Warning: this post contains frank and (mostly) adult conversations about sex.
Warning 2: Mom, I know you read my blog. I apologize in advance.
Confession: I read 50 Shades of Grey. And I liked it.
The prose gave me shivers, and not in a good way. It’s clunky and offensive to those of us who have tried to make a living as writers. Some of the turns of phrase are so godawful that you can’t help but laugh out loud.
The characters are unbelievable. The guy is unrealistically rich and successful, in his mid-20s, and has a perfectly-carved body while still finding time to fly various aircraft and play piano. The woman is a recent college grad who doesn’t know how to use smartphones, the Internet, and is still a virgin who has never had a relationship despite every man around her thinking she’s attractive.
The plot isn’t much better. Much has already been said about a relationship that, at its best, is an unhealthy depiction of BDSM. At its worst, it’s borderline abusive. The guy is a stalker, and the woman not only continues the relationship (at first), she’s so intrigued by what amounts to a heavily-damaged near-sociopath, she crosses boundaries she shouldn’t be comfortable crossing.
Now, let’s talk about 50 Shades of Grey.
That? No, that was my summary of any number of hundreds of pieces of written erotica – smut, word porn, whatever – on a website devoted to such work.
Before the Internet, it would simply be pornography, or erotica if we’re being kind. Some famous authors have tried their hand at it: Anne Rice’s Beauty series has scenes (and prose) that makes the BDSM and unhealthy relationships in 50 Shades look like a Golden Book. Another of her BDSM tomes was turned into a movie almost 20 years ago, starring Rosie O’Donnell, among others.
So why the hue and cry over 50 Shades?
It’s popular. It took something that has remained hidden, even with authors like Anne Rice tackling it, and turned it into something in the national (or international) consciousness. And, I suspect, the patriarchy feels threatened by its existence. A good portion of the criticism is reinforcing an incredibly (cis)-male-centric view of what pornography should be, and what women “should” like.
Someone tacked the pejorative label “mommy porn” onto 50 Shades. Porn it may be, and yes it’s aimed at women, but the use of this label reveals the larger cultural problem accepting a mass-market fantasy aimed at women that isn’t Bridget Jones’ Diary.
The main character is an American college student as imagined by a British housewife in her mid-40s. Christian Grey is the epitome of some cis-female fantasies: he’s wealthy, good-looking, commanding. Their relationship, if taken by any sort of normal standards, would be, to use a technical term, “extremely fucked up.”
But does anyone out there read 50 Shades of Grey and think “hey, this is something that could realistically happen?”
Let’s apply that question to any of the other kinds of porn, smut, or erotica that exist out there. Does anyone think the relationships portrayed in “Cum-Guzzling Gutter Sluts 3” are healthy? Does any woman think the titular Debbie of Debbie Does Dallas is someone they should feel threatened by? Does any man look at a guy in “Logjammin’” and think anything other than “that’s a proxy for me to be excited and aroused?” Did reading Beauty as a 15 year old (sorry mom!) turn me into a sociopathic abuser of women?
No. So why, all of a sudden, are we freaking out over 50 Shades?
I suspect it’s for the same reason I liked it despite the prose, unrealistic characters, and abusive relationship (and tired “woman who fixes the man” plot): because it’s popular, it’s opened dialogue, and it exists to do one thing–intrigue and turn people on.
What awful, awful, awful smut!
It’s erotica. It’s porn. And it’s super-successful and it’s made the kind of money I can only dream of when writing about zombie-killing cowboys. It threatens cultural norms, and some of its largest detractors are, oddly enough, women.
50 Shades is also an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and our significant others. Does this turn me on? Why? Is there something here I can take away and put into practice in my own sex life?
50 Shades isn’t supposed to be great art. Or even bad art. It’s pornography. We either condemn it with the rest of pornography, or we use it as an opportunity for dialogue and conversation.
Who knows. You might learn something new.