The movie, the cruelty, the helpless love given by sacrificing your body and dignity, the beatings, the tears, the sin, the surprises, the complex emotions and the unavoidable eroticism of pain… No, I’m not talking about “The Passion of The Christ” – but about the theater version of the best selling “50 Shades of Grey” received with an equal amount of zeal and fervor.
I’m not concerned with judging whether the book or movie was bad or good, harmless or sin. That’s not my business and there’s no critical analysis I can give that hasn’t already been printed. What really concerns me – the thing I want to make clear – is that we as a culture need to stop seeing without seeing. What I want to show you (which I can fortunately do with my clothes on) is the real reason it successful and what that says about us. Note: Before you start asserting YOU didn’t read/watched it – the sales figures indicate A LOT of people did – so it doesn’t matter – the herd has spoken.
The draw to 50 Shades isn’t the writing (reviewed as horrid), the story (reviewed as ridiculous), or the nudity (reviewed as <…you know…>). Despite what many churches are preaching – it isn’t even because it is taboo or represents something missing in our lives. Our societal impulse hasn’t been to flock to this because of what it says about sex, love or mystery. People respond to what it says about money – and that fetishization of wealth is the last thing this country (USA) needs right now. As many before me have pointed out: In a country with the economic disparity of the United States, where many struggle with working poverty, lifting up the adulation of the wealthy is calloused at best. We don’t need Wall Street to tell us the rich have the right to do anything they want. We learn it through media, celebrity culture, and a consumer driven world. Think about it: The wealthy can afford organic food, they can fly in comfort and get on the plane first, they can see the doctor of their choice and afford their medication. As a former HIV/AIDS worker – I can tell you first hand – the difference between thriving, surviving, and dying for those with HIV is money. The rich get better meds, better care, better odds. At a time when we should be questioning that – we are stampeding to theaters to celebrate it. When a poor man beats his girlfriend and plays emotional games to create her consent – we call it “abuse.” When it rich man does it – well – it’s “erotic fantasy.”
Fear Driven: It is, in fact, our helplessness to financial disparity that makes wealth fetish possible (for an example of wealth fetish – go to Amazon and type “billionaire” in the search line. Pages of billionaire books make up their own highly successful subgenre of Romance). Human beings tend to revere what they desire based on what they fear. Ancient cultures were terribly susceptible to the ravages of the weather. While this harsh winter of 2015 has frustrated many of us – it would have killed a village centuries ago. The fear and dependence on nature led to a host of religions lifting up “nature gods” – beings who were powerfully able to control that which humans couldn’t. Those gods were sometimes beautiful, sometimes loathsome – but they worshipped them. Because it made them feel safe.
Throughout history war and plagues would periodically devastate societies. What became popular almost every time that happened? Vampire legends. Vampires should be gross and villainous – but every major facet of history that involved a precarious fear or loss of life – vampire stories, first oral, then written, then movies – filled public imagination. Vampires (even the nasty un-sexy ones like Nosferatu) have something we don’t. They rise from the dead. They are (with notable exception) immortal. Fear of death creates a lust for life. It is no accident that True Blood (published the year of (9/11) and Twilight (published as young adult literature in the age of school shootings, teen suicides and drug deaths) are so popular and romantic. Vampires almost always beat the odds. Who wouldn’t want that?
Now, after a recession that took homes from our neighbors, and during a time when our media reminds us nightly about our growing deficit, the shaky stability of the dollar and the terrible gap between the rich and the poor, the billionaire with a stable, unshakeable wealth is our new legend, our new god. Why else would the wealthy majority in Congress (backed by a conservative Christian base) which has shown its willingness to have a say about our birth control, our sex lives, and who can marry – suddenly be disinterested in the morality of its citizens? Legislators are challenging the AP History exam which questions racial and economic justice, but letting erotica with slippery consent issues flow unregulated through the land. It isn’t because it suddenly decided censorship was wrong – but because we are being taught to lift up, revere, and lust for the love of power, and the power of money. With 50 Shades, we say we are being entertained – but most of us are being “trained.”
So what to do? Am I calling censorship? Heavens no! That is the way of ignorance. Free expression is the only hope of our world. Personally, it doesn’t matter to me if you love 50 Shades or hate it. If you embrace it or ignore it. Watch it, live it, laugh at it – whatever. But what I want you to do – is be aware of what it’s really trying to sell you.
It was very easy to laugh at the idealistic, disorganized youth of Occupy Wall Street who raged against corporate culture while drinking Starbucks and tapping on an iPad. However, be aware when you are posting articles about the outrageous privileges of the 1% and the horror of economic disparity – that wealth fetish may be as near as the movie ticket in your pocket.
I’ve been silent about the accusations and media surrounding Bill Cosby because there are so many voices clattering the sound of mine is unnecessary and unlikely to be heard. I’ve also been engaging in my own process of shock-grief-acceptance.
My process looked like this:
Eye Roll: I saw a trending article on facebook that comedian Hannibal Burress called Bill Cosby a rapist. Reaction: “Geez, that’s low.”
