Feb 162015
 

Here we go again…

Person A does a thing, makes a thing, or likes a thing.

Person B questions or critiques the existence, creation, practice, or implications of that thing.

Person A responds with one or more of the following:*

  1. “Censorship! This is censorship!”
  2. “You can’t tell me what to do/like/watch!”
  3. “If you don’t like it, don’t do it! What I do/like/watch doesn’t affect you.”
  4. “You’re kink shaming!”

telegraph fifty shades arguments suck

Calling Rebecca Reid’s Telegraph article an “argument” is a bit too generous. It’s more like an reductive reaction followed by swinging at straw men and tilting at windmills.

Let’s pull it apart, shall we?

No one is saying that domestic abuse is anything other than reprehensible. But, director Sam Taylor-Wood’s version of the novel takes a firm and decisive step away from abuse and towards the realm of the fairy-tale. It’s slick, sexy, and beautiful but most of all, it’s fiction.

Reid seems to think that abuse and fiction are mutually exclusive, as if genre somehow neutralizes content or negates its potential message (and that’s a false dichotomy… kinda). Of course it’s fiction, but that doesn’t mean it’s insignificant or ineffectual, and it doesn’t mean it’s off-limits for examination and critique.

No adult woman is going to struggle with the misconception that this film has anything more than a passing acquaintance with reality. […] Women are adults. We are sentient, intelligent humans. How can it be that there are people arguing about whether viewing material could be “dangerous” to us? It’s the exact same sentiment that stops children from being allowed to watch horror movies. We are entertaining a discussion that casts us in the role of children. It’s aggressively patronising, and it’s frightening.

This is a straw man argument. Reid argues against a position she (and others) have constructed — an imaginary voice who claims women don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality. First, I have yet to see anyone argue that women can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. I mean, I’m sure someone is making that argument, but it’s not amongst the most prominent positions or loudest voices out there.

Second, while the argument that women know the difference between fantasy and reality is an entirely valid one, it’s also incredibly reductive (and therefore, mostly irrelevant to this sort of debate). That argument presupposes a position wherein fiction isn’t influential… and that position is wildly incorrect.

A clear distinction between fantasy and reality doesn’t mediate fiction’s cultural impact.

In the wake of Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, sales of dalmatian puppies increased (along with puppy mills, inbreeding, and subsequent abandonment and surrender of dogs to animal shelters). After Finding Nemo, clownfish populations in some reefs dropped as much as 75%. Of course viewers knew those films were fantasy (clearly, they were animations of talking animals). No one thought dogs or fish could talk. But people bought dalmatians and clownfish in record numbers — and so the films had material consequences beyond being otherwise impotent entertainment.

Yeah, dalmatians and clownfish aren’t great comparisons… so I’ll offer another…

Most people know that actresses and models in magazines are trained, groomed, styled, made up, well-lit, and Photoshopped, but that hasn’t stemmed the tide of negative body image, low self-esteem, crash dieting, and plastic surgery. We know magazine advertisements are fantasy, but that hasn’t stopped such images from affecting cultural “standards,” individual perceptions, and material realities.

Fiction and fantasy matter, both for potentially positive and potentially negative reasons and effects.

It feels like an overreaction to suggest that the criticism of Fifty Shades is a conspiracy, but at times it feels like one. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Human Centipede, Saw: all terrifying violent films that promote murder in creative and disgusting ways. Not a word of complaint. Fifty Shades of Grey, a glossy, sleek BDSM fantasy? Take it away, lest the women develop dangerous ideas.

There are two important differences:

  1. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Human Centipede, and Saw don’t promote or romanticize murder. They depict murder. That’s a big fucking difference.

Those films aren’t presented as love stories. The protagonists don’t live happily ever after with Leatherface, or ride off into the sunset with the Jigsaw Killer, or imagine a future contentedly sewn ass-to-mouth between a few acquaintances. Audience members aren’t jerking off to the demented dinner party scene, aren’t fantasizing about what it would feel like to be stitched to some friends, and aren’t secretly thinking that poor John Kramer is a damaged man in need of rehabilitation who might just be the protagonist’s true love.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Human Centipede, and Saw present terrible people as monsters and present horrible things as horror. Fifty Shades of Grey presents terrible people as worthwhile sexual/romantic partners and presents horrible things as love.

