Thirteen Thoughts upon Seeing This 50 Shades of Grey-Inspired Domestic Abuse PSA

{Trigger warnings for domestic abuse and rape, though nothing is explicitly described.} Found, via Canada and Tumblr:

Parody of the infamous cover of 50 Shades of Grey: a close-up photo of a noose in black-and-white, with side text listing the red flags that mark an abusive relationship.

1. I have never been in an abusive relationship, so I cannot speak to that experience. Nor have I read 50 Shades. Mostly this is because the narrative voice doesn't appeal to me. Though, like Twilight, I have read many excerpted passages and follow the criticism closely. I wouldn't enjoy the book, but I'm fascinated by the meta-conversation that surrounds it.

2. But even from an outsider's perspective, Christian Grey is definitely on the extreme asshole side of the alpha hero spectrum. He's controlling, physically aggressive, and completely focused on the primacy of his own desires and decisions. By these objective standards, Christian Grey is a horrible, horrible person.

3. Christian Grey, of course, is not a person. He's a fictional character, a composite of Twilight's Edward Cullen and the stereotypical dominant alpha hero. He was created by a woman, E. L. James.

4. I make the point about Christian Grey being fictional because I am highly resistant to the way that women's reading matter must be instructive, safe, and 'healthy' while men's reading matter gets a critical pass. Women's reading is used as a moral gauge; the PSA above comes close to saying that reading 50 Shades is equivalent to being in an abusive relationship. I find the elision of real life and escapist fiction a suspicious rhetorical move, generally.

5. To point out a contrasting case, and because this piece was heavily inspired by it, there is this Rejectionist meditation on Lisbeth Salander, which lays out the ways in which the tenor of Steig Larsson's books is problematic. Lisbeth Salander, of course, is a female abuse victim created by a male author. She often takes illegal or violent revenge on her abusers, including her own father.

6. I did read the first two Larsson books. I kept waiting to get to the enjoyable parts. I thought if I just waded through one more lengthy, graphic rape/murder scene I would get to the parts that were wonderful, that made people recommend this book and put it on bestseller lists around the world. But the good parts didn't seem to exist -- the best I found were scenes that didn't make me flinch as much as the others did.

7. Actually, that does sound like the pattern of an abusive relationship.

8. There are in fact some pretty specific ways that Christian Grey and Lisbeth Salander are similar: both are victims of abuse, both are kinky, both are emotionally broken and yet irresistibly attractive to others. But Salander gets held up as an aspirational fantasy -- all the vengeance, I suppose -- while Christian Grey's popularity is considered a symptom of women readers' questionable taste/morals/self-esteem. Consider the opening line of this RAINN article: "The film adaptation of Stieg Larsson's novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo illustrates the real life effects of sexual violence on victims and survivors, emphasizing the importance of getting help." I'm not convinced that Lisbeth Salander's transformation into a punk bisexual hacker vigilante is a more realistic portrayal of the 'effects of sexual violence' than Christian Grey's broken notions of BDSM and consent. I'd also like to know at what point Lisbeth Salander gets help -- unless by 'help' you mean 'boob job,' because I remember that part quite well.

9. Christian Grey's story, to put it mildly, romanticizes controlling behavior and lack of respect for boundaries. It is a dangerous narrative to idealize, that I admit. So is Lisbeth Salander's. But only Christian Grey's threatening nature is projected back at the readers: Don't like this book! Don't enjoy this story! It's bad for you! 

10. I'm not the only one who's found Larsson's work troubling. Tom Matlack raises similar questions at this link and Missy Schwartz at this one. But notice how both those articles also point out Larsson's self-professed feminism and give his literary intentions the benefit of the doubt. I don't think it's a coincidence that the male-fantasy book gets this consideration while the female-fantasy book does not.

11. It's also worth bringing up the self-congratulation and weird voyeuristic tone of this post from The author describes the decadent, druggy, sexually permissive atmosphere of London, the libidinous exploits of his fellow teachers, and then mentions his own two teenage daughters are 'pretty.' But he doesn't talk all that much about what, specifically, he finds objectionable and abusive in 50 Shades -- he mentions Ana being tied up and fucked in the ass, but he seems to be equating BDSM, hookup culture, and domestic abuse in a way that muddles more than it clarifies. The post ends with this startling thought: "I sincerely hope that the legacy of this trilogy is just in the volume of book sales, and not in a case of someone meeting an untimely end as a result of what it seems to make acceptable." The line between what women read and what women do in real life is apparently a straight shot from A to B. (Notice, also, how the presence and behavior of the abuser -- the murderer, in this case -- is conveniently dodged. Women do not 'get themselves abused' any more than they 'get themselves raped.')

11. I excerpt that last post because much of the backlash to 50 Shades -- as with Twilight -- is simply snake-in-the-grass misogyny or concern trolling masquerading as literary critiques. Nor do I want to find myself aligned with or even linking to Kate Roiphe's assertion that 50 Shades is popular because all women secretly want to submit to men. (Hell, some women don't even want to sleep with men! Imagine that!) Sometimes it's hard to separate valid criticism of harmful narratives from the kind of large-scale social policing that values men's voices over women's, in genre fiction as well as other media. (Side point: the same questionable consent issues and aggressive male dominance that people find so troubling in E. L. James' story are everywhere in heterosexual porn created for the male viewer. Porn that is created using real-life people rather than words on a page.) I feel it's important to point out that we (meaning the romance community) have struggled with alphahole heroes and consent in romance for a good many decades now. As this thorough post from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books points out, 50 Shades is somehow transformative without being really innovative. Many feminist romance readers and authors -- oh yes, there's lots of us! -- are concerned that 50 Shades' popularity will lead to a resurgence of some of the Old Skool tropes we've tried to move away from. Not because alphahole heroes dissolve our precious lady-brains, but because we have higher standards for heroines as agents in their own lives, and abusive behavior on the hero's part means that we will find the hero and heroine's romance less plausible. We often bring real-life standards to our romance, rather than the other way around. (Side note: there have been some excellent conversations about the history of rape in romance, which is one of the thornier subjects in the industry -- this piece by Laura Vivanco is a great starting point if you're new to this particular topic).

12. In sum, it's complicated being both a feminist and an erotic romance author. I want to object to the implication that women are sponges who soak up all harmful messages uncritically, while not dismissing the profound worth of stories like "I married Christian Grey,"  a harrowing account of domestic abuse from Natalie Collins (strong trigger warning on that link!). Ot this heartbreaking post by author Jennifer Armintrout. I want to be able to assert that alphahole heroes are textbook abusers, without also excoriating as 'backward' every woman who gets turned on by forced seduction scenes. I have more questions than conclusions, which is why this post is so long and appears when the 50 Shades trend appears to be waning. And I must admit that like everyone else in the world I'm an imperfect feminist -- I like to say I'm a practicing feminist, the implication being that it's both a process and a thing that you might screw up from time to time, but which gets easier the more you do it.

13. I've tried to anticipate objections to this post as much as I can; the biggest is that it's heavy on the fiction-analyzing and abstraction, but doesn't talk much about the fact that domestic abuse hurts real women as well as fictional ones, and that the stories we tell ourselves as a culture can either subvert or reinforce those patterns of abuse. Consider this last paragraph a reminder of those truths, and I appreciate your forbearance with my focusing on the side issues rather than the big, untackleable question.