The late scholar John Bowyer Bell described terrorists as “real gunmen in imaginary gardens.” By emphasizing the ideological world-view of terrorists- their perceived reality– Bell was going against popular wisdom. It is easy to form the impression that terrorists are driven to desperate measures by harsh, hopeless economic realities. In other words, an environment of poverty and no jobs leaves angry young men with no choice but to lash out violently against the government. This is more or less what Malcolm X meant by a “sociological explosion.”
Is terrorism, though, really about poverty and jobs? A new piece by Peter Bergen argues that it is not. If anything, terrorism is largely a middle-class phenomenon. A terrorist is likelier to be an educated professional such as a surgeon, engineer, or computer programmer than an unemployed laborer. Some, like Osama Bin Laden, are fabulously wealthy. “These are not the dispossessed. They are the empowered.”
If the empowered are the ones resorting to terrorism, it is hard to argue that it is due to economic oppression. These, after all, are people with degrees that epitomize western ideals of applied science and progress, not some sort of unwashed masses. Basically, creating jobs and business opportunities is important, but unlikely to stop radicalized programmers from becoming terrorists. Effectively responding to terrorism requires responding to terrorist ideologies with perceived grievances, and there is no getting round that.
Bergen’s piece draws from top-notch studies providing interesting information on the socioeconomic backgrounds of terrorists, so check it out.
I saw this political cartoon making the rounds on Facebook a week or two ago. I didn’t think much of it until I finished reading The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad on Saturday. I picked it up on a whim at Audible because the description made it sound like an espionage book, and I’ve been meaning to read some of those. Well, it really wasn’t an espionage book in any conventional sense. But what it was a mind-blowing work of literature in which Conrad floored me again and again with his effortless supply of novel and forcefully evocative metaphors and his profligate characterization. It was stunning.
Here’s the thing: I read Joseph Conrad in high school, both Heart of Darkness and “The Secret Sharer.” I remember them as somewhat impressive and a bit dark, but the truth is that nothing much that I was required to read at the time really meant very much to me. How could they have? How much depth, really, does your average 14 year old have? Even the thought of 18 year olds sitting in a college classroom conducting “literary analysis” just reminds of the story of that poor old woman who tried to restore the famous painting of Jesus. The results aren’t pretty.
Call me a cynic, but my view is that your high school English teacher is probably not going to be able to expand your mind to the point where you fully appreciate Joseph Conrad because artistic appreciation is largely something that comes with age and experience. The older I get, the more powerful art is to me. Any attempt to try and cram that sense of wonder and power into a required curriculum strikes me as not only premature, but kind of perverse. Could there be a more apt application of the phrase “pearls before swine?” At 15, Kurt Vonnegut was bizarre, remote, and alien. At 33, I had to stop on several pages just to allow the power of his writing to sort of wash over me before I could keep going.
I’m not arguing against teaching the arts at all, but I do have two thoughts. First, I think we should be more worried about teaching economics, statistics, and basic computer literacy. Those are the skills we need to have an informed electorate and–yes–for people to be able to go out and get a job. They–in addition to basic math and basic literacy–ought to take priority in school because they are needed earlier in life and because, if we’re going to be honest, the ability to appreciate new art at 30 (or 40 or 50) is a lot more likely than the ability to take up calculus or physics. Art stays with you for life. Why rush it?
Second, I’d like to see a whole lot less emphasis on trying to teach kids how to analyze or critique art. In other words: teach the canon. When you invite students to spend their time on analysis you’re turning the whole thing into a farce. If the works are really monuments of intellectual and artistic greatness, than it’s stupid to think that a classroom of random kids will have anything particularly insightful to bring to the table. If the works are really amenable to analysis by a pack of high-schoolers who maybe read 1/2 and skimmed the rest, then obviously there is not really that much to them.
Instead, I’d like to see a whole lot more time on providing the history (and especially the intellectual history) that contextualizes those works. I think lots of folks are worried that the canon might be incorrect, but the reality is that teaching the canon is not primarily an exercise in indoctrination. What is important is not that the kids accept the framework, but that they recognize it and are therefore free to accept, amend, or reject it as informed readers. Ping-ponging around from Socratic dialogues to Herman Hesse to Kurt Vonnegut (just a sample of the high school reading I remember) and treating each one individually and critically is a recipe for disaster.
I’m not confident that this is an approach that would work across-the-board. I don’t think any approach does that. But I do think that the overall emphasis is sound. School should be primarily about learning the stuff that (1) you wouldn’t learn on your own and that (2) must be learned quickly and early on. Focus on skills that are relevant and that can’t be easily picked up alone. An appreciation for art is absolutely essential, but there isn’t as much need to rush the issue in that case.
