Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t already seen this movie go see it already.

There’s a transition moment in Mad Max: Fury Road between the second and third acts where the main character, Imperator Furiosa, drops to her lowest levels of despair. She’s fled the Citadel with five women kept only to breed “healthy babies” for its despot, the sinister Immorten Joe, promising to lead them to the “green place.“ Needless to say, it doesn’t work out exactly as planned. As Furiosa collapses in anguish and frustration, Max, in one of the rare times he speaks more than a grunt or one word, tells her (I’m paraphrasing slightly) that it’s not enough to run from the thing evil thing (Joe’s exploitive patriarchy). Hope and redemption relies on the ability to change that thing.

bridesPost-apocalyptic (PA) stories are a wonderful tapestry upon which we can explore a variety of social problems in the most extreme conditions. One of the lessons I took away from a college class on the Holocaust is that belief systems and social structures break down in extremities: how can you believe in God, for example, when evil men are murdering His chosen people in the millions? PA tales give us the chance to explore such questions in a variety of different tapestries, skipping to the logical and most extreme end. Fury Road tackles a very relevant question: what does patriarchy look like stripped of its trappings, and how do you fight against it?

Much has already been said about the film’s feminist message. Furiosa, perfectly played by Charlize Theron, is the true hero here: the eponymous Max is simply along for the ride. In fact, as you may have gathered from the above example, Max serves the purpose most women play in many action stories: he helps and guides the hero in her despair—one of the many ways Fury Road subverts action film gender tropes. Joe’s brides are each their own character, none a true damsel in distress: they’re psychologically damaged by their captivity in varying degrees but are not played simply as helpless MacGufffins. The tribe of women is presented as no better or worse than the other wasteland tribes: they’ve done what they need to do to survive, and you get the feeling that if Furiosa and the band had taken the bait when they first meet, the women would have killed them without a second thought.furiosa

Fury Road is likely the greatest feminist action/sci-fi film since Aliens. In fact, it probably surpasses Cameron’s masterpiece.

Riding back home (and trying to drive the speed limit) after seeing the film, my wife remarked to me that it’s no wonder the Men’s Rights Activists hate the movie. It isn’t necessarily because of the feminist characters—it’s because Immorten Joe and his Citadel represents their world view. Women are fine if they fight and act like the boys, but otherwise they’re simply objects to be negged into sleeping with men, or used to (literally) nurture the War Boys who do the real fighting for the tribe. Wealth (water) is the greatest thing because it represents success and the ability to control the masses. Just give them a taste, but never too much. And Furiosa—and Max—are a colossal “fuck you” to the MRAs and those who cannot see the patriarchy for the tribe.

joeDirector/writer George Miller manages to create an enormous amount of story and background by painting with a minimalist but gut-wrenching brush. A few lines of dialogue and a lot of showing rather than telling fill out the story and characterization—no mean feat for any director.

He also achieves something remarkable that, as a writer, I cannot help but respect: he goes into issues of violence, rape, and exploitation and manages to keep the story about the women and their allies rather than making it about the man in that situation. I’ve often asked “how does a male writer include something about exploitation in a story without it turning into self-serving bullshit?” The answer is Fury Road.

With GamerGate and Sad Puppies still visible in our rear view mirrors, and the next spiky car of patriarchal reinforcement gunning its engine somewhere in this wasteland, Fury Road achieves a truly monumental feat. The film is a literal example of its core message: it’s not enough to run away. You have to actively work to change the problem if you want hope.

I love the film as a gonzo action flick that’s half grindhouse, half arthouse. I love it even more as a brilliant piece of feminist work and a powerful piece of PA science fiction. I love it the most because it is poised to live out its core message: to change the action, sci-fi, and PA genres from the inside. Not by running away, but by disrupting them from within. Men and women alike will watch Fury Road and say “this is how it should be.” Other summer fare like Avengers 2 or Jurassic World or the deadful-looking San Andreas will, I suspect, pale in comparison.

