It’s the question no one seems to know how to answer: is it OK to like 50 Shades of Grey?
50 Shades has suffered widespread condemnation and criticism for everything from its writing to its messages. It seems like everyone has an opinion―including us. So let’s distinguish it from a similar question: is 50 Shades of Grey good? The answer to that is difficult because, as with all fiction, the concept of good is subjective and it often depends on your experience of it rather than the text itself.
But no. No, it’s not. 50 Shades of Grey is not good.
Having established that the trilogy is not very good by most standards, and with the 50 Shades of Grey movie fast approaching, the more interesting question is now this: whether or not it’s ok to like it anyway.
50 Shades Of Bad
Much has been made of the writing of the books, the weird and clunky dialogue, the annoying ‘inner goddess’ that keeps making strange little cameos (and we hope to high heaven is not in the 50 Shades movie), and the fact it’s like a weaker version of Twilight, the books on which 50 Shades of Grey is loosely based. (Sir Salman Rushdie said of it “I’ve never read anything so badly written that got published. It makes Twilight look like War and Peace.”)
There’s also a weird conflict of critics, half of whom claim it’s too hardcore and the other half claiming it’s too vanilla. Either way, the critics hated it, and then they hated anyone who liked it. When James was given a prestigious award by a respected publishing institution, the New York Daily News ran a headline stating “Civilization Ends: E L James Named Publishers Weekly’s Person Of The Year”.
There are those more knowledgeable of BDSM than the books’ author E. L. James who claim that the relationship between the protagonists Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele is abusive, that it’s not representative of a healthy BDSM relationship, and the Christian Grey is an awful role model.
So, not a good start if you’re trying to like it. But all’s not lost, and there are some positives…
50 Shades Of Good
E. L. James is, as this writer can attest, having met her in London, a quiet, modest and sweet person, surprised and slightly embarrassed by the success of her work. It’s endearing, and no criticism should ever be directed at her character, especially because of how much the online reaction hurt her. She still talks about sex a little awkwardly: she didn’t expect the attention she got nor did she expect to become a multi-millionaire as a result. So when critics attack 50 Shades, they should remember there is an unassuming human at the end of it all.
There’s no denying that, whatever your impressions of the text and of its faults, it has opened up a conversation about sex all over the world, from dentists’ waiting rooms to bar stools and pool halls. That can only be a good thing. Similarly, it may have made it easier for those who had feelings and desires similar to those described in 50 Shades but were afraid to express them to start exploring those parts of their identities.
It also brought to the mainstream the whole genre of erotic literature, which had long been established, and now many more talented erotic fiction writers are benefiting from the exposure as a result.
Are You Allowed To Like It?
Millions of people love it. Many love it and don’t realize it’s bad, many love it despite its badness, and many more still love it because of its badness. So there must be something to love, right?
Well frankly, it depends. There is certainly a moral question over the content, and your interpretation of the main love story between the protagonists is key. Many consider it so abusive that they will not allow themselves to like it on moral grounds. They’re a kind of 50 Shades conscientious objectors, and their arguments are strong and valid.
However, if you interpret it as E. L. James intended it―as nothing but fantasy―then everything changes. There is certainly controversy in the Shades trilogy. For those of us who are close to these trends, there is a lot to be angry about, to be worried about. Christian Grey is not a role model for a Dom.
But then, why should he be? What insecurity is it of ours that demands a literary character be a “good” role model? Is it because he’s in print? 50 Shades is not an instruction manual, nor as a work of fiction does it have any inherent moral obligation. It should stand alone, as any literary criticism is a projection of your own experience and no more or less valid than that of E. L. James. It’s one middle-aged woman’s inexperienced imagining of sexual dominance, and to criticize her for her fantasy is to criticize yourself for yours.
It is, quite simply, a work of literature. Actually, even that’s a stretch. It’s a fantasy, one person’s fantasy, and to run it down on the basis of its fantasy is to run down every singular work of fantasy ever composed. We don’t mean to make such towering comparisons, but Shakespeare had his detractors who hated The Tempest because its content was ‘too unrealistic’.
As long as 50 Shades of Grey is understood as fantasy, and as you recognize there are themes and interactions that are not positive, then yes, it’s ok to like it. And with luck, the 50 Shades movie will survive the critics’ axe longer than the books