Tuesday, August 19, 2014

50 Shades Shadier: In Conclusion

So, here we are.

First note: I updated my table of contents page, so you might find that an easier way to navigate through these essays if, somehow, you have not read them all. (Editor's note: that's a joke. We know you haven't read them all. We're not judging you. You made a wise choice.)

One time I read a pretty cool trilogy of books, set in the gray north. They were extremely popular a few years ago. The protagonist is an orphan who's been abused sexually and has a cold demeanor and finds it difficult to make relationships with others. She does eventually develop a rapport with a journalist because of course I'm talking about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and not 50 Shades. 

I bring up those other novels because I want to compare the way they work--or fail to work--as trilogies. In both trilogies, the first novel works as a standalone read. I mean. "Works" is a word I'm using in relative terms here--I just mean that in both cases, when you're done with the first book, you feel like you've read something that is complete by itself. And then, in both trilogies, the second and third books run together so much that the division between the two almost feels arbitrary. It feels a little bit less like three books, but rather one short book and one very long book that's been hacked in half for the convenience of its publisher.

But Lisbeth Salander's continued adventures feel logical. She is, herself, a mysterious figure from the beginning of series, and while the first novel in the trilogy is about an unrelated villain, the second and third books are, in part, devoted to making Salander herself less of a mystery. That is how almost all rewarding plots work: there is a relationship between the external conflict and an internal conflict. The narrator must "defeat" herself in order to defeat some external adversary. And in the most compelling stories, like Star Wars or The Girl Who Played with Fire, the villain is secretly the protagonist's dad.

50 Shades is not the most compelling. It's the least compelling. And so the adversaries that Ana Steele faces have absolutely nothing to do with any inner conflict. Her rogues gallery is as follows:

  • Leila, Christian's mentally-ill ex lover.
  • Elena, Christian's most jealous ex lover.
  • Jack, an asshole from Ana's workplace who's jealous of Christian. 
The pattern is clear, yes? All the villains in this series are Christian's villains. With the exception of Jack, who's just some asshole, the external conflicts are driven by Christian's past mistakes. It's also worth noting, though, that Jack's little coda at the end of book 2 suggests that, even though he tried to blackmail Ana into sexual favors, he considers his real beef to be with Christian. So even this villain is repeating a classic chauvinist move--he doesn't give any credit to Ana. In his mind, he leaps over her and considers her boyf his real enemy. (Although, to his credit, he's not wrong to feel that Christian is the one who really matters, since the book asserts the exact same point at every opportunity.)

There's a compelling story in there somewhere!  Here's my pitch: Christian Grey loses everything in a combination business-disaster / sex scandal, and now he has to find his way in a world he doesn't understand, all while being hounded by women whom he wronged on his way to the top.

That almost sounds like something, right? Almost! But our little story idea points to the main structural failing of 50 Shades: the story doesn't really belong to its narrator. Ana is only the "hero" because she happens to be the character narrating everything for us. Nearly every other character in the entire novel has more agency, more drive, more motivation. Ana gets basically one independent action per novel. In the first book, she tells Christian to go ahead and spank her, so that she can better understand his desires. In the second book, she physically repulses an attack from Jack Hyde.

Besides these two sequences, everything is driven by Christian, not by Ana. Ana is at the center of this book but it's just not really her book. It's Christian's story, as narrated by Ana.

I've read some excitement on the internets about the fact that the forthcoming movie version of this mess is a big-budget movie aimed squarely at women that's directed by a woman and based on a novel by a woman. I won't disagree that that's admirable, particularly at a time when Hollywood seems concerned only with paying boys to make movies for boys starring lots of boys with women thrown in on occasion but only if they have butts that look nice in tight costumes.

But we can do better than this, right? I mean, can't we? Can't we do better than a man's fantasy, narrated by a woman, and then marketed as a woman's fantasy? This is really bumming me out.

But hey! At least I'm done with it for a while! Sort of.

50 Shades things I plan to work on in the near-term:

  • Some statistics on a few of my least-favorite of EL's clich├ęs. How many times Ana says "crap," for instance. Or blushes. Or flushes. Or whatever else she does.
  • Remember that sex contract? We should catch up on it! There was a sex contract in the first book. It was the main thing about the first book. Here's hint: they've done almost none of the stuff on the sex contract. But you deserve a more complete update.
  • Fact: the first book is 150,000 words. I bet a diligent person could cut it down to 50,000 without losing anything that doesn't deserve to be lost. I am nothing if not diligent. 
  • I was thinking about writing some alternate-universe fanfic about these characters. Maybe one where one of them is vampire? I dunno. I'm kicking around a lot of ideas.
In other words: don't worry too much. We have a little more to go. 

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