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The circle of pop culture life vaguely resembles that of the stereotypical hipster argument. Something become popular, people brag about liking it before it was cool to do so, the backlash occurs with similar bragging, then the backlash to the backlash. Often this can go on and on until the original argument has lost all meaning and descended into ranting, swearing and humorous pictures of cats, such is the state of the internet. Online culture has meant that this process has been speeded up to dizzying levels, with the entire cycle beginning and ending in the space of a few weeks. While it doesn’t pertain to pop culture, the Kony 2012 phenomenon is a perfect example of this. Now we have a surprising addition to the pop culture fold in the shape of Twilight BDSM fanfiction turned saviour of the publishing world, E.L. James’s “50 Shades of Grey” series. I have ranted about this series more than is probably healthy, and my review and discussion of the series can be found here and here. The series is absolutely awful in every way possible and yet it’s being heralded as the hot new thing, receiving more media coverage than one ever imagined it could. Why? I think it’s a combination of extreme hype, savvy marketing and coming into the market when there really isn’t much else to talk about. Of course, there has been backlash, mainly from people who have no understanding of how fandom, fan-fiction or basic sexuality works. The New Statesman’s columnist Laurie Penny, who describes herself as writing about “pop culture and radical politics with a feminist twist”, now joins the fold of the defenders, but doesn’t do a very good job, and since I’m so sick of people entirely missing the point of my criticisms of this god-awful series passing itself off as women friendly, I just had to reply.

Penny admits to enjoying the first book. That’s fine, that’s her prerogative. We all have different tastes. I question her comment that the book is “terrifically trashy” with “a few quite good, quite detailed descriptions of fucking written from the point of view of a woman who seemed to be really enjoying herself.” The protagonist of the series, Anastacia, may orgasm EVERY SINGLE TIME she has sex (one way you can tell the book is more fiction than fact), but she’s also someone who has no real understanding of what she has entered into. Christian, a man so charming he should be used to advertise mace, fails to fully explain what he wants from her, tries to mask abusive actions as kinky, and continually puts her into situations she is uncomfortable with. People defending the actions within this book as being those typical of a dominant-submissive/BDSM relationship are clearly ignorant of the facts regarding these issues. It’s not romantic to have the heroine admit how she worries about upsetting the man who she’s supposed to be able to trust for fear of his twitchy palm.

I have no issue with women reading porn. I encourage anything that encourages people to get their freak on, be it films, TV, books or even fan-fiction, something Penny does bring up. She is right that fan-fiction communities are predominantly female (at least the ones I’ve occupied were) and that it’s an interesting way to “re-occupy” a text. However, she doesn’t bring up a key issue with this particular piece of fan-fiction, mainly the filing off of serial numbers and repackaging as “original” fiction. I’ve discussed this at length before, which you can find in the above link, so I won’t rehash my argument here.

The crux of Penny’s argument seems to be that badly written porn is okay because it’s badly written porn for women. But it isn’t just badly written porn, although the prosaic quality is heinous. This is badly written porn that entirely misunderstands what a D/S relationship is and instead normalises a controlling jerk as someone who’s just sexually adventurous. It takes the oft imitated “stand by your man and you can change him” narrative and tries to use that to justify why an abusive and controlling jerk would want to have kinky sex. Apparently it’s not good enough just to say he likes to dominate a woman. It has to be tied up in his neglected childhood. When the biggest mainstream exposure a BDSM centred piece of media receives is one that entirely twists and misunderstands what BDSM actually is, that’s something that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, the media seems more interested in pretending a vanilla fan-fiction is the 21st century Story of O (also, I have to stridently disagree with Penny’s assertion that Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy is well written. It really isn’t). The idea that porn for men isn’t mocked is also pretty laughable. There are entire websites dedicated to mocking bad porn. I am pro-porn in the sense that I think we should be making and promoting more women friendly stuff. 50 Shades isn’t women friendly. It’s not particularly friendly to literature lovers either.

Penny’s argument rests on the idea that anything created by a woman for a woman must be encouraged. To that I have one word – Twilight. If it wasn’t for Twilight, 50 Shades wouldn’t exist, and don’t we all yearn for those days. Twilight is massively sexist abstinence porn and the only reason Penny seems to be defending 50 Shades over Twilight is that the former contains some badly written sex scenes. Penny herself refers to Twilight as “actively disturbing chastity propaganda”. Which it is. That doesn’t make 50 Shades the preferable alternative.