Fury Road is a stake in the ground saying “hey! You out there in the wastes! It’s time to stand up and demand better from our sci-fi action!”

And now that we’ve had a taste of this water, it’s going to be very hard to live without it.

One Saturday morning early in my junior year of high school, I walked into a Tulsa Barnes & Noble and met a group of people who would change my life: the “Café Writers.” One would help me land my first job; another wrote the recommendation letter that earned me a full scholarship to college. Collectively, they listened to, encouraged, and critiqued some of my earliest writing, giving me some much-needed confidence and setting me on my path.

The group’s de facto leader was Tawna Wheeler, a woman in her mid-40s with an easy smile, a great sense of humor, and who wrote stunning little tales of love, murder, and life in Oklahoma. She was working on a project featuring the Blue Whale, a well-known landmark near Catoosa. Her stories always delighted me, and Tawna is in many ways my Platonic form of what a strong Oklahoma woman is: feisty, good-natured, with a wicked sense of humor.

After a period of unemployment, Tawna, whose day job was in HR, walked me through how I was interviewing and gave me pointers I still use today. I still hear her voice in my head when I prep and during the interview itself. I credit her advice with helping me nail several jobs in my career.

When I moved away from Oklahoma in 2003, I gradually lost contact with most of the Café Writers except for an occasional Christmas card or email. I found out last year that Tawna’s health had declined. She was relatively young (my parents age), and the specifics of her illness were frightening and tragic in equal turns.

Earlier this week, the Café Writers received an email that Tawna had passed away.

Whatever her illness did to her in the last years, in my memory Tawna will always be that perpetually spunky Oklahoma woman, unapologetically writing her brilliant stories and lighting up everyone’s life. She gave me one of the best things you give another person: inspiration and confidence.

Thank you, lady. Godspeed.

Let’s talk about feminism, hacktivism, and responsibility. A little light reading for your Thursday, right?

Avengers: Age of Ultron debuted last weekend (full disclosure: I have not seen it as I was at a funeral). Before it debuted, people already called out some of the questionable dialogue: a rape joke Tony Stark (quite uncharacteristically) cracks. I dismissed it with the same phrase I’ve used for years about AoU writer Joss Whedon: well, yeah, because he isn’t nearly the feminist he thinks he is.

Whedon has built his reputation on creating some downright amazing dialogue, and engineering a kind of dramatic tension between friends (and family) that makes you fall in love with characters because, hey, they interact like a real group of people and not some cardboard constructs. He did it in Buffy (which again I have only seen a few episodes of), he did it in Firefly (which I’ve seen front to back several times), and absolutely in the first Avengers movie. The comic book fan in me desperately wants Whedon to write a Fantastic Four film because he’d nail the family dynamic that makes the comic so great.

Let me fanboy out for a second: as a writer, his handling of dialogue is nothing short of sorcery. It’s really fucking good and it will take me a lifetime to get my prose to the level he can write in his sleep. I respect him for this ability, even more than I respect the interesting fictional universes he’s created (Firefly).

Whedon’s also built his reputation on being a feminist—and, by and large, he is. One of his oft-quoted quips, from a 2006 speech to Equality Now (an NGO dedicated to ending discrimination against women), Whedon mentioned that he’s asked “why do you write strong female characters?” His answer: “Because you’re still asking that question.” In other words, because strong female characters are still so rare that they’re remarkable.

I do not doubt Whedon’s intentions in this regard, but there are a lot of reasons to suspect that he exhibits a lot more (likely unconscious) gender bias than he thinks he does. The Mary Sue posted an essay in 2011 called Reconsidering the Feminism of Joss Whedon that goes into far more research and depth on the subject than I care to here. I will say that there were several instances of slut-shaming in Firefly that stuck out like a sore thumb, and the premise of Dollhouse struck me more as the creation of the Fighting Fuck Toy stereotype than any kind of strong, feminist, female character.

