I was in high school when the Twilight books became cultural phenomena. I remember having very loud conversations about the books with my friends in Spanish class, waving off the silly remarks from the boys (who, for some reason, always sat on the other side of the room) about how they were unrealistic and badly written and whatever else. At the time, reading the Twilight series was still culturally acceptable—this was before the poorly-made films catalyzed a fall from grace most have since come to view as inevitable. No one, whether or not they be a pedant of good taste, considers the books to be “literature.” Still, since then, a conversation has come up that surrounds this question: if people are reading at all, why does it matter what they’re reading?
Ruth Graham’s famous “Against YA” article in Slate is now seven months old, and the conversation surrounding whether or not adults “should” or “should not” read YA literature, i.e. books typically written for 12-17 year-olds, more or less calmed down with the hullaballoo surrounding “The Fault In Our Stars.” It will pick up again, I imagine, when “Eleanor & Park” comes out next year—it’s no secret that these kinds of conversations tend to coalesce around the releases of buzzy films. I would argue, perhaps controversially, that just as “Twilight” the movie hastened Twilight the book’s fall from grace, Harry Potter wouldn’t have been nearly as influential as it has been if the films had never been made.
So naturally, that makes me wonder about 50 Shades. The film of the books has been in development essentially since the first book came out in 2012. The two never really existed independently of each other. Both film and book have been alternatively slammed and lauded by various sources. The consensus on Rotten Tomatoes at time of writing is that the film works better than the book, but even with that you’re still comparing mud to dirt. Critics of the film call it boring, while critics who concentrate on the book are much more vitriolic, slamming it for glorification of abuse, domestic violence, and stalking.
The conversations are familiar. I’ve been following them with interest not because I’m interested in 50 Shades—I haven’t read the books, I don’t intend to, and I don’t intend to see the film—but because the conversations surrounding it are very important to me. I was first drawn into the conversation based on comparisons of the bad writing in the E. L. James (Erika Leonard) books to that of the Twilight series, which was just funny to me, because 50 Shades actually started out as Twilight fanfiction. But then I got frustrated. First, I was morally indignant about the mass popularity of a bondage porn book. Then, as a writer of both original novels and fanfiction, the question of plagiarism came up—is it right for James to have essentially profited off a story based on work that wasn’t hers? Finally, as a survivor of sexual violence, I was outraged at the glorification and defence of this behaviour by so many women. It wasn’t a matter of what I’d been through. It was a matter of turning sexual exploitation and harassment into defensible behaviour.
The media has been loud with this perspective over the last few weeks, so I won’t beleaguer it. Honestly, I’m thrilled that so many women and their supporters from so many backgrounds and worldviews have been saying the same thing: this is wrong. Because it is. Truth be told, though, part of me wonders if E. L. James herself knows that. We’re told not to judge books by their covers, but at the same time, a book’s cover often says a lot—most books of Grey’s genre openly advertise their contents on their covers, occasionally in their titles as well. So, what, then? Are the title “50 Shades of Grey” and a pixellated man’s tie on the front cover just half-hearted attempts at ambiguity? When the books first debuted, before they were widely known, it was likely possible to read them on a soccer pitch without anyone being the wiser.
And thus, the question at the heart of the YA debate this summer comes up again: if people are reading at all, why does it matter what they’re reading?
It does matter. Twilight was maligned for such reasons as creating unrealistic emotional expectations in young girls and for normalising stalking. 50 Shades, which began as Twilight fanfiction, had that as its stock and got worse through addition of things like normalisation of abuse. Hundreds of millions of these books have been sold. And then, then, the film gets an R rating for “unusual behaviour,” sparing it the box-office death of NC-17 in the same skirted fashion as did “Basic Instinct” in the 90’s and dozens of others, and along with it, practices which have heretofore been the domain of pornography and sex circles enter into the mainstream.
And their strongest, staunchest supporters are women.
I’ll close this entry with this thought from Rotten Tomatoes user Pat ChalupaBatman, posted on the 50 Shades forums on Feb. 1st: “Women complain that the media is sexist, unbalanced, and creates unrealistic expectations of image and gender, then they eat this like candy.”
The comment is somewhat sexist, but the point remains: it’s one thing to have tastes. It’s another to declare yourself an advocate for women and find pleasure in their abuse.