Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Forty-Nine Shades Too Many

I recently read Fifty Shades of Grey. In fact, there was a little sign on my classroom door for a few weeks that announced this fact. As you might guess, it garnered a whole lot more attention than the book that followed it. Before we go any further, let me take care of some business:

SPOILER ALERT: Like other Slacker Guide book discussions (see also: here and here), I am assuming that you have either: read the books involved; don't intend to read the books involved; or (in this case particularly) aren't allowed to read the books  involved. I am therefore entirely insensitive to divulging elements such as plot (if Fifty Shades had such a thing) or other details that may ruin the experience if you simply haven't gotten around to reading a book published in 2011. While we're at it: Vader is Luke's father and Leia his sister; Snape and Dumbledore were working together; in Fight Club--never mind, can't talk about Fight Club; Sam and Diane eventually do it; and in The Crying Game...well, I'll let you check that one out yourself.

ADDITIONAL DISCLAIMER: If you've no more than heard of this book, you already know that it is impossible to discuss it without fumbling into the territory of sex. You won't be subjected to anything especially graphic, but if you're my student, boss, priest, or anyone else who doesn't, for example, regularly hear me use the "F" word, you may want to avert your eyes. By the way, you may have noticed that I've left my daughter (the older one of course, the younger one doesn't read at all yet) off the list of folks who may want to turn away. Two reasons: (a.) She doesn't read this blog; and (2.) She's heard me use the "F" word lots of times. Plus, she has already been subjected to stern lectures on this stuff more than she ever thought necessary. Her eyes are, I'm quite certain, already averted.

In addition to the obvious reasons (see: ADDITIONAL DISCLAIMER, above), I read Fifty Shades of Grey because there are certain cultural forces so ubiquitous that it's difficult to function in the world if you are ignorant of them (see also: Deliverance, Mean Girls, The Princess Bride, Jaws, and certain seasons of Saturday Night Live). I also read it because I was forced to admit here that I hadn't. This made me feel like a Slacker--and not in a good way.

Fifty Shades began as Twilight fan fiction. It's not surprising that someone read Twilight and decided it was very much in need of some actual sex. More broadly, though, this got me thinking that to some degree all fiction is fanfic. We have spent all of human history retelling the stories that were first told around the campfires by our ancient brethren and sistren. The fact that Fifty Shades of Grey is a descendent of Twilight is no more or less remarkable than the fact that Twilight is a descendent of Vamp, a distant relative of Nosferatu, which was a takeoff on Mary Shelley, who was more or less telling the story of Vlad, who was in his way acting according to a script handed to him. This all-too brief history entirely skips the best vampire series ever, which includes You Suck. We are all just players on this stage, and there is nothing new under the sun--including the first of those little quips stolen from Shakespeare, and the second one lifted from the Bible.

Another famous example of this retelling thing is West Side Story, nearly a scene-by-scene update of Romeo and Juliet. However, at the end of West Side Story, in contrast to Romeo and Juliet,  Maria considers turning a gun on everyone (including herself) but ultimately chooses not to (Sorry: SPOILERS!). Rather than a private and tragic suicide, Maria contemplates a very messy mass-murder/suicide. Distinctions such as this in the two plots makes all the difference. West Side Story doesn't end on a happy note exactly, as many versions of Orpheus do--if composers are to be believed, the masters of the underworld are known for taking pity and letting you have your way, even when you fail to uphold your end of the bargain--but it is at least a more optimistic ending. What a piece takes and discards from the original is very telling, even when it just tells you that the composer wanted to put a happy song at the end so that people would know when to clap.

Likewise, similarities and differences between Twilight and Fifty Shades tell us what this one reader took from Twilight and what she felt could be improved upon. E. L. James may not be every reader, but she is much more Stephenie's target audience than I am, and her choices tell us something. Here is a side-by-side comparison (well, it would be side-by-side if I could get Blogger to let me do columns):

