I don’t believe in condemning something I know nothing about. When I see shocking headlines, I usually do my best to read the entire article, to follow up on links, and to read around the subject. If I don’t have the time to do that (which often I don’t), I tend not to comment. The world is full of bias and prejudice, and I know I am by no means immune to it, but I usually try. In the same way, I don’t criticise films I haven’t seen or books I haven’t read. Twilight, for example. I don’t think I’d like the writing very much, and I’ve heard the films are fairly awful, so I don’t have any particular urge to watch them. But that’s all I’ll say about it, since I don’t have first-hand experience, and I think it would be hypocritical to just blindly put forward others’ opinions without having any first-hand experience of my own.
It is due to this random streak of morality, or ethics, or whatever you want to call it, that I finally caved in and read Fifty Shades Of Grey. I’ve been reading about it for a year now, and trying to avoid it as much as possible, because everything I’d read told me I would hate it – terrible writing, misleading portrayal of BDSM, trashy teenaged fanfic (which is what it originally was) not worth my time. The thing is though, if you’re into BDSM and writing and talking openly about it, it’s kind of hard to ignore the biggest source of (mis)information out there in mainstream culture. I don’t have to read Twilight, because Twilight has absolutely no impact on my life, but unfortunately, Fifty Shades does. And when I found out that my little sister was reading it, despite my plaintive attempts to get her to read Kushiel’s Dart instead, I caved in.
There are hundreds of reviews and analyses of it out there, especially in the feminist and S&M corners of the internet. I haven’t read all of them, and I highly doubt I’ll be saying anything new, but the nice thing about writing a blog rather than an academic paper is that you don’t always have to be saying something utterly radical and original. At least, I hope so, anyway.
The first thing I want to say is that, as I was warned, the writing is fairly terrible. By which I mean the dialogue is generally awful (I have sympathy with this, since I always found writing dialogue incredibly difficult, back in my own fanfic days). Any parts of the book that aren’t about sex are also pretty dire: tedious descriptions, barely-sketched minor characters, repetitive sentence structures. But that’s okay, because those bits just aren’t important – they’re just filler until the next big sex scene. And the thing is, the sex scenes are actually okay. Sometimes there’ll be a word or phrase that I’ll find particularly jarring and that will just break the mood entirely (does anyone use ‘my sex’ as euphemism these days? For goodness sake just use the word ‘cunt’!), but in general, it’s pretty hot. Hot like the Harry Potter slash fanfic I used to read when I was fourteen, all dizziness and liquid heat and mind-blowing, utterly unrealistic orgasms from barely a touch, but still hot.
Because the thing is, this is a book for teenaged girls to masturbate to. And that is a good thing. Teenaged girls need fantasy-material as much as anyone else, but up until now there’s been a gap in the market. Adult women get real erotica, once they know what to look for, and men get porn, which most teenaged boys seem to discover pretty rapidly. But teenaged girls aren’t meant to be sexual – they’re meant to be shy innocent virgins who want to fall in love, not get spanked and fucked. So the erotica market doesn’t really cater for them, or hasn’t, up til now. When I was that age, I had fanfic. The fanfic explosion seems to be ebbing, and has been for a few years now, but there’re still thousands of stories out there for the curious horny girl. I needed that. I was a geeky sci-fi fangirl who discovered the magical world of fanfic by accident, through a Lord of the Rings messageboard. I was lucky. If I’d been more popular and had actual friends in real life when I was twelve, I might never have discovered it. Popular girls need to masturbate too!
So yes, Fifty Shades reads like a teenaged girl’s wet dream, because that’s what it is. The heroine is an ‘ordinary girl’, just like you or me, while the love interest is literally Perfect, a millionaire who is gorgeous and sexy and can make her come just by sucking her nipples. It’s Twilight fanfic with the names changed, so yeah, the plot is non-existent, but that’s not what’s important. And if it’s encouraging teenagers to realise that female sexuality isn’t a bad thing, and to explore their own preferences and boundaries, then I don’t care how terrible the writing is.
The problem, however, is that it doesn’t stop there. This isn’t just erotica, this is kinky S&M erotica, dontcha know. And that is where Fifty Shades disappoints. As countless other bloggers have noted, it gets so many things wrong. The contract, for example – what’s that about? I mean, yes, some people do use contracts, but it’s not the norm, and they’re rarely as extensive with that. He has this phenomenal dungeon in his luxury apartment, that they don’t use for anything more extreme than spanking. The negotiation process is sort of there – they do communicate, and talk about boundaries, but she’s coming into it from a position of such utter ignorance and inexperience that it’s basically meaningless. And, of course, he was abused as a child, and is therefore a Damaged Individual, which is why he needs BDSM in his life. Not because it’s a valid and healthy lifestyle that can be extremely pleasurable for some people. No, because he’s damaged, and can’t handle ‘normal’ relationships. Got it. (I haven’t read the second two, but I do know how the series ends, and it is predictably not with acceptance of the BDSM lifestyle.)
In an ordinary fanfic, I wouldn’t care about any of that. I’d read it for the sex scenes, get off on it, and forget about it. But this isn’t just fanfic anymore, it’s a book that’s gone viral, and for the majority of people who read it, this is their only insight into what BDSM might be like. And that is what I have an issue with. I find it irresponsible. I guess that isn’t E. L. James’s fault, since she never intended it to explode the way it did, but now that it has, the damage is out there. Those teenaged girls discovering sexuality for the first time? They’re going to be left with just one paradigm for BDSM, and it will be a destructive and inaccurate one.
Maybe that’s better than having no paradigm at all, and just assuming it’s something disgusting and weird that occasionally gets referenced on CSI. Maybe it will make them curious and encourage them to go out and read more, ask questions and do research. I hope so. The S&M community has sought societal acceptance for years now. Now they – we – have it, sort of, but it’s not in our words or on our terms and it gets so much wrong that I wonder if that’s really any better than being hidden away.
I don’t know, is the answer. But at least now I’ve read it, I don’t have to feel guilty for having an opinion.