  1. We don’t live in a culture where people routinely massacre others in the name of cannibalism. We don’t live in a culture where others claim that a person who was trapped in a maze lined with razor blades was “asking for it.” We don’t live in a culture where a significant portion of the population has been victimized by non-consensual ass-to-mouth stitching. At the risk of being repetitive… that’s a big fucking difference (and that difference matters).

line-break-flourish-sm

In short, fiction is fiction, and no one thinks fantasy is reality. No one is calling for fantasy to reflect someone else’s version of “ethical,” “healthy,” or “reality.” Fiction can do whatever it wants.

But so can consumers of fiction. Just because a text is a work of fiction, it doesn’t mean it’s off limits to criticism. It’s worthy of criticism, in part, because fiction (and fantasy) are important, influential, and powerful.

If you concede that Fifty Shades has empowered countless women to explore their fantasies and embrace their sexuality, then you have to concede that Fifty Shades is influential. And if you concede that it’s influential, then you can’t dismiss the possibility that such influence could be harmful — not because it urges women to seek out abusers, but because it reinforces misogyny already firmly rooted in our culture.

Potentially harmful texts should be criticized, the same way potentially positive texts should be praised.

Fifty Shades of Grey can be both.


* Obviously, I can’t engage all of these in one post. I mean, I could… but I’ll consider myself lucky if you actually read to the end of the post as it is. :)

  8 Responses to “your arguments suck: fifty shades edition”

  1. OK, I’m totally guilty of this – I felt a bit uncomfortable about the UK campaigning group that was waving placards outside cinemas and that. I basically agree with you though – 50 Shades can be criticised as well as praised, for lots of different reasons, and I don’t think that using the book as a springboard for education on e.g. healthy relationships is a bad thing.

    Hmm. So I guess maybe where we disagree is in the way the argument’s presented. I’m not sure how it’s come across in the media over there, but over here there really has been a lot of ‘for your own good’-ing. Not just people saying that women will be harmed by the book (to which I naturally want to respond ‘umm, which women? women who are… less good? less clever? less kinky? what?’) but also people picking up individual women on their fan comments and telling them that they’re wrong/bad/poor sad things etc for enjoying 50 Shades.

    So yeah, I’m with you mostly, but I think there really have been people saying things like that.

    I also kind of want to say that there are female romantic leads with terrifying and appalling characteristics (Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct type characters) who haven’t attracted as much rage as Grey. But then while that could partly be interpreted as a kind of ‘well we just don’t police male fantasies’, it could equally be because of rape culture. A femme fatale is more interesting because men are naturally expected to be… umm… homme fatales? Whatever. I suspect it’s a combination of both.

    Sorry, I’ve waffled loads, but basically yeah – I agree with you mostly, although I think Rebecca has picked up on something that’s been happening a fair bit in the media. Ruby Goodnight explained it as a kind of ‘think of the children!’ but with adults.

    • I’m not sure how it’s come across in the media over there, but over here there really has been a lot of ‘for your own good’-ing.

      I guess I’m not entirely sure how it’s come across here either. I don’t watch much television news, and I’ll admit I only read when something sparks my interest (which means my understandings of current goings on isn’t all that broad at times).

      but also people picking up individual women on their fan comments and telling them that they’re wrong/bad/poor sad things etc for enjoying 50 Shades.

      That’s unbelievably shitty. After reading about and engaging in the rape fantasy/”rape porn” debates a year ago, I firmly believe people who pick on women for their fantasies are the ones that ruin any reasonable discussion about the proliferation of related media materials for those of us who have concerns. The same goes for “forced feminization,” and now Fifty Shades.

      Whenever I’ve offered any critique of such media and how they might have a negative cultural impact, someone responds by telling me I’m kink shaming, or responding with “what I do doesn’t effect you.”

      I’ve found it damn near impossible to have any reasonable discussion for this reason. Either I can’t get the other person to understand that I’m interested in culture and media and not interested in their individual fantasies*, or what I’m beginning to believe, that people are unable or unwilling to acknowledge cultural effects… for a variety of reasons.

      (*For the record, I’ve only ever engaged with vocal opponents of porn restrictions or those who have written about connections between fantasy, media, and culture on their blogs or in other publications.)

      I also kind of want to say that there are female romantic leads with terrifying and appalling characteristics (Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct type characters) who haven’t attracted as much rage as Grey. But then while that could partly be interpreted as a kind of ‘well we just don’t police male fantasies’, it could equally be because of rape culture. A femme fatale is more interesting because men are naturally expected to be… umm… homme fatales? Whatever. I suspect it’s a combination of both.

      Agreed, on all counts. But without having seen Basic Instinct, my question — and what might separate it from Fifty Shades — is whether or not the film (or those like it) were presented as love stories where the damaged/flawed female character is redeemed (or fixed) by love, excused of her abusive behaviors, and ultimately lives happily ever after (fairy tale style)?