  • Male protagonist (Edward):
    • Old money, somehow coupled with a troubled and underprivileged childhood
    •  Enigmatic
    • Gorgeous 
    • Fit, but not too many muscles 
    • Some hangups about food, rather thoroughly explained
    • Vampire
  • Female protagonist (Bella):
    • Clumsy 
    • Drives a hip, but clunky truck
    • Thin, but eats what she wants and rarely exercises 
    • Seems to have no interests or skills to speak of
  • Relationship:
    • Based in inequality--he claims that she has power in the relationship, but it doesn't seem this way
    • Abstinence porn
    • He consistently overcomes her physically, and she is only moderately troubled by this
    • He is wealthy, but she doesn't care about that, even though:
    • She does seem very impressed by his car, his home, and his decorating sense
    • He is beautiful, and she really cares about that
    • Progression of desire overcoming good sense
    • They appear to be of similar age, but aren't
    • He wants to eat her
    • He seems perpetually unsatisfied with the type of physical intimacy she can engage in
Fifty Shades of Grey:
  • Male protagonist (Christian):
    • Old money, somehow coupled with a troubled and underprivileged childhood
    • Enigmatic
    • Gorgeous 
    • Fit, but not too many muscles
    • Some hangups about food, not entirely explained
    • Not a vampire (note: I only read the first one, and didn't pay 100% attention throughout, but as far as I know, Christian Grey is not a vampire)
  • Female protagonist (Anastasia):
    • Clumsy 
    • Drives a hip, but clunky Volkswagen 
    • Thin, but eats what she wants and rarely exercises 
    • Seems somewhat willing to put aside her interests
  • Relationship:
    • Based in inequality--he claims that she has power in the relationship, but it doesn't seem this way
    • Porn
    • He at times overcomes her physically, and she is fairly troubled by this
    • He is ├╝ber-wealthy, but she doesn't care about that, even though:
    • She does seem very impressed by his cars, his home, and his decorating sense 
    • He is beautiful, and she really cares about that
    • Progression of desire overcoming good sense
    • They are of similar age, but don't appear to be
    • He wants to beat her
    • He seems perpetually unsatisfied with the type of physical intimacy she can endure

There is some concern that easy access to pornography is doing no less than reprogramming the minds of young people. Even if it doesn't, it can certainly warp their concept of what an enjoyable sexual encounter looks like for normal humans. Heaven help young couples who try to reenact what they see in contemporary pornography--the attempt is very likely to result in disappointment or minor injury at best, and possibly a hospital stay and/or grand jury indictment at worst. Someone on my Twitter feed said something to the effect of "Porn is full of lies. No pizza delivery comes that fast, and no woman..."

Fifty Shades must be taken to task for roughly the same thing. Just like in Twilight, the fact that Christian Grey makes up for being generally awful to her by being occasionally especially nice is not good. The fact that he is generally deaf to her needs and desires is not entirely counteracted by occasionally meeting her halfway. The fact that near the end of the first book she gets the strength to walk out is completely undone by the fact that she's immediately contemplating returning (also, the knowledge that there are two more books in this series give us a hint that this relationship isn't over). Fifty Shades may have set out to explore the deepest fantasies of one particular woman. As it becomes an increasingly important part of our culture, however, it has the potential to hard-wire the deepest fantasies of those who are just discovering what such things are.

A related concern is the impact of the Girls With Low Self-Esteem craze that started some years ago. Apparently, this aesthetic has made an impact on the dance floor at school functions. A friend of mine who chaperoned prom this year spent some of her time walking around trying to curb the grinding. Though it made her feel fairly old and un-hip, she did so out of concern that these girls, who were hiking up their formal dresses and performing acts that one would be a bit bashful requesting from a professional, would be going back to school the following week to engage these guys in class debates and to spike volleyballs on them in gym class. How does the exchange of power on the dance floor not influence the exchange of power in other aspects of their lives? Every teenage dance craze has puzzled and appalled the generation before them, but the concern here isn't just that it's lewd; it's what it says about the state of negotiations in male and female power.

The gender power dynamic in Twilight and Fifty Shades plays a major part in the development of the relationships in each book. Part of what makes them exciting is the idea that a woman can be so knocked out by a guy's physical appearance, and the desire that it engenders in her, that she's willing to abandon good sense. It is something that would likely attract a different level of criticism were it not a fantasy played out by women for an audience of women. Still, it's not especially good behavior in men, and not something I would have thought that women aspired to.

Women are entitled to their own pornography, and men shouldn't be shocked that it doesn't look precisely like what we would have imagined for them. However, as with the stuff for men, we should be on the lookout for attributes and behaviors this "art form" reinforces in our culture. The way many people read Fifty Shades--skipping from one sex scene to the next--may be less unhealthy than reading the whole thing through. The actual sex they do have is much more play-acting than the truly disturbing interactions they engage in while clothed.

To her credit, Ana recognizes this and is much more disturbed by the physical "punishments" than she is by the playacting and sex games. She seems to understand that a person's fairly well-stocked toy collection is hardly as disturbing as a relationship that starts with a contract outlining what she may eat and how much sleep she should get while away from him--plus, the fact that she is to be punished if she does not fulfill these requirements. If this model of interpersonal relationships really is what women are secretly fantasizing about, Fifty Shades--and its sequels and imitators--could play a major part in forming relationships that meet these expectations. As that happens, women (including both of my daughters) will have even more difficulty negotiating the balance of power with men.

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