There has been much ado about 50 Shades of Grey everywhere you go on the net this weekend. Understandably, as with several other books of recent years (Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, etc), it’s following is massive and now it’s made the jump to the big screen.
As someone who enjoys books, seeing any author making the jump to other media, I’m thrilled. I’ll admit, 50 Shades isn’t my cup of tea (anymore than Twilight was) I’m happy for EL James and her success. But I’m not here to talk about 50 Shades of Grey and why it’s good or bad. Instead, I’m here to talk about a trend we’re seeing with books and something pretty scary that was done with 50 Shades which you may not yet even realize. And it’s something that could change how women are portrayed in books and movies for years to come and it could effect what your audience is looking for in their next big “favorite.”
Curious? Read on.
A website called “The Oatmeal” put out an article about “How Twilight Works” in which it breaks down it’s reasons for why Twilight is so insanely popular. Now, obviously there is a bit of humor in this site (you’ll see what I mean if you follow the link), but I got to thinking… what if there IS something to this?
Authors are more engaged in marketing than ever before – and not just self-published authors. We’re always looking for what it is that people want to read about because, at the end of the day, our job is to entertain. Yes, many of us write what appeals to us, but I think it’s fair to say that many authors keep a finger on the pulse of what’s popular and (PERHAPS more importantly) so does traditional publishing houses.
Why should that matter? Well, if you’re like me and you’re hoping to be published traditionally one day – you realize that (if only to a small degree) you need to be writing what the publishing houses are buying. If they are looking to buy high school themed vampire romances… well, if you want to get a paycheck, you know what to write.
So, that in mind, let’s look at the joke that The Oatmeal makes with a little seriousness. A female character so devoid of definition that she could be any woman. My husband and I were talking about this and he jokingly compared such a flat character to the would-be-wife of Eddie Murphy’s prince in the movie “Coming to America” — in it, the character LITERALLY has no desires save those desired by Eddie Murphy’s male lead character.
Not so funny right? Especially as a mom of a young girl who is just learning to read. I mean I was seriously excited about all the strong female characters coming up in literature and how insanely popular they’ve been. However, as I start picking them apart… I wonder how deeply we really know those women.
Katniss loves her family and she’s good with a bow so we know she likes hunting… but other than having a knack for killing and being the love of two men… what else do we know about her?
Hermione Granger… smartest witch of her age with crazy curly hair. Do you know much else about her?
Bella Swan… considers herself average, clutsy, and undesirable in general… but other than loving Edward and hating the rainy town of Forks… what else do we really know about her?
This gripped me in my heart tight and it hasn’t let go. It’s not a joke and perhaps most especially in romances it’s easy to fall into tropes and two-d characterizations. But, what makes me REALLY worried is this thought: have we come to a point in publishing where our readers are now looking for that? Two-D characters upon whom they can imprint themselves? Are publishing houses no longer seeking out the characters of the past whose identity is more than the one or two word archetypes needed to fill a cast quota?
So that’s one. What’s the second? This one comes from all the talk of 50 Shades and of a comment that one of our Wenches made about why the books/movie anger her. Amazingly it wasn’t about the abuse factors of the book… but the mislabeling by the publishing house.
That’s right – mislabeling. She made the statement that (and I’m paraphrasing here) if the book had been marketed as a non-consent erotica, she’d be totally in support of it. However, since it does not fit the traditional model for “romance” she’s annoyed that it was billed as such.
That got me thinking. If I sent 50 Shades off to Harlequin today, I’m pretty sure they’d politely shoot it down and send me a form letter explaining that a “romance novel” is defined as having a man who is totally desirable, a strong female character who is his equal in many ways, and ends with a happily ever after.
I think 1/2 the net is still trying to argue that Christian is desirable (though I have a hard time thinking most romance publishers would agree prior to the insane success of the book – and would have said no right out of hand.) but almost NO ONE is saying Ana is a strong female lead – at least not his “equal.”
As such I have to agree… the classification of this book does seem wrong to me. So, why would a publishing house do that? Well I can think of two reasons and this is where things start to get bothersome to me as a reader and as an author.
1) Non-consent Erotica doesn’t sell as well as traditional romance. Put 50 shades on the shelf next to most traditional romances and the average housewife is going to pick up the “naughty but nice” book and read it. She’ll give it a chance. But trust me, most middle-america housewives from the burbs aren’t openly buying from the non-consent erotica section of their local bookstore (they buy that online where there pastor’s wife won’t see it. *wink*)
2) Free Advertising. That’s right. Every time you, me, and your dog all argue about the qualities of the male lead or the content of the book, we’re promoting it and the movie and all the merchandise that they sell with the name on the package. Even if you’re bashing the book and it’s content you’re helping them make sales because EVENTUALLY even someone who hates the topics will become curious enough to buy a copy and secretly take a peak.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the image they used to market the movie this weekend, shall we?
Yea. And they are laughing their way to the bank as the internet melts down about whether or not there it is abuse.
So what’s the scary part? That publishers (and self-publishers) might be taking home the lesson that mis-marketing a book makes big money. That eventually you’ll go to the romance section of your bookstore and wonder … “Am I getting the traditional romance I’m hoping for… or will this book contain subject matter I’m not comfortable with and don’t enjoy?”
There is a trust with our publishing companies which was tested and perhaps broken in the marketing of 50 Shades of Grey and I argue that smart marketers and publishers may have noticed that. They may, in fact, think of following suit. And that scares the heck out of me as a reader/consumer.
Am I right about these topics? Am I wrong? Are you worried? Let us know your thoughts below in the comments.