Why we should be kind to readers of Fifty Shades

50I thought it was about time to talk about Fifty Shades of Grey.  I’m not citing any sources because honestly, other people have researched this so much better than I ever could.

Spoiler alert?  If you think Fifty Shades is bad because it includes BDSM (or premarital sex) at all, you should probably just shuffle out the nearest Exit.

Trigger warnings for discussion of rape, abuse, victim blaming, sex and bdsm.

There’s been a lot of chatter about whether Christian Grey’s behaviour in the Fifty Shades of Grey series is acceptable.  Let me start with a blanket statement: I do think he is abusive, and I do think we need to start a conversation about that.  But I feel like the conversation’s big stumbling block is the fact that people just aren’t terrifically receptive to hearing that something that turned them on is unethical.  And while many would argue that they should be made uncomfortable, that’s keeping us from getting to the table, so knock it off.  Need more convincing?  Okay.

We need to keep in mind that people have already read (and probably masturbated to) this series.

Shouting “Christian Grey is a rapist” is not helpful because so many people who have read those books or are about to see those movies already inherently disagree.  They’ve surveyed his behaviour and simply do not see it that way.  This series wouldn’t be so wildly popular if it didn’t turn people on.  It does!  I think most people would agree that they are not turned on by abusive, angry, manipulative rapists.

“But he is,” you may be arguing.  “So I’m right to scream it all day long!”  I’m not saying you’re wrong, but what I am saying is that if you want to reach people and help them understand why this series is so, so very wrong, it’s a honey-flies-vinegar situation.  People are tuning out your really, really important message.  I don’t want that.  I want people who are consuming these books, this movie, these promotional products to understand just what is so weird about the relationship that is being presented.

Why are they having such a hard time hearing it?

People have been culturally swindled into misreading this series as innocuous and problem-free.  That’s not their fault, exactly.

Christian Grey is part of an elaborate fantasy world with limitless wealth at his disposal, a common trope among romance novels and films.  His unspeakable income and generosity towards Ana make everything that happens take on an unreal quality.  It’s not just sex–their entire time together is a magical fantasy wonderland experience.  So when Christian Grey “asks” Ana for sex or tolerance of his behaviour, it’s a short jump for a lot of people to think, “he’s demanding here, but he loves her because he built her a freakin’ mansion!”

He experienced sexually while Ana is a virgin who has barely even dated before.  Because she is a sexual blank slate, it’s easy to misinterpret her misgivings as inexperience or clumsiness–which is a character trait the author establishes early on as she trips into Grey’s office or claims to be “all fingers and thumbs” (what? Isn’t everyone all fingers and thumbs?) People mistake this for an education, another romance novel cliché.

His mysterious past is how he explains his controlling nature, and we’re to infer it explains his anger and (rather Oedipal) penchant for bondage, as well.  Watch any dramatic romance movie and you’ll see how our society thinks handsome people with troubled pasts should be handled; with love, and an incredible patience for shitty behaviour.  Which Ana gives in droves.  Her love can “heal” him, we’re all to believe.  They can have a happily ever after if she just bears a little unpleasantness now.  (Spoiler alert: this is exactly how it plays out.)

All of this to say, our media has given people some pretty wacky ideas about sexual power balance and normal behaviours.  Obviously.  Otherwise, why would E.L. James have written it?  I don’t think she’s some sinister woman, pushing to normalize rape or abuse.  She found it sexy, a lot of people who read her Twilight fanfiction thought so, her publishers apparently thought so, tons of people now think so.

People buy this book and buy into the relationship because from a wide cultural view, it’s not too far off of what is seen everyday on the silver screen in PG rated films.  It’s a mixture of aspects of sexuality that we’re taught to want and fear.  Mystery, taboo sexuality, limitless wealth, power imbalance, education… if you miss the undertones, the overtones are

We need to find a way to tell people that what’s happening in Fifty Shades isn’t okay… without making anybody feel bad.

Shouting “Christian Grey is a rapist” has a very real undertone of “You were turned on by rape, even though you didn’t think it was rape! BAD! BAAAADDDD!”

I can’t stress enough that many people don’t see it as rape or abuse because our society has normalized so much of this behaviour.  We have to let people know that what this series presents is not acceptable, is not love, is not BDSM, is not consent, is not cool… without shaming anybody who simply read a book and started having better, consensual sex with a few accessories.

I say, we start with better information.  Offer people other movies, other books, other sources of info about BDSM or sex.  Show them how to properly use handcuffs (or ties) as restraints.  Teach them about the correct way to handle a sub, the correct behaviour to expect from a Dom.  Teach them that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, as it was for Ana.  Teach them that consent is necessary, that enthusiastic consent is sexy (and necessary), that ignoring a “no” is never okay (well… that’s another article.)

Don’t just say, “Christian Grey is a rapist.”  Say, “Here’s this passage I read from those books and it makes me really uncomfortable.  Do you think Ana really wanted this?”

Fifty Shades made this topic sexy.  Capitalize on the trend by making consent the new Grey.

2 thoughts on “Why we should be kind to readers of Fifty Shades

  1. I have zero interest in this series. I consider it BDSM-lite and prefer my BDSM straight up, if I’m in the mood for it at all.

    When I first read the “rape” charges I kinda thought to myself “Well if you don’t understand BDSM then I guess it would seem like rape.” But reading this post makes me think there’s more to the story, that there’s an element of dysfunction in their relationship that has nothing to do with sex.

    If that’s the case, I would probably focus on the offensive parts of their non-sexual union than any particular sex act. I would stress that putting up with “anger” and “shitty behavior” is dangerous and has nothing to do with sexplay. I think trying to argue the fine points of consent in a fantasy setting would be very difficult because, as you pointed out, you’re bumping up against people’s fascination with something naughty. I would find it easier to remove sex from the equation and just focus my argument on what’s fucked up with the rest of their relationship. ( And it sounds like there’s plenty of that to go around.)

    But… again.. I haven’t read the series so I could just be talking out my ass. LOL.

    • Their relationship is totally wrong and messed up. The level of fantasy in this novel makes it so, so easy for readers to gloss over because the creepiest of his behaviours (he somehow tracks her location though her cellphone, for instance) is also a means of conveying just how magically rich and powerful he is. His anger and totally disturbing controlling nature is supposed to illustrate that he is *really just concerned for Ana* (he buys her a car, won’t let her see a friend because he tried to kiss her against her will once when they were drunk) or *afraid she’ll leave him* because he’s *really just a scared, sad, abandoned toddler at heart* (spoiler alert: he was a scared, sad, abandoned toddler.) All of this is happening in these books outside of the bedroom. I think you’re absolutely right–-it’s totally necessary to help people set the sexual aspects aside and focus in on what’s going on at the core of this relationship.

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