That’s the question that Brandon Ambrosino asks at Vox. Mostly he’s talking about the movie Old Fashioned, which is a deliberate anti-50 Shades. Now, y’all know I don’t like 50 Shades. I think I made that abundantly clear. But the last possible thing that I think you can do about a movie like that is go try and make an explicit rebuttal.
Overall, I agree with Ambrosino’s assessment. Yeah, most overtly religious art is pretty painful. He is mostly talking about evangelical Christians, but I think it’s equally true of a lot of Mormon art. Second, a lot of that just has to do with lack of skill.
Director, writer, and lead actor Rik Swartzwelder might bear some of the blame here. After all, his resume, like many others in the Christian film industry, seems notably paltry. A good deal of what actors and directors know about their trade comes from on-the-job training, from working on set and in production studios under filmmakers with decades of experience. By isolating themselves from Hollywood, Christian filmmakers are passing up not only on “secular messages,” but on the mentoring that other budding talent are receiving.
There’s also a major signalling problem, which is something that G. covered at Junior Ganymede last week. Art has to push boundaries. Some Hollywood boundary pushing is good. I am not a fan of adding 3d, but I am a fan of constantly trying to refine and challenge the craft. Some Hollywood boundary pushing is bad, as the never-ending race to titillate and outrage more than the last film. In either case, however, there are forcing pushing back. George Lucas innovates on special effects, and gets hammered for short-changing story. The race to the moral bottom is at least substantially slowed by a reluctant public who always want to cross a line, but only by a small amount. But with Christian films, there’s no counteracting force to pressure the amount of Christianity in the film, and so you get the “is it Christian enough” phenomenon that Ambrosino mentions.
But here’s my major point, and it goes back to an earlier part of the article: an artist has to have something to say. And when you’re just critiquing what somebody else already said, that doesn’t cut it.
It isn’t problematic that Christians “borrow ideas” from Hollywood and put their own spin on them. Every film genre does this. But given the Christian doctrine of creation, it is certainly surprising that so many Christian filmmakers — and artists in general — would choose to mimic someone else’s vision, rather than cultivate their own.
This is my problem with negativity and reactionism in defense of religion. There is a time and a place for analyzing or rebutting what has been said in error, but it should never dominate the message. To actual create something, you can’t be looking at an opponent you want to defeat. You have to be looking at a greater vision towards which you aspire. Christians have a temptation to fight back, but it’s a temptation we’ve got to resist in almost all cases, because it will never win out in the long run. You can’t create a viable alternative by imitation. You need a truly independent vision.
My grandfather started a bookstore in Lynchburg, VA long before I was born. Over years of family vacations, it became my favorite place. I spent countless hours of my childhood perusing the covers in the used sci-fi section. I took my favorites back into a break room where I could always find space on an old church pew and occasionally even an off-brand root beer in the mini fridge. My mind took to the stars as I read the old books with their tattered covers, leaving my body behind amid the clutter of American antiques and artifacts. Today, my uncle continues to run Givens Books in a new building down the street from the old one. Another uncle operates another Givens Books in another town. Books, you might say, are in my blood.
And when my family isn’t writing books they are, of course, reading them. Lots and lots and lots of books. But at this point I have to specify that the Givens clan, by and large, reads serious literature. And, on that score, I’ve been a bit of a disappointment to everyone.
This was probably fine when I was just starting to read on my own in elementary school. I went through dozens of Hardy Boys and a lot of Tom Swift, Jr. (which I liked more) and several series of similar kid mystery books from England. Even in middle school it probably wasn’t too alarming. Who can say no to a little Susan Cooper? Others, like Madeleine L’Engle, were probably supposed to be the gateway drugs into more serious literature. But for me, they weren’t, and by the time I was in high school this was clearly something of let-down for all concerned.
The most pristine example of this dynamic was when my cousin (just a couple of years older than me) had his copy of Piers Plowman along with him at a family gathering. Piers Plowman is “a Middle English allegorical narrative poem… written in unrhymed alliterative verse…considered by many critics to be one of the greatest works of English literature of the Middle Ages.” At more or less the exact same time, I was reading Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, which is “a series of best-selling science fiction novels…set in the Star Wars galaxy approximately five years after the events depicted in Return of the Jedi.” After all, they had spaceships.