An Internet-friend of mine, Rachel Brody, posted this comment on a third party’s Facebook thread about an article from the AoU kerfuffle. It perfectly summarizes how I feel about Joss the Feminist:

“Ok, so, as someone who was feeling very mad about this yesterday and has thought about it (mostly because he made a statement re not being chased off by feminists) here is something. I don’t feel like his feminism has evolved for a while now. It was awesome feminism in 1993, but social justice demands evolution, and he is very much a third wave feminist who hasn’t quite twigged how to move into fourth wave or intersectional feminism.

Is that something he should be required to do? Actually, nope. He is absolutely within his rights to tell the stories he wants to tell. Similarly, people are allowed to react how they will.

Now, when you have a prominent man who is also a self-avowed feminist running a huge tentpole production, the thing is…feminist is going to mean different things to different people. And today’s next wave feminists simply want more from their feminist icons, and that probably means they need different feminist icons. A guy who was breaking barriers in the early 90s is going to look just as archaic nearly 30 years later as some first and second  (and honestly even third) wave feminists look today.

I agree that vilifying him isn’t the answer, but I think part of the reaction might be because people really did hope he would keep pushing boundaries and breaking barriers, and he really just hasn’t. Through the lens of today’s cutting-edge feminism, his work is problematic. But he’s not a philosopher, he’s a writer and director and producer who answers to a conservative (fiscally) entertainment machine.”

The point I’m trying to make is that Whedon isn’t the perfect feminist. None of us are. But, as Rachel said, “social justice demands evolution,” and that means creators like Whedon, who may have the best of intentions, haven’t evolved to the point where they realize that sometimes, they may be subtly reinforcing male gender bias.

But.

In true Internet fashion, after AoU came out, things took a turn. Did people turn to Twitter to try to begin a conversation with Whedon about his likely unintentional gender bias in his creation? No, they called him names (and in some rare instances resorted to threats of physical violence—even death).

Hold the phone: what was the actual ratio of people calmly saying “hey Joss, you might want to reconsider a couple of parts of your story,” versus people saying “OMG DIE IN A FIRE!” We don’t know, because, so far, the dialogue has focused on these threats and Whedon leaving Twitter. And that is a grave disservice to the people who were genuinely bothered by parts of the film.

Which brings me to my real point here: responsibility.

Creators who call themselves feminists or allies have a certain degree of responsibility to be self-reflective about their own work. If someone says, “hey, there may be some subtle bias here you weren’t aware of, you should think about that,” if the creator genuinely cares, he or she should at the very least listen and take that feedback into consideration.

Note that I’m not saying we’re obliged to act on that feedback. But if you’ve (proudly) built your reputation on being a feminist and ally, you should listen when someone tells you your privilege is showing. It’s at least worth considering.

This, incidentally, is something I tell both my editor and my Primary Reader when I complete a new bit of writing: “Check it for unintentional privilege.”

That in no way justifies the acidic reaction against Whedon. Someone (I tried but failed to find the article) noted that it’s becoming harder and harder for creators to share their work online, because of the risk of pissing someone off and that person reacting not like a human being interested in dialogue, but like a full-on attack troll. I’ve dealt with this professionally for years, as a CM and digital marketer at my day job, and it fucking wears on you. I am not looking forward to the day I collect my first troll as a creative, especially considering the levels of insecurity I’ve had to overcome around my own writing.

Mark Finn wrote a spoiler-filled takedown of the reaction against Whedon. I think he misses the boat by outright dismissing concerns around Black Widow in the film (which, again, I haven’t seen), but he makes some fantastic points about the lack of Black Widow merchandise and Disney kowtowing to traditional gender roles with their toys.

I do agree with much of what he says about people intentionally being critical of works that achieve mainstream success, and I totally agree with him about the way that any kind of outrage online can very quickly turn from “constructive conversation” to “scary witch hunt.”

