In Defence of Fifty Shades of Grey

50 Shades of GreyWith the new film just released, Fifty Shades of Grey is being savaged everywhere again – everyone seems to have an opinion, no matter how poorly informed, and those opinions are almost uniformly scathing. Everywhere I look, I see Fifty Shades of Grey being used as a byword for leaden prose, abusive relationships, sordid pornography, and any other evil the author cares to lazily name.

That all irritates me. Not because I love Fifty Shades, but because I believe rather strongly that you shouldn’t criticize things that you don’t understand. I bother, before venturing opinions on books, to actually read them, and I don’t think that that is an unreasonable standard to hold others to. If you are going to criticize something, gain at least a limited understanding of it. 

Personally, I don’t care for the series – it’s a rather generic romance stretched over three books when it could have been two shorter volumes. The characters aren’t memorable, the plot is clichéd, and the prose is not the series’ strong suit.

But that’s the worst that I’ll say, and the worst that I think is fair; E L James has written a boring series of books, with nothing to make them stand out from the crowd. They’ll fill a few hours, and then you can forget them without losing anything. Fifty Shades of Grey is the sort of book you buy in airports or train stations, fully intending never to pick it up again.

Other people – countless other people – are prepared to go further than me though, to call Fifty Shades the worst book ever, to deride the author as an illiterate fantasist, to class the series as smut, not fiction. Those people, in the main, tend to be wrong.

Sure, there are some valid complaints, some ways in which a basis for an argument can be found. I’m not arguing that Fifty Shades is in no way problematic, or that it is the best thing ever – again, I don’t really like it. The volume and the venom of the complaints is what I’m objecting to: it doesn’t deserve all the scorn.

Three main criticisms are the worst offenders. I’ll discuss them one by one.

1. Fifty Shades of Grey is pornography.

This one irritates me the most, I think, because it’s just a lie. Not a misunderstanding, not a legitimate reading of the series. Every one who claims this is just lying.

Fifty Shades isn’t pornography. It’s a romance with some sexual content. Not even that much sexual content – it’s all quite tame, monogamous, and even sweet. The vast majority of books I’ve read in the last year or so are equally risqué, if not more so. The most fetishised piece of clothing in the series is a pair of old jeans; it is hardly the erotically-charged filth-filled pulp that people seem to think it is.

BDSM is mentioned, but hardly central, and nothing too detailed or extreme. There is nothing in the entire trilogy that stands out particularly against other modern romances. Frankly, compared to other genres (horror and fantasy particularly), the whole romance genre is quite tame as it is – monogamous sex with someone you care about is far less pornographic than, say, penis-heeled orgies, adult babies, or unicorn strap-ons (all examples from actual, not self-published, books that aren’t called pornographic).

There is a certain sneering condescension to the comments calling it pornography – a sordid snickering at the idea that women might want to read something even slightly daring. Even though it’s based on a misconception about the series, it still irritates me. No similar derision is aimed at books for men – no one calls The Wise Man’s Fear or The Da Vinci Code or Birdsong erotica. There’s no widespread sniggering at men going to watch American Pie, or any of the countless tedious college prank films – people may not approve, but there isn’t the widespread condemnation that Fifty Shades receives. No one makes fun of Game of Thrones readers for openly reading pornography – there are jokes about the content, but everyone accepts the much more depraved, much more gratuitous scenes as part of the book – Fifty Shades is pornography because of all the sex, we are told, but Game of Thrones is Shakespeare reborn and all those scenes are necessary.

I’m not, I should stress, arguing that sexual content should be removed from everything – it has a place in A Song of Ice and Fire, it has a place in Dr No., it has a place in the Bible. All I’m saying is that the same idea works for Fifty Shades as well, but isn’t acknowledged.

There’s definitely a double standard there, and one that I could talk about for a while, but that isn’t the focus of this post, and it already looks as though this is going to end up a rather long one.

Essentially, my point is this: Fifty Shades isn’t pornography. It’s actually very restrained. The people who term it as such are willfully ignoring the fact that similar, and much more out-there content appears all over the place, without comment or criticism.

2. Fifty Shades of Grey is badly written.

I’m not going to talk about this one in too much detail – I don’t really disagree with it that much. Fifty Shades is not a masterpiece; at best, it has pedestrian prose. No lines will stick with me until the day I die, I did not thrill or quail with every twist in the tale, every cutting line delivered by a sardonic wit. Overall, it had little effect on me.