Porn doesn’t have to be art, although it has the potential to be. In our culture of contrasts – over-sexualised yet fetishizing virginity – it’s tough to get the balance right and to find something truly feminist friendly and pro-equality in terms of sex. There are countless great romance and erotica novels that I hope will get more exposure in the wake of this series reaching pop culture saturation. However, I remain steadfast in my refuting of Penny’s remarkably weak article. 50 Shades cannot be looked at separately from the culture that created it. Born from the purity worshipping sex free porn that is Twilight, part of the generation of literature for young women that normalises passivity in women and rape culture in relationships as the romantic ideal, in a culture that continues to put women second. There’s nothing empowering about James’s series because she doesn’t have a clue what she’s writing about. She’s giving porn a bad name, and it never had a good one to begin with. Just because something was written by a woman and for other women that does not make it women positive. If Laurie Penny wishes to defend “50 Shades of Grey”, I suggest that she formulate a stronger argument.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 8th, 2012 06:52 pm (UTC)
Wow. I'm delurking to say that I love you. I really, really do.

50SoG would have been fun for me, with its bad writing talking about an "inner goddess" and the "holy cow" and soap-opera plot, but every time the story showed some abusive behaviour, even just an order by the main character made me shiver.
I really love to talk about sex, to show that it is okay for women to discuss it but this seems to take it as an excuse to present a romanticized abusive relationship. If you don't like it, you must be a prude.

Sorry for the tl;dr. But thank you for posting this.
Jul. 8th, 2012 09:24 pm (UTC)
Well said! This isn't the same thing, but I am getting irritated at the way mainstream media seems to be unable to distinguish between "slash," "porn," "fan fiction." Not all fan fiction is slash, not all slash is porn, not all porn is slash, etc. This quietly drives me insane.

I'm also fed up with the tone: "you may not believe it, but there is something called--gasp--fanfiction!" It's so condescending, and it's treated like breaking news. Argh.

I know I won't be able to stand reading it. By the way, the big Harry Potter conference I'm going to this week has a "Quill Track." Some of the panels are specifically about converting fan fiction to money-making books. So it looks as though this is being treated as the new road to success.
Jul. 8th, 2012 10:13 pm (UTC)
I'll happily read bad fiction because I enjoy critiques of that sort of stuff and even I draw the line at touching 50 Shades of Gray.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 9th, 2012 05:34 am (UTC)
This was perfectly written and I agree with everything.
Jul. 10th, 2012 01:06 am (UTC)
Nicely done. I work at a library and those things have a billion reserves on them put there by suburban woman who I'm sure really have no clue, who just want to get in on the latest fad. Well, I know most have no clue because I see these people every week and knowing what they normally check out, I know they wouldn't bother with it if it wasn't currently hip (and so by reading it they can seem currently hip). This is all marketing and very successful marketing. But successful marketing doesn't make the product any better.
Jul. 11th, 2012 07:03 am (UTC)
Oh man where was this essay when I was arguing with someone on ontd giving the exact same arguments as Laurie Penny? lol

The idea that porn for men isn’t mocked is also pretty laughable.

I can't believe people actually think this. Not to mention that it isn't mainstream the way 50 Shades is. You don't see posters plastered all over every bookstore advertising bad porn for men as literature, with "classy" b/w covers of idk high heels or lipstick or something.

Is there any sexism involved in the 50 Shades backlash? Sure, there is. There are a lot of undersexed housefrau jokes (although the media isn't doing anything to discourage them by dubbing the books "mommy porn"). But to attribute every negative reaction or criticism of this series to sexism is reaching. Anything this wildly popular and this mediocre is not going to come out unscathed. Has everyone forgotten about Dan Brown?

Just because something is written by a woman for women does not mean it's women-friendly. I'm not going to celebrate something that is, imo, not only poorly-written but perpetuates ideas that are actually very harmful to women.
Nov. 21st, 2014 01:58 am (UTC)
Every few years there's another book or series that totally captivate the female population. I guess this time around it was Fifty Shades of Grey - a book that tells girls what they should want instead of letting them explore for themselves.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


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