Fifty Shades of Gay, and other (offensive) stories

You can't fail to notice the proliferation of several things in the media at the moment:

- The rising aggression between Middle Eastern and Western diplomacy.

- The rise of really, really badly thought through media items.

I'm not suggesting one is in any way responsible for the other - necessarily. 
Let me be more specific:

Twilight erotic fan fiction turned 'spankbuster' bestseller trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey, by now infamous E.L. James, has sold an estimated 5.3 million copies in print and, most notably, in ebook format. That means in Britain it has out sold Dan Brown's previous chart toppers, the Highway Code, and the Bible.

I have not read all of it. But I have read enough. Let's not beat around the masochistic
bush here: it is very badly written. I'm not being snobby. I don't like the Harry Potter books (I know - GAH!), but I do think J.K. Rowling has studied her form and implemented it with skill. E.L. James has not. It is poorly conceived, rendered in clunky, unnecessary and repetitive prose. If you ask me, the sex scenes are written like biology text books. AKA with such robotic literalism that the chance of me getting off on it is equal to dry-humping the corner of a disconnected microwave.

The issue here shouldn't be taste - but it invariably is. Taste is representative of morals, both individual and collective. Taste informs us of who we are. Taste tells us what is right, and what is wrong. And if someone's taste is different, how do we deal with that?

The recent conflicts in Libya and elsewhere have been partially attributed to the offensive anti-Mohammed video made by a middle-aged Californian douche-bag (although there is now speculation about it's creator and circulation). The American embassy was burnt to the ground, the ambassador executed. Russia is considering blocking Youtube as a result. Pakistan and Bangladesh reportedly already have. Google has agreed to ban the clip in India, Indonesia, Libya and Egypt, to comply with state laws. 

Salman Rushdie has recently released his memoir of being in hiding during the fatwa years after the publication of The Satanic Verses. It's called Joseph Anton, after his pseudonym during that period - from the first names of his favourite authors, Conrad and Chekhov. Speaking to the BBC, he comments that he doesn't think that book would be published today. He thinks publishers wouldn't take the risk. Recently, Channel 4 declined a press showing of a documentary about the history of Islam due to 'legitimate threats' from undisclosed extremists. The action then, agreeing with Rushdie's view. 

Respect is important. It's more than important. Mutual respect for everyone, regardless (and perhaps because of) differences is key to democracy. Not just democracy, but basic equality on a one to one level. The older I grow the more I realise the importance of respect.

But, to quote Rushdie, as well as the right to respect, in a free society we should all also posses the 'right to offend.' Being offended goes hand in hand with being able to speak freely, and consequently to act freely. When a government denies its citizens the right to offend they are essentially denying their freedom of speech, and thus their freedom. 

People talk a lot of shit in Britain. People talk a lot of shit in the US (Particularly Mitt Romney). But talking shit is as essential to democracy as talking sense - although, of course, the definition of 'sense' is debatable, as it should be. It should not be state regulated. Imagine if David Cameron enforced what the definition of Sense in Britain was, like an autocrat? Shudder. And no more red faced cartoons of him falling over in the tabloids. 

A personal example:

I'm bisexual. I'm more on the gay end (um?!) of the spectrum, but I want to be honest with you. I grew up in a small part of the rural South West of England. As you might imagine, not everyone was happy about this aspect of myself that is as inherent as my white skin and brown hair. There is nothing I can do about it. It wasn't a decision. It is part of me. It's not the whole part, but it's an important facet. 

When phrases like, 'That's so gay,' were going around, I wondered, 'Am I offended? Is this belittling me? By someone saying this, are they saying "being gay" is bad, and thus, that I am bad?' When I heard people say it, I would think of the kids who used to say things to me at school, the strangers who would make assumptions at parties, the adults who should know better but still cling onto their childish prejudices. I think about how people are afraid of things they don't understand. I think about how at first everything is foreign and strange and scary. I think about how we all stereotype in order to understand something at first. I think about how the stereotype is never the full story

I think about how we are all just trying to make sense of things with what we've been given, from our culture, our family, from what we can perceive with our senses. I think about this, and I think, 'Am I offended when people say "That's so gay".'

As it turns out, I am slightly offended. I am slightly offended because it strikes a personal chord with me - it chips at an insecurity. It's the obvious negative inference. I might tell them to think about it. I might say, You know, that's kind of offensive. Or I might not. What I would certainly not do, is fire bomb their house because I felt personally attacked. 

Think about why they're saying it: are they saying it to offend gay people? Are they saying it to make a statement that they themselves are not gay? Are they saying it because their group of friends are saying it? Are they saying it to be cool, to be normal? Have they thought about it at all? Am I so insecure that I have to torch their house? Will that actually solve any of the issues here??

(Incidentally, Fifty Shades of Gay is actually a real book. Which, frankly, is unsurprising: the copy always gets copied.)

So before you jump to write an offensive comment about me in the comments box, think about it: at least you can make that comment. You can tell me I've got it all wrong, that I'm prejudiced, degraded, immoral. That I don't know what I'm talking about. That your opinion is the only right opinion. 

And thank goodness that you can. 


Crimson Ebolg said...

Thought-provoking and well-reasoned argument. The difficulty comes when people are unable to articulate the ways in which their personal views have been wounded. Constant dialogue is what is needed in order to resolve situations of tension and the respect vs offence argument is, as you say, a two-sided coin. It's the escalation of violence in such a short space of time which frightens me, and once a reaction has been provoked, both sides will use that reaction to justify their opposing view points. I really hope things settle down soon...

HENRY FRY said...

Thanks Leanne! I can't remember if I wrote this in a comment on your blog or just thought about it and then thought I'd done it already (you know when that happens??), but I listened to you on the radio and wanted to say congrats! You were highly listenable! Well done! And yes, this situation remains scary and uncertain.