My parents were–and are–great. I don’t recall a single lecture about this, let alone any ultimatums or demands. When my dad realized how hooked I was on sci-fi, the best he could do was ask his colleagues in the English department to recommend the best sci-fi had to offer. This is how I got into Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation series and also Philip José Farmer. Unfortunately, no one recommended Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick or Ursula K. Le Guin at the time, which really goes to show you that English professors are probably not the best crowd to get sci-fi advice from.
The point, however, is that even though my father did his best not to look at me while my cousin was expressing just how fascinated he was by Pier and his damnable plow, I knew the comparison was too obvious to be missed.
To this day, my uncles and aunts ask me what I’m reading whenever we meet up. This question is both necessary and–in most cases–sufficient for all conversation at a Givens clan gathering. I reply, as often as not, that I’ve just read (e.g.) Jim Butcher’s newest novel and it was fantastic. They never recognize the books, and so they ask for more info with that voracious glint in their eyes that a Givens gets whenever they detect the proximity of satisfying literary prey. But, as soon as they hear “fantasy” or “science fiction,” they remember who they are talking to. Instead of a thick, juicy, literary steak I am talking about bubblegum and breath mints. Interest in literature wanes as they consider me with concern. It’s as though they asked me how work was going, and I told them that it was going pretty well: my boss had given me a promotion now that I knew how to fit the shapes into the correct slots on the first try most of the time.
The problem is, that somewhere along the way I picked up the idea that you were the kind of person who read serious literature or you were the kind of person who did not. You know, it’s the old:
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.
I felt like I had to choose either-or, and I had some pretty compelling reasons not to go with the serious stuff. First, although I enjoyed some of the literature I got assigned to read in high school and college, the ones that I didn’t like I really didn’t like. Case in point: Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. Oh man, I loathed that book with all the pure and fiery indignation of adolescence. The idea that spirituality requires detachment from ordinary life was (and still is) repulsive to me. If the sacred and the holy cannot survive close proximity to real life then what good are they? Maybe at 33 I’d be less judgmental than I was at 14, but my idea of monolithic categories meant that a couple of bad experiences poisoned the well. If the powers that be put Siddhartha in the same category as The Sheltering Sky, I felt I had to take or leave them together.
I loved The Sheltering Sky, by the way, even though it wasn’t a fun book. I also loved Hemingway, and For Whom the Bell Tolls was probably the one (and only) serious book I read voluntarily as a teenager. Not only had books like Siddhartha sort of peed in the pool, however, but there was also the way that serious literature was read. In college, we had a handbook in one class full of the different literary approaches. You could choose from Marxism, feminism, or deconstructionism. The same authority that said “these are the books to read,” was also telling me “and this is how you read them.” No, thanks.
It’s not that I’m averse to analyzing what I read. Far from it, I can almost never turn off the analytic side of my mind, and most of the time I enjoy it. Probing and critiquing is how I enjoy most of what I enjoy. It’s second nature. The two things that bugged me about the way literary analysis was taught in high school, however, were first that it was so dogmatic and second that it was pathetic to have a bunch of 14-year olds pontificating about books that were way, way outside our capacity to really understand.
As for the dogma: I think that’s kind of self-explanatory. It’s no secret that certain kinds of views are allowed in the humanities, and other views not so much. It’s not that I was so concerned about seeing conservatism recognized, but I just wanted to be able to be freely curious. At the extreme end of the spectrum, I signed up for an elective women in literature class my senior year of high school. I just wanted to understand different viewpoints. I expected to be one of the only guys in the class, but what I didn’t expect was the wall of hostility that greeted me every day. I wasn’t trying to debate anyone. In fact, I wasn’t even trying to ask questions or influence the conversation: I just wanted to sit and listen. But I soon realized that my presence was an unwelcome imposition, so I dropped the class. Even when the examples were not quite as flagrant the message was always universal: only certain kinds of perspectives and certain kinds of people were actually welcome.
As for the analysis: I don’t think that at 33 I’ve arrived at some pinnacle of understanding that I didn’t have when I was still in school at 14 or 18 or 22. But the greater life experiences and the historical and philosophical context make these books mean much, much more to me than they possibly could have then. Going back to The Sheltering Sky for a minute: that book came to life for me all over again when I took a class on existentialism in college. Even though I’d already liked it, my appreciation grew dramatically when I was able to put it in context. The lesson is simple: as a teenager the emphasis should have been more on understanding and less on critiquing the great works. Even most teenagers know that they don’t have anything special or unique to say about books that have been studied by scholars for decades or centuries, so the activity of forcing everyone to pontificate resulted in contrived, hackneyed, embarrassing experiences that undercut the possibility of approaching literature more as student and less as judge or critic.
