Fifty Shades of Grey Might be Dreck, and that Might be Okay

3

January 29, 2015 by Devin

Fifty Shades of Grey is the latest franchise devoted to gathering a sizable female fan base, but it’s getting heat[1] for being a bit too adult.

Whereas its spiritual predecessor and inspiration, Twilight, was known for being chaste to the point of ridiculousness, Fifty Shades of Grey is anything but, choosing instead to delve into the dark desires of sex and lust in appropriately graphic detail. It is one of the few mainstream BDSM books out there, which makes its movie version a bit surprising. However, it is similar to Twilight in the sense that it has been decried as terrible writing, damaging stereotypes, and, perhaps most damning of all, porn for women.

I should place a gigantic disclaimer at the front of this: I, like many of its critics, have not actually read Fifty Shades beyond the few excerpts I have seen online and the time I picked it up in a bookstore and flipped to a random page to make fun of it.

From what I understand about it, though, the BDSM relationship at the center is unhealthy,[2] the main character is completely blank, and the writing is beyond subpar. Even though I have not actually read it, I am pretty confident based on my research that most people who have read it would agree with these ideas in a general sense.

So sure, it may not be a good book. I expect that its description as porn is probably accurate, and I expect to hear this a lot more when the film opens this Valentine’s Day.

Let's face it: women have it good when it comes to topless men nowadays.

So it’s porn? Who cares? So are many other films these days.

Let me back up a moment: the reason people think it is porn is not because of the amount of nudity or sex,[3] but rather because of the themes and ideas driving that sex and nudity. This movie is almost straight up wish fulfillment depicting desire and lust above any attempt at meaning.

So Fifty Shades is porn… just like Transformers, just like James Bond, just like The Raid. Consider this thought: the problem with porn is not necessarily its existence, but how we take it.

Film Crit HULK wrote a book length series of articles analyzing each Bond movie and attempting to come to terms with each of them. He called them the most pornographic movies ever, a description I find apt. I found this an especially fascinating read because FCH is a feminist, and many of the 007 films he watched and even loved are decidedly not. In fact, they have some pretty terrible depictions of women and non-whites in those films, yet FCH could not get over the fact that he truly did love these films as experiences.

The place I think FCH eventually ended up in is that part of analyzing films like this and understanding them is contextualizing them, figuring out where they go in our lives and beliefs. This is not excusing them for their obvious failings, but rather recognizing those often hidden messages and disempowering them. When you understand that a film is racist or sexist, you are in some ways robbing those themes of their power because you are recognizing how ridiculous they are.

Now keep in mind this does not mean we should not seek to eliminate these damaging themes or critique them. In fact, this disempowering relies on the ability to critique.

I will say that I am not fully on-board with this idea. I feel like we, as humans, are not in as much control of our cognitive processes as we might like to think, and therefore we do need to be supportive of positive messages and dismissive of negative ones. But on the other hand, I feel like FCH’s idea has merit, that when we understand that porn is porn, we take away some of that effect and control over our lives.

To the extent of which I am not sure, but I am positive of this: today’s culture by and large automatically assumes men can do this but women can’t.

To illustrate this, I want to use the example of Matt Walsh. Matt Walsh is a pretty prominent conservative Christian blogger who you should, frankly, not be reading or respecting at all. But his articles have shown up on my newsfeed many times and I think he still has an audience (over 250,000 followers on Facebook), so I feel pretty comfortable using him as an example.

He wrote a blog post back when the teaser of Fifty Shades was released called “4 Reasons to Hate 50 Shades of Grey.” In it, he insults the book, the people who were involved in the making of it, and the people who liked to read it. He said women should hate this movie “Because you don’t go for cynical, boring, corporate marketing ploys.” Women, he argues, are not stupid and so are automatically better than this film and should not sully themselves with this film. Women, he argues, are feminists, and therefore this movie should be rejected by them. “Surely the movement is worthless if it won’t loudly reject a book about a woman’s adventures in being manhandled and used by an emotionally stunted playboy.”[5] Even as he calls women not stupid, he still takes an incredibly patronizing tone in regards to what women should and should not like.

To my knowledge, Matt Walsh has never written a blog post about James Bond. Matt Walsh has never written a blog post about 300. Matt Walsh has never written a blog post about The Expendables.[6] I find this a bit hilarious because “emotionally stunted playboy manhandling women” is essentially every James Bond romance out there.

Is anyone really going to try and argue with me that this is a more healthy view of bodies?

Matt Walsh is just one corner of the web, but I honestly do think his critique highlights a disturbing trend prominent among the web. People talking about how stupid Fifty Shades is are all over the internet. Look at the difference between Google searches for “Fifty Shades of Grey is bad for women” and “James Bond is bad for men,” for instance.

