We need to have a talk about Fifty Shades of Grey.
No, not because of its origins in fandom.
And no, not because it’s a problematic depiction of the BDSM community. (I mean, it is. But that’s mostly unrelated.)
No, we need to talk about Fifty Shades of Grey because of how it’s being treated by the mainstream media; namely, because it’s not being taken seriously.
I’ll admit, my first reaction when it came to Fifty Shades of Grey was a flat “don’t talk about your porn stash in public”. Really, I thought, really? Has our instant gratification culture gotten to the point where we’ve forgotten discretion? Erotica is erotica is erotica, people. The only people who need to know what gets you going are the people you are having sex with, which surely cannot be the entire subway car. But if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s tuning out and repressing things, and tune out and repress Fifty Shades of Grey I did.
And then my roommate told me about an episode of Katie, Katie Couric’s new talk show, where her guest was the trilogy’s author, E. L. James. In her honor, the entire episode was BDSM-themed:
The kinky theme didn’t stop with that crimson glow. For one day only, the usually demure Katie logo was adorned with a pair of handcuffs naughtily looped around the “k.” And Couric herself drew whoops from the audience when she appeared at the top of the hour in a sleeveless black leather dress and sky-high stilettos — to the tune of Rihanna’s “S&M,” naturally. “Relax — this won’t hurt at all,” Couric joked, introducing herself as our “mistress” for the day. What would Matt Lauer think?!
Couric’s audience ate it all up, howling with laughter at a video clip from a Fifty Shades-themed exercise class and nodding thoughtfully when a specialist from the Kinsey Institute called the books “the sex version of the cupcake.” (It made sense in context.) When it came time to pose their own questions, they asked whether James has plans to write something from Christian Grey’s perspective (answer: maybe), if she’s got any advice for those looking to dip a toe into the world of BDSM (“I would say start with a tie, honestly”), and who she’d pick to star in the upcoming film adaptation of the series’ first novel.
Hearing this upset the both of us, even after I learned Katie is aired at 3 PM and not 8 AM, as I’d originally thought. (You have to admit, the sentence “NO ONE IS READY FOR A SEX DUNGEON AT 8 AM IN THE MORNING!” is pretty catchy, even though it’s useless here.) After my first reaction of “what did I just say about your porn stash” (because what did I just say about your porn stash? Come on, people), I was still left much more uncomfortable than oversharing normally dictated, and it took me a bit to realize why: the mainstream reaction to Fifty Shades of Grey devalues female sexuality.
I can’t speak to the books, as I’ve never read them and never will. And if the books, as problematic as they are, are useful to people who are interested in exploring their sexuality but might be afraid to do so, then that is fantastic. But that episode of Katie connected a lot of dots for me. There, Fifty Shades of Grey—and, by extension, female sexuality—is being treated as “cute” and “safe”, something to laugh and giggle at. The Kinsey Institute calls it “a cupcake”, for Pete’s sake, the least threatening baked good there is. It’s not something be taken seriously. Even the Entertainment Weekly article is bemused by it. Foz Meadows says it so much better than I can:
…Romance novels have always been sneered at, while the new vogue for disparaging various sexy, successful books as ‘mommy porn’ always makes me want to stab things — not necessarily in defense of the books themselves, but in outrage at the need to establish adult female desire, and particularly the desires of mothers, as being somehow comic, diminutive, novel. It’s a species of sexual condescension — oh, you’re 40, female and fond of orgasms? how quaint! (or how disgusting, depending on the level of misogyny involved) — that’s so entrenched we’ve almost ceased to recognize it as such.
And the media attention surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey is absolutely drenched with this attitude. Which is why any discretion about the trilogy has been thrown out the window; if we don’t take female sexuality seriously, we can talk about successful female-written and female-consumed erotica at 3 PM in the afternoon on cable television and openly read it on the subway. I mean, how adorable, women expressing sexual desire! There’s no way it’s as complex and gleefully voracious as real (male) sexuality, so let them entertain themselves with their “mommy porn” (a term that not only manages to disparage both female sexuality and mothers, but also reminds us that female sexuality is only in service of childbearing, instead of an end unto itself). It’s seriously infuriating stuff.
So, in the interests of calling spades spades and taking female sexuality seriously, let’s actually treat Fifty Shades of Grey like the erotica trilogy it is—namely, with discretion, which I absolutely cannot believe I have to tell people.
My life is insanely hectic at the moment; I’ve been bouncing between class, rehearsal, and a library conference, so I’ve been up and down middle Georgia and I am absolutely exhausted. I couldn’t tell you what I read if I tried right now, so I won’t, because I need to focus on the mountains of work I have to do today.
The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) Small Beer Press offers several of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!
What do you make of how Fifty Shades of Grey is being treated?