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.
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