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Romanticizing Fantasy and Our ‘Relationship’ with “50 Shades of Grey”

A still of Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) from the film, 50 Shades of Grey

While there continues to be a running tab of disputes as to whether or not 50 Shades of Grey is great literature and how it handles its subject matter, we can all agree that E.L. James’ book sparked necessary conversations in popular culture.  The purpose of this blog post is for me to work out my angst around the question:  “why 50 Shades?”
I am extremely interested in how cultural products become iconic empires, especially one like 50 Shades of Grey – a book that covers some pretty controversial material and one that some have deemed poorly written.  Billed as erotica, E.L. James’ novel explores BDSM (which many have argued that its depiction marginalizes those in this community even more) and straight female sexuality (orgasms and all).  I had to point out that it specifically highlights “straight female sexuality” because it still remains a taboo topic in today’s society.  I’ve read the book and saw the film opening weekend in order to get a better understanding as to why this franchise blew up even beyond itself.  50 Shades of Grey has taken off so much and so fast to where Target is carrying a line of merchandise inspired by the book and film!
50 Shades of Grey is the first piece of fiction that I finished reading in a little under 2 weeks.  For those who know me well, this is a huge accomplishment because not only being a fan of mostly memoir and biographies, it takes me a long time to read anything!  And, the edition of the book that I was reading was 514 pages!!!  The dialogue, the “holy cows” and all of those “inner goddesses” made it a challenging read.  I’m not going to publicly bash the book and say that it was the worse thing I’ve ever read.  What I will say is that I’ve read much better erotica, with great dialogue and very hot sex scenes, which made reading 50 Shades of Grey even more difficult to read.  While many people I’ve talked to and the numerous articles I’ve read slam the book as being bad overall and recommending that people avoid it because of the explicit sex scenes and the issues it raises around consent, it was hard for me to read simply due to the dialogue and scenes being so badly written to where I couldn’t visualize for myself what was going on.  Given my investment in the story, I owed it to myself to see the film adaptation, especially during opening weekend.
I arrived to the theatre about 30 minutes prior to the film’s scheduled start time.  This was the first time that I experienced a movie theatre this quiet and so packed!  This was the 11:30 a.m. Saturday showing!  Even before the trailers, people were sitting quietly in their seats like they would before an Episcopalian or Catholic church service – Anastasia and Christian were put up on a shrine!  Taking in this whole experience was very much surprising. This is the reason I love going to the movies.
My theory behind the fandom of 50 Shades of Grey is pretty simple.  Though I could relate only slightly, I see pieces of myself in Anastasia.  A naive, inexperienced young woman allowing her first “everything” – first boyfriend and first sexual experience – to sweep her away from the realities of the world even if she knew he was the wrong man for her is definitely the way I am connected to Ana.  50 Shades of Grey forces me to recall my “firsts.”  Though my first boyfriend and my first sexual experience were not with the same man nor at the same stage of my life (one came while a teenager in high school and the other in my mid-20s – have fun guessing which one happened at which time in my life), I risked my vulnerability and tore down multiple walls for these men.  I explored and experienced a range of emotional and physical intimacy in these situations because they were new to me, very exciting and very fresh.  I didn’t want to believe that both men were the “spawns of Satan.” Dismissing the realities hurt me in the end as these men, at this time in their lives, were very bad people.  But, I was willing to look beyond all of that because I was desperate for love and affection, something that my peers had access to for what seemed like a very long time.  Believing that many women are able to see themselves in Ana is what led over a million readers to the pages of E.L. James’ 50 Shades collection.
The idea that infuriates me about this empire is how protective 50 Shades‘ fans are of the content of the book, so much so to where they’re willing to dismiss all of its associated issues.  I’ve been a part of various conversations about this book including those that identify Anastasia as an iconic feminist character, as illustrated in this recent Huffington Post article, that Christian is not exhibiting abusive behavior, and that 50 Shades of Grey features an accurate representation of BDSM.  I’m sorry but I would have to disagree on all of these issues.  I do not believe that the Ana character is a feminist as she is rendered in the book and I do believe that some of the behavior Christian is exhibiting in both the book and the film could be categorized within the realms of abuse (i.e., the monitoring of her eating habits, Christian’s dictatorship over Ana’s birth control regiment, and the fact that, to me, it seems like Christian is only able to have sex with Ana – after she loses her virginity – when he’s angry).  I understand fans wanting to defend what they love.  However, I take issue with people who are trying to make 50 Shades of Grey something it’s not.
I’m one to argue that genre of fiction needs to remain as such.  It does not need to necessarily all be political.  However, when a cultural product is exposed to the masses like 50 Shades of Grey has been, one needs to have the capacity to critically engage.  My fear is that young women will see this film and take it as the gospel on how they should pursue and be pursued in relationships and what the ideal is. Unfortunately, we participate in a very impressionable society, one that allows the media to dictate how we should portray our identities, shape our lifestyles and regulate the lives of others, especially those that mainstream culture deems “unfit.”  For me, 50 Shades of Grey was okay as a stand alone book.  The issues within the book didn’t raise issues for me until it was adapted into a film and the emergence of its associated merchandise.
Though I have issues with 50 Shades of Grey, I’m not one to call for protests against fiction unless it is clear that it’s audiences/readers will be harmed by the material.  I completely disagree with those who say that others should boycott the film for I think that the reasons behind the boycott are misogynistic.  I applaud E.L. James for doing something that should have happened a long time ago: putting erotica, a genre I find liberating for women as they are able to explore sexuality and fantasy on their own terms, this entrenched into the dominant discourse.  I do understand why erotica’s foremothers, like Zane and Megan Hart (whose books I’ve read and LOVE), were not given similar exposure as the worlds they render are not complete ‘escapes’ as they deal with trauma and real-life situations in a way that E.L. James seems to avoid.  While I won’t judge anyone for “canonizing” 50 Shades of Grey, I do request that you allow it to be what it is, ask some deep questions about it, i.e., why did E.L. James write a character, Ana, who refuses to explore masturbation (a serious discussion about women having full control of their bodies and sexual pleasure), and that you expose yourself to other writers within the genre – for raising your consciousness in this way will open your worlds up to so much more!  BTW, I highly recommend reading Megan Hart’s Broken:  there are some extremely steamy (and more realistic) sex scenes in this book!
The trailer for the film, Addicted (2014).
*** While researching for this blog post, I stumbled across a trailer for the film, Addicted, which is based on Zane’s novel of the same title.  Up until this point, I’ve NEVER heard of it yet it was “released to theatres” as it says in posts that I’m reading online.  I really need to find this film, watch it and then write about it!

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