So, given the political dogma, the pretentious critiques, and the boring books that I thought I’d have to take along with the good ones: I said no, thanks to serious literature. When school was out and I could read whatever I wanted, I glutted myself on fantasy and sci-fi to my heart’s content. But then a funny thing happened. After a few years of this, the books started to lose their taste. I found I’d lost the ability to lose myself in the stories.
My literary Peter Pan syndrome kept me deathly opposed to abandoning my sci-fi for classics, but I started cautiously moving out towards literary sci fi. I read more Vonnegut, more Bradbury, and more Dick. They were all great. Then I turned to more recent literary sci fi with books like Never Let Me Go and The Handmaid’s Tale. I loved them as well, so I kept exploring further. I was still dedicated to staying conspicuously away from outright serious literature, so instead I experimented with some classic American noir: The Big Sleep and Promised Land. And I loved all of them, too.
Next thing you know, I started asking my family for the books they liked to read, and before you knew it I’d read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose and both of them blew me away. Most recently, I just finished Joseph Conrad‘s The Secret Agent and finally the dam burst. I mean, Joseph Conrad is as serious as you can get, really. His work is over a century old and I had, of course, read Heart of Darkness in high school. I didn’t get it then, but I got The Secret Agent now. And it wasn’t any of the nonsensical analytic hogwash that I’d rejected in school. It was the sheer power of his writing and, above all, the strength of his amazing metaphors and similes. Here was writing that touched my soul. Here was writing that lived up to Joseph Conrad’s ambition to “by the power of the written word… make you hear, … make you feel… [and] before all, to make you see. That – and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm – all you demand – and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”
Not only had I finally fallen in love with some of the literature that I’d eschewed as a kid, but I also couldn’t help but see the obvious parallels between a writer like Conrad (serious literature) and a writer like Ray Bradbury (sci-fi). They are not very similar, all things considered, but they both have a gift for some of the most novel, evocative similes I’ve ever read, doled out with such breathtaking profligacy that I’m left in awe.
It also helped, by the way, that I read a few books I hated. Camus’ The Stranger did absolutely nothing for me, despite the fact that I had loved The Plague. And don’t get me started on Dorris Lessing‘s sci-fi catastrophe.
What really got through to me the most, however, was that at the same time that I was reading serious literature and loving it, I was finding that popular sci-fi and fantasy were starting to resonate with me again for the first time in years. During the same years where I discovered my love of Stegner and Conrad I was also devouring Brandon Sanderon’s epic fantasy tomes and re-affirming Jim Butcher’s place as my very favorite living author.
Now, this may very well be obvious to all of you, but it’s been a revelation to me. Entertainment is part of our identity. Or at least that’s how people usually think of it. In high school and college–when we’re all building our identities–the kind of music that you listen to is automatically connected to the clothes you wear and the friends you have. Turns out, the main reason for that is insecurity and inexperience, and that there’s actually no good reason why you shouldn’t alternate between Renaissance religious chants and screamo. Or, back on the topic of literature, between Fyodor Dostoevsky and John Ringo.
I’m not trying to equate the two. I have pretty strong opinions about who is better at the sheer craft of writing as an art form, and it’s going to be Dostoevsky over Ringo (and on down the line in favor of serious literature in most cases). But there are lots of different kinds of beauty in the world. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is one and riding on a roller coaster is another. Which is better? Do you want to have to pick just one? Because I don’t. I love going on very long runs (12 miles is my max so far) with all the pain and the sweat and the weakness and the satisfaction that comes with it. I love sleeping in when the temperature is just perfect and the blankets are at optimal coziness and there’s nothing that you absolutely have to do just yet. Is one of these a better way to enjoy the sheer physical sense of being a mortal, living, physical creature than the other? I don’t care to debate, because I choose both.
Life is dark and disappointing enough as it is. I read a quote somewhere that said the secret of life is learning how to let yourself down gently, and it has always stuck with me. The most likely scenario is that none of your dreams are going to come true. Even if they do: they won’t be as beautiful as you imagined. That might sound depressing, but it’s reality. I think that if we could see, at age 14 or 18, all the pain and heartache that lies in store for us we would go literally insane with fear and horror. But there’s also beauty. And the really, really strange thing about being human is that the pain and the joy never seem to cancel out. The positive and negative just keeping adding up. The books are never balanced. If we could see all the beauty and happiness that life has in store for us, we’d be just as quickly reduced to a blubbering mess.