However, that doesn’t mean that it is the worst thing ever. This review (of the film) from The New Yorker is bitingly and entertainingly cutting about the quality of James’ prose:

No new reader, however charitable, could open “Fifty Shades of Grey,” browse a few paragraphs, and reasonably conclude that the author was writing in her first language, or even her fourth.

Allowances must, of course, be made in the cause of comedy – the review is focused more on entertaining than informing its readers. Yet similar sentiments appear all over the internet: Fifty Shades is castigated for appalling prose, for hideous sentence structure. I’ve even, on one irritating occasion, come across someone who sees Fifty Shades as both indicative and solely responsible for the decline of Western literature.

That is obviously nonsense, and (with apologies to the author), so is the above quote. Fifty Shades isn’t great, the prose isn’t deathless, but it could be worse. I own books where it is. All the piling on, the scathing criticisms of E L James – all these are simply people attacking a soft target. Everyone already despises it, so you can rip into the series without having to worry about accuracy.

The prose could be better, but that doesn’t mean that James comes across as writing in a fifth language, or that these are the end times. The writing is on the lower end of average, nothing more.

3. Fifty Shades of Grey encourages abuse.

The third criticism is a complex one, and requires more elaboration. It’s also the only one that I’ll admit has a lot of basis behind it – unlike the other two criticisms, this one is a legitimate interpretation. It’s one I disagree with, but that is mostly a difference of opinion – it isn’t that anyone is being ludicrously hyperbolic or just incorrect.

The argument is laid out in various places – such as this article – but the essential idea is this: Fifty Shades of Grey presents and glorifies an abusive relationship. This will lead to people get an inaccurate and unhealthy idea of what BDSM is, and more abuse will be perpetuated under the guise of “just like that film you love!”.

In a twist that will surprise no one, I don’t agree. On two grounds, really: firstly, I don’t think it does glorify an abusive relationship, and secondly, I don’t think it does so to any extent more than a host of other books that no one gets upset about.

To deal, reasonably enough, with the first point first: I don’t think that Fifty Shades glorifies abusive relationships. I’d argue that their relationship is all kinds of messed-up, but “abusive” doesn’t actually cover it – she’s reluctant, he’s insistent, but it’s written in a way that suggests a particular dynamic, and not one that’s abusive. I’m aware that that’s all in interpretation, and I’m reminded of the furore over Khal Drogo and Daenerys’ first sex scene in Game of Thrones: some people read that scene as rape, some don’t, and it was apparently much more obviously rape in the show.

What one reader interprets as abuse will be quite different to another; what one read interprets as romance will be quite different to another. I’ve always felt, for example, that the love triangle in Twilight involves no actual love, but countless screaming tweens would disagree. Similarly, I wanted Hartigan and Nancy in Sin City to end up happy, but the person I watched the film with was appalled by that idea.

And so, while I can see where those who think that Ana and Grey’s relationship is abusive are coming from, I don’t think it quite crosses that line: it skates close to it, but in the end, their relationship is complex and frequently unhealthy, but not actually abusive.

That’s really though, the less important part of the argument for me – it isn’t that Fifty Shades has a negative relationship in it, but that that relationship is glorified.

Every book contains unhealthy relationships – that’s pretty much a given whenever there is conflict, and conflict is one of the near-indispensable aspects of narrative. Cain hated Abel, Achilles had issues with Agamemnon, and Doctor Who disagrees with the Daleks on various philosophical points. All books, all films,  present unhealthy relationships.

For a book to glorify such a relationship though, it has to present it as a positive – has to give those characters a happy ending, has to show the positives that such a relationship brings. Much Ado about Nothing glorifies loving relationships built on deceit and initial animosity – Beatrice and Benedict end up happy. Romeo and Juliet does not.

And Fifty Shades doesn’t really either. Though the couple end up happy together, the relationship has fundamentally changed. It isn’t based on dominance any more, it doesn’t show her fully subjugated to a cruel master. Those who practice BDSM/abuse (I don’t think they’re the same thing, but the argument necessarily conflates them) don’t get to enjoy positives – of the two main practitioners, one of them works out his issues, and the other is roundly condemned as a predator.

So again, leaving aside the issue of whether or not the BDSM in Fifty Shades is abuse, it definitely isn’t glorified. The whole arc of the series is about moving away from that, about find a calmer, less domineering, more vanilla love. The most lovingly described, most positive scenes are those in which they have a normal, whip-less relationship – the darker scenes tend to end with crying and angst.