His most salient point is this:

“[P]utting a sexist remark in your work does not make you a sexist. Writing misogynistic dialogue in a scene doesn’t make you a misogynist. And showing violence done to women onscreen is not an endorsement for rape. In what high school or university are young people being taught that plot, characterization and dialogue all speak to authorial intent? It’s so weird how people miss the subtext inherent to a scene and simply invent their own, based on a literal reading of the dialogue. Who does that? Please, tell me how that is now a thing. Regardless, if you go through life expecting only to consume fiction and popular culture in all of its various forms that only conforms to your internal barometer for what you consider to be good and right and fair and just, let me tell you, you’re in for decades of rage and disappointment. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to learn how to deal with something you don’t agree with.”

Yes, a thousand times yes.

But.

Creators who do deal with these issues can and do slip right back into male gender bias because it is so deeply ingrained that we do not always recognize it. To take an extreme example: was it The Bride’s near-murder and rape that demonstrated Quentin Tarantino’s misogyny in Kill Bill? No, it was the fact that the character’s response to that situation was a male response, created by a male, for a male audience, while satisfying the male gaze.

That does not excuse either the trollish behavior or the focus of the dialogue on it, to the detriment of a larger conversation about whether parts of AoU were subtly, unintentionally misogynist. For example, Finn says something that, on the surface, makes a whole lot of sense:

“We used to play this game in the 1980s—during the time when the ultra-right-wing of the church was actively campaigning against heavy metal music, Dungeons & Dragons, and Warner Brothers Cartoons. There was this dictum that Pat Robertson used to employ that boiled down to, “if it’s not For God, then it’s against God.” We got pretty good at taking anything commonplace and by the transitive or associative properties of language and numbers, proving that it was, in fact, satanic. Jello? The most popular color is red. Red is the color of the devil. It jiggles when you shake it. Much like how the body shakes while committing sin. But the real proof? How many letters are in Jello? Five. How many letters are in Satan? Five. That can’t possibly be a coincidence. Thus, if you like Jello, that’s Satanic.”

He’s not wrong. The Internet breeds witch hunts, because it’s super-easy to focus on the wrong, and super-easy to react quickly, and super-easy to insult or threaten someone you’ve never met as a result. And let’s face it, any time a response to something is comparable to Pat Robertson’s anti-D&D crusade, it’s terrible. But does it match the majority response, or is it firmly in the realm of the fringe? I strongly suspect the later, despite the focus on it.

The sad part about this situation, which I caught in a conversation yesterday, is that any opportunity for dialogue is being swallowed by focusing on this small group of people who have engaged in the vocal, acidic witch hunt. It’s easy as a creator to wag our fingers and say “nope, death threats are bad, so I’m not listening to a word you’re going to say because people with similar opinions are flat-out jerks.” Just as it’s our responsibility to listen, it’s also our responsibility to tune out the crap and not fall into the “well, it’s just a big old witch hunt” trap and put our fingers in our ears.

And, to be clear, the people spewing such crap need to take responsibility for their words and the environment of persecution it creates.

I really hope there’s something to be salvaged from all this, because Whedon is a fantastic writer whom I respect for his craft, and his heart is probably in the right place, even if he needs to revisit what feminism means now.

I’m the biggest Jurassic Park fan, like, ever. Evidence:

  • I snuck a copy of the novel into my 8th grade science textbook so I could read it in class, a full year before the film came out. My teacher, who normally didn’t like me much, allowed it because it was scientific.
  • My first marching band parade song was the Jurassic Park theme.
  • The Jurassic Park soundtrack was the 2nd CD I ever purchased, and one of the few I still own.
  • I liked The Lost World. I even liked Jurassic Park 3.
  • My wife and I went to the 20th Anniversary showing of Jurassic Park in 3D for date night. Also: I have a very understanding wife.

That being said, I have severe misgivings about Jurassic World. Well, one severe misgiving.

There’s been one incredible teaser, one brand-new trailer, and this clip of a scene from the movie. Go ahead and watch.

Chris Pratt, the sensible dino-training guy, is explaining to Bryce Dallas Howard, the stand in for the questionable capitalist ethics of John Hammond in the first film (she’s even dressed in all white), why he respects the dinosaurs and she doesn’t, even though she’s come to him for help consulting on a new project.

