Posted by: C. Margery Kempe | August 12, 2012

50 Shades of Invisible

Channel 4 had a pop doco on the 50 Shades phenomenon. The show had a mixture of good and bad, as these things usually do. I’ve been fascinated by the hostile responses to the books (or their success, depending on how you look at it). I understand people who just don’t like to read about sex (well, I understand that they exist O.O even if I don’t understand why), I understand writers envious of their attention (especially since most folks tell me the writing isn’t all that much to envy — note to self: while some people enjoy beautiful writing, just about everyone gets hooked into a good story), but I’m particularly fascinated by the often vitriolic hatred (especially by men) who loudly say they wouldn’t sink so low as to actually read it, but hate everything it represents.

Quite a trick to hate something of which you’re ignorant: it makes me think of Lady Catherine de Burgh fuming at Elizabeth Bennett:

“…Though I know it must be a scandalous falsehood, though I would not injure him so much as to suppose the truth of it possible, I instantly resolved on setting off for this place, that I might make my sentiments known to you.”

“If you believed it impossible to be true,” said Elizabeth, colouring with astonishment and disdain, “I wonder you took the trouble of coming so far.”

I haven’t figured out if it’s the horror of thinking of all those women pleasuring themselves with the reading of it or just considering it ‘beneath’ women to be thrilled by such ‘trash’ (one American guy on Twitter actually said it must be representative of the failings of British men. I told him that was a very interesting remark revealing deep seated fears of comparison. He didn’t respond X-D). There seems to be a lot of anxiety about the ERMAGAD women reading SEX aspect, but some of it is suspect, too.

You’ll never find so many feminists as the men who trash the book because it’s ‘degrading’ to women. If only they had as much concern about wage differentials (but now we’re really talking fantasies…)

The programme had writers, a few ‘personalities’ who were women and fortunately, a few professionals (i.e. doctors). It was really wonderful to have them dispel the persistent misunderstanding that people are drawn to BDSM (and the wide variety of practices that umbrella covers) because they are somehow ‘damaged’ or otherwise mentally unhealthy. They’re (gasp) just like other people. Best of all they had a nice regular couple in a D/s relationship. The downside was that they had ONE couple. Whenever you address a minority group with one example, it’s dodgy; I know friends who get really fed up with being asked as the ‘representative’ of their race in too many situations — as if we were each part of some monolithic tradition. Nonetheless, that they were sweet, affectionate to one another and cheery helped a bit to offset the popular picture. They also spoke with two professional doms, one male and one female, too.

One of the things that came through well is how much the books are fantasy (i.e. not for people knowledgeable about the BDSM at all). The D/s couple tutted about the abusive behaviour by Mr Grey. Writers spoke about the transparency of the female main character which allows anyone to enter the fantasy (her bland 22 year old virginity) which is all about eroticising the male. And as one said, taboo turns people on and what’s more taboo than the woman who’s totally taken care of by a man in unbelievable luxury. For the women who still get paid far less than men and generally work longer hours, an appealing fantasy indeed.

Things that irked: the utter invisibility of women’s words still. “No one had heard of her”: well, the thousands of Twilight fan fiction readers sure had. The way the single largest selling genre in the world (romance) doesn’t seem to exist in popular discourse (or best seller lists). We’re still the pink collar ghetto in this genre. In some ways–looking at the reactions on social media, not just in the headlines–its popularity has hardened contempt for romance and erotic romance in the mainstream. People are seeing dollar signs in their eyes and cranking out knock offs. Those of us who were here before and will be after, we just shrug and keep writing. And the totally creepy interview with James on the American programme 20/20, where the woman went on about the MONEY and the FAME — and James visibly recoiled. Sorry, it’s not everyone’s dream to be famous and we don’t all lust after solid gold rocket cars.