So what is different about Fifty Shades of Grey that makes it especially worthy of critique? Is it really that it is more damaging than other pornography currently being featured in movie theaters? I honestly do not think so. Power dominant relationships have been featured in movies ever since movies had relationships in them, and I think a lot of the more nebulous ones often go unrecognized and unreported.[7]

The number one aspect that separates out Fifty Shades of Grey from other “pop porn” is that it is appealing to women. The number two aspect that separates it is that it features a kinky sexual relationship. Neither one of these aspects is actually worthy of critique. They are both, as far as I am concerned, neutral characteristics.

Look, I am not saying that I like Fifty Shades of Grey or that I do not think it is a bad book. In fact, I do think it probably has some really damaging motifs in it. I am not saying the movie or book should be exempt from critique.

But let’s keep in mind how we structure that critique, and let’s steer that critique away from talking down to the audience as if they are stupid and do not get it. There are plenty of people who really like Fifty Shades of Grey. There are plenty of people who understand that it is porn and that it is not realistic, so they do not take it as such. Let us not automatically assume it is more damaging because it is for women, the weaker and more susceptible sex. We might even try giving them the benefit of the doubt. Criticism should acknowledge that films can be taken multiple ways, some healthier than others, and though it should warn people of negative motifs, it should be willing to treat the audience as smart enough to understand that. It should go beyond just, “This movie is bad for everyone” or “this movie is great for everyone.” The world is not that black and white. You could even say that it has room for some Shades of Grey.[8]

Related Food for Thought

Film Crit Hulk Smash: Dialogues, GONE GIRL And The Maybe-Art Of Post-Feminist Pulp
“HULK’S HYSTERIA WAS PREDICATED ON THE IDEA THAT [Twilight] WAS SO DUMB THAT IT WOULD BE OUTRIGHT DANGEROUS, SOMEHOW MISSING THAT HULK WAS ALSO ASSUMING THAT WOMEN WOULDN’T 100% UNDERSTAND THE DUMB PULPYNESS THEY WERE CONSUMING. WHICH IS FAR MORE CRASS THAN ANYTHING THE BOOK CAN SAY.”

On the Origin of Sparkles
“Yes, this fantasy is disturbing as hell and incredibly dangerous. Which is worse, though: the fantasy or the society that requires it?”

Can We Cool it with the Fifty Shades of Grey Hate?
“But let’s remember that women made this book popular, and the majority of mainstream ridicule of this book is not centering on an unrealistic representation of BDSM, but the utter triviality, pointlessness, and bad writing of a sex book that appeals so much to so many women.”


1. Hehe (I am a grown man I swear)
2. When I say “unhealthy,” I don’t mean “kinky.” Two different things that can co-exist.
3. I personally was a bit disappointed when I learned there were no shots of male genitalia in it. That just feels unfair.
4. More disclosure: I have not seen The Raid either. I really want to, though.
5. If you’re trying to talk about feminism and you do so by saying what women should or should not like, you’re probably missing the mark.
6. More disclosure: I have not seen The Expendables. Unlike with The Raid, I have no real desire to.
7. While I am not sure of the extent recognizing damaging ideas disempowers them, I am positive that the ones that are not recognized, that are thought of as normal, are the most deadly.
8. I acknowledge that that was terrible. I do not care one bit.

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3 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Grey Might be Dreck, and that Might be Okay

  1. Fiona Fire says:

    The whole 50 Shades of Grey is porn thing always bothers me. I haven’t *actually* read 50 Shades, but my understanding is that it is a standard erotic romance. Which makes it romance or erotica, neither of which is porn. This is such a sore spot for me now that I write erotic romance. Erotic romance /= porn. Romance novels /= porn. Even erotica /= porn.

    Porn is two or more bodies smashing into each other. Erotica is a story with all the story stuff–character development, plot, theme, etc–where the thrust (sorry, I had to) of the story is a sexual journey.

    (I know you’re using a different definition of porn. Under the definition, some erotic romance would be porn and some wouldn’t. There are many different levels of realism vs. fantasy in the romance genre).

    • Devin says:

      I kind of get where you’re coming from. I feel like a lot of times, “porn” implies low effort and no amount of craft, which I didn’t mean to intend but forgot to account for. Considering I put The Raid in the porn category, I was not meaning to intend for any sort of derogatory stance toward stuff like that.

      • Fiona Fire says:

        I completely get your meaning. I’ve always wondered why movie critics were so accepting of pulpy thrillers and super hero films and so rejecting of equally ridiculous romantic comedies. But, hey, people are still making fun of romantic comedy tropes that haven’t been popular in 10 years.

        This is just a personal issue for me. I ended a six year friendship with a guy who called my book (which he hadn’t read) porn and told me I should write a real book. Okay, he was an awful friend for other reasons, but that was the final nail in the coffin :p

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