Tuesday, June 12, 2012
In Defense of 50 Shades of Grey
And the two sequels.
In less than a week.
And I'm not ashamed to admit that I liked them. Unfortunately, despite the enormous popularity of the books (as evidenced by huge sales numbers) most articles I've found on the books do not feel the same way.
DISCLAIMER: Obviously people are going to like some books better than others, and that's fine. It's more than fine, it's great! I am in no way trying to undervalue the opinions of those who do not like these books. That is an opinion to which every person is entitled. The point of this post is NOT to state that everyone who did not like the books is wrong.
There are just a few things that I've seen popping up fairly often in posts about these books that get under my skin a little. Indeed, most of these are things I would find irritating no matter what the book is.
A lot of people start off their post or article with some sort of apology, along the lines of - "I didn't want to read 50 Shades of Grey, because it's not REAL literature, but it's had such a huge impact on pop culture, I HAD to."
I had lunch with a friend last week, and we basically spent the entire lunch talking about this series. One of the first things he said, when I brought up my concerns regarding these apologies was, "NEVER apologize for what you read!" Alright, maybe that reads a little more angry than he meant it, but in essence, I totally agree. I also agree with his dislike of the term "guilty pleasure." Why should I feel guilty about something I enjoy? Things that are fun and make me feel good aren't automatically something to feel guilty about.
Besides the guilt which is inherent within such apologies, there is also the snob factor. I know a lot of book bloggers take pride in what they read and what they choose to feature on their blogs. This is as it should be. It's your blog, write about what you want. But know that if you look down on me or judge me for reading something I found enjoyable, I probably won't continue to read your blog, or recommend it to others. You are not the end-all, be-all judge of what other people enjoy. Especially in the case of 50 Shades, which is enormously popular. Clearly there is something there that many people find appealing, and that doesn't change just because you didn't enjoy it. State your opinion (good or bad) but leave out the value judgments. That's all I ask.
Most of the criticism coming from the blogs and articles I've read about 50 Shades is that the writing is terrible. I am fully ready to admit the writing is not very good. Surely the author could have come up with more than one way to describe the taste of wine, and I'm not sure the phrase "holy shit" was appropriate all 2587 times it was written. Also, I could have done without Ana's Subconscious and Inner Goddess.
Sure, I think it's safe to say that she's not Shakespeare or Austen or whatever, and the book could have used some better editing. But that's not really enough to make me stop reading a book if the plot, characters and overall feeling of the book are interesting to me. And I think that's what E.L. James got right.
What E.L. James Got Right: The Fantasy
E.L. James is a woman, and she has honed in on what appeals to women.
A. The Character of Christian Grey
Christian Grey is a brilliant characterization of a woman's fantasy. First, let's get this out of the way: he is immensely wealthy. When you're with him, you don't have to worry about anything you don't want to think about. A woman with him could be free to pursue almost anything she wants. I spend about 85% of my time thinking about money. What would I think about and do with myself for all that time if I didn't have to think about how I'm going to pay bills, when I'll get a paycheck, etc.? Ok, I would still probably think about money a lot.
But beyond the money, he's smart, capable, confident and in control. He thinks of and takes care of everything. He's strong, fit, and can do anything. He manages a large corporation. Let's not forget that he is clear about his needs and desires, and he's not ashamed of who he is and what he wants out of life. This is appealing to every woman on at least some level.
On the other hand, Christian is also emotionally damaged, scared to let someone in, and afraid of getting hurt. This makes him human and sensitive - aware of others and their needs and wants. It also makes him someone who needs saving. And who's there to do the saving? Anastasia, the sweet, innocent book nerd with little to no world experience and no prior relationships. She rescues him, and THAT is the real fantasy here. What's that line from Pretty Woman? "She rescues him right back." That's the fairy tale ending that appeals to so many women. He's got everything, but it's all so empty until he meets her. What's better than giving meaning to someone's existence?
B. The Sex
The combination of these two elements that co-exist in Christian is why the Dominant / Submissive sex is so appealing to female readers who would probably not all go for this lifestyle in reality. Christian Grey is sexy. He's not just capable at the office, he's more than capable in the bedroom. Or playroom. It's exciting to imagine being "in bed" with someone who knows so much and who can intuit the exact desires of the woman. It's very easy to imagine being submissive to someone if you can trust that 1) he won't cross the line; and 2) he is sensitive and intuitive enough to know what will make you "happy."
Also, the sex scenes in the book are not really that scandalous. There's some sort of kinky stuff, but it never gets crazy. He occasionally ties her up, blindfolds her and generally puts her at his mercy. But more often, they have "vanilla sex" - romantic, passionate, and even sweet sex. They take a lot of baths and showers - they are probably the cleanest dirty couple ever. This is also where E.L. James got it right. She made their connection and emotion the focal point of their passion. Maybe some readers would have liked some harder stuff, but I'm guessing it was just naughty enough to be enticing to a large number of women, and to sell a lot of books. Smart move.