Pratt makes a couple of jokes clearly written for him: that kind of aww shucks humor that made his turns in Parks and Rec and Guardians of the Galaxy such fun.

But there’s a decidedly darker undertone here, and I wonder if the largely male writing staff even noticed (there’s only one female writer credited to the script- Amanda Silver). Pratt’s character, rather than entering a professional debate with Howard’s character, consistently returns to the subjects of dating and sex. It’s a subtle but powerful exertion of male privilege and power over a woman in a professional environment, and it made me extremely uncomfortable the first time I saw it.

The scene in the recent trailer, where Pratt’s character makes a sex joke to Howard’s, certainly didn’t help to diminish that fear.

I used to like and respect Michael Crichton until I realized that, while the world changed around him, he did not. He was an ardent denier of climate change, and in one particularly foul episode before he passed away, cast a journalist critical of his writing as a pedophile in one of his books.

As much as I love Jurassic Park, I had hoped that the portrayal of workplace gender dynamics in Jurassic World might be more firmly rooted in the mid-2010s rather than the late 80s, early 90s in which the novel was originally written. I know Pratt’s character is the hero. I want to root for him, not root for him in spite of him being a sexist asshole.

I certainly hope I’m wrong and these are isolated incidents they happened to cherry-pick for the trailer, and that the film’s privilege is more advanced than its initially portrayed to be.

I suspect, however, I’m going to be disappointed. I hate being right all the time.

When I applied for a full ride scholarship my senior year of high school, my grades were just good enough to squeak in under the door, Indiana Jones-style. I knew that if I had any chance of getting that scholarship, I’d need some serious voodoo. And as much as I’d love to say what happened next occurred by design, I didn’t realize the significance of it until later.

I asked one of the members of my local writer’s group to write a recommendation letter. It was fantastic. I wish I still had a copy of it, because it’s a perfect model for how to recommend someone for something. It extolled the virtues of a young writer who screwed around in school but was a good kid, and by gosh give him a chance because he would be an asset to your school—and here’s exactly why.

I got the scholarship, and in retrospect, that letter probably had a lot to do with that outcome.

Recommendation letters are one of the most important things you can do for someone else. If you’re asked to write one—and an increasing number of us are, thanks to LinkedIn—I wanted to share a few tips I’ve picked up from conversations with HR people and hiring managers over the years (and my own experiences hiring people) to help the person you’re recommending get the job they want.

  1. Be specific. Talking about how great someone is helps, but being specific is what a hiring manager is looking for. If you know what the role entails, use that language. Like a review, mention actions and results as much as is feasible. “Jen is a wizard with data. She pulls and analyzes specific requests before the deadline, and her summaries are always insightful and correct Because of Jen’s analysis, our team saved thousands of dollars in one quarter alone.”
  2. Talk about what it’s like to work with this person. This may come as a surprise, but the biggest thing a hiring manager looks for in a new hire isn’t skills or expertise, it’s team compatibility. We assume when someone’s resume lands on our desks that they’ve been vetted and can do the job. The question is, how well do they mesh with the team? We usually have just a couple of hours—a half-day if we’re lucky—to make a decision about someone we’ll likely work with for years. If we have more information, great. “Jen works hard and plays hard. She pitches in to get things done with the rest of the team, but isn’t afraid to suggest a lunch out or start a Nerf gun fight if it looks like the team needs a few minutes. She led our office’s ‘games on Friday’ initiative, introducing us all to Ticket to Ride.”
  3. Actually say whether you’d recommend this person or not, and for what kind of role. The purpose of a recommendation letter is to, well, recommend that person. If you’ve ever been a phone reference for someone, the last question is typically “would you recommend Jen for this role.” So if you’re writing a recommendation letter, don’t hold back on this. “Jen was a valued member of our team for five years. She has a bright career ahead of her, and I would hire her back in a heartbeat if we had a role here for her. I recommend her without hesitation; the team that Jen joins will be far better for it.”
  4. Don’t overdo it. Turning your friend into Superman may seem tempting, but no hiring manager is going to believe she can do everything. Keep it realistic. No need to call out negative traits, but don’t brag like you’re writing a Christmas letter about your grandkids’
  5. Keep it short, but don’t skimp. 3 paragraphs is pushing it, but don’t go lower than 2. Remember that the people reading your recommendation are scanning, which is why you slap a few key words in there. Don’t waste their time but don’t short-change the person you’re recommending either.

