The Deal with the 50 Shades Debate (or, a misanthrope’s rant)
I create this post with a sense of utmost urgency, even paranoia, for something has pushed me into taking up arms and deliberately placing myself in harm’s way. For several days now, I have seen FB posts from a high school classmate “gushing” over 50 Shades, or more particularly, the male protagonist. Immediately I felt despair and panic, as though what she has said was akin to a proclamation of world’s end, or much worse, admiration and adulation for a piece that more “learned,” “sensible” individuals would see it more fit for mouse nesting. I tried to dissuade such delusion by giving her posts that dispute the work, or even suggest better (and more deserving, I believe) pieces. Yet, for the second time another FB post reveals that I have failed, and all the more I strove to talk her out of it.
Yet, even as I take these actions, I am forced to consider my own position as well. Why am I so adamant, so insistent, to persuade someone that a certain “book” is not even worthy of public accolades and attention? What is it about this “book” that makes such arguments so heated, particularly in the media? I have to see what the arguments really are, to see whether or not such arguments counter each other or are merely just another case of the chicken and the egg. Moreover, even if a just slightly get a better picture of the debate, will my own opinions about the “book” change and even (gulp) read it?
First, the pro’s. A search into Google with the words, “positive about 50 shades of grey” returned “about” 161,000,000 hits, which coincidentally is the same number with the words “negative about 50 shades of grey” (the numbers may change when you try it on Google, depending on the algorithms involved in your own computer). A Wikipedia article has more or less given a comprehensive view of the “books” but it’s also pertinent to look at how other sites talk about it in a positive light.
The “books” are a good example of “online marketing”. Jason Boog from the GalleyCat site traced the origins of the “books” as first being an x-rated Twilight fan fiction before disappearing from most of the internet ether and evolving into the “book” familiar today. What is particular about this is that the “popularity” of the “book” came first not through the usual avenues of agent, editor, copyeditor, proofreader, publisher, but through word-of-mouth, usually from Twilight’s own fans/readers of Twilight fan fiction. And fans being fans, such people would do what it takes to promote/express their fandom, and this is particularly strong in digital/ebook publishing, as proclaimed by Aja Romano in themarysue.com.
Fans claim to love the “story”. This is also the “reason” my high school classmate insisted on why she gushes over the “book”, which is also what Anna North discovered in her article in BuzzFeed. And more to it is the seeming dynamics of the relationship the two protagonists have, particularly in how the male protagonist treats the female protagonist. The article says it succinctly with the words, “fans who called in were captivated by the fantasy of a man who does everything his lover needs — and does it without being asked.”
It’s a feminine “escapist” story. Abiola Adams in her Yahoo! article mentions that women’s sexual desires are not as expressed (prolific?) as that of men’s in media, or even in society in general, and that the “book” is a positive step forward into that. An indiewire blog by Emilie Spiegel affirms that thought, proclaiming that “any series whose very existence attests to the fact that women also have desires (desires that deserve to be serviced, no less!) is a step in the right direction”. This seems to be the most vocal point that a lot of fans, and even as a springboard note to another article in BuzzFeed where Amy Odell and Anna North discuss women’s (and may men’s too) need to communicate in terms of sex.
Looking at these arguments for the “book,” it seems to be that the lauding of the book is more based on how the main characters interact (very much interact) with each other, the “heat” between them, so to speak. There may be others, but looking around at different sites, such arguments look like a variant or sub-variant of these three. Some have bristled against the term “mommy porn,” most especially the author herself, but it is exactly why the book enjoys its success – it may have become one of the sounding horns for women’s sexuality.
Next are the cons. Provided that we have these previous arguments, I want to see if these can be countered point by point.
The “books” are a good example of “online marketing”.
Counter: It’s a good example of “herd mentality”. By mere virtue of the fact (and a lot of fans have admitted to this) that the “books” were bought due to a friend’s recommendation, they then fell into the trap of popularity regardless of quality. In short, it’s a mere jumping into the bandwagon cliche. This is actually mentioned in a MenHealth’s article and this is probably gives credence to the phrase “mommy porn,” whether you want to take it positively or negatively. Mommy porn is just another phrase of porn for married women with kids who, at some level, are actually pissed/wanting/frustrated with their own sexual lives, or their lives in general.
Fans claim to love the “story”.
Counter: A story shouldn’t sacrifice quality, or at least competency, for the sake of being just readable. One major criticism for this “book” is its blatant disregard for proper grammar or technical conventions. Enjoying a story is actually not bad, it’s in fact one of the factors why a story is read in the first place, but it’s something else when such story is not even presented in a clean manner. It is not really a good read when you would be faced with a glaring error like a hiccup, or worse a series of hiccups, when one is eating a meal. One possible danger is the misconception that just because such a “book” was able to push into the mainstream public gives the idea that others can do the same, even if the person may not actually have even competent skills, as one book agent lamented in her blog.
Even for those some who have read the book, and were sensible enough to notice, would bewail such poor writing that the enjoyment of the story is diminished or removed entirely. Grace Lavigne and Lazycatfish are just some examples who showed their disdain in their blogs for the “books” right after reading
Another is just how characterization is developed, or rather the lack of it. The blog entries of Reelgoddess and Sarah show that the main characters are mostly sophomoric and lacking of substance, as though drawn only fit for the sexually incensed imagination, like 2-D hentai (although I’ve watched pretty substantial hentai, so probably this would be a poor analogy). Also deplorable are the repetitions of several expressions that do not really contribute much to the substantiation of the plot or the characters. There is even a blog post where the number 50 is actually used to lambast the entire series, showing just how one-dimensional (and in some items, no such dimension at all) the details and characters are. I mean, really – would you really want to have a man who comes to you and demands to have sex only to ask for a contract of silence? What is this, the mafia? Wait, no. That is a poor analogy – at least the mafia operates with a unique sense of honour and trust within and among its members, no matter how delinquent it may be to society.
