(Warning: language may offend some, and there is an extended fecal analogy. If you love the 50 Shades books, this will likely make you uncomfortable. I ask that you read this piece anyways, in the hopes that it will get you to think about why you've embraced the story. I get that people may get pissed at me; however, I'm willing to risk it to provoke some critical thinking.)
So many people seem so excited about these books. “It’s so hot! I can’t put it down!” was the general sentiment. Given that I really like smut, I thought I’d give it a try, wanting some good old escapist fiction, preferably with a lot of fucking. I will confess, I’ve read romance and erotica novels before, but just for the sex scenes, which I find by skimming for euphemisms for penis.
The first book was... tolerable. At least, it was when I started it. But by the time I was halfway through the third book, it had retroactively become awful. Sort of like how the memory of a mediocre appetizer gets tainted because you find a zombie cockroach fellating a dead rat in your dessert.
What. The. Fuck.
I am grossly embarrassed for straight women and AS a straight woman, because we’re obviously the target demographic. I am also heartbroken, because the success of this book tells me how absolutely starved for sensual material we are that there would be enough of us to make this pathetic turd of a trilogy a commercial success.
The writing sucks. I’ve marked first-year undergraduate introductory psychology papers that I suspect may have been written while drunk and high that had a better grasp of the English language. I am pretty sure I have sent and received texts written on the toilet that stank significantly less in terms of mastery of language. While we’re on that analogy, I’d say I’ve shit out turds that stank less than these books. In fact, I think it is actually possible that I have shit out turds that could write better prose. Anyways, I could go on (forever) about how bad the writing is, but plenty of other people have done this already. Just google “horrible writing” and “50 shades” if you want to read more on that.
As I mentioned before, I am not beyond able to enjoy the occasional romance or chick lit novel. Campy sex scenes can be both hilarious and titillating (and really, who doesn’t like laughing and being wet in the crotch at the same time)? Unfortunately, the sex scenes (and there are plenty of them, since the two main characters repress all of their relationship problems by fucking instead of having actual conversations to resolve their issues) are incredibly cliched (even for erotica standards). Again, others have stated in better words than I possess the problem here; my favorite is an Amazon.ca review with the heading “How can this much sex be so boring?” by user: readthebook. Instead of spending most of my attention on the sex scenes, by middle of book two I started skipping them, because they were all the same anyways. Poorly written rape/coercion/reluctance fantasies are not my thing. (For the record, I am certainly not a prude about these things, and spent a year in graduate school interviewing women about their rape fantasies and what their narratives tell us about our culture.)
The plot was ridiculous, even for the genre. I get the sense that I’m right in the middle of the demographic for the intended target audience (straight, middle-class, early 30’s), but if someone told me that even 10% of what happened in this book happened to them I’d call emergency mental health services and see if I could have them placed on a 72 hour hold. What happens to the main character is about as likely to happen to any reader as they are likely to become the Captain of the Starship Enterprise and have a three way with Spock and Bones. I laughed out loud so many times my partner probably thought about calling emergency mental health services himself.
Then there’s the barrage of bullshit that rained down on my feminist self. Repeatedly the protagonist is manipulated by her “lover” when it comes to birth control. If a man told me to get on the pill or start getting the shot because he doesn’t like the feel of condoms, I’d take one and pull it over his head and dump his controlling ass. It gets even more offensive at the end of the third book when he says something along the lines of “next time, we’re having a scheduled elective C-section” because he was “so stressed out” by the birth of their first child. As a Doula and a feminist and a human being who recognizes where I end and where my partner begins, THIS IS NOT OKAY. Holy shit.
At this point in my rant, as my friend pointed out the other day, I’m usually breaking out in my Hulk-angry-sweat. The sad part is, I’m not done yet.
This is not a love story. This is a biography of an abusive relationship, complete with emotional, physical, reproductive, and sexual abuse. The fact that it can be successfully sold as a love story breaks my heart. I know that for a lot of people, the definitions of what constitutes abuse is fuzzy; we’re inundated with stereotypes about who abusers are and there is huge amounts of blame placed on victims. This book reinforces society’s acceptance of abuse as excusable; that if there is love abuse is not possible, that only through and through “bad guys” perpetuate abuse on other people. THIS IS NOT HOW THE WORLD WORKS. How many times have we read in the paper or seen on the news the neighbour or coworker say, “he seemed so nice, I didn’t think he was capable of it” after something horrific has happened? I’ve been involved in the field of violence against women long enough to know that this is nearly almost ALWAYS the case. One of the reasons there is so much relationship violence is precisely because we never think it’s the guy next door who’s beating up his partner. The fact is, they are almost always next door to someone who doesn’t think they’re “capable”. The reality is that most relationship abuse goes unreported; the person being abused has been systematically desensitized to the violence they experience; and many end up in a place where they believe to stay is what it means to love and that whatever happens to them is what they deserve. Those of us who dream of a world without violence perpetuated by people who are supposed to care about our wellbeing are constantly battling against the media’s portrayal of unhealthy relationships as romantic and desirable; this trilogy is a weapon for abusers because it tells a story of violence and sells it as a story of love.
I hesitated when writing this because I know a lot of people who have apparently read and enjoyed the books. But then I realized that this is no different than when I call someone out on their use of racist or homophobic language; it just seems more difficult because 50 Shades is so popular. Well, it wasn’t okay for people to call each other “faggot” even when lots of people did it; so I will not shy away from calling out the misogyny that permeates these books even if it means some of my friends will take offense. There was a time when I would have bought into the “romance” of relationship abuse, but as a writer, a feminist, as a woman who worries for future generations and the status of women today, I cannot in good conscience not say SOMETHING. So here it is.