      Sorry, I’ve waffled loads, but basically yeah – I agree with you mostly, although I think Rebecca has picked up on something that’s been happening a fair bit in the media. Ruby Goodnight explained it as a kind of ‘think of the children!’ but with adults.

      I hear you, and I agree that “think of the women!” arguments are fucking ridiculous (and patronizing). I just haven’t seen them out there all that much. I actually did check on Reid’s links — I figured the blogring she mentioned might have some of that sort of talk… but it didn’t. (Granted, I didn’t check all of the materials) The woman Reid cites, and who Reid seems to suggest is behind the patronizing comments, is Emma Tofi. I couldn’t find any indication that Tofi is being patronizing to women — just that she is concerned the film sends a bad message. Tofi’s response to Reid puts it much better than I could. The whole thing is worth reading, but this is a representative bit:

      It’s at this point that I’d like to suggest a little further reading once you’ve finished this, because if you click here, you’ll find the Fifty Shades Is Abuse campaign’s “Myth-Busting” or FAQ blog. It’s a link we often send in response to criticism from people who don’t know much about the campaign and have made quick – and indeed, false – judgements.

      So as sad as it is, I’ve become depressingly used to clicking on the Fifty Shades Is Abuse twitter page and finding that someone has sent a tweet wrongly telling us that we’re dictating what women can read and demonising BDSM. And I’ve become used to sending them the FAQ, which helpfully explains that we’re absolutely doing neither. And I’ve become used to far too many people responding by telling us they’d never read anything written by an anti-kink prude, so we can shove our FAQ where the sun doesn’t shine. Repeat ad nauseum.

      • But without having seen Basic Instinct, my question — and what might separate it from Fifty Shades — is whether or not the film (or those like it) were presented as love stories where the damaged/flawed female character is redeemed (or fixed) by love, excused of her abusive behaviors, and ultimately lives happily ever after (fairy tale style)?

        Having seen Basic Instinct, I can say it’s most certainly not a love story. Sharon Stone’s character is under investigation for murder and is shown as probably dangerous and definitely not to be trusted.The ending of the movie is somewhat ambiguous, but it does make it pretty easy to argue that Stone’s character is in fact a murderer. I liked Basic Instinct and thought that Stone’s character was fascinating, but it would have been creepy as fuck if that character and her relationship with the detective investigating her had been presented as romantic.

        We could also look at Gone Girl, another movie with a thoroughly unsympathetic female lead. In the interest of avoiding spoilers I’ll be vague, but I will say that although there are parts of the movie that could be considered romantic, Amy is always presented as villainous. Again, I liked the movie and really enjoyed seeing a horrifying female villain (seriously, Amy is fucking scary), but the movie never pretends Amy’s behaviour is romantic or even okay.

        • Don’t worry about spoilers around here… at least not for my sake. I don’t see movies (though I often read about them), so you won’t be ruining anything for me. :)

          There’s got to be a better parallel — a girl who is damaged, does borderline-ish, sorta hurtful things to her partner, and ends up redeemed in the end (and an ideal mate).

          Since I’m not much of a fiction reader or film watcher, I’m not the best person to figure it out. Someone has to have an idea of a parallel… right?

  2. Thank you very much for writing this. I’ve been saying these things to people ever since the movie began being advertised, and frankly before when it was just a book. The argument that it is “just fantasy” is the one that makes me the most angry as its being used by sexologists. Dangerous!

    I’m not shaming people for fantasies in their own heads, but these become dangerous when mass marketed, and nothing is above criticism. The idea that criticism equals censorship boggles my mind.

    • Emma Green’s piece in The Atlantic, “Consent Isn’t Enough: The Troubling Sex of Fifty Shades,” is a good one, particularly for it’s opening lines on fantasy.

      What is a fantasy? From Freud to Ludacris, it’s been an elusive idea, suggesting both an escape from reality and an expression of hidden desire. In culture, fantasy works like a mirror: It reflects who we are, but it also shapes what we become.

      She goes on to suggest that the “troubling” aspects of the Fifty Shades “fantasy” are particularly troubling in a culture where so many women are the victims of sexual violence and where that violence is routinely excused or blamed on women.

      Anyway, it’s a good read.

  3. Agree agree agree.

    The only thing I don’t like about this is that all the criticism just makes the movie even more appealing :(

    • Yeah, I can see how the controversy might make people more curious to see it. For the record, I’ve got no problem with people seeing it… as long as they recognize what it really is.

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