So, I’d like to take a break from our scheduled programming to briefly (for me) talk about an article I came across during my rambling across the internet, and instantly disagreed with almost every point it raised. Since it references E.L James and criticism thereof, I feel like it falls directly into my wheelhouse.
In an article entitled “Women, know your place!” Tracy Kuhn considers criticism of E.L James and other female creators, and comes to the conclusion that such criticism comes from a desire to punish women with ambition, to put women in their place, rather than because we legitimately find reason to criticize. In support of this she presents a larger context, wherein men writing problematic things are given a pass, whereas women doing the same are not:
Meanwhile we carry on going to see films and read books and watch television programmes that subliminally give out really damaging messages about women and use rape scenes again and again to move a plot forward, but again, who cares about those? This way, with this easy, high profile target, we can all show how terribly clever and witty we all are. And if we feel a little bit uncomfortable as we walk away from the hashtag, casually alerting our children to the damage that online bullying can do, what of it? Serves her right. What on earth was she thinking??
There is a lot wrong with this argument. Before we get to the more feminism specific criticism it sort of fails as argumentation because Kuhn demands unreasonable standards, asserting that we can’t criticize women unless we’re criticizing every other problematic piece of media, as if there’s time in the day to do that. We have a limited time frame in which to write, we need to select our targets, and yes, I’ll admit, a millions-selling series delivering a saucy concept like BDSM to heretofore unheard of public acclaim is a tantalizing subject for review.
But we don’t criticize Fifty Shades because E.L James is a woman, and in order to assume that you’d need to disregard every word of the content that the critics write. We criticize- I criticize- Fifty Shades for the reasons stated in my recaps. Because it’s a high-profile piece of literature that brings my chosen kink to the forefront of public discourse, but does so in a way that reinforces harmful and misogynistic stereotypes, while also just being a plain old poorly written book, published in the shadow of a shady history of potential intellectual property theft and mercenary writing habits.
To be clear, misogyny is not gender segregated; women can regurgitate the same sexist talking points that men do, and it simply doesn’t do to give women a pass for that. How can someone claim to be feminist, claim to stand for equality among the genders, while simultaneously advocating for one gender to be treated with kid gloves when they say or do something that is problematic? If this same article had been written suggesting that men shouldn’t be criticized for saying and doing problematic things, the defect with the argument would be obvious.
In fact, rejecting the stated reasons for criticizing a piece of work in favor of asserting baselessly that it all comes from a place of sexism- while simultaneously recognizing that most of the people doing the criticism are women themselves- is kind of sexist in itself, suggesting that these people cannot be trusted to represent their own motivations for writing a given thing, effectively silencing their own voices in deference to shakily argued “feminism.” You can’t decry women’s voices being shouted down in public for their ambition, as Kuhn does, while simultaneously dismissing the voices of all the literary critic women discussing Grey to shove your words into their mouths. Imagine a male writer stepping in and saying essentially the same thing, that what all these women writers are trying to say is that women with ambition should “know their place,” and consider just how poorly that would come across.
The history of women’s discourse is littered with exactly these kinds of shenanigans; people (most often men) from all sides determined to speak for women who are themselves speaking out, to dictate their experiences to them without any basis for claiming that knowledge. We even have a goddamn word for it, in “mansplaining.” It doesn’t become less offensive when it’s one woman doing it to another, nor if she herself is motivated by a desire to protect what she perceives as victimized women; the name of the game is still autonomy and the right to represent our own experiences, and that’s still something Kuhn is taking away from us in her quest to reduce all of our writings to some sexist screeds demonizing women for getting ideas above their station.
And what is the end result Kuhn seems to want out of all this, anyway? I think it’s fair to say that it’s impossible to criticize every piece of problematic media equally, because there’s simply too much of it. That’s an unfortunate fact of the world we live in; sexist stuff penetrates a lot of layers of the culture, even unintentionally in cases where people plum don’t know any better. We can’t possibly go through every example of media with the same fine tooth comb we would want to, and if we can’t discuss specific media for fear of seeming like we’re picking on people for secret reasons by some who’re looking for reasons not to have the conversation at all, who have empowered themselves with sexism-detecting telepathy and will employ that to tell us other critics what we really think, then what can we do?
The answer is… not much of anything, really.
We simply cannot have a conversation about media if the criteria is this binary “criticize everything at once/you’re bigoted against the people you do criticize” that Kuhn seems to subscribe to. The nature of linear time forces us to pick and choose our targets, and frankly, despite my feelings for it I have to acknowledge that Fifty Shades is an excellent topic of discussion for so many reasons other than that it was written by a woman and enjoyed by other women. It represents a shift in the paradigm of publishing, being that it’s essentially a fan fiction that got repurposed. It brought fresh awareness of BDSM to the mainstream, where before such a conversation would be much harder to have. It normalized the idea of reading erotica, again, a facet of mainstream culture that had not been discussed so openly before Fifty Shades as after. Being as overtly sexualized as it is, it points a rather defined spotlight on prevalent attitudes toward sex, gender, kink and so on, within a context that people tend to get very recalcitrant about too. And frankly, as literature it’s jam packed with things to talk about, even if all of those do skew negative.
I might not like the book, but Fifty Shades is a special case, and there are so many reasons that it’s worthy of in depth examination as a cultural artifact beyond the fact that it’s the latest big thing in “chick lit.” It is, in fact, insulting both to E.L James and to the people writing about her work to insinuate that there’s no particular reason one might focus on this work other than the gender of the main audience, and that attitude betrays a startling lack of understanding of the circumstances surrounding the series, for someone who’s willing to make such declarative statements about the content both of the book itself, and the extended critique surrounding it.
It’s not as though it would be hard for Kuhn to find out this stuff; reading a few of those examples of “picking apart, sentence by sentence,” that she’s comfortable in dismissing as bullying, would give her ample reasons why Fifty Shades has been singled out for special treatment. It isn’t just that the writer is a woman that we do this; it’s that this series is a weird, unique chapter in the annals of romance publishing, the sort that only comes around every once in a while. Even disasters are worth dissecting, in cases like this one.
There is a point to be found in Kuhn’s piece that is worthy of consideration, in the idea that a successful woman deals with greater scrutiny and negativity than a man in a similar position, and I’m neither denying that that is true, nor attempting to make light of or dismiss it. It’s a great observation that needs to be discussed, certainly, and Kuhn does point out some of the ways that conversations on successful women differ from those of men in a very poignant, understated way. Unfortunately, in this case a cogent point is mired in terrible execution, loaded with so much accusatory ire toward those who dare say anything negative at all about successful women, that the positive is drowned out. At no point does Kuhn address the actual content of the criticisms being levied against James’ work, nor explain why they’re unearned or inapplicable; if she’d done that then she might have had a point. Instead, she just assumes the intentions of a bunch of people she’s never met, presupposing that there’s nothing cogent to be said against Fifty Shades in any of the criticisms, just unthinking misogyny, tarted up in a literary critique dress.
In her attempt to decry the silencing of women in broader media, Tracy Kuhn ends up attempting to silence a bunch of women in media. The irony is palpable, but I fear Kuhn may not be able to detect it, because you want to know the worst part?
This is how Kuhn ends her article:
Have a look at yourselves before you make that next witty comment. And be nicer to each other.
“Be Nice.” That age old silencing technique, leveled against women since time immemorial, is the coda to this supposedly feminist defense of women writers and their successes. Be nice, women who criticize the work of other women. You just sound so hysterical when you’re mad.