This article was originally submitted as a comment on What does ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ teach young women? I felt the Caitlin Mary’s words deserved a solo performance. I am publishing this as Caitlin wrote it, from the heart.
I have SO much to say on this topic so I apologise in advance for the essay I’m about to write (and potential spelling and grammar slip ups). To give some of my background I’m an avid reader of both young adult fiction and fanfiction. I’ve also studied a little bit of psychology and at one point was heavily interested in a career in sex ed. I’ve very interested in sexuality, gender and other such sex topics. SO suffice to say, I have just a few opinions on this 🙂
OK, so. The book ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ was actually a work of fanfiction before being picked up by a publisher due to its popularity. Fanfiction, for those who aren’t sure, is fictional works of writing inspired by fiction in the real world (books, tv, film, manga, anime, songs, cartoon etc…). Often taking place in the same timeline with the same characters OR with original characters in a similar universe… The combinations are endless. The complex genres, sub genres and styles of fanfiction writing would constitute an entire article of it’s own to explain and before I get into talking about ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ specifically I would like to point out that the world of fanfiction has some of the best and most well written stories and characters I’ve ever read (and also the worst). It’s often portrayed as silly girls writing themselves into relationships with One Direction or Edward from Twilight (we’ll get to that) but to say this is all fanfiction is would be a gross, sweeping generalisation. I personally read a lot of alternate universe stories with my favourite characters in different timelines or universes entirely and I also read a lot of stories that are written in between series of shows or books (for example the 80-100 year gap between the cartoon Avatar, The Last Airbender and the follow up, The Legend of Korra that was released seven years later.) Sometimes fanfiction can be a way for fans to consolidate the loss of a show/book ending or it can be used to develop characters, relationships and plot arcs in a way the original source didn’t or couldn’t (this is where the phenomenon of “shipping” really exploded #Zutara).
With all that said, the book ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ was initially a twilight fanfiction, Anastasia Steele being “Bella Swan” and Christian Grey was “Edward Cullen”. I have read the twilight saga, seen the films and while I have not read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, I did read it while it was a fanfiction on fanfiction.net before being picked up. We can always argue that a fanfiction is only as good as it’s source material (Twilight being not that well written or developed) BUT the young people that love Twilight love ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ for similar reasons.
There is a particular style of writing used in fanfiction called “reader insert”. This is where the main character will be an original character or a washed out version of the original main character (the strongest voice in the story). The idea is that the voice of the narrative is to be as dull as possible with very little personality, personal interests and individual character development. This is so that the readers themselves can project their own personalities onto this character and insert themselves in the story. Often times it will be a young author wishing to be a part of their favourite universe, so they will write themselves into the story in a plot line that they would like to experience (like documenting fantasy).
Reader insert writing isn’t inherently bad nor does it necessarily prove lack of skill, it can be done really well. This piece however, is not the case. You can argue that the original source material Twilight itself was very much like reader insert style writing, given that author had little to no experience writing (in general or about vampire mythology) and started writing it because of a dream she had (we could speculate her initial dreams were due to her subconsciously wanting those kinds of relationships personally hence the reader insert style result).
One of the main reasons a lot of young people loved Twilight was because those young girls could see themselves as Bella (the main voice). It’s not that hard when Bella has the personality of a board and who wouldn’t want to feel like a special snowflake and the most intriguing person in a room due to nothing but their dazzling existence. A lot of people that eat up this style often don’t read a lot of “literature” and may not have the best creativity or imagination in regards to reading because of it. These young people are a large portion of the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ audience.
The other HUGE factor is the BDSM. BDSM is really not talked about in the mainstream, so it’s become quite a tantalizing taboo subject in fanfiction with most of the audience still at a time where they are discovering their sexuality and experimenting. If this fanfiction was initially just a regular “Bella and Edward smut-fic” (there are literally thousandssss) then it would not have made waves at all. The fact that it did, was because of the BDSM. BDSM in fanfiction is exciting and exotic (or erotic if you’re sexual knowledge is limited or you’re virgin) for most people who aren’t familiar with that world. In fanfiction though, it’s almost always extremely unrepresentative of “real” BDSM. In this case, the problems came down to:
A) The author doesn’t seem to know anything about REAL BDSM and her portrayal of it has caused many problems for BDSM communities all around the world.
B) She has contributed to many of the misconceptions and myths of BDSM due to her lack of knowledge (intimate or academic).
C) The romantic relationship could be described as abusive due to this initial ignorance; and
D) The romantic relationship is a direct representation of the romantic relationship and undertones in Twilight itself, a book series that has often been criticised for romanticising a domestic abusive relationship and situations, teaching young girls to value the love and attention of a man over their own literal existence and person-hood.
So when it comes down to it, the real issues with ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ aren’t directly related to the sex (although that can be saved for another discussion) but with how intimately similar it’s source material and how problematic and damaging THAT is for young people. In reality, we can break down the different types of young people that are going to love Twilight into these groups; readers that do fall for the reader insert trope, readers that don’t read a lot of other literature and don’t/can’t see the problem AND the people that understand all of those things but just don’t care. These same groups of people are going to like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ for the same reasons.
PLUS I can’t forget to include my honorary mentions to all those who read it (and fell in love with it) because it is often described as a BDSM style Mills and Boons story and to all those young people who read it to give off the appearance of being the “cool girl” who is into sex and all things alternative but are in actual fact very vanilla.
I’d like to finish this commentary with “you do you boo” and there is nothing wrong with being apart of any of these groups of people that I have discussed above 🙂