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:*
- “Censorship! This is censorship!”
- “You can’t tell me what to do/like/watch!”
- “If you don’t like it, don’t do it! What I do/like/watch doesn’t affect you.”
- “You’re kink shaming!”
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?
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.
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.
There are two important differences:
- 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.
- 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).
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.