Since its release, Fifty Shades of Grey has been surrounded by a controversy impossible to ignore. Conversations concerning the worldwide bestseller and now fast-selling film usually begin with criticisms of its illicit subject matter, horrible writing, abysmal acting and degrading content. In 1857, a similar conversation took place in France concerning Charles Baudelaire’s book of poems, Les Fleurs de Mal. Nothing so sexual had ever been released for public reading. Needless to say, the poet was put on trial and convicted of an insult to public decency. The Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon is nothing new. Historically, many great works of art have garnered shock and outrage. Fifty Shades of Grey should not be discounted for its subject matter. Instead it should be judged by the quality of its execution.
Last week, The Falcon published a very poignant article, “Fifty Shades of Grey romanticizes abuse,” that pointed out offensive themes in the novel. This article is not a counterpoint to that. However, if a piece of literature can challenge what we believe in an effective, constructive manner, it deserves our respect. If its quality is poor, it should be condemned to the romance section in Barnes & Noble. We need to respect morally ambiguous art because it causes us to question and define our values. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray did this at great cost. The nuances of Wilde’s work and the flamboyance of his personality challenged societal views of homosexuality at the time. The homosexual undertones within the work were later cited in Wilde’s trial for gross indecency.
While this is still a debate in our era, there is no question we have advanced since Wilde’s trial. However, there are countless other issues which can be addressed through art which challenge public opinion and further societal understanding. In regards to Fifty Shades of Grey, we can ask if the book is attempting to expand our current understanding of liberation. Does it achieve this effectively? Considering the novel began as fan fiction for the infamous Twilight series, the answer is probably no. However, this and other risqué pieces need to be judged fairly and not by our comfort level with their material.We also need to be aware of controversial art. Oftentimes, the art we debate is the art that lives on to define us. The debate concerning Fifty Shades of Grey novel is typical. Similar conversations occurred over The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, Slaughterhouse Five, To Kill a Mockingbird and many others. These are some of the most foundational works of American literature.The relation between great art and negative societal response extends to all genres: Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in ballet, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in painting, The Beatles’ White Album in music. Each is a transformational piece of art that caused public controversy.
With that being said, should you see or read Fifty Shades of Grey? Many of the critical responses would say no. Apparently the movie is executed horribly, and its status as Twilight fan fiction does not signify incredible prose and deep characterization for a sophisticated audience. However, when the next controversial book is released, do not turn away solely because of illicit subject matter. Evaluate its quality for yourself. Be involved in the conversation. By doing so, you may just expose yourself to great art and realize new perspectives.
Luke Farquhar is a freshman with an undeclared major.