The downward spiral of romance

Watching Fifty Shades of Grey on Valentine's Day is a dreary way to celebrate.
Zac Alstin | Feb 5 2015 | comment  



Imagine how future historians will look back on our present era, how the fears, fascinations, and foibles of today will look ten, fifty, or a hundred years from now.

It’s the minutiae that are sometimes most striking.  For example, this Valentine’s Day, audiences are awaiting the release of the film adaptation of the best-selling novel Fifty Shades of Grey. The full provenance of this moment is a story in its own right.

On the rabidly commercialised and misappropriated feast day of an early Christian saint, a US$40 million film will be released, hoping to capitalise on the success of an “erotic romance” novel that began its life as an alternate-universe fan fiction derived from a popular series of Young Adult (YA) vampire-themed romance novels.

Despite the publisher’s claims to the contrary, it seems that the pseudonymous author E.L. James originally wrote a fan fiction reimagining of the Twilight novels, substituting the sexual subculture of BDSM (viz. bondage and sadomasochism) for the more YA-appropriate romantic tension of a young woman falling in love with an immortal vampire.

Such idiosyncratic sexual and otherwise fantastical reworking of published literature is widespread within fandom, where a person may find to their delight or their unspeakable chagrin any number of clever, impressive, inane, or deeply offensive permutations on the plots and characters of their favourite fictional worlds. You might, for example, enjoy Rationalist and Artificial Intelligence proponent Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, an alternate universe fan fiction in which Harry Potter’s aunt Petunia married a Professor of Biochemistry and Harry subsequently enters Hogwarts’ armed with rational thought and the experimental method.  On the other hand, the Lord of the Rings fan fiction entries appear to be comprised almost entirely of romances inspired by Orlando Bloom’s portrayal of Legolas in the Peter Jackson films (Legomances), with writer after writer clumsily inserting themselves into the Fellowship as mysterious and impossibly talented Mary Sue wish-fulfillment love interests for the poor elf.

In the internet age fan fiction is commonplace; what is not so common is for a piece of fan fiction to be picked up by a major publisher with book sales rivalling that of the original series.  The Twilight series of novels have reportedly sold more than 120 million copies in seven years, as of 2011, but Fifty Shades of Grey is not far behind with more than 100 million copies sold since its publication more than three years ago.

From its first pages Fifty Shades of Grey is firmly situated in the realms of mediocre fan fiction, beginning with an awkward and clichéd scene in which the protagonist helpfully describes her own appearance in the mirror. It continues with a quality of prose and characterisation that would be hard to reconcile with the book’s success but for the knowledge that the “erotic romance” genre is underpinned by readers’ sexual fantasies – in this case, the sexual fantasies of a hundred million Twilight readers already primed for an R-rated elaboration of their favourite tale of forbidden love.

In many ways the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey is unremarkable. Romance novels are nothing new, and even the most fringe creative sub-genres occasionally produce a passing mainstream “breakout” success.  Even the apparent novelty of the growing interdependence of creators, publishers, and audiences is in some ways a reversion rather than an innovation.

Consider that the Valentine’s Day lore and mythology itself is essentially a series of popular embellishments to the bare fact that there existed several saints and martyrs named Valentine or Valentinus; hagiography and medieval romance combining to serve centuries-worth of romantic wish-fulfillment and, more recently, to generate a commercial boost for a plethora of semi-useless industries.    

If the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey is not remarkable, it is certainly dismal. As the success of the Twilight series brought to mainstream attention pre-existing sub-genres of “paranormal romance” and vampire-themed Young Adult literature, the success of Fifty Shades of Grey has likewise already drawn other erotic romance novels in its train.  As one author put it: "Two years ago, it was all vampires. Now it's BDSM. Kink is the new vamp."

Unfortunately BDSM does actually exist, whereas vampires do not, unless we include the vampirism of increasingly cynical “old media” giants like Universal Pictures and Random House publishers, as their partners and subsidiaries try to suck the blood out of “new media” successes like the fan fiction ebook that started it all.

Genuine BDSM aficionados have reportedly scoffed at the realism of Fifty Shades of Grey, but as “Sex toy” vendors gear up for the big day, it’s hard to deny that this is another tiny readjustment of that line in the sand that represents the deference unbridled commercial greed pays to our social mores.  The entertainment industry’s eager promotion of paraphilic titillation for financial gain should not surprise us, nor, I suppose, should the positive public response.

Such is the decline of Valentine’s Day: from remembrance of a martyr, to pious fantasy, symbol of courtly romance, becoming a modern and commercialised token of romantic love, erotic lust, and finally a tie-in opportunity for a warped sexual relationship inspired by a book for teenagers about a girl who falls in love with a “fantastically beautiful, sparkly” vampire.

People have historically made great and noble sacrifices for the sake of high ideals, religious faith, and even romantic love.  Significantly less has been built upon lust, paraphilia, and sexual fantasy, however urgent or significant they might feel to their subjects. Perhaps it is worth asking in addition to our collective commercial and sexual interests, whether there are any higher interests we should be cultivating?

Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia. He blogs at zacalstin.com



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