To hark back to my earlier point, the books are quite tame, quite conservative – they aren’t about sex or kink, but about the love of a good woman turning a damaged man away from unhealthy pursuits. If you read the books and thought “I should try that with my partner”, you’ve missed the point. E L James isn’t glorifying abuse, isn’t romanticizing bondage – she’s warning people away.

And then there’s the fact that all of the disapproval, all of the worry about promoting abuse, is aimed squarely at Fifty Shades. Of all of the books that present unhealthy relationships, this is the one that draws people’s ire.

There are all kinds of books that present BDSM as other than “safe, sane, and consensual”. Most of these have a large following, particularly amongst the kink community. People base their lives upon the John Norman Chronicles of Gor books, and that’s way more abusive – there’s kidnap and beatings and all sorts. Grey never threw Miss Steele over the back of a giant Tarn. Similarly, a book that often gets mentioned favourably compared to Fifty Shades is The Story of O.

Now I seem to be alone on this one: I’ve actually read The Story of O. I have to alone in that, because anyone who’d actually read the book wouldn’t hold it up as a shining example of BDSM fiction. The Story of O makes Fifty Shades look like The Care Bears. It’s genuinely depraved, and it was uncomfortable to read. I wouldn’t recommend it.

But it’s Fifty Shades that gets all the criticism – Fifty Shades  with its message that love conquers all, that the man who wants to whip you is just damaged and will get over it. Not the book about sacking cities and enslaving all the screaming women. Nor the book about torturing fifteen year-olds, the book about the confused girl screaming as four separate men (all without informed consent) violate her. There’s no love in The Story of O, not by any normal definition of the term.

Matched against other books, books that aren’t seen as the scourge of Western civilization, Fifty Shades is pallid and harmless, a book about love that wants to be edgy, a sheep amidst latex-wearing wolves. And yet that one, the one about touching torsos tentatively, is the one that everyone piles onto.

I also take issue with the more general claims that Fifty Shades is dangerous – claims that don’t compare it to other books, but to the entire BDSM community. The mantra of “safe, sane, consensual” is trotted out, and Fifty Shades is weighed against that feather and found wanting.

Now, if you are going to complain that a book is bringing your community into disrepute, is giving people an inaccurate idea of what community is like, then your community had better be spotless – if Fifty Shades, with its debatably abusive debatable pornography, is so damaging to the image of kink, then kink’s image shouldn’t be anything like what Fifty Shades is portraying it as.

The kink community isn’t perfect though, and time after time, stories come through of behaviour that isn’t just similar to Fifty Shades, but worse. Behaviour that is both common, and definitely abusive. These articles paint a pretty grim picture of what can go on (that last one, interestingly, lists issues in response to Fifty Shades – slight irony there).

I’m not saying that BDSM is somehow evil, and I’m not saying that bad things can’t be criticized because worse things exist. What I am arguing is that you can’t claim that something isn’t real BDSM when it seems like an accurate depiction of things that occur in “real BDSM”. The people bleating that Fifty Shades is somehow inaccurate because it isn’t safe sane and consensual are ignoring the fact that, regrettably, neither is a lot of BDSM.

I don’t think, in summation, that Fifty Shades of Grey can be said to be abusive, and I really don’t think that it can be said to be inaccurate or unrepresentative – frankly, it seems that you could do a lot worse in your depiction of BDSM whilst staying true to life.

Overall, Fifty Shades is a much maligned book – it isn’t really any of the things that anyone is claiming it is. It isn’t society-destroying smut, and it isn’t an amazing novel. Fifty Shades is harmless but dull.

The main reason that I can see why it attracts such venom is that it is an easy target – it’s popular, but not with the sort of people who are expected to read books. It’s a romance, and that’s a genre that never gets the respect it deserves. It’s got daring undertones and suggestive advertising, so we can snigger about it and judge those who read it. Those hurling invective at the author are jumping on the largest and laziest bandwagon they can find – it allows them to look intelligent and discerning with no effort. Bashing Fifty Shades makes you look like an intellectual who reads proper books, and no one is going to call you on the pretense, or the exaggeration, or the unsupportable assertions.