And now that big old call for engagement: if I missed something, by all means let me know!

Instead of some half-baked April Fools joke, I offer you, in no particular order, a handful of my favorite fake Twitter accounts.

  • Bored Elon Musk. What happens when one of the most innovative entrepreneurs in the world has too much free time?
  • Nihilist Arby’s. If you think misanthropy and jokes about the meaninglessness of life are funny, you’re going to love Nihilist Arby’s.
  • Not Burlington Coats. The original. I wish they updated more often.
  • Strahd Von Zarovich. When a darklord of Ravenloft is on Twitter, anything can happen!
  • Kim Kierkegaard. Mash-up of actual quotes from Kim Kardashian and Soren Kierkegaard.
  • i ain’t Bill Nye. What if the Science Guy was a foul-mouthed stoner?

Modernist poet TS Eliot joins forces with pulp horror writer HP Lovecraft to solve a mystery spanning two continents, uniting the existential terror of post-WWI Europe with the unknowable darkness of post-WWI America.

Something remarkable happened this week: a Google PR representative officially responded to a reporter’s query with an animated GIF. For people who spend any amount of time online, or people under the age of 25, it shouldn’t sound that remarkable. This kind of communication happens all the time. Respond to a forum thread with an image. Reply to a Facebook post with a meme. Snapchat a quick image and text back to your friend.

Referential communication
Computers, cellphones, and the Internet have opened an entirely new kind of communication, where words are replaced with images or videos. Researcher danah boyd, who has spent years gathering data on the online activities of tweens and teens, pegged this trend in her recent book It’s Complicated. She refers to it as “referential communication,” where teens communicate not entirely with words, but with images that reference past events. A selfie with a teen throwing a fake gang sign sent to her friends may reference a fun night out, and begin a conversation filled with similar references known only to that group of people.

My generation started this digital trend when we first had the ability to quickly share images and animated GIFs. It became such a popular way to communicate ideas that several successful businesses began to take advantage of it, including image-sharing site imgur and meme monster I Can Haz Cheezburger. It’s transitional communication for my generaiton; we’re perfectly comfortable using nothing but text (and may even see the shift as a threat to what we find comfortable.) For my teenaged daughter, she’s never known another kind of online communication. And as her generation grows older and the technology that enables this kind of communication becomes more accessible, it will only become more mainstream. Google replying with a GIF is only the beginning.

From modern to po-mo and back again
Referential communication is nothing new. It’s the foundation of an entire artistic movement (modernism), whose seminal literary works The Waste Land and Ulysses are full of references to everything from popular music of the day to ancient philosophical and religious texts. To fully understand The Waste Land, you need thorough annotations to explain the references—or to have been a member of TS Eliot’s literary circle in 1920s London. Unless you read ancient Latin and Greek, part of the poem’s meaning is already lost before you get to the dedication.

Groups and communities use this kind of referential communications all the time. It’s both shorthand for communicating a complex concept, and a way to reinforce group memory and consciousness. Friends will sit around and play “remember that time when.” A preacher simply mentions a story from the Bible, and everyone in the audience familiar with the story knows and understands the reference. One of the oldest English language poems, Beowulf, is full of references to people and events that its audiences would understand—and several instances where characters refer to stories themselves to communicate complex ideas. The popularity of computers and the Internet and apps like Snapchat are only enabling what we already do, albeit in a new way.

