“It’s Just a Book!”: Examining the Influence of Fifty Shades of Grey and After

by thethreepennyguignol

So, my apologies for the lack of posting in the last week- I’ve been snowed under with university stuff and computer problems, so the blog had to take a back foot while I caught myself up. But I’m back, bitches, and this week’s Friday discussion is about the classic defence for problematic literature- “It’s just a book!”

I was thinking about this earlier today when I came across the #SuspendAnnaTodd hashtag on Twitter. For those who don’t know, Anna Todd published a wildly successful One Direction fanfiction on Wattpad, which was later purchased by Simon and Schuester and turned into a real-life book series. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s pretty much the same path as that EL James wound up on when she published Fifty Shades of Grey. And that’s not the only thing the books have in common- they both depict seriously abusive relationship, presented to the reader as romance. You only have to jump on Twitter to see the scores of fans starry-eyed over the thought of their favourite romantic hero, with hundreds of tweets about how they want their own Christian Grey, or how they envy and want the relationship depicted in After.

Let’s make it clear: I’ve already done numerous breakdowns on the abuse in Fifty Shades, and read the first book of After, in which Hardin Styles terrorises heroine Tessa with his violent posessiveness, bargaining with her virginity, and dangerous levels of jealousy. These are the kind of relationships which would be undeniably abusive if they existed in real life, the kind of relationships you hope no-one you know ever ends up in.

But it’s okay, though, because they’re just fiction, right? And the defence that gets thrown my way more than any other? “It’s just a book.” “It’s just a book.” “IT’S JUST A BOOK”. And on the surface, that’s a pretty good defence; after all, I watch the Saw and Human Centipede movies, but it doesn’t mean that I’m more likely to go rip someone’s head open in a bear trap or sew someone’s mouth to someone’s, um, moving on.

But the difference between violent media and books like After and Fifty Shades is that they’re not being sold as romance. These novels are being marketed as books depicting an enviable, if fantastical, romantic relationship. Here, we’re encouraging readers to read these books and go “yeah, that’s something I want for myself!”. We’re training them to see obvious signs of abuse as signals that someone loves you, which is fine in the world of the story where a writer makes it so the heroine comes to no real harm. In these books, the author has it so when the heroine loves the hero as passionately and meaningfully as they can, the hero loves them back (often not actually changing their abusive behaviour) and they all live happily ever after. Anna Todd and EL James direct the action from behind the scenes, making sure Ana and Tessa don’t end up getting physically assaulted or killed; in real life, where two women in Britain are killed per week by a partner or ex-partner, we’re not so lucky.

It’s reflective of the society we’re in that books like these could achieve such astronomical fame and fortune. And the thing is, I’m not saying that they should be censored or banned or that everyone who likes them MUST STOP READING IMMEDIATELY. The problem is that these books are fantasy being sold as reality. You’ve probably heard a lot about the romanticizing of abuse in books like these, and that might sound like a lot of hot air; after all, most people are smart enough to tell the difference between what they enjoy reading on the page and what they want in real life. But when you’re being screamed at from all sides that this book will save your marriage, fix your sex life, sweep you away on a romantic journey-by publishers, film companies, and every scrap of advertising that has leapt on these books (which includes, lest we forget, washing powder)– that line can get blurred. So it’s important that we keep shouting about the problematic elements these books have from the rooftops, not because people shouldn’t be reading them, but because we’re living in society where emotional and verbal abuse is swept under the carpet with a “well, he/she should have just left”.

It’s not just a book. They’re books so popular that they begin to influence marketing decisions, popular culture, and, yes, real people. Books like these, whose stains seep into every corner of the media (lest we forget, Fifty Shades of Grey is the fastest selling book of all time), start to instill the idea that if we or someone we know is being treated like the heroines in this book, then they’re lucky. If someone stalks us, acquires personal information about us, lies to us, manipulates us, ignores our boundaries and deliberately makes us uncomfortable, that’s love. The effects of abuse, whether emotional, physical, sexual, or an combination of the above, are long-reaching and sometimes devastating- and if we can convince just one less person that that’s the way they should expect to be treated by someone they love, then we’ve succeeded.