Context Matters: Why ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Makes It Hard To Be a Fangirl

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There are many different kinds of fan fiction; there are basically a whole genre of it stemming from Sherlock Holmes and Pride and Prejudice. But E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey comes from a very specific kind of fan fiction found in a very specific location. And when it was ripped from its original context, it created a whole bunch of issues that no one really knows how to handle. Within the community it was created for, “Master of The Universe” was just one of many romance-derived reimaginings of the already problematic Twilight series. As the best-selling novel Fifty Shades of Grey, however, it has somehow become a representative of the BDSM community, erotica, fan fiction, and female sexuality in general, which is all kinds of terrifying.

WARNING: Sexual content and discussions of rape/abuse.

On paper, Fifty Shades of Grey looks like it should be right up the fangirl’s alley. I mean, it’s supposedly written by one of our own, and it’s a woman writing about a woman’s pleasure for the pleasure of readers who are mostly women. Not only was it hugely successful, but it has now been adapted for film by a female writer – Kelly Marcel – with a female director – Sam Taylor-Johnson. A film which is already, according to Fandango, the fastest selling R-rated title in their history. If nothing else, it certainly puts another nail in the coffin that claims films about women, by women, and for women don’t make money. Surely this is a fangirl’s dream right? Wrong. Fifty Shades of Grey is basically a warning tale about what happens when you lose context and gain notoriety.

Fifty Shades of Grey has been criticized for many different reasons. It’s been criticized because it’s fan fiction.  Because it’s porn for women.  Because of its inaccurate and dangerous depiction of BDSM.  Because it exploited fan culture. Because it’s badly written.  And because it romanticizes abuse.  They’re all valid and important criticisms but Fifty Shades of Grey is not the first book to receive them.

E.L. James is hardly the first fan fiction author accused of ‘filing off the serial numbers’, which fanlore describes as “taking a piece of existing fan fiction and removing any details that tie it to a copyrighted source.”  It’s certainly not the first example of porn for women. Fan culture is exploited all the time, and while it’s not going to win any awards for prose, it’s not the worst thing I have ever read. It is a hugely problematic depiction of BDSM, but the romance genre – particularly erotica – has for a long time employed BDSM rhetoric. So although it suggests a more explicit connection to the contemporary BDSM community, which is not good, Fifty Shades of Grey is arguably just following in a long established literary tradition. The abusive undertones are also an unfortunate legacy of its romance origins. That is not to suggest that these things should be forgiven or ignored, but Fifty Shades of Grey is not the only guilty party here.

This is where context becomes important because, although both Fifty Shades of Grey and the fan fiction community are constantly trying to get as far away from each other as possible, there’s no denying their connection. Fifty Shades of Grey began as Twilight fan fiction. It was posted on a fan fiction archive for an audience of fan fiction readers, specifically Twilight fan fiction readers. Fan fiction – as found in online media fandom – is a conversation. It’s a collaborative effort that involves discussion and analysis from both writers and readers. It’s also very rarely read alone. You’ll be hard pressed to find someone that reads just one fan fiction. So each individual piece fits into the greater collection of works by other writers in the same fandom. As a result, while “Master of the Universe” was just as problematic as Fifty Shades of Grey, it was written for an audience that was at least somewhat prepared to examine those problems.

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Many fans of erotica and fan fiction will be quick to explain that non-consent fantasies are hugely popular among female audiences. People that are much smarter and more educated than me have attempted to explain the reason for this and failed, so I am not even going to try. All you need to know is that it DOES NOT mean all women secretly want to be dominated/controlled and/or raped; it’s just a fantasy. These power fantasies are prevalent in both fan fiction and the romance genre. Fifty Shades of Grey is just one of many stories tapping into that desire, as anyone that is an avid reader of fan fiction or romance will be able to tell you.

The problem is that Fifty Shades of Grey is so mainstream now that many of the people reading it (and even more people that are about to see the movie) are unaware of the generic conventions of romance or fan fiction. They might not have read or seen anything like it before. They’re probably not part of a community that actively interrogates what they’re reading. And they probably haven’t had the chance to read countless different versions of the same story from different perspectives with different ideologies. So they’re not getting the whole picture. All they’re seeing is a wildly popular novel and movie that treats what is pretty much a textbook example of an abusive relationship as romantic and covers it up by calling it BDSM.

