Attacking a Hot Fudge Sundae: A Few Thoughts on Fifty Shades

February 12, 2015

Attack!
 Fifty Shades of Grey the movie is opening in two days and I can't swing a dead Grumpy Cat over my head without hitting twenty posts or articles about it.  The Internet snark is thick, which is expected, given how much people have long weighed in about how bad they think the novels are.

In times like these I like to think about something Kurt Vonnegut once wrote:
As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.
The snarkiest book reviews seem to reveal more about the critic than the book, for example, an oversensitivity to the line between highbrow and lowbrow.  This is that same fear of being identified with the "least common denominator" prevalent among trembling first-years when I was a freshman undergrad.  I'm guess I'm just too old now to care.  Here's Dave Grohl on the topic:

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you fucking like something, like it. That’s what’s wrong with our generation: that residual punk rock guilt, like, “You’re not supposed to like that. That’s not fucking cool.” Don’t fucking think it’s not cool to like Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” It is cool to like Britney Spears’ “Toxic”! Why the fuck not? Fuck you! That’s who I am, goddamn it! That whole guilty pleasure thing is full of fucking shit.
There's an article on Jezebel today called "This is Your Brain on Fifty Shades of Grey."  In it, Erin Gloria Ryan writes about her experience reading all three books in the trilogy.  It's a funny piece, gloriously snarky, but she loses me quite a bit when she says this:

Fifty Shades of Grey is the literary accomplishment of our time, the Great Idiot American Novel, told from the perfectly captured perspective of an idiot, written about an idiot and available to be enjoyed, primarily, by idiots.  Fifty Shades nails how idiots think and (apart from the physical violence) how adolescents love.
Go ahead and shred the book.  But shredding the millions of readers who love it?  We have no way of knowing who they are or what they stand for.  We definitely don't have the proper ammunition to accuse them all of being idiots.

The article ends with this somewhat self-deprecating observation:
But in the end, I'd finish all three books, 1,600+ pages of what I'd sneered at as mindless drivel with a terrible moral outcome when I could been reading smart things by good writers. I'd soldier through the beaten-to-death linguistic cliches, a surprising amount of footplay, Anastasia talking about that time Christian put stuff into her anus. I'd allow myself to be assaulted by Anastasia Steele's relentless dullness until I broke through my disgust and found myself in a dark new place, one I didn't know existed inside me. By the end, I—in a fucked up way—actually liked how it felt.
A commenter on the article made this nifty statement about the specific type of attraction aroused by reading Fifty Shades.

Each time I read them, I shook my head in disgust...and then kept reading. And was suddenly attracted to Christian Grey. Probably still am. Despite her terrible writing, terrible plot, terrible...well...everything (especially use of the word "mercurial". Not a bad word, but doesn't need to be in every fucking chapter), she nailed the attraction to aggression. Not violence, not disrespect, not assault...that's not the stuff I'm getting at - but the attraction to that exquisitely male kind of aggression. The attraction to the passion, I guess. Like a fucking drug. Even if I'm not proud of it, even if I know it developed out of some unhealthy sexist shit...still there. and I think that's what made me keep reading it.
 This part of the comment digs deep:
Years of surrounding myself (and dating, fucking and marrying...) with nice guys, who don't get jealous, dont really get passionate, stay generally emotionally stable (even if they are emotional man-children on the inside) has left me craving some of that. Healthy? probably not. But accurate? yeah...unfortunately
If E.L. James hadn't made a bajillion dollars, we wouldn't be having these public revelations about the nature of female sexual desire.  These books are so commercially successful that in 2012, every Random House employee received a $5,000 bonus. Whatever people think of the books, no one can deny that James has changed the conversation.

Now let's talk about the movie. In TIME, Belinda Luscombe writes,
Female sexual desire is not, in terms of chemistry, a stable element.  There is no foolproof way to make the mercury rise...Desire strikes every woman differently, however, and since sex, like reading, is mostly about the theater of the mind, finding a universally arousing depiction of intimacy is damnably difficult.
I'm a little afraid for the movie.  Everything I've read about it reveals a difficult production, from lead actors who don't appear to have any off-screen chemistry to big conflicts between James and the film's director, Sam Taylor-Johnson (who married this effing beautiful man, in case you've forgotten).

Like the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings franchise, films can absolutely do justice to their source material.  Alfonso Cuaron can create a Buckbeak that a majority of Potter readers would be happy to embrace: giant, horse-hawk thing, kind of crested, gray and white.  Eyeballs are happy.  But Fifty Shades is a much taller order.  Christian Grey? He's the hero with a thousand faces.  I feel sorry for Jamie Dornan, tasked with the impossibility of pleasing tens of millions of women.  Eyeballs must be made happy, but so must lady parts...a much more difficult task when you are just one physical man and not the malleable elastic-fanfic-tastic dream man that exists in a reader's imagination. 

In this New York Times film review, A.O. Scott writes that the novels are the perfect vehicle to bring kink to the masses.

“Fifty Shades” not only destigmatizes kink, bringing bondage and spanking to airport bookstores and reading groups across the land. But it also, so to speak, de-sophisticates certain sexual practices, taking them out of the chateau and the boudoir and other fancy French places and planting them in the soil of Anglo-American banality. If E. L. James were a better writer, her books would be more — to use one of Anastasia’s favorite words — intimidating. And much less useful.
 Because of its R-rating, the movie is incapable of measuring up to the books:
The movie is neither [intimidating or useful]. It dabbles in romantic comedy and splashes around in melodrama, but the one thing it can’t be — the thing the novel so trashily and triumphantly is — is pornography. Ms. Taylor-Johnson’s sex scenes are not that much different from other R-rated sex scenes, though there are more of them and more hardware is involved. You know the routine: an arched neck, some curled toes, a buttock here, a breast there, a wisp of pubic hair, a muffled moan, another Beyonc√© song. Maybe a riding crop for variety.
  One last thought on Fifty Shades' critics:
The “Fifty Shades” phenomenon has spawned innumerable kink-themed think pieces, though the analysis has dwelt less on Ms. James’s psyche than on the fantasies of the tens of millions of women who have bought her books. The writers transform their boredom into mockery and judgment as they circle around a tantalizing, perhaps frustrating question. Why do so many women read these novels, even though they have no literary value?  I’m no expert, but I can venture a guess: for fun. They seem to be the kind of books you can simultaneously have fun with, make fun of, trash and cherish and adapt to the pursuit of your own pleasures.
There you have it, folks. Stop the presses: women like Fifty Shades of Grey because it's fun.  

Fun like a hot fudge sundae.