Sunday, 15 February 2015

Fifty Shades of Commercialised Hype, and you're all falling for it

I work in a library, and yes I did notice the popularity of the Fifty Shades series.

As part of the fabulous service that you can expect to receive at our library, you can put your name down to reserve a book when it becomes available, and in some cases even order it in to be reserved.

Needless to say, many folk put their names against this title, the books being hastily passed from one reader to the next, usually not even hitting the shelf before ending up back on the reserved pile.  It was crazy. People were phoning and asking about it, wondering when it would be their turn.

The audience? Well, mainly older ladies who use the service anyway and were curious to see what all the fuss was about.  Many, and I mean many, handed the first book back with a groan, pushing it over the desk and mumbling something about 'what a load of rubbish', or 'too far-fetched'.

'I'll stick to the Mills & Boon,' one lady giggled, 'it's a much better read!  That one was terrible, the grammar was awful!'

Some carried on to read the trilogy, remembering to pick up the second or third book, but very noticeably, there are now a lot of half-thumbed through second and third books of the series on the shelves compared to the few battered and well-read first books that were actually returned and didn't actually just end up under someone's bed, never to come back tot he library again.

I suppose, for those who read, Fifty Shades just didn't really hit the mark. They were much more inclined to pick up a dark classic or some of the other romance fiction (of which there are many, in various shapes and forms) to tickle their tastebuds.  The verdict seemed to be that Fifty Shades was just another well-publicised, over-hyped fad. The various comments about it ranged from "poorly-written", to "fifty shades of crap!

Curiosity did get the better of me, and I had a look at one of the reserved books one day, thumbing through one on my lunch break. I wasn't shocked, or even remotely perturbed - I'd spent time working in a high street sex shop which had worse things on the shelf than this.  Just picking out random bits of text turned me right off anyway. I mean, seriously - I didn't have to look far for some hilarious text to back up my view that no person who truly enjoyed words in their art form could subscribe to this as a serious storyline with serious outcomes.

I wrote it off as yet another book that would have it's time and then leave as suddenly as it came. No pun intended.

It floated away for a while and then the rumours came of a movie. It was no real surprise - after all, it was clearly a commercialised hit already.  People who never usually bother to pick up a book had picked up three. Which is quite profitable for your 'supermarket sellers', the ones you pick up along with your shopping or with your lunchtime sandwich. Cheap and cheerful pick-me-ups, right?

The search was on for a man to play Christian Grey, a character whom every critic was holding up on a pedestal as one who would be difficult to perfectly portray.  Who, if the casting was wrongly done, would ruin the very image of man.  The supposition was that these would be very difficult shoes to fill.

He should be at once sexy, but commanding. 

Lusty and serious.

Hot and unforgiving.

Women were going crazy for this guy, so I decided to do a bit of investigating.  After all, I'm not adverse to a bit of perving over fictional characters in movie format.  I've seen Magic Mike (to my eternal shame. What? Channing Tatum is unbelievably smooth in that film. Those dance moves are UNbelieveable!)

After skulking around various film boards, newspaper articles and feminist boards, I was kind of a bit worried as to the kind of character this Grey man was.  After all, if any of my friends or family started going out with or dating a guy who treated them like that, I'd be staging an intervention, complete with identity papers and a house move to another country.

I'm perplexed - how are normal, seemingly functioning and sensible, modern, women even subscribing to this notion of a man so poisonous and degrading to the very core of femininity?

Talk about one step forward ten steps back.

I get the BDSM thing.  I get the allure of bondage and handcuffs and I can even imagine how sexual contracts like the one Grey gives Ana can be a bit of a turn on to the usual lady lounging at home with her day to day life. It's thrilling. It takes away from the normal wishy-washy will-she-won't-she mundane storylines that crop up time and time again in other 'romance' novels.

It pushes a boundary, a social contract even, and it makes it seem legitimate, because ultimately, by the end of the third book, Ana gets her child and her man and her life with them. So, it's like saying, 'oh yeah, well, sure, they have a weird relationship to start off with, but they work it out, yeah?'

I've had several conversations with my fellow women about Fifty Shades, and I have to say, it's not the books, it's not the characters, nor is it the plotline which shocks me the most; it's the reaction of normal, seemingly forward-thinking women to some of the darker undertones of it.  The really, terrible, awful, abusive stuff that, seriously, there can be no excuse for.

It's also the fact that they are willing to normalise this behaviour to such an extent as to jump behind the commercialism, to invest in 'girly nights out' to see the film all together, to fantasise as to which guy is going to play Mr. Grey so perfectly in the film, to shout down the women who point out that sexual fun and antics is entirely right and good, but that a man who takes advantage of a woman in such a way is a bit of a git.

I've heard all the arguments as to how to legitimise Grey's acts - "it's sexual slavery and that's how that works", "Ana saves Christian from himself, so she's the stronger one", "don't be so vanilla", "it's just a bit of fun".

Come on, who are we kidding here? 

At the same time, I'm torn; I remember such over-reactions to similar things like how evil Freddy Kreuger was, how corrupting video games were to young children, the reaction to awful porn like Deep Throat - all of which make us laugh now and say, 'really? That's nothing!'

But isn't that where the real problems lie?

The problem with things like Fifty Shades of Grey is that it does normalise and legitimise.  It raises a bar that the next person has to hit in order to shock, and trust me, this will come too. There will be a time where we look at Fifty Shades and laugh at how ridiculously sweet it was.

And what about the real people in real abusive relationships?  What do they do with this information? Does a woman caught in an abusive relationship now have a chance to romanticise what is happening to her instead of breaking free, in the hope that she too will find her Mr. Grey?  After all the work that has been done by various groups all over the world to say that such behaviour is not right, is dangerous, is wrong, doesn't Fifty Shades somewhat court responsibility for hat happens here too?

Apparently not as long as the people behind it are making their fifty shades of moolah.

Of course, the commercialization which goes along with such a box office hit is phenomenal.  There's Fifty Shades promos on everything.  Hitting the Valentines day market, you can even but Fifty Shades sex toys. Albeit, very poorly made sex toys. Seriously, don't waste your money. That stuff will snap in two if you even attempt to use it harder than a wee bit.

Christian Grey is like a metaphor for commercialism alone - even if you move to Antarctica, it'll find you, right?  Maybe that's the joke here? 

I'm no prude, I have a wicked imagination and I could tell most folk a thing or two about, you know, 'stuff'.

But there's a reason why it's hitting a lot of people's moral compasses and raising red flags.  Reasons I sincerely believe I don't really need to outline here.

Everyone is entitled to explore their sexuality in whichever way they see fit - that's fun and healthy and good.

I think the definition of healthy is what's at stake here.

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