Other Criticisms of 50 Shades of Grey with which I do NOT Agree:
This post is already getting much longer than I anticipated, so I'll try not to drag this out. The criticism of these books that I hate most is that the lifestyle depicted is dangerous, psychologically damaging, and anti-feminist. I find these statements to be ignorant and intolerant. Also, it's clear that those people didn't read all the way to the end of the series.
It's totally fine if you don't want to partake in any of the activities portrayed, and if you don't find it appealing, you won't read the books - which is also fine. Your life isn't over if you don't. But trying to stop others from reading something fun and enjoyable by depicting it as dark and dangerous is rude. Also, haven't any of these critics had teenagers (or been a teenager for crying out loud)? The dark and dangerous depiction brings way more attention to the book, and it makes people like me want to read it even more. First thing I heard about this book was someone talking about it on the radio calling it dangerous and misleading and people shouldn't read it because this is not what a real relationship should be. My interest was piqued immediately.
Christian and Anastasia are adults. They are both smart. Christian is clear from the beginning about his needs and desires. He doesn't try to hide or trick Anastasia into being something she doesn't want to be. There is no manipulation, just a contract - clear and all laid out in black and white. Then he gives her ALL THE POWER. Ana has the power to say no. She can decide it's not for her, and she is free to admit that she wants more than he's offering. Maybe it's the lawyer in me, but I wish more relationships started this way - with negotiation and a clear understanding of expectations.
Also, Christian is responsible. He always uses condoms. He always considers the other person. He has manners, and he's polite. He never does something that will cause physical harm to his Submissives, and he provides for them long after they are no longer in that role. I don't really see what about him or his initial proposal is so "dangerous." All "play" is done in a safe, controlled environment. This lifestyle is a choice and anyone can change their minds at any time.
I don't know a whole lot about the world of BDSM, but I do understand that there is a fine line between pleasure and pain. And I also understand that true submission can only be done when a person feels comfortable and trusts the Dominant. As a person who has a few control issues, and as a professional who has to be organized and in control at work all the time, the idea of being able to really let go is somewhat appealing. I don't consider this to be anti-feminist. Indeed, it seems like the person giving up the power is really the one with all the power. And, is it still a dangerous and anti-feminist lifestyle if the female is the Dominant?
One final note about this book, and then I'll let these books go and move on to the next thing. I got the feeling more than once while reading that I was being sold some products. This was distracting, like when you're watching TV, and the camera stays a little too long on the Lexus logo. But then I got to thinking ...
There are tons of products mentioned by name in the book. Some of it was done, I assume to prove to us what a baller Christian Grey is - no off brands for him! It's not enough that he has his own helicopter, we have to know the manufacturer and what great features it has!
Audi sure did get a lot of great mentions in these books. I lost track of how many times the characters (and their bodyguards) got in and out of an Audi, how often it was touted as being the safest line of vehicles out there, how luxurious they are, and how fun and sporty they can be to drive (especially during a car chase) - whatever model it is (SUV, R8, etc.). The Audi sex scene in book three is enough to get some good attention.
Also, Anastasia was never just wearing sneakers, she was always wearing Converse. I'm sure Converse didn't mind that Christian was always taking off Ana's shoes and kissing her feet. Let's be honest: no one really wants to kiss a pair of feet that have been sweating in Converse all day.
Other honorable mentions go to different types of top shelf alcohol and champagne; The Heathman Hotel in Portland, Oregon (do you think they were happy about how it was portrayed as luxurious and how accommodating its staff always were? Of course they were!); Neiman Marcus was the go-to place for clothes (not to mention designer shoes like Loubitans or Jimmy Choos); and the list goes on and on.
Did E.L. James get paid by any of these companies to mention their products in her best-selling novels? Maybe, maybe not. But if she didn't, why isn't this a thing? Maybe I watch too much Mad Men, but I do know that advertisers are always looking for a new way to sell their products - especially now that everyone DVRs everything and fast-forwards through the commercials. I'm not sure exactly what a book product placement deal would look like - I guess it would have to be a percentage of books sold or something, because you can never quite predict how well a book will do. But it could be great for authors and even better for advertisers.
On the other hand, this type of deal would certainly change the way authors write. I wonder how many authors think they wouldn't sell out? I will admit that knowing a book contains product placement would absolutely affect which books I choose to purchase. I don't want everything I read to be full of placed products. I often read to escape and it's hard to get lost in a story when every other sentence has a brand name in it. But with commercial, entertainment value books like this one, maybe it's not such a big deal.
So there it is, (most of) my thoughts on the publishing phenomenon that is 50 Shades of Grey. Is it going to win literary awards? Of course not. Is it something that will last through the ages? Probably not. But did I enjoy the week I spent in the world of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele? Abso-freaking-lutely.
Am I aware that I started this post off being angry about others' judgments, but this post is full of judgment? Yes. I can fully see my hypocrisy, and I make no apology for it. It's the human way.