Another post inspired by 50 Shades of Grey? Sort of, but before you tune out, let me just say this isn’t really about that at all. Just a jumping off point.
Still reading? Cool.
So 50 Shades is being sold as a romance with BDSM elements that make it unique, and I can see that. It’s unlikely that Shades is doing anything that hasn’t been done other places, but it’s a relatively unexplored area in mainstream romance. Just as people who never really read fantasy were blown away by Harry Potter, though there’s nothing at its foundation that make the story of a boy at wizard school particularly original or surprising, for people who haven’t explored the more unusual corners of erotica, Shades must feel like something new and incredible. And that’s cool. I’m not here to talk about that.
Now, to that jumping off point:
Can a book that explores unpleasant aspects of human behavior without being exploitative?
The short answer is Yes.
The long answer is more complicated, and it doesn’t end at BDSM. There’s a fine line between exploration and exploitation. Take a look at something like Family Guy, a show that started out as a deconstruction of the family sitcom by inserting naughty humor. Family Guy even explored anti-humor, the notion of filling your show with long segments of non-jokes just to see what you can get away with. But over time, the crudeness and unpleasantness cranked up until crossing over the line into truly exploitative humor. Jokes about the foolishness of racism devolved into pure, unadulterated racist jokes. The non-jokes become more important than the jokes themselves. Under the guise of being a cultural mirror, Family Guy explores complicated issues in only the most superficial ways, usually mistakes cruelty for humor, and has a hell of a lot of rape jokes.
Shades is all about a BDSM relationship, and there’s a fine line between a BDSM relationship and a genuinely abusive one. I have no doubt that non-abusive BDSM relationships exist, but does Grey portray one? Or is it, in fact, romanticism of abuse?
Does American Sniper portray the harsh realities of war? Or does it glorify our nationalistic blood lust and desire for simple answers?
Can a video game like Spec Op: The Line be both a violent video game about shooting people while simultaneously being a criticism of that genre?
It’s a sticky wicket, all right, and not one always easy to pin down. Often because the audience is more than willing to misinterpret in favor of the more comfortable view. Another Clint Eastwood film, Unforgiven, is all about deconstructing the myth of the gunslinger, exploring the harsh realities of what it might mean to be a violent man. It very obviously declares that violence, even justified violence, takes a toll on a human’s soul.
And then it ends with a kickass shoot out, and much of the audience walks out thinking how badass Clint Eastwood’s damaged gunslinger is, not how broken he is.
Watchmen is all about how superheroes can be scary, dangerous, and downright abusive and damaging to a society if they actually existed. Many readers just think it’s about how awesome Rorschach is, even though his character is meant to be the most pathetic and dysfunctional among a cast of unhealthy, dysfunctional people.
Nope. It’s not easy. Not at all.
We absorb stories with our own expectations and hot buttons and no matter how much a story might try to get us to look at something from a different angle, we’re still prone to sticking to what we know and have been conditioned to want. Much of Watchmen‘s misinterpretation comes from the fact that it is a deconstruction of the superhero genre but most people who read it initially were fans of the superhero genre. So instead of realizing the story was about how dangerous superheroes would be, they instead decided the moral was Batman would be even more awesome if he mutilated criminals with a hatchet. Shades could be a story about sexual exploration, but for most, it’ll probably translate to “Sex should be rough to be good.” Not necessarily because the story says so, but because people tend to interpret stories in the most direct, pleasing way possible.
An anecdote from my own life can be found in Don Jon, the excellent film from Joseph Gorden Levitt. In it, he plays a man obsessed with superficial aspects of human relationships. Sex, sure, but even friendship and body image, all on the surface level. He falls for a woman who is this physical ideal, but never really connects with him as a person. And when he finds himself dissatisfied, he begins to question the relationships around him. In the end, he becomes a stronger, more realized human being who begins to understand how to truly relate to his friends and family. He ends up in a new relationship with an unlikely partner that is ill-defined but more intimate than any he’s had before.
My wife initially walked out of the film dissatisfied with the ending. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but then she realized that, while the movie has a happy ending, it wasn’t the expected happy ending. Our protagonists grows, learns, and becomes a better person. His life improves, and yet, it was no the ending she was conditioned to want. Now, my wife being, a lovely, intelligent woman, figured this out a few days later, and realized that was the entire point of the film. It was all about those expectations, how they get in our way, how they prevent us from being satisfied, how they keep us preoccupied. The film’s central theme was obvious and there, and she still missed it at first because, despite it all, she was still ready for that familiar ending.
I’m well-aware of this with some of my own writing. A Nameless Witch is all about a doomed romance. You know it’s doomed from the start. The narrator never claims otherwise. Yet there are those who are surprised by the ending, which I feel is the only ending the story could honestly have. I won’t get into the details, but if you’ve read it, you know what I mean. Even stranger to me is Monster, where two people who dislike each other from page one of the book are still expected to end up together because they’re the protagonists and single.
So when someone writes a story with violence, criticizing how quickly we view violence as entertainment, is it hypocritical? Is it foolish? Does it serve any purpose or merely get lost in the echoing expectations of our culture? In the end, does 50 Shades of Grey have anything important to say about relationships or is it just more by-the-numbers romance with some bondage thrown in? And if it does have something to say, does it say what it thinks it says or does it betray another (accidental) theme?
I don’t know, but it’s just something I think about now and then.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,