Wednesday, July 18, 2012


I may have to read 50 Shades of Grey.

I am not enthusiastic about this.

I have heard that it is Twilight fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off. This is an issue for me not because of any opposition to fanfiction, but because of an awareness of the common tropes of fanfiction, vast tracts of which exist only to have characters kiss.

I have heard small sections of it read aloud (not safe for work), to dawning horror and helpless laughter.

I have heard how it treats BDSM relationships. Stories that feature BDSM relationships that are creepy and abusive and push boundaries are even more culturally abhorrent than the never-ending stream of coming-out YA fiction. The only mainstream stories featuring gay youth being coming-out stories is boring and repetitive. The only mainstream stories about people in BDSM relationships being about really questionably abusive relationships is detrimental to things like submissives being able to safely go to the police if their safeword has been violated, resulting in assault. If all media representations of BDSM relationships (with the exception of Dan Savage's column, of course) have issues with consent and none of them draw crystal fucking clear boundaries between acceptable play and creepy abusiveness (you know, the kind of boundaries that exist in real life), then it makes the world less safe. This is a problem. I have heard that 50 Shades of Grey contributes to this problem, and also that it attributes interest in BDSM at all to psychological trauma.

But I don't want to judge it without having read the source material. It is the entirety of the context I am missing, and I want to fill that in and not just pass on judgements based on hearsay.


This is the part of the post where I remember that my parents read this sometimes and I curl up and die a little on the inside, but am too angry to leave it alone. Mom, Dad, Sara, come back next week for something else, okay?

So I purchased 50 Shades of Grey, and read it in something like three days. I'll say this for it: it has really phenomenal pacing after the rather slow start. Once the main characters start actually macking on each other, it alternates rather neatly between plot point and smutty bit.

Except for the majority of one chapter that was a contract.

I discussed the book practically incessantly with anyone who didn't overtly tell me to shut up about it while I was reading it. They didn't even have to be listening, just not fleeing in the other direction.

The only person I discussed it with who'd actually read it liked it, and said they liked it mostly after they remembered that it was only a book.

Remembering it is only a book would probably be key to me enjoying it, but I had issues doing so. Key to my issues with it is that I felt it insulted and demonized anyone who is a sexual dominant, thereby insulting and demonizing several nice, bright, conscientious people about whom I care a great deal. They are soldiers and nurses and students with jobs: people who contribute to society and have healthy interactions with varied social circles. Normal people who happen to have sexual preferences that run to dominance. Having Christian Grey presented as this quintessential dominant is like presenting sharks as quintessential fish. Yes, they both swim, but one of them is a predator and hardly typical of everything in the environment. Yet 50 Shades presents Grey's deepseated psychological issues as not only a contributing factor for his interest in BDSM, but as the entire basis of it.

I had a very useful conversation with one of my many rant-victims about the things that bothered me. Paraphrased, they put forth that anything that normalizes BDSM is probably positive for the community. My response was that this would be true of anything representing a relationship that even shared a zip code with healthy, but that the relationship in 50 Shades was controlling, borderline abusive, and did not present the potential submissive with the initial option of adding hard limits.

Jokingly, they asked where'd I'd been when Twilight normalized stalking and abuse.

I replied: angry.

He's also controlling and introduces power play elements to their sexual relationship before she has formally consented to power play elements. In mainstream culture, this is (stupidly, horribly) accepted to some extent, but he has already indicated to her at this point that he is interested in power play and that extended contact with him will involve explicit power exchanges. He proceeds to initiate power exchanges without her explicit consent. This is not okay. This is never okay. Consent is important.

For anyone who fell in love with the idea of a sexy prince, here are some things to know:
  • a significant other who wants to be able to contact you all the time and tries to enforce this (by demanding you answer phone calls or email, or by buying you expensive communication devices) should have red flags go up. 
    • Knowing your every move is a right reserved for parole officers.
      • And also everyone you have as a friend on Foursquare.
  • negotiation ideally occurs for every scene. Unless and until you are completely comfortable with a partner, you should know what you are signing up for once a power exchange of some sort occurs, because it can be super-hard to renegotiate mid-scene. 
    • It's like Prom. 
      • "Wanna go neck in the car?" 
      • "Definitely! And it'll only be necking because I want to wait." 
      • "Hey, I know we said just necking, but is it okay if I undo this bit of your outfit?" 
      • Later: "Oops, I think one of us is imaginary-pregnant, even though I said I wanted to wait, because I make super-awesome decisions when high as hell on hormones.
But the BDSM itself was not horribly portrayed. I was happy about that. There are safewords, which is really important. The major issue for me with the BDSM aspect remains the ascription of psychological damage to anyone who is sexually dominant.

Probably the thing that freaks me out the most about the portrayal of BDSM and dominants in particular is how much it has boosted interest. Apparently Fetlife, a kink social network, has had a huge boost in interest and membership. Then there's this article from Salon, and this article from Pervocracy referencing a really terribly thought out article from Cosmo. 50 Shades is encouraging people into BDSM without encouraging any kind of outside reading or research. I have read more socially responsible fiction on erotica sites. You know what would be neat? If, instead of giving Ana a car, Christian gave her SM 101 (Amazon link, perfectly safe for work, unlike most of the rest of this post). Then not only would she be more informed, it might be contributing to a cultural narrative where people do their research before letting people tie them up (even in toilet paper). Informed consent is sexy consent.

On to those things which are not ranting about BDSM.

Despite being original fiction now apparently, the number of times they make comments about wanting read each others' minds (mostly him saying it) was annoying. In fanfiction, this would be a reasonably entertaining nod to the original canon. In 'original fiction,' it's those places where someone got sloppy with the metal file and left part of the serial number intact.

It also revisited some themes that I found frustrating in Twilight, but enraged me here. A lot of the things that enraged me are the things we're supposed to grow out of. Things like accepting compliments gracefully. Yeah, it's a skill. If you don't have great self-confidence, it can be a hard-won skill, but it's still as fundamental to wider social interaction as 'please pass the salt.'

My feelings on how Steele is about accepting gifts are ambivalent. On one hand, accepting gifts without trying to throw them back in people's faces is also a basic life skill. On the other hand, someone I've know for like a week buying me a car, no matter how rich they are, would send me screaming irretrievably for the hills. With my GPS turned off.

Steele's complete lack of self-worth also annoyed me. Yes, I understand that some people feel that way, and it's always good to have characters one can relate to. But just once I'd like to see a romance novel heroine who has some sense of self-worth, or can observe that practically every dude they meet throws themselves at her and use logic to extrapolate that, irrelevant as looks may be to their general self-image, they are apparently fairly attractive. And it's another layer on the 'normalizing stupid things' cake: I do not particularly look forward to a world in which stalking, controlling relationships, and crushing lack of self-worth are all considered the norm.

The writing itself was not monumentally execrable. Again, pacing was excellent. The vocabulary employed was not entirely puerile. The vocabulary employed were mostly Australian ex-pats. This is a situation in which the author could possibly have spent some of the time they spent on Washington geography on, oh, finding out that very few people refer to tank tops as singlets in North America. Seriously. Regional vocabulary is not hard to research, and the internet is really helpful.

And there we go with 1500 words of why I need to stick to reading things which are recommended to me instead of things which are popular.


  1. Well congratulations, that was incredibly brave, reading that book.

    You can get back to the good stuff now...right? Ie the good books?

    1. Mostly it seemed like everyone else was, so I ought to.

      Definitely back to good stuff - I'm reading Madame Bovary now.