It’s a feminine “escapist” story.
Counter 1: All stories are “escapist” in some level, but should not sacrifice believability and validity of details. Probably the biggest criticism is the way BDSM is portrayed in the “books” – wrongly. The argument that the story gives the chance for readers to just “simply relax and be lulled along” with the “books” will actually find themselves hurled along the jagged rocks of misinformation and misrepresentation of what BDSM actually is and involves. This has been discussed further in a blog by hidingfromsomeone in tumblr and the reiterated in prestigious Huffington UK site with Kyrsty Hazell’s article. Supporters for the “books” may argue that readers will not try such activities, but like Ate Vi famously quoted, “You can never can tell” (and yeah, that’s deliberate :P). The fact that the sex scenes are situated in the BDSM context already provides a thrill factor for the uninitiated and uninformed, and therefore provides also an incorrect image of such sexual varieties, even if it will not be acted out in real life. And if one does not even make the effort to educate oneself regarding these, it will actually be for the detriment of those actually practising these activities and put them in an even more negative light, as unfortunately they already have been marginalized for their “unconventional” sexual views and activities by general society. In fact, in an article in The Guardian by Pamela Stephenson Connolly, those in the BDSM community are not the so-called “freaks” or “weirdos” that society wrongly portrays them to be, but rather just as psychologically and mentally healthy as those who may not be necessarily in such a community. BDSM, as a friend would insist, is not just about the kinky, strange accessories used to “heighten” sexual activity, but rather an awareness of one’s and one partner’s own body with an increased respect for the other. It’s not just the play of dominance and submission, but the build up of trust and companionship. This was not clearly shown in the characters, with the female lead’s hesitant vacillating and the male lead’s own personal shit giving him a false sense of dominance towards her.
Counter 2: There are other, more substantial erotica to be found. The boy-meets-girl scenario is probably one of the oldest stories to be used, re-used, abused, misused, rehashed and bashed throughout the centuries, but it’s actually one of the hardest to pull off. That hasn’t stopped countless of authors from making their erotic/romance novels. One should merely look at the aisles of Powerbooks, Fully Booked and National Bookstore to know this is true. In fact, Dr. Isagani Cruz in his book, The Other Other, claims that local romance novels are said to get sold by 40,000 copies per week, several thousands more than purchases for foreign romance titles. What’s important to note about erotica, far from getting titillated from apparent gynaecological details is the growth of the partnered characters, not just as a couple, but as individuals themselves – so much so that they do not come together because they complete each other, but rather they complement each other, which the protagonists seem to not have developed, or developed in an unrealistic direction. In short, erotica goes beyond the smut, which sadly a lot of readers today, with our instant gratification worldview, do not really look for. Some books that have at least become competent, if not actually succeeded, are visible in this list by Heidi Maier of thevine.com.au, though definitely there are others out there.
From all these, where do we go then? Let me perhaps go back to the questions I raised in the beginning of this post, “a very good place to start,” as the song goes.
Why am I so adamant, so insistent, to persuade someone that a certain “book” is not even worthy of public accolades and attention?
Why, indeed? Perhaps I wanted to let her see that such a “book” is not what the hype is all cracked up to be. I felt, and still feel, like I’m Jaina Solo trying to get her twin, Jaden Solo, “to return to the Force”. Looking at the last counter-argument, there are definitely titles out there more worthy of attention. I myself read romance novels (I actually prefer the male protagonist in the “Highlander theme” :P) but my attraction to them is quieter, more meditative. This is maybe because of my current direction of goals that I see books (novels, poetry, nonfiction) as more than just pieces of paper stuck together.
What is it about this “book” that makes such arguments so heated, particularly in the media?
Maybe because that it is a book, it is a story, which makes it so controversial. Controversial books are not new in history, either in other countries or in ours. Maybe in the future when there will be new generations to look back at this time, opinions may change regarding it, as did the current generation has when looking at books published hundreds, tens of years before us. Maybe.
Moreover, even if a just slightly get a better picture of the debate, will my own opinions about the “book” change and even (gulp) read it?
This demands two differing answers.
Looking at the other side of the debate now, my opinions do not really change, but I do concede to the points supporting this work. No matter how many lambast it or poke fun at it, you cannot deny that there is support for it. A fan base is a fan base, after all. I probably won’t put the fans of FSoG in high regard, personally, but I would of course respect their choice.
Read it? Not even after a million lifetimes. After researching the positives and negatives about it has actually convinced me to work even harder NOT to fall into such a trap. If I am to be a writer (even if I am never to be published in either the traditional or digital manner), I must hold on to my principles of craft and art. Entertainment in literature after all is not its SOLE, END-ALL-BE-ALL function.
One last thing, I saw this blog that proclaims annoyance towards the “books,” and the author’s subsequent sarcastic responses. It is an amusing read (even by not looking at her profile, you can tell she’s a writer :P), but I will only highlight some of them:
“I wasn’t going to read it but all my friends are.”
(I hope all of your friends don’t decide to jump off a bridge.)
“Okay, so the writing is bad, but I don’t read books for the writing.”
(So you also date people you don’t like and eat things that make you puke.)
“I just read it for the sex. It’s not easy to find a book with a lot of sex in it.”
(Anaïs Nin is rolling in her grave.)
I leave you with this video with Gottfried doing a very special task, probably an honour for an actor of his level to do. Enjoy! 😀
[This is a re-hashed edition from one of my posts in another blog, but I’d like to bring this up again. Why? Just because. And just to show that the sentiment I have presented here before is just as strong now, or perhaps even stronger. So, which ever your deal is with this particular 50 shit, call out! :)]