Yep. I just Can’t Even. Today’s the day that Fifty Shades of Grey is released in the cinema. Predictably enough, it’s set to break every box office record from here to Jupiter.
Perhaps I shouldn’t take it personally, you know? And yet I do, because I’m a writer. Because stories matter, in a way that nothing else does. I have a theory – and admittedly, it’s probably something that someone has come up with before – on storytelling.
In Irish tradition, the role of the storyteller – the seanchaí – means something. It was/is a profession, a person who kept the lore, who knew the history, like a living textbook. The job of the seanchaí is to tell the story of what was. Ancient Ireland, at least, understood that history is nothing more than shared narrative. It also understood the power of words – the poets of ancient Ireland were outright feared for their ability to rip someone’s reputation apart through the composition of satire.
(Fun fact – one of the most well known modern seanchaí in Ireland, Eddie Lenihan, was a teacher in my secondary school back in Ireland. Mad as a hatter, but at least he was never boring.)
So what I’m saying, more or less, is that stories and words have power, and they gain power in the telling and re-telling. My ancestors knew this and respected stories. Everything – every news article, every blog post, every movie, every book – contains a narrative, a way of looking at the world. Those narratives feed into us and out of us every day. They shape our thoughts, and our feelings on different subjects.
You think you’re not influenced? Think again. It’s not just advertising that’s trying to get into your head.
Narratives can be insidious, vile, twisted things that change how you see people by reinforcing harmful stereotypes. There’s been so much scientific research on it that I really don’t think it’s up for debate at this point. This reinforcement is the problem; it’s the re-telling, over and over, of a world view that says ‘this is the way things are’ that doesn’t match up to what really is. People who only know the narrative, and not the reality – or who know the narrative better – are fooled into believing that the narrative IS reality, and think and act accordingly.
There is the narrative of the rapist. The rapist is a loner, a twisted, violent man who jumps out of the bushes, drags women away, and violates them. He is a mentally disturbed, ugly stranger who can’t get women to sleep with him by choice. But somehow the narrative doesn’t include the friend who violates a woman while she’s black out drunk, or even the woman who coerces her partner into having sex by manipulation, or the older man who convinces a young, immature girl that she should sleep with him. But these things are still rape, because in reality the only criteria for rape is whether consent IS and CAN be freely given, and whether the rapist knows their victim or not has no bearing on this.
And you can see the effects of this narrative every day. People don’t believe victims of rape because they willingly had sex with their rapist before, because they were friends, because the rapist seems nice and normal, because he’s attractive. There is a whole narrative told and re-told about how women should have sex, for example, and this narrative interacts with that narrative and suddenly the victim becomes a liar because their telling of their own story can’t compete with that. Because ‘I said no and he didn’t stop’ gets smothered by ‘you had sex with him before, surely you’re mistaken’.
So it goes. We believe the stories we want to believe; the convenient ones that mesh nicely into the narratives that we’ve already absorbed. It’s easier to believe the narrative of a stranger lying to damage the reputation of someone we know and like, than it is to believe that the person we know and like is capable of terrible, vile acts.
And this brings me back to Fifty Shades of Grey.
The books are nothing but wall-to-wall abuse, and, yes, rape. Christian Grey is a rapist. Ana Steele says no, and he ignores her refusal and has sex with her anyway. He hurts her because he’s angry at her, not because it’s related to kink. He stalks her. He tries to control her life. We are supposed to excuse all of this because, sometimes, Ana thinks she loves him; sometimes, she says yes; sometimes, she has an orgasm.
Sometimes, he says he loves her.
The narrative of rape says that he cannot be a rapist because he’s rich, attractive. He could have any woman he wanted. She had sex with him before, willingly. They’re in a relationship. But we have reality laid out for us here, in the words of the author. The only criteria for rape is whether consent IS and CAN be given freely, and he had sex with a woman who did not consent, and could not give it freely.
Christian Grey is a rapist.
The narrative of abuse is even more twisted. Christian Grey cannot be an abuser because he had a terrible childhood. He really loves Ana, deep down. She stays with him no matter what he does to her. It’s not really abuse because she enjoys it sometimes. And again, we have reality laid out for us, and it tells a different story; one of coercion, isolation, psychological manipulation, actual harm, and excuse on top of excuse. That the author tries to spin it as some part of BDSM (when many of us know damn well that BDSM is complex, personal, and very much NOT related to abuse except on the most superficial, surface level) is just the icing on a very horrible cake.
Christian Grey is an abuser.
If this were one narrative among many, then there would not be a problem. If this were one story among many others that DIDN’T reinforce harmful tropes about women, men, relationships, and kink, then perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this article at all. And yet here we are; because Fifty Shades is a giant, international bestseller, and Hollywood snapped it up to make a movie out of it, and there are millions of women across the world who will go to see this movie and absorb the narrative that a man who has sex with them when they say no isn’t really a rapist. They will re-tell the narrative to survivors of abuse and rape, compounding their pain. They’ll enter relationships where they will be abused by men who swear that they love them, and they’ll be less likely to question every excuse because these books, and this movie, told them that love means abuse may be excused.
It matters because there are not enough stories or narratives saying that abuse is always wrong, no matter the context, and rape is always rape when consent is not given freely.
If I ever had a reason to get into writing romance, and I admit I honestly can’t because I can’t wrap my head around the genre at all, it would be this: to counter the immense, towering pile of evil that so frequently turns real, complex human relationships into horrible wastelands; to fight against the easily swallowed narratives (and of course they are the most popular ones) that paint abuse and rape and control as normal. Fifty Shades of Grey has its bestseller spot, and it has never, ever been so little deserved, and there is nothing that I can do about it except to write articles like this, and someday attempt to write romance that contradicts its premise.
I’m not going to lie, the very thought is depressing to me.
On this Valentine’s Day, I’m going to go and spend time with a man who loves me, who would never, ever hurt me, and who would never force me to do something I don’t want to do. And I know full well that these three things are not a package deal, and I could have been unlucky enough to find a partner who, perhaps, could only manage two out of three. But it should not be a matter of luck that I have them all. If Fifty Shades were a different kind of book, then perhaps it wouldn’t be a matter of luck for more women as well.