I wouldn’t normally do this, but I’m going to post a link here to a blog post that contains the line: ‘I usually avoid reading books which zoom up the best-sellers list, as I am a self-confessed book snob.’ Here’s the link to that particular book snob’s review of Fifty Shades of Grey: http://more-than-a-mum.com/07/50-shades-of-grey-review/.
I have as much sympathy for the plight of anyone who would voluntarily eschew such excellent treats as, for example, Before I Go To Sleep, I Don’t Know How She Does It, My Sister’s Keeper and One Day on spurious ideological grounds as I would for someone who feared God would punish her if she ate this food rather than that food, or who was afraid to leave the house in case a gang of ants wrestled her to the ground and stole her favourite handbag. It’s always a shame when a delusion limits a person’s capacity to get the most out of life.
However – sympathy notwithstanding, I disagree with part of what More Than a Mum says about 50 Shades of Grey:
‘What made me angry was the way that this book glorified not a sexy, kinky relationship, but an abusive one….domestic violence is not just about physical abuse, it is about control and intimidation. Ana’s fear of Christian’s reactions to normal things like having a drink with friends or visiting her mother definitely show she is intimidated. They have a relationship built on fear and control, and even if she did want to have the kinky sex which is not clear, the control and fear are not OK. This is not harmless erotica, it’s abuse…. I would not recommend this book because it does nothing for the cause of women or our view of ourselves, our relationships and our self-worth. How are we to help charities such as Refuge support women, and men, in abusive relationships if this is entertainment? How can we support people trapped in abusive relationships to see that they don’t deserve that treatment, it is not their fault and it is not acceptable when this book is considered ‘Mummy Porn’?
Okay, first of all: is Ana and Christian’s relationship abusive? I don’t think so. I think she ‘fears’ his reactions to her behaviour because she’s in love with him and doesn’t want to lose him, just as he ‘fears’ hers for the same reason; just as, if I fell madly in love with Morrissey, I might ‘fear’ telling him that I love a rib-eye steak on a Saturday night, or if I were embarking upon a romance with the political commentator Owen Jones that really mattered to me, I might be mildly nervous at the prospect of admitting that I don’t believe Oxbridge should be abolished because it’s too good. That kind of fear – ‘Will he/she still like me if I do/admit X or Y?’ – is very different from the fear instilled in a person by an abusive relationship. Here’s the difference a) if I do X, it might turn out that we’re not suited and our relationship won’t be able to continue because we can’t live with each other’s true selves (this happens all the time), and b) if I do Y, he will hit me/starve me of affection while still not allowing me to leave the relationship/rape me/assault my mind with his warped ideas and brainwash me into thinking I’m worthless.
Christian Grey is not an abuser. Ana is in control of what she agrees to at all times. She wrestles with the dilemma of what to concede and what to insist upon, and wants not to upset him, but he never tries to exercise mind control. On the contrary, he regularly clarifies that his need to be so controlling and have such an abnormal relationship is a result of his being ‘fifty shades of fucked up’. An abuser would say, ‘You can’t be trusted. You’re useless – without me telling you what to do, you’d mess everything up.’
How can we support people trapped in abusive relationships if 50 Shades of Grey is entertainment? Quite easily. We can say, ‘Everybody – leave your abusive relationship forthwith. There’s a book at the top of the bestseller lists about an affair between a dominant kinky man and a vanilla woman, and how they learn to compromise to please one another – this has nothing to do with your life and is not at all a reason why you should stick around and let your husband persecute and beat you.’ There, that wasn’t hard.
More Than a Mum’s post about 50 Shades also made me think about how uneasy I feel when people try to blame a book for something that’s not its fault. How can we tell people paedophilia’s wrong once we’ve all enjoyed reading about Humbert Humbert in Lolita? (Easily.) How can we say violence against women is wrong if cinemas are showing The Killer Inside Me? (Easily.) How can we can we wholeheartedly support the leisure industry while simultaneously claiming Hitchcock’s Psycho is a masterpiece? Isn’t it, rather, a film that’s going to groom us all into thinking hotels are places of danger, full of unappealing plastic shower curtains? (No, not at all.) If Eastenders has a storyline in which a bereaved mother does something terrible like steal another baby, isn’t it saying, ‘Look, this is the kind of thing bereaved mothers do – they’re all mental’? (No, it isn’t.)
Let’s forget 50 Shades for a second. Let’s say I write a novel tomorrow about an abusive relationship – a properly, horrendously abusive relationship. The victim is so misguided that she believes not only that a bestseller is necessarily a bad book but also that hubby’s bashing her over the head with a brick is his way of showing his love for her. Let’s say I want to write that story about the worst relationship ever from the deluded victim’s lovestruck and warped point of view – am I not allowed to do that because it might encourage women to stay in violent marriages? What about the film Tyrannosaur? Does it encourage women to murder violent husbands? What about Thelma & Louise – does that encourage women to kill the men that rape them? What about The Sopranos? Etc etc. I could go on for ever.
A story, every story, has to be allowed to be itself and tell itself, free from judgement and blame about the effect it might have on society. I happen to believe that one or two women might eventually end up hurt or worse as a result of 50 Shades. They might think, ‘Ooh, how exciting’ and seek out a sexual sadist, and this might not end well – I can imagine an all-pain-no-free-laptop scenario quite easily. This will in no way be the books’ fault, or EL James’. I also think that 50 Shades will boost the sexual adventurousness of some people – but then their marriages might end because their repressed frigid partners can’t take the heat. Again – not the books’ fault.
To accuse 50 Shades of contributing to the domestic violence problem is as nonsensical as accusing your real-life best friend’s story of her husband abusing her and her staying with him because she’s too scared to leave of making a similar contribution. These are the stories of people’s lives and they contain everything – the whole range, the good and the bad. That one might be true and the other fictional doesn’t and shouldn’t make a difference, because without stories that reflect life in any form it might take, life becomes impoverished, and we all understand each other a little bit less.