOT make me an abuser who could only be healed through the power of love. I CHOSE not to be an abuser. And it did not make me "fucked up". The character of Christian is exploitation of abuse survivors in order for E.L. James to justify a monster.

    I loathe, loathe, loathe the belief that abuse makes abusers. No, it doesn't! There's an overlap that suggests SOME abusers are repeating behaviours that were done to them, but plenty of abusers have never been abused, and most abuse survivors do not become abusers themselves. Being abused NEVER justifies abusing. And I very much resent a group I belong to being represented as "fucked up" and, apparently, unaccountable for our actions.

    That's a huge fucking insult, and erasure, of those of us who endured abuse and managed to meet minimum standard of human decency.

  20. Ok, I kind of do want to tar and feather E.L. James. The fact that she continues to act like she's a good writer who has written something amazing and romantic makes me want to slap her, but then I'd probably never get rid of her because that's what she wants. I just want her to go away forever and never write another word because she is just terrible. Buuut this is why you have this blog, and I stick to just reading and recommending it to everyone who crosses my path - because my rage has completely taken over my rational thoughts.

    Also, I have completely given up on getting my name to display correctly when signed in through Google. So, more rage?

    1. oh my god, you sound just like my ex wife. she couldn't stand anybody else's success either!

    2. Oh my god, you sound just like a lot of guys I hate.
      This isn't jealousy, this is rationality in the face of batshit insanity.

  21. Tarring and feathering means she would likely die, slowly, in agony. So no. But maybe a good honey and feathering? :)

  22. This is a line from a novel. I think it applies to how many view James' work.

    "I thought you were a writer. If so, why do I have the urge to shove this pen in my eyes so the ravens can feast on the jelly? This is typed diarrhea. Just joking. It's not diarrhea. It's more like burning jalapeno shits after using a belt sander as toilet paper. Just saying. You do know what grammar is, do you not? They're, there, their. Jesus H. Christ. It ain't hard."

  23. I'm just not able to get my head around the idea that anyone finds controlling behavior, and having to constantly worry that you have made your partner angry through some inadvertant act of just normal living, and quaking in the face of that anger...remotely sexy or attractive. I've lived with it. It's not. It makes my stomach hurt just thinking about it. Beyond the fact that the writing sucks and the alledgedly graphic sex scenes are anything but. It's a mystery, really.

  24. I also would like to see someone explore the role of his wealth in all this. It seems to me to be money porn. If he were equally pretty but not a billionaire, would Ana (as much as she pretends to disdain it) or anyone else put up with his shit?

    1. I'm convinced Ana forgives him because he's her sugar daddy.

  25. I just don't understand why people need to get all up in arms over the matter of someone liking or disliking a book which they themselves like or dislike. Aren't we all entitled to an opinion and a right to express it under the first amendment?

    But far be it from me to stray into the legality of the thing.

    The thing is that I genuinely enjoyed "Fifty Shades of Grey". (Gasp!) I occasionally re-read the trilogy and I still enjoy it.

    HAVING SAID THAT, I have been an avid reader of your blog and have stuck with you through forty-fifty chapters of absolute dissection and ridicule of "Fifty Shades" and I found it entertaining, educational and in some ways just as enjoyable as the books. (Especially the first few chapters of the first book, which had me howling with laughter so hard I thought my neighbors might come knocking to check if I was still sane.)

    I can absolutely admit to all the things you accuse the book of - the abuse, the repetitiveness, the outdated way of speaking, the ridiculous and utterly inexplicable actions at times, the childishness, the frustration at the author's refusal to name body parts for what they are (this one has really bothered me from the get-go). And I don't think this makes me a hypocrite in any way.

    I simply admit to enjoying certain kinds of bad literature in much the same way as many of us enjoy bad television, bad music and food that's bad for us but we eat it anyway because it's delicious and cheap.

    Do I think the book is dangerous? To some extent. I do think you have begun to take it a little too seriously about halfway through the first book. I guess it's very defeatist of me to think this, and it saddens me that I do, but I've stopped believing a book can change the world (either positively or negatively). Personally, I'm one of those people (who must annoy the living shit out of you) who don't feel like all books should be educational or convey a positive message. Hell, most of the classics don't! (To be clear, I am in no way comparing "Fifty Shades" to classic literature, I'm merely making a statement about how precious few of the classics have left me with a better understanding of how to live my life, as opposed to how NOT to live it.) So I guess the book is dangerous to susceptible minds. I would say it might negatively affect pre-pubescent girls, but I'm sincerely hoping pre-pubescent girls won't find themselves engrossed in it before they've matured and outgrown the blind identification with books and fictional characters we've all indulged in our youth. And I can easily see how it might be traumatic or trigger bad memories for victims of domestic abuse. But never have I felt so abused and defeated by a book than I have about "Wuthering Heights" and the asshole that is Heathcliff. (I stand by what I said here. Yes, I do. Tie me to a pole and set me on fire and with my last, dying breath I'll be gasping "Fuck you, Heathcliff!")

    But have I at any point found myself wishing to lash out at you for having an opinion, which more often than not is both hilarious and constructive? Not in the slightest. I find myself wishing E.L. James would get wind of your blog, have enough sense to read it, then take your criticism under advisement in much the same way as one would an editor's, and do a complete do-over. Just write the books from scratch, keeping many of the things you said in mind. (Unless I'm very much mistaken, Bulgakov did something remarkably similar with "Master and Margarita, and not once, but twice, before it finally saw the light of day. What we know as "Master and Margarita" today is actually a "take three".)

    It would make for a thoroughly enjoyable book for me personally.

  26. (to all imposing the idea of abuse) Grow up, its fiction! its in the same category as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings......fiction!!!!!!!

    1. i am lolling out of my chair imagining you angrily button-mashing those exclamation marks and periods

    2. Yes it's fiction, but it's being marketed as 'what women want' and a how-to guide for hot sex. That is what our issues mostly are.

  27. Is fiction but it glorifies abuse. There is no consent throughout the story.

  28. AAAGGGGHHHHH, NO, Jen, don't back peddle! The women who find Christian Grey the perfect man ARE STUPID!!!! If not that, then they are just effing CRAZY!

    That's it, all 50 Shades supporters are EFFING STUPID CRAZY PEOPLE!

  29. oh my god. how stupid can some radical feminists be!!!!

  30. I think the publishers could have marketed it completely differently, keeping the content the same, and we wouldn't be having this discussion:

    "Glimpse the darkness of obsession, as love struggles to find the light."

    Or something like that. So you see what I'm doing? I'm making it an act of voyeurism. It's not something you should do, it's something you should see. When I was a pre-teen, I got really interested in books about racism in the 1960s and the Holocaust. I was, as a member of a privileged class (white), trying to understand the darkness and fear of prejudice. I think books about rape and abuse (provided they're well written) can help people understand it better, and open their eyes to the reality. If this was how the book was marketed, we would just be talking about how James failed high school English, although I doubt it would have made as much money.


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