Tuesday, January 22, 2013

50 Shades of Grey Revisited, or: In Defense of Twilight Fans


I know I've written several posts on 50 Shades of Grey (at least two) but I've been meaning to write a different sort of follow-up post for several months now after I started thinking about the book outside of the context I read it in. I found a really great video from the Youtube user manwithoutabody (who does some great dramatic readings of fanfiction; many thanks to Paulina for making me aware of his existence) and I wanted a way to discuss it for a long time, but I couldn't find the right way to grasp it.

Well, another video came at just the right time (thank you, thank you, Jordyn, for sharing it) and it's finally all come together. Let's start with the video I just found - the material I'm particularly interested in starts around the 2:55 mark but I recommend watching the whole thing - it's all relevant and this vlogger is awesome:

Now, keep that in mind for a moment and watch this other video, the one I found ages ago from manwithoutabody where he discusses the extreme hate for 50 Shades of Grey:

My exact reactions to watching this video from manwithoutabody at first were something along the lines of: "Wait, what are you talking about, I... OH MY GOD YOU ARE SO RIGHT."

Let me explain: I still hate 50 Shades of Grey. I still hate Twilight. I still think they are poorly written, possibly promote dangerous ideas of relationships, and are terribly sexist. That being said, there has definitely been a problem with the way I've hated Twilight in the past. And to explain this, I'm going to have to explain my history with Twilight.

The first Twilight book came out when I was a freshman in high school. And I loved it. YES I SAID IT. I LOVED IT. It was one of the first contemporary romance novels I'd read, one of the first targeted at my demographic, and one of the first where it didn't seem to be all about sex (yet). I liked the fact that Bella was awkward and didn't think she was pretty. I liked the fact that she was not in full command of her coordination and that she did dumb things. I liked the fact that Edward was a Byronic hero (yes, Byronic heroes may be assholes, manwithoutabody, but beyond reasons I am capable of understanding about myself, I still like them. Fictional ones, at least).

I loved these books all the way through the last one, as they were staggered perfectly throughout my four years of high school and allowed me to grow with them. I actually liked the last book at first because, honestly, after reading the heartbreaking end of the last Harry Potter book, it was a nice change to have an ending where nothing really bad happened. Then, while discussing it with a friend, I realized that I did have some reservations with it - because not only did nothing bad happen, nothing really happened at the end. That's when the book started to fall apart. I felt like a fool for spending my money (okay, my parents' money) and my time on such trash. This wasn't an overnight realization though - it came about slowly, through much cognitive dissonance and a lot of influence from my friend (my best friend at the time) who hated Twilight. I found myself (unconsciously - it's not like I was parsing this all out like I am now) in a difficult situation - I could continue to love Twilight, even though I knew it was crap, or I could reject my previous self and spurn anything that represented it. Which choice did I make? Considering I was a secretly emo, bordering on hipster, self-hating uncomfortable teenager who was being pushed towards cynicism, I ended up with the latter option. I openly lambasted Twilight and couldn't believe anyone would like it after the last book (I did retain that I had once been a fan of the books (and had hipster moments of, "I liked them before they became movies") but that I had in some way "seen the light" and come to my senses). How do I explain all of this? The best reflection of my mental states seems to be Reliant K's "Who I Am Hates Who I've Been" - a friend introduced me to this song and it became one of my favorites during senior year. Nothing could be a more accurate summation of how I felt about my Twilight fandom phase and how I loathed myself for ever liking the books.

I began to lighten up about this once I got to college, accepting that people can like what they like, even if I don't like it. But I still wasn't very kind about the whole thing, to be frank. I don't really know when I stopped judging the fans more than the text, but it was relatively recently - at least in the last year or two. It comes down to differentiating between hate for the text versus hate for the fans. I certainly no long dislike the fans - there may be things they do I dislike but I don't personally dislike them as people. It's interesting that this also correlates with my immense reduction of self-negativity. Do I think there's a link? For me personally, yes, there's something to that. Hating Twilight fans involved hating myself in some ways, because I really, truly did like those books and some of the issues they grappled with. But I found it impossible to dislike the books and like them at the same time and, because I felt like a fool for liking them in the first place, things backfired on me and it fed an already present dislike for myself. Which I got out of, thank God. But because I wasn't happy, I took it out on other people and thus disliked people who liked it as well. Which is pretty messed up.

Why did this occur? It seems it's very, very easy to be depreciating of other women. As Twilight and Fifty Shades are for a majority female fan bases, it's interesting to note that these groups, as well as the fans of Justin Bieber (as the vlogger notes) are probably the most hated fandoms in the U.S. Things that women and teenagers enjoy are considered petty and not important and irrelevant. Their interests are marginalized and mocked, often by women like me who don't intend to come across this way but are caught between what women want and what women are getting. I don't think I have ever said anything against Twilight fans or 50 Shades fans on this blog, but I can't be certain. I know that in words not written on the internet I certainly have. It's a very, very hard position to be in. What women are getting in these novels are sexist, misogynistic relationships that romanticize abuse and control. And yet they are extremely popular. Why? Because it provides many things - a chance to escape from the world around the reader, an impossible romance, extreme emotions that may not be felt in daily life. Besides, what other sort of romance writing is out there? The popular trend of romance novels tend to be focused around love triangles and romanticizing relationships that probably shouldn't be romanticized. Of course books without these themes exist, but they aren't always marketed as romance novels and don't always have happy endings (and, if you're like the women interviewed in Reading the Romance, a book all about the appeal of romance novels, happy endings are key). Women find these books appealing for many reasons, in part because that's what culture tells them is appealing and that's what offered to them. And then, when they like it and embrace it, they are judged for it. It's a vicious cycle. And it's terribly unfair.

