So I found myself in a debate with some friends about art, abuse and sexuality. A glance at current media will show what triggered it: 50 Shades of Grey, and a review by someone who had gone to see it hoping to poke fun and had come away shocked by the portrayal of domestic violence.
Now my readers will know that abusive relationships feature in my writing. But I hope it is clear that I do not condone abusive relationships in my writing. So I packed myself off to the local cinema and watched it.
It was an odd experience to be a single man sitting in a cinema filled with women, watching what amounted to a soft-core porn movie. And 50 Shades of Grey is a soft-core porn movie to ten decimal places. The plot is unrealistic, the characters are unrealistic, and (like a lot of soft-core porn) the sex is unrealistic. The only place it diverges from standard soft-core tropes is the music. The usual Bow Chicka Wow-Wow music has been replaced with a far more sophisticated and nuanced playlist. But, other than that, it is pure porn.
That is, up until the last ten minutes, when the rather stalkerish behaviour of the leading man's character suddenly blossoms out into full-on abusive relationship. For those who have seen the film, it's not that he takes his belt to her. She quite literally asks for that. It is the way he is afterwards, when a proper dom would be doing aftercare and he is doing threats and physical aggression. Playtime is over and he is revealed as the violent psychopath he, presumably, was all along.
Now the film ends at the moment she walks out. And it would be wonderful if that was the end of it. (And it might just be the end of it, if some press reports are to be believed.) But the books carry on with standard 3-act romance to a "happily ever after" ending. That is not realistic. In real life, characters who behave like Christian Grey cannot be transformed into loving husbands and fathers by nothing more than the power of love. And partners who fail to realise this far too often end up killed.
The most obvious response to the criticism of it being unreal is that it's a porno. Nobody watches porno for plot and characterisation. They watch it because they find it arousing. (For what it's worth, I didn't.) Nobody chooses what arouses them, as gay-rights campaigners have been pointing out for years. If the sex depicted in 50 Shades of Grey is your thing, that's great. It seems to me that, since nobody chooses their sexuality, nobody should feel ashamed for their sexuality. "Safe, sane, consensual" -- "Harm none, do what you will." It's all good.
But this film does have a plot (of sorts), and the plot marches on after the sex is over. That is where my problems start. If someone finds depictions of psychopaths and domestic violence sexy, who am I to condemn? But let's be realistic about how this story ends, please. The illusion that this thing might end well is far more dangerous than badly depicted sex.
For contrast, my domestic violence fiction is structured as a Greek (or Shakespearian) tragedy. It's an Atlantis story, of a whole civilisation falling because of decadence and corruption. The violent and exploitative relationships are a part of that. As anyone might expect from an Atlantis story, most of the main characters die. And as anyone might expect from classical tragedy, the reasons for it are right there in Chapter 1.
As an artist, I feel I have a duty to depict truth in my fiction. Which is why, if she were my character, poor Anastasia would run and never look back. Or, if she did look back, she'd end up dead in a ditch, while her psycho husband used the best money lawyers can buy to get away with murder.
Perhaps I should write some fanfiction to that effect. I've heard that fanfiction can be a great path to a bestseller.