Darmok and Jalad
In one of the best Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes ever written, Captain Picard is trapped on a planet without his universal translator, attempting to communicate with an alien race while evading a dangerous animal. The alien seems capable only of speaking in odd statements that seem to be meaningless: “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” [UPDATE: the universal translator WAS working, it was just useless. Thanks Erik!]

Ian Bogost wrote a fantastic, in-depth summary of the episode which you should absolutely read if you’re interested in it. For the sake of brevity, allow me to spoil the end for you: the alien race communicated entirely in referential language (“metaphors” in the show) that evoke complex ideas by citing historical events in that race’s past. The eponymous Tarmok and Jalad at Tanagra is a reference to two different people forced to work together to solve a problem—which Picard and the alien captain eventually manage.

The press, when Google replied with a GIF
Before Google replied with a GIF, I caught this timely tweet from an extremely prescient woman:

Which got me thinking: the technology that enables us to communicate referentially is bringing us closer to Darmok and Jalad. We’re no longer constrained by words and stories—images, sounds, videos, music, comics, games, are all at our disposal to craft a story.

The future of art
Modernist poetry, online hypertexts, and postmodern novels like House of Leaves were only precursors to what we can do with the ability to bring all these forms of referential communication to bear. It may not be someone of my generation, but I’m absolutely certain that someone in my daughter’s generation will create the first work of art entirely made up of GIFs, movies, and comics—all referential language to craft a complete story. They may have already, a fleeting thing caught in Snapchat that no one else except a group of teens will have experienced.

This is not Shaka, when the walls fell. This is Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in May. Something amazing is about to happen. And I look forward to experiencing it.

Update: Not three days after I write this post, my daughter sends me a link (through text message, natch) to a new film made by MTV, aimed at her generation. A horror film where a character commits suicide after a video of her drunk and passed out at a party is posted online and passed around her school. Told, it appears, entirely through Skype videoconferencing, text/iMessage, YouTube videos, and animated GIFs.

The future is here folks.

I Read 50 Shades of Grey, and I Liked It

Posted: February 12, 2015 in books, movies, sex
Tags: , ,

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.

And fun.

One of my fondest early childhood memories was taking walks down Upper Gilchrist Road in the Ohio countryside with my mother. She was a science teacher, and would explain all kinds of things to me: different flowers and plants, rocks, the animals (cows, if memory serves). Thirty-some-odd years later, most of that is just impressions. I have no idea how much of that is real memory, but I can say without a doubt that she helped spark in me a feeling of scientific inquiry: ask questions about the world. Find out how it works. Don’t take anything for granted.

As I grew up, I applied that to many different things, from my love of space and astronomy to my fascination with the bottom of the ocean. I’d pour over National Geographic and Odyssey magazines. Space exploration always had a special place in my heart. I don’t know why exactly – maybe it was the images Voyager 2 beamed back during my formative years, the memory of the Challenger disaster, or early (and frequent) exposure to the Roddenberry-esque positive future on Star Trek.

I had a poster of all nine (at the time) planets on my wall, and used to imagine what it would be like to visit them.

I woke up early in the morning to see Halley’s Comet through a pair of binoculars.

I dragged my college friends to the middle of a field to look at Jupiter and its moons, or Saturn and Titan, through my telescope.

I looked up and dreamed. I still do.

As a dear friend recently reminded me, there is plenty more scientific exploration beyond space, although my heart will always be in the stars. There are remarkable advances occurring in neuroscience and psychology, particle physics, biology and chemistry, and medical science that will continue to change the way we (people) see ourselves and the world around us.

We keep looking at those flowers and rocks and cows and asking why and how.

One of the beautiful things about sciences is that discoveries can inspire the next generation of astronomers and biologists (or artists and poets) to look up to the sky and dream. Whether it’s landing on the surface of a comet, discovering something new about the human mind, mapping the world of subatomic particles, or curing a deadly disease, a kid out there will look at that accomplishment and think: awesome. 

And that kid will keep asking why and how.

And someday, that kid’s going to grow up and look at a possibility–scientific or artistic–and ask an even more important question:

Why not.