Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “Every burned book enlightens the world.” Does Fifty Shades of Grey qualify?
Fifty Shades of Grey, one of the top-selling novels of our time and graduated Twilight fanfic, contains within its pages a lot of what one might call BDSM. I have not read the book (it lurks upon my desk like a dirty sock, faintly radiating filth), but I have it on pretty good authority from most of the internet that Christian and What’s-Her-Face are Doin’ It Wrong when it comes to the sadomasochistic roleplay.
So wrong, in fact, that Claire Phillipson, organizing force behind Wearside Women in Need’s event, feels that it is dangerous and harmful; so much so that Wearside is holding a Fifty Shades of Grey book-burning event. She spoke to the Daily Mail about it, saying:
I do not think I can put into words how vile I think this book is
Neither can I, but I haven’t made myself into a Guy Fawkes doll for every gossipy news outlet to burn me at the stake with Godwin’s Law because of it. Although it’s easy, I’m not going to add my voice to the many that are vilifying Ms Phillipson; to the contrary, the lady works for a domestic abuse charity; chances are she actually knows very well what she is talking about, and I think the least society can do is pay some attention. She is (in a heartbreaking way) an expert on the subject of foul, wrong relationships. Nobody should have to be. And I think that’s her point.
The fact of the matter is, it’s been deeply entrenched in our cultural psyche that if you burn books, you are automatically the bad guy. There’s no coming back from it. Even if the book you’re burning happens to barely be worthy of the badge of “literature” and is literally right at this second causing young women to adjust just a tiny bit more towards accepting it when their partner gets rough without their permission.
Bad guys who burn books are usually the ones already in power; to our imaginations, it’s always some fascist dictator ruling with an iron fist who decides that he will take ALL THE KNOWLEDGE away from the poor hapless citizens. So what happens when battered women do it? It’s hard to think of a group more powerless in the first world; maybe the homeless, but many abused women do double duty on that front. This book burning will make absolutely no difference; it’s sold about a jillion copies worldwide, is in ebook format, and compared to that, Wearside’s demonstration is a single Ewok facing down a legion of Stormtroopers.
These women don’t want you to stop learning things; in fact, I suspect that they desperately want you to learn. They want you to learn the difference between depicting violence against women (as in American Psycho and DH Lawrence’s Rainbow, as the Daily Mail squawks) and glorifying it as something titillating, something that women should want. They want you to learn about abuse, they want you to learn about proper BDSM, they want you to learn that literature is powerful in ways we don’t usually think about in this day and age.
I’m not going to say that burning Fifty Shades is right. But I’m not going to say it’s wrong, either.