Curiosity: The next day I asked some friends if they had ever heard that Bill Cosby might have raped someone. One of them said, “No, I love him.” The other, an 82 year old woman nodded. She said quietly, as if confessing a deep secret, “I’ve heard that before.” Reaction: “I want/need to know.”
Research: Google: Bill Cosby Rape. Read many documents from credible sources – the kinds of places that research and fact-check – not just “Cracked”. Different women, each with the same story, with names, dates, times. Let’s face it – there is more circumstantial evidence of this than there was of WMD’s when we voted to invade Iraq. Reaction: “I’m shocked.”
Reflection: Trying to combine what my head tells me (This man is probably a serial rapist) with what my heart tells me (This man made me laugh and think). Reaction: “I am so sad.”
Resolution: Humans sometimes do beautiful things. Humans sometimes do ugly things. And many times – it’s the same human doing both. Reaction: Acknowledgement of this very human tale.
We are Books, not Stories.
This isn’t the first story to be given an alternate view:
- Every Martin Luther King Day some know-it-all grad student posts articles talking about Dr. King’s known problems with plagiarism and women. They are schooled quickly that there are 364 OTHER days to discuss the issue.
- Columbus Day has become an out-and-out war over the story we are told in school about the discovery of America and our growing awareness of what an inaccurate tale that is and the monstrous truth of that conquest.
- A new translation of the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales reveals the Pied Piper actually drowned the children, and the queen in Snow White was forced to dance to death in hot iron shoes.
- My own city of Richmond is struggling to cast Shockoe Bottom as the entertainment district and family center of town so voters will approve a baseball park there. Except, there are a lot of people reminding us that the place designated for the kid friendly fun zone is actually the spot where the slave market and jail that sold Solomon Northrup stood.
The problem is the cognitive dissonance (that uncomfortable feeling when a story we tell ourselves doesn’t match the facts presented to us) between the story of the Bill Cosby I knew and the stories I did not.
My first memory of him was watching Fat Albert on Saturday morning, not Bill Cosby the jet-setting actor who hung out with Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Club.
- He was the Jell-O spokesman.
- He was the kindly, smart, funny Cosby dad.
- He was a huge proponent of education and scholarship provider.
- He was a curmudgeonly old man telling parents to get with it and kids to pull up their pants.
Then, in a matter of a few weeks – He was a serial rapist.
No – that doesn’t match.
This is NOT the way the story goes.
Except, it is.
There were clues to this hidden narrative. Some crew members said he was hard to work with and had a temper. A few characterized him as controlling (often calling it “he’s his own man.”). Scholars and advocates in the African American community complained he was pandering to popular opinion (largely the opinions of white people) in his criticisms of culture and dampening a young generation’s experiments with identity as a way of making the majority clap for him
But now – this new narrative isn’t just an add-on or sour grapes – it’s a whole different story!
The truth is – human beings are not just one story. We are books, made of more than one narrative. In some of our stories we are kind. In others, we are cruel. In some stories we are passionate. In others, we are too tired to care.
We are the brilliant respected electronics visionary who didn’t give a dime to charity.
We are the peace loving song poet, martyred in death while young, who abandoned his first wife, slapped women, and treated his first son with total contempt.
We are the football star and luggage jumping airport runner who was on trial for murdering his wife and in jail for armed robbery.
We are human beings and our books contain many tales.
How do we Deal with this New Book?
There are several methods to discovering someone you admired is not a novel, but collection of wildly different images:
Catch and Release: Some people will pick one story out of a book and ignore the others. For some Bill Cosby will always be the role model. For others the rapist.
Not My Circus: Other people will just toss the book away and read something else. Collections of short stories aren’t very popular. Anyone who has queried a literary agent has seen “We do not represent short story collections” a million times.
Elementary, Dear Watson: Some will reach for psychiatry, interpretive sociology and any expert they can find to attempt to explain the differences until they are more comfortable with the details.
Accept the Struggle as Part of the Journey: People of any faith are used to the idea of conflicting narratives – because faith life is full of them.
Christian people spend time trying to deal with the idea that the God who says, “I am your God and you are my people” is the same one shown playing a game with the devil and saying, “Sure, you can torture my servant Job.” Jesus tells us the story of a God who forgives (and want us to forgive) but doesn’t really address the God who kills a guy with lightening for breaking a rule while saving the Ark of the Covenant.
Buddhists who like bacon and have affirming views of the GLBT community have to struggle with the ancient ideas about eating and sexual behavior. Decisions across the spectrum have been made to reconcile modern practices and dogma.
Muslims struggle with the Quran – a document (like many sacred texts) both beautiful and savage.
Dealing with conflicting narratives is the fire that refines our metal. Bill Cosby’s story(ies) gives us a chance to show compassion for all who are hurt, to stand against rape, to encourage the truth, to comfort and to learn. We can’t un-know and we aren’t going to be able to separate one story from the other. But we can move forward – a little bit wiser for having read this book.