Tumblr user pervocracy posted a great example of this problem in response to an argument against stigmatizing non-consent fantasies.

“a whole bunch of my coworkers read those books, and I talked about my issues with the series (in somewhat discreet fashion), and every single one of them said “but she signed a contract and it’s BDSM so it’s consensual!”  No one said “sure she doesn’t want it, but this is fantasy!” I don’t have a problem with nonconsent fantasy; I have a problem with nonconsent fantasy that is repeatedly mislabeled, both outside and inside the story, as being consensual.”

I’ve had many similar experiences. In fact, recently at a family event, one of my male in-laws starting discussing Fifty Shades of Grey like it gave him insight into what women wanted in a relationship. It was honestly one of the scariest and most disturbing conversations I have ever had. Because Christian Grey is abusive. There’s no argument. The idea that people might be using Fifty Shades of Grey as some kind of guide for romance, sex, or even BSDM is honestly terrifying. And it makes it understandable that some groups are calling for a boycott of the film.

“Sexual taste is a personal thing and I’m not here to shame consensual BDSM” writes Emma in post on Everyday Victim Blaming. “But it’s what Christian does outside of the bedroom that have caused many who’ve experienced abuse to call for the movie to be boycotted, with the cost of a cinema ticket being donated to an abuse charity instead… Shelters and graveyards are full of women who met their own Christian Grey. Real-life relationships like Christian and Ana’s have no happy endings.” And we should also remember that while the BDSM community is vocal about consent, there are still problems with abusers using the practice to take advantage of those that don’t know better, and Fifty Shades of Grey certainly doesn’t help that. Well, I guess it helps the abusers, but I think we can all agree that’s not a good thing.

If Fifty Shades of Grey had stayed in the world of fandom we wouldn’t be having this conversation because it would just be one of many similar erotic fanfics for women looking to explore problematic power dynamics with a little of light BDSM (and not a very good one at that). Instead, it’s a multi-million dollar movie that everyone and their grandmother is going to go see, which means I have to openly criticize it as a stand-alone text outside of the context of its creation. Unfortunately just because I can’t use its literary origins as evidence to explain its content doesn’t mean that every other jerk won’t lump all fan fiction, erotica, and basically anything else girls like together with Fifty Shades of Grey so they can dismiss it all in one go. In fact they’ll probably even use our own arguments against us.

This is why Fifty Shades of Grey is so frustrating for me as a fangirl and as a feminist, because I don’t want to judge women for having healthy fantasies. I don’t even want to judge women for liking something that is arguably terrible. Everyone has their own brand of trash and if Fifty Shades of Grey is yours, then I will fight for you to keep enjoying it. But at the same time, the way it romanticizes and normalizes abuse is seriously dangerous and we have to do something about that.

I’m not sure what we should do, but it’s obvious that something has to be done – maybe you want to boycott the film and donate the money you would have spent on your ticket to a domestic abuse charity. Maybe you just want to make sure that everyone you know that sees it is aware of its issues. Or maybe we should publicize and popularize hundreds of other erotic fantasies presenting a variety of different viewpoints on sexuality, BDSM and abuse so that Fifty Shades of Grey can be viewed in its original context and audiences will better able to identify and understand its faults. Personally I’m a fan of option number 3 but both 1 and 2 are acceptable also. Whatever you decide, with the release of the movie it’s clear that whether we like it or not, we’re going to have to keep talking about Fifty Shades of Grey.

Author: Undie Girl

Undie Girl (aka Von) has a BA (Hons) Major in Cultural Studies. The title of her honours thesis was “It’s just gay and porn”: Power, Identity and the Fangirl’s Gaze. She’s currently pursuing a Masters of Media Practice at University of Sydney. Von’s a former contributor The Backlot’s column The Shipping News and a current co-host of The Geekiary’s monthly webcast FEELINGS… with The Geekiary.



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