To the question of whether art dictates or reflects life, I find both to be true, as well as important. Artists are visionaries. Music, words, dance, and art can inspire and lead us to where we haven’t gone before both individually and collectively. They can take us to places we have yet to dream of as possible.
Yet art’s ability to lead also has a downside, as its pull is powerful regardless of where it goes. This is true of all media; Angelina Jolie, in her efforts years ago to help young women by sharing her experience with cutting, in fact brought attention to an issue that then grew into an epidemic. The same was true of eating disorders in Japan following the introduction of our western medical model’s view, and the increase of school violence and shootings after the intense media attention on Columbine.
Awareness leads to intrigue, which leads to experimentation. ‘Monkey see, monkey do’, like most clichés, is an expression born of some truth. We are compelled by social and behavioral psychology to learn through observing and recreating that which we behold.
Enter 50 Shades of Grey.
For those who haven’t read the novel or been paying attention to the bestseller lists lately, 50 Shades is the first work in a trilogy of erotic fiction by E L James. But it’s more than that. It is, quite frankly, a novel about sexual and emotional abuse.
In summary, a college student meets a wealthy, successful businessman, with whom she begins a relationship. It’s her first sexual experience, as well as her first romantic relationship. And the only liaisons he has ever had, on both the giving and receiving end, have been abusive. He hits her. She doesn’t like it. She asks him to stop. He won’t. She breaks up with him. But then goes back five days later because she can’t live without him.
He stalks her, knows her address, her bank account number, and has a copy of her birth certificate. He is insanely jealous, demands that she eat certain things, exercise a certain amount, and wear certain clothes. He has her sign a contract that says she won't speak unless spoken to and can’t look him in the eyes unless he says so. Her friendships, with both men and women, are frowned upon. He tells her repeatedly that it gives him great pleasure to cause her physical pain. She is constantly terrified. Her friends and family are worried. She cries constantly. She loses weight.
On its own, this could be a case study of an abusive relationship– one hopefully taken in an intake assessment at a battered women’s shelter.
But it’s not. It is a work of fiction. Which means that the author can turn away from reality and create a world of her own. A world in which this abusive, “beautiful, fucked up man” also deeply respects and even loves our heroine, and would never, ever really harm her. In James’ illusion, she is the one actually in control. She is empowered and in charge.
And by book three, they’re apparently in a healthy, loving, and non-violent relationship.
I am all for fantasy, self-expression, and the First Amendment. But as art does so often influence life, I am also concerned that the relationship described in these books– like cutting, eating disorders, violence and so many other trends popularized by the media and splattered across our attention– will start to make an appearance in schools around the country and beyond. Young men and women who read the trilogy and might think ‘wow, that’s hot. Being hit is hot. Being an object is hot. Being punished and prevented from seeing friends and family is hot. Having a partner that is insanely jealous and violent is hot. And if I stay in the relationship, love enough, submit enough, and take the abuse enough, things will turn out OK.”
It might be ‘hot’ in the book. But it is not hot in reality. And I am very, very concerned.
*** A final point: the book explores aspects of the BDSM lifestyle, which I am not speaking about or judging in any way. What two empowered, consenting adults choose to do in the privacy of their own homes is certainly their choice.
Yet choice is a tricky concept when it comes to young people– and those of any age– who blur the lines of love, lust, insecurity and the desire for validation. This book blurs those very lines, providing readers with an implausibly happy ending to an unhappy, unhealthy, and all too common tale.
Jennifer Hamady is a voice coach and therapist specializing in self-expression.