50 Fucking Shades of Fucking Grey. It’s this Thing that we are increasingly incapable of avoiding as the film saunters towards its release date, milking a longer build-up and more hype than even Dawn of Justice has so-far managed.
So I found myself reading this piece on Trolling is Free about it, and it made me think how a lot of people seem to have missed the point with what is wrong with this inexplicably popular series.
The core thesis of that opinion piece is fine, of course: If you’re aroused by the content of the novel/film, that’s okay. There is no One True Way to enjoy human sexuality; do you want it with one person? Ten persons? Even no persons? Upside-down, indoors, out-of-doors? Or perhaps even not at all? None of that really matters. You won’t find many, if any, out-and-proud sex positivists saying not to do something, or not to try something, or to not be aroused by something, or even saying you must try it, do it, experience it or be aroused by it.
But – and this is a serious but – there are some meta-rules encompassing sex-positivity that you will definitely see prescribed and agreed upon. Rules about mutual enjoyment, clear communication, respect and, above all, consent. These rules exist parallel to the freedom to enjoy whatever you like, and while participation is optional, following the meta-rules is not.
This is where I think this particular opinion piece, besides some of the more pretentiously-purple prose, goes awry:
But the focus on Fifty Shades as a proscriptive guide is missing the point: perhaps everything that’s wrong about Fifty Shades as a relationship guide is what’s right about it as a piece of erotica.
A fair point – if the book joined the ranks of most other erotic fiction in its treatment of consent and the meta-rules of a sex positive relationship. But it doesn’t.
There is far, far more extreme work out there, so let’s be brutally honest here; 50 Shades is tame. There’s an entire section of the book devoted to the things the lead meat-puppet character won’t do – cutting, fire, hot wax and so on. It eliminates what a friend of mine – who shall remain nameless – referred to as “all the good stuff”. A quick browse through fan-fiction archives (or cut straight to the term “legendary badfic“), or perusing the blurbs of the average bodice-ripper, will demonstrate this with alarming rapidity.
But those stories aren’t depicted as even remotely realistic. They’re all fantasy and pure fantasy. Published novels will have disclaimers at the beginning saying as much, and authors will often be well-versed in sex-positive or third-wave feminist philosophy. They will write things they would never engage in, but find fun to think about. They skip the consent as a matter of course. They skip over the negotiations and safe-words precisely because that gets in the way of the fantasy. And if the tedious email exchange shoved in the middle of the first 50 Shades novel is anything to go by, they principally skip over it because it’s boring-as-fuck.
50 Shades of Grey, in contrast to most other smut out there, presents itself as reasonably realistic. It’s set in the real world. It’s story is built safe in the meta-knowledge that BDSM is a thing. The characters partner up, negotiate and navigate their many real-world considerations of a BDSM relationship. They are actually depicted having those meta-rule discussions (via aforementioned tedious email exchange). Those rules aren’t explicitly thrown out for the sake of the fantasy.
And 50 Shade’s core problem is that it does this badly.
The characters negotiate limits badly. They navigate the relationship badly. They discuss safety badly.
No one is going to read a low-fantasy novel featuring slave girls and “try it out”, but 50 Shades can, and in fact does, inspire people to “try it out” precisely because of its depictions of a BDSM relationship as a reality. So while the novel and subsequent adaptation hasn’t explicitly presented itself as a guidebook and a how-to, its setting and style means it has the same responsibilities of one. And it fails miserably in that responsibility.
Far braver people than I (Cliff Pervocracy to name perhaps the most useful resource) have collected specific quotes with detailed commentary to back this up. But the conclusion is a simple one to state: the central submissive character doesn’t enjoy the situation, she agonises over not wanting to proceed, she is unsure – and not in a novel, curious way – and she sub-vocalises her conflict while the male lead is frequently unconcerned for her emotional and social well-being. This is average enough for some self-declared fantasy, but in such fantasy the meta-level of consent is deliberately and explicitly ignored. It’s ignored because it’s beside the point and gets in the way.
50 Shades could use that excuse, and join the ranks of countless fictions that do the same, but it doesn’t. It includes discussion of the meta-rules, but fails to do it in an informative or socially responsible way. And as such it is a disservice to the millions of people it may inspire.
Fantasy that has no mention of limits and no use for safe-words is fantasy. Fantasy that mentions limits and safe-words, yet has a character willingly ignore them and another that doesn’t fully understand them, depicts abuse. And that’s why, as smart, intelligent, rational sex-positivists, we’re pissed with it.
Anyway, the opinion piece that inspired this post does conclude with something I can agree with:
Getting aroused by what’s depicted in Fifty Shades doesn’t necessarily mean you harbor secret urges to abuse or be abused. At worst, it means you just happen to get turned on by some less-than-stellar writing.
Perhaps some brave soul should go to the cinema with a loudspeaker and give a real-time advice and commentary on the film. Because actually, the worst that can happen is that you’ll end up in A&E when it turns out you have absolutely no idea how to use cable ties like that.