I have a depressing view of human existence, sure, but I have a romantic one, too. Every year I discover new bands, new songs, new books, new movies, new places, new ideas, new images, new people that I quickly come to love so much I can’t believe that I ever got along without them. What else is out there today, crafted by some unknown (to me) artist that will bring a light to those dark tomorrows? I have no idea, but since life has brought me enough of disappointment and never too much joy I am determined not to wall off any beautiful possibilities.
A while back someone asked me why this quote from Kurt Vonnegut means so much to me:
I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great, spectacularly prolific writer and scientist, Dr. Isaac Asimov in that essentially functionless capacity. At an A.H.A. memorial service for my predecessor I said, “Isaac is up in Heaven now.” That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. It rolled them in the aisles. Mirth! Several minutes had to pass before something resembling solemnity could be restored. I made that joke, of course, before my first near-death experience — the accidental one.
So when my own time comes to join the choir invisible or whatever, God forbid, I hope someone will say, “He’s up in Heaven now.” Who really knows? I could have dreamed all this. My epitaph in any case? “Everything was beautiful. Nothing hurt.” I will have gotten off so light, whatever the heck it is that was going on.
I love this quote–it brings me near to tears whenever I read it–because it is a lie, but it’s a beautiful one. It’s the same lie I tell myself so that I can keep going. It’s the same lie I hope my kids believe. It’s the same lie that–despite calling it a lie–I hope turns out to be true. The lie, and as long as we see only with mortal eyes it will remain an earthly lie, is that one day we will see something that makes it all beautiful. That one day we will feel something that makes all the hurt go away. That one day we will understand something that quiets the confusion we carry with us through our lives every single damn day. That one day we will be together with the people we have missed so much. That even though I can never go back to my grandfather’s bookstore again, one day I’ll be able to see him again.
Until that great day of hope, we’re stuck here in the darkness. But we can still see lights. There are tiny sparks that whisper to us of the promise of dawn. I believe one day the lie will become truth. I believe one day the sun will rise. Until then? I want to gather to myself every one of these flickers of light that I can. While I live, there will never be enough beauty. And I want it all.
A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran a really good story called How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life. It’s not really just about Justine Sacco, though. It’s about a litany of folks who made a stupid joke on Twitter or posted a stupid photo on Instagram and were then subject to massive social media shaming and had their lives ruined. Now here’s the thing: most of the jokes or images that drew people’s ire were pretty inexcusable as far as things go. But the repercussions seem disproportionate and–most worryingly–the shaming has taken on an kind of barbaric, carnival cruelty aspect. If there’s one thing to take away from this, it’s that social media is shockingly anti-social.
It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.” …I have been lucky enough to live past 80, and the 15 years allotted to me beyond Hume’s three score and five have been equally rich in work and love. In that time, I have published five books and completed an autobiography (rather longer than Hume’s few pages) to be published this spring; I have several other books nearly finished…I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight. This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well). I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends…I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
I look forward to his forthcoming work and wish him and his family the best. May his precious few moments be as exciting and joyful as he hopes for above.
Thrice is my favorite band, and Dustin Kensrue is the reason why. His songwriting and lyrics are incredible. He’s already put out a couple of solo albums, starting with Please Come Home and followed up by a Christmas album and a praise album. Neither one of those was really my thing, but I’m thrilled that he’s coming out with another solo album in April: Carry the Fire. And you want to know what’s even more exciting? You can already listen to one of the songs: “Back to Back”.
This is what Kensrue had to say to Billboard about the album, by the way:
Much of our experience in this life is defined by some degree of suffering. Because of this, sometimes to love someone well means simply sitting with them in their suffering, entering into that suffering with them without offering hollow aphorisms, minimizations, or easy fixes. And this is true in the big things as well as the seemingly small. Whether someone didn’t get the job they were hoping for or whether they just found out they have three months to live, our love is truly shown as we weep with those that weep.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I love Mr. Kensrue.
Note: This piece is cross-posted at Junior Ganymede because I think they are awesome and they said I could.
Almost all of the many articles and blog posts in the lead up to the 50 Shades of Grey release last weekend have been negative, so I had some hope that better sense would prevail and people would stay home rather than prove that controversy and porn are quick and easy paths to profit. That just goes to show you that my sense of cynicism has room to grow. “Box Office: ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Explodes With Record-Breaking $81.7 Million,” reads the headline at Variety, with the first paragraph providing the depressing details:
“Fifty Shades of Grey” sizzled at the weekend box office, setting new records for the highest-grossing Presidents Day holiday opener of all time and ranking among the biggest R-rated debuts in history.
Let’s start with some background. 50 Shades of