That, in the end, is why I think it needs defending – without all of the outrageously over-the-top criticism, I’d be content to let it pass. If you can find me someone who wants to talk about how it’s a bad book, I’ll happily talk about that with them – it wouldn’t be a hardship. There’s absolutely valid room for criticism of the series, but the signal is lost far, far down in the noise. The noise of thousands of people joining literature’s current fad: bash the BDSM book.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a bad book. It’s dull with a generic plotline and slightly clunky prose. But it isn’t bad to the extent, or in the same way, as everyone and their dog is currently claiming. I think that’s an important point to make. Criticism should be fair, and attempt some semblance of objectivity. The current bashing does not meet that standard. Even the worst books deserve better than inaccuracies.

2 thoughts on “In Defence of Fifty Shades of Grey

  1. Sorry for post necromancy – I come here via a review of a more-recently-published romance on your front page.

    I agree with much of what you wrote. I agree that much of the critique that is lobbed at the book is purely misogynistic – that because it is smutty, it is not finely crafted prose, and it is overtly for women, we frequently hear the opinion that it is pure trash, and that this trashiness reflects on everyone who enjoys it, in the fine tradition of regarding fiction for women, which deals with feminine subjects like romance, as inherently lesser than fiction aimed at men.

    I have mixed feelings about the “abuse” characterization as “not abuse.” Christian stalks Ana, in one case crashing a private vacation with her mom, because he cannot allow her any privacy nor time to think on her own. He attempts to control her work life by buying her company, even when she does not want to be seen as advancing in her career through nepotism alone and asks him not to do this. He takes her use of safewords as a personal affront, punishing her for using them with his angry behaviour, which also attempts to control her. He throws temper tantrums to get what he wants, manipulating her behaviour with his anger, and in one case, he uses BDSM to physically punish her for being disobedient to him, when she decides to sunbathe topless on their yacht. To me, this does come across as de facto abusive, not just as unhealthy. Christian’s behaviour hews very close to the behaviour of actual abusers.

    And even so, if this were overtly a story about a kinky, borderline abusive relationship that was selfconsciously aware of itself as such, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. As you point out, the arc of the story is to pass through a period of BDSM to a period of a vanilla relationship. But this does a disservice to what BDSM is about. Christian’s kinks, in the story, are presented as the product of his own abusive childhood. The story says that once he is healed from his abuse, through the love of a good and virtuous woman, he will once again be able to enjoy holistic, emotional, vanilla sex. The idea that BDSM is inherently flawed and deviant is very insulting to people who take pains to practice it responsibly. Just because BDSM can and does veer into actual, nonconsensual abuse when abusers practice it, doesn’t mean that there is no extant idea of a good, responsible, and caring BDSM which properly frames it as a fantasy space, in which people do not abuse their power. In terms of “well, actual BDSM is like that” arguments? I don’t think you’ll find a best practices of BDSM guide in which it’s recommended to solicit outsiders into your kinks when they are not already kinky, which is how the books starts off.

    But all this discussion about the cultural ideas in the books does not, in fact, capture the thing I disagree most with, regarding your review. It’s this idea that the books are harmless trash, innocuous and neutered. I could not disagree more. Let it be known that, as many problems as I have with these books, at length, I still must confess that they gripped me with an unholy power, a power in which I felt the eroticism that flowed from them, even as much as I laughed at Ana’s inner goddess doing the salsa with meringue moves, and winced when Christian yanked a bloody tampon out of her vagina. The books also made me laugh a great deal, in that they sometimes read almost as parody of themselves, but this laughter and absurdity did not erase their eroticism for me.

    I am a feminist. I am not submissive. I hate dudebro men like Christian and would not abide dating them in the real world, tiresome and full of puffery as they are. Yet this book gave me the space to imagine what it would be like to have subliminal desires: for submission, for another’s dominance, for someone to read me and give me what I want without me comprehending it with my conscious mind, and handed it to me on a platter. I do not actually want those things, but those books let me imagine how it would be if I did, and let me leave it in the book without it taking over my real life. That is the incredible, thorny power of these terrible books – so much so that I’d say they changed how I thought about erotic fiction entirely. For many women, I think that’s the theme that resonated with them strongly – what it would be like to inhabit this archetypal feminine submission, that they probably don’t want in all its misogyny, in actuality, but to experience how it would be to have pleasure as a result of that roleplay in the books. It also caters to other well-established tropes: Loving the Byronic hero into becoming a better man (which is a fun fantasy, but fraught in the real world), and the trope of a good girl who is virtuous (and not slutty!) winning the hero’s love over her immoral (and slutty) antagonists because of her goodness. Both of these ideas are similarly problematic but powerful.

    Liked by 1 person

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