Thursday, January 10, 2013

Fifty Shades of Responsibility

As an erotic writer, some people may see me as perpetuating stereotypes, of glorifying pornography and the degradation of women. No and no again. Women are strong and powerful and...sexual. We have desires and wants, fantasies and dreams. Sometimes we want things in our minds that we would never, ever, ever want in reality. It's fun to think about certain things. Those things can be as different as the women who think them, but we all think things we'd never want to really happen.

Here's the thing, though. I feel that authors owe a debt of responsibility to their audiences. Yes, it's important to be honest in your writing, but it's equally important to remember that your audience is placing themselves in your story and you never know what will send a message you never intended. And that is my problem with the Fifty Shades trilogy.

I feel that James did not take her debt of responsibility seriously.

Whether you love or hate her writing style or her storytelling skills, I think anyone who's ever read the books will agree that they are frequently cringe-worthy.

As a wordsmith, there were times I wanted to light the book on fire and then throw it across a room. As a feminist, my primary reaction was to take the main character in my arms and hold her. I wanted to tell her that she didn't have to take all that was being asked of her. I wanted to tell her that she has more worth than was being given to her by both her man and her creator.

Fifty Shades is a yarn. Hell, it could even be seen as a fairy tale for adults.  Beauty and the Beast, perhaps. It doesn't take a genius to see Ana and Christian as Belle and Beast, complete with a towering castle on a hill.  Like Belle, Ana finds herself entranced with a dangerous and controlling monster. Oh, like all controlling monsters, Christian shows signs of remorse and regret and even a glimmer of a person with a sensitive soul. He shows just enough humanness to keep her hooked and fawning. Yes, very Beast-like.

And the result is that this young and naive girl willingly enters into an abusive relationship and becomes the classic victim. Sure, James makes a point to let Ana question Christian from time to time and even to make demands of her own, like being able to control what and when she eats. Hardly a demand that needs to be made. Any person over the age of about 7 should be able to decide when they're hungry and to eat accordingly. But I give her credit for at least trying to give Ana a voice and backbone.  But it's simply not enough.

For three long books, this young girl bends over backward for her abuser. She tries not to ask questions, tries not to express her own needs, tries not to impose or make him upset. She tries to convince herself that if she just loves him enough, if she just accepts him enough, just sticks it out long enough, she will turn him into the prince she sees in him.

Did you read that? Read it again.

If she just tries hard enough and is a good enough woman, he will change.

What is the opposite of that? If he doesn't change, then she is not good enough.

That is a horrible, heart breaking, soul crushing message. But it gets worse. Eventually he changes just enough for her to feel safe. What's worse is that she starts to desire his controlling abuse and to convince herself that he's changed for her. Unfortunately, the only thing he's actually changed is threatening to beat her if she bites her lip. But that's enough for her!  She did it! She rehabilitated him! She turned her Beast into a very human Prince and they move into a brand new castle on a brand new hill.

The clear message is that you really can change an abuser with enough patience and love. If you go through hell and give up enough of yourself, you'll eventually reach your heaven.

My audience is women, and I take that very seriously. I don't know what is going on in the lives of the women who read my work, but I do know that I want them to walk away feeling empowered and stronger. I owe them a very real debt. My readers, and all women for that matter, deserve to read stories about characters who are true and strong. Even when I'm writing about a woman being tied up, I am aware that someone in my audience may be in a relationship with someone who is controlling or abusive. I want to give that reader a sense of freedom. I want her to understand that you can be tied up without being a victim and that if, at any moment, being tied up is no longer working, you can demand to be untied.

We are women. We are sexual. We are strong. We do not need to change for anyone. We do not need to accept someone's anger, hostility, or controlling attitudes. We can have all kinds of crazy kinky sex without subjugating ourselves to anyone. We deserve to be pleasured and we deserve to pleasure. But most of all, we deserve to know we can walk away from anyone who would demean us.

I have a responsibility to my audience to turn them on and to empower them. This is a responsibility I take very much to heart and that I will never abandon. It's the least my audience deserves of me.