50 Shades of Power: Who Controls How Powerful a Story is – the Author or the Reader?

Fifty_Shades_of_GreyThe 50 Shades of Grey movie came out Valentine’s Day weekend, and in the week leading up to and following the opening of the movie there’s been a lot of talk about it. A lot of the talk has been about whether the book and film are good for women and glorify abuse or if they’re just an escapist story.

On the anti-side, several folks have thrown out statistics like this one:

 The survey found women who read the book were 25 percent more likely to have been in an abusive relationship in which the partner yelled or swore at them. They were 34 percent more likely to have been with someone who “exhibited stalking tendencies.” And were 75 percent more likely to have used diet aids or fasted. (Washington Post)

The survey found a correlation (not necessarily a causation) between reading this book and abusive relationships. This gets to the heart of the furor over the books and films. It all boils down to the simple fact that stories can be powerful, changing people’s perceptions and behaviors. Not all stories are powerful, as some are badly told or just plain boring. But, they all have the potential to be. If you look at human beings as a whole, no matter what culture or society you look at, they all impart important cultural messages, histories and lessons through stories. They do this because stories have the potential to be powerful.

Those who are opposed to 50 Shades of Grey do so not because they have some secret hatred of the author or even that they are prudish or behind the times, they do so because they believe that the books hold a powerful message, a powerfully bad message.

But here’s the thing I wonder. If you read the book and are appalled, is it still a powerful book? Does it still send a powerfully bad message? If you read the book and think this is how relationships should be, that abuse during sex is all well and good, is the message powerful, then? If you read the book and think it is nothing but silly escapism and you can’t even fathom how James came up with such outlandish sexual exploits, is it powerful then?

I wonder, where does the power in a powerful book lie? Is it solely within the hands of the author, who crafted the words, or is it in the hands of the readers? Do the readers determine its power by the weight they give to the words, rather than by what the author set out? Perhaps it’s some measure of both, but I do wonder just how much each person’s role plays.

No doubt there are books that are powerful but where does their power lie? Look at Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was a book hailed in the North for its abolitionist sentiment, yet reviled in the South. Was its power in its words absolutely or in people’s reaction to them. Is Hitler’s Mein Kampf powerful if you pick it up and cringe, or is it only powerful if you internalize its message, adopting it as a universal truth?

Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle, that our own experiences coupled with the author’s words capturing something universal all go toward making a book powerful. And if that is the case, I’m not sure that boycotting the message makes it less powerful to those who give it its power. And perhaps that is why there have been so many essays and news articles on the issue. Because it is not the author who must necessarily be reached, it is the reader who will ultimately deny or allow power to be bestowed upon the words.

I do find the calls to boycott the movie and not read the book interesting. I am not opposed to boycotts, as I find that people who do wrong for financial motive easily stop that behavior when the financial incentive disappears. However, from a pure power of words perspective, calls to boycott the film or not read the book, seem to strike at the notion that we can be changed in negative ways by stories, even if we disagree with every principle of them. That by simply reading or viewing this, our soul will be darkened in ways that we can’t take back, and therefore we shouldn’t even do it.

While I do agree that certain things can not be unseen, I’m not sure this book/film falls into the category of things we need to not even participate in. I think I’d be more prone to, if I hated the book (which I didn’t), writing an essay explaining why it was bad for people than to suggest they never view it with their own eyes.

About RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist who now writes fiction. She's reported for the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, as well as the smaller publications Education Technology News and Campus Crime. She has two published novels, Life First and Second Life and blogs for Indies Unlimited and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. For exclusive content and first looks at her new work, sign up for the newsletter at http://rjcrayton.com/subscribe.
This entry was posted in ethics, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to 50 Shades of Power: Who Controls How Powerful a Story is – the Author or the Reader?

  1. Interesting post…Personally, I have no interest in either the book or the film as I’m not into erotic literature of any kind. I’d rather pull out my own eyeballs-but that doesn’t mean that I think others should be prevented from reading or seeing it. Far too often, books and especially films are blamed for the actions of an individual and there are knee-jerk calls for it to be banned. Women have been in destructive relationships like this before the book came along, would have been in them if the book didn’t exist, and will still get into them whether or not they read this book. The good thing about the publicity over this book is that it is bringing a debate about abusive relationships into the open and women affected can get better access to help.

    • RJ Crayton says:

      I think you’re right about the publicity bringing the issue out in the open. Hopefully, people who are in relationships like this, but didn’t think of it as abuse, will get a new perspective and seek help.

  2. Those are certainly valid questions and deserve thought and discussion.

    I would add another angle. Where does the message of such a book fit into the general attitudes of the culture in which it is read, not just nationality or religion, but the smaller cultures of family community, school, religious affiliation, etc. where we internalize attitudes toward women and children, and of course, sexuality? We still live in a culture in which men have far more power and influence than women, even though the law would have us believe otherwise. In such a culture both men women and are socialized, even today, to accept these roles and the inequities of power and view them as normal and therefore OK. This happens at a subconscious level and it takes generations to eradicate. We still have a very long way to go before women have the same societal level of respect and power that men do. 90% of all gender abuse is still perpetrated by men. So it stands to reason that this book and movie will not be seen by many for the abusive trash it is. And if this is so in our so-called liberated culture, how much more will it be so in cultures where women have even less power.

    • RJ Crayton says:

      Yvonne, I think your point may also indicate why people have had such a strong reaction to the book. There are inequities in society for women. For example, this article says that when women negotiate, they’re likely to suffer negative consequences because of stereotypes held about women’s behavior. Essentially, the argument that men get better salaries because they negotiate is wrong, because when women try those tactics, they get their job offer rescinded. But, contributing negatively to the collective unconscious is bad. I think all the reality TV has collectively chipped away at shame. People seem not to feel shame so long as they’re being talked about. There’s a very “look at me” feel to everything, which is not healthy. I don’t watch any of the reality shows, but I have seen clips, and watched a couple of episodes of the controversial show Sorority sisters (because I was curious about the controversy) and it just seemed to show people willing to act any kind of way to be on TV. And that’s sad. That said, I’ve never called for others not to watch them, even while I lamented the negativity their product put out.

      I am glad, however, for the people who feel outraged enough to speak up. I think their passion for the subject raises important issues. While I didn’t feel passionate enough to write about the pros or cons of the book, I did feel strongly enough over the debate to write about it. I think when issues raise a healthy debate, that’s good. It gets the mind thinking on an issue they might otherwise have glossed over.

      • Yes, we need much more debate on social issues of all kinds. That is the best way to raise consciousness and create broader thinking. Open examination of issues will eventually change things. Hiding them never will.

  3. Charles Ray says:

    People who call for a boycott of ideas usually do so because they don’t have a better idea. I personally found the movie a bit shallow, but that’s my personal reaction. I would never call for anyone else not to see a movie or read a book just because I didn’t like it.

    • RJ Crayton says:

      I agree with you. I wouldn’t ask others to not read a book or a film because I didn’t like it. One of the great things about a society of free ideas is people are free to choose to view them or not, an to accept them or not. Making arguments for or against the ideas proposed is one thing, but we shouldn’t be telling people they shouldn’t have access to the ideas. They can read a blurb or watch a trailer and decided whether that’s the type of entertainment or ideas they want in their lives.

      • To put a point on my other comment, most of us do not make our choices freely. We are socialized to make them in certain ways and only a truly inquiring mind will see how those choices are affected by our environment. That is why such values take so long to change.

Comments are closed.