I feel it is getting difficult to avoid stories like Twilight. Even in my writing I have been fighting against this same themes - girls falling for the "bad guy" (which is why I NEED to finish that post about villains...) - and I'm not so sure I'm doing any better at it. Yes, maybe I'm more aware that it's happening in my writing than maybe Meyer and James were, but it's so hard to keep from throwing in cliches and trends that occur Twilight - because them come from writings other assumptions in our society. Of course the cliches can be worked out and avoided, but with the idea of "this is what women like" and "this is what is popular" ever present in culture - and because Twilight does stem from a very long line of preconceived notions about romance - it is hard to get around. Especially when you still have a fondness for Byronic heroes.

What's more, this only further separates marketing, making "things for guys" and "things for gals" (seriously, when you start marketing potato chips for men, we have to talk. Yes, this happened. Shame on you, Ruffles!) and stating that there are certain binaries that are and should be enforced. I'm sorry, I just really need this Martin Freeman gif to express my feelings on this...

Guess what? You can like both One Direction and the Beatles. You can like Twilight and Marvel comics. You can like football and ballet. You can like whatever the hell you want to like - and even though people like me might have been asshats about it in our past or are still asshats about it, ignore us. We know not what we do. What I'm not saying is that we shouldn't be critical of texts like Twilight or anything like that. I am obviously a big fan of cultural critique and think that it's incredibly beneficial in our media-saturated world. However, I also think we (myself most definitely included) need to be careful about how we talk about such critiques. Are we being constructive? Or are we just mocking something because girls like it? Because gay men like it? Because African Americans or Latinos like it? You get the picture.

However, it's hard to be critical of something and like it at the same time. Simon Pegg, brilliant awesome human being that he is, talks about this a bit when he describes studying film in college. As a student who studies media, I find his description ridiculously accurate in trying how to to deal with being critical of something you love:
It's not totally debilitating, you can turn it down to a muffled complaint in the back of your head or even suspend it, if you're determined to enjoy something despite its shortcomings, which is sometimes entirely possible. It leaves you with slight multiple personality disorder since the little voice is impossible to silence completely, but you can ignore it, like you might ignore an annoying younger sibling or the sound of pigeons having sex on your windowsill or your best friend kissing a French exchange student (Pegg 253).
Which is exactly Tumblr is not always a big fan of self-reflexivity, as I have come to know, and why fangirls don't want people hating on their stuff. IT'S HARD. You can do it, but it's hard. It takes a willingness to accept that sometimes, not everything is what it seems. At the same time, I hate that people assume that fangirls are totally incapable of this. They very much are - and they do practice it. I believe that many of them know what they are reading. But when you're looking for an entertaining romance to escape for a while, and your choices are Twilight and not much else, then why not continue to turn to Twilight?

I understand why fans like it, I really, really do. It just worries me how much they are hated for liking it. But then again, they aren't the only ones judged for what they like. We know about the issue with "fake geek girls" and women being ostracized in the comic book fandoms. It doesn't seem to matter if a girl likes "guy stuff" or "girl stuff." A girl just can't seem to win - and it's caused girls to start saying things like, "I'm not like other girls" or trying to prove how different they are from other women. It's like no one wants to be a woman, or worse (as the vlogger pointed out) a teenage girl. Not even Bella, our heroine in Twilight. She becomes a bloody vampire, after all.

This is a serious problem. I don't think it's fair to create multi-million dollar franchises to feed off of girls' interests and have the media advertise it and create a whole spectacle about it and then turn around and rebuke girls for liking it. It's the text that should be criticized rather than the fans. I also don't think it's fair to skew things into either love or hate - sometimes it's not that simple. I love The Hunger Games books, for example, and enjoyed the movie, but have really uneasy feelings about the franchise. The Hunger Games are also a good example of something I didn't like at first but then changed my opinion about. We shouldn't be afraid to have opinions and change them. Changing your mind is good. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I wish to say what I think and feel today, with the proviso that tomorrow perhaps I shall contradict it all." Contradiction seems to be a running theme with all of this - and maybe it's time we stop seeing it as such a negative thing and accept how present it seems to be in... everything.

Wow, this has been a long post. I was in a bit of a rut for ideas and them BANG this happened. If you would like to know more about the appeal of romance novels, please please read Janice Radway's Reading the Romance. This book may be from the 80s but it is ridiculously relevant today. I know I've mentioned it on here before and she says things far more cleverly and with better background than I can.

All citations from:
Simon Pegg. Nerd Do Well. Gotham Books, 2011.


  1. Great post! I too used to be a Twilight fan and now... not so much. My brothers don't get that I like both the Jonas Brothers and Elvis Presley or enjoy 'deep' indie movies and yet still enjoy the Avengers... you can like both and there's no problem with that!

    1. Thank you! My favorite films of 2012 were probably The Avengers and Beasts of the Southern Wild so I'm totally with you on liking blockbuster and indie films.