One final thing: conflating Rochester and Heathcliffe?! Come on! They are NOTHING alike, Channel 4. Know your Brontës! This aggression will not stand. #TeamRochester

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Responses

  1. Well-written blog article, CMK! As a male, I found the series very appealing and satisfying, and EL James did an excellent job of depicting aspects of BDSM relationships, or at least some flavors of them. In the end, it’s perfectly okay for those who feel offended or scandalized over the material…to each their own, I say. However, nobody’s forcing them to read it. In addition, kudos to you for pointing out the blatant oversight regarding women’s pay/treatment in modern society by many who deem the 50 Shades series to be demeaning to women. In the end, so many people simply don’t understand the responsible, outside-the-vanilla-box BDSM community, so they’re quick to judge. In which case, I simply say, “Fine, you don’t like it and you don’t understand it. Now, please shut up and carry on!” ;-)

    • Well put! I get so irked by the attitude that anything you don’t do yourself must be “weird” or “harmful”. People don’t understand the reality. And oh, with the judging! I’m glad to hear from a male reader who’s enjoyed the series, too. Thanks for speaking up. :-)

  2. Excellent post! I too have been mystified (although once I consider human nature, I suppose not really) at the hateful response to these books. As a writer – and a reader – I appreciated how easy the character’s relationship grabbed you and reeled you in. Since I write and read BDSM, I honestly didn’t find this book all that controversial, but I truly believe the success is what irks more people than the content. And that’s the part where human nature really comes in to play!

    • Hi Morticia,

      I suspect you’re right. Envy is a common reaction to success. I liked the variety of responses, mostly light hearted from the writers interviewed here — they admitted to envy, but didn’t seem too angry about it. It’s the *rage* at her that I don’t get.

  3. I read all three on vacation to see what the hype was all about. That said, they were okay, couldn’t see what all the fuse was about to be honest. BUT, I give her credit for making her books a house hold name. More power to EL James and her success. As a writer I hope to achieve as much success.

    • A gracious attitude, Marian. I haven’t read them, but I’m really fascinated by people who’ve formed strong opinions without reading them. A lot of the “Oh, I read a page and it was awful!” reactions, but just as many who sneer, “I wouldn’t read such trash.” A lot of closed minds out there.

  4. You know the old saying, shoot and ask questions later. We, as humans, love to destroy and condemn things we don’t understand. And will usually do so without the full facts. I did try reading the first of this series, to be fair in my comments, but I just couldn’t get into it. Wasn’t going to force myself to read it because everyone else seems to be doing. Marian’s right though . . . fair dues to James for finding a way onto a lot of people’s must read lists. Would love to know how she really did it, because erotica has been around for centuries.

    Great article!

    • LOL! Yeah, good point — the zeitgeist can be unpredictable. All the people trying to jump on the bandwagon are going to be disappointed. Those of us already in the field will just keep on keeping on, as the saying goes.

  5. Like many of the people who hate “50 Shades,” I am incensed by the fact that it’s unedited fanfiction masquerading as a book. I have nothing against fanfiction, but FF is free. When a publisher is charging for a book, I expect the writing and editing to meet at least a very minimal standard. The endless repetition in the book is mind-numbing. I also found the sex scenes more clinical than erotic, probably because the heroine is such an undeveloped character. I bear the author no ill will–more power to her–but I am getting a bit tired of the implication that those of us who hate the book are being judgmental about BDSM or erotica. I’ve read a fair amount of erotica–much of it miles above “Shades of Grey” in writing quality.

    “Shades of Grey” is essentially a cliched bodice-ripper–cold alpha male seduces virginal female. I have to wonder how many of the women who rave about the book would read it if it featured a half-naked guy on the cover and was titled “The Billionaire Tycoon’s Love Slave.” Come to think of it, Harlequin probably would have edited the trilogy down to a 60,000-word novella.

    • And it likely would have been a better read for it.

  6. Reblogged this on C. Margery Kempe and commented:

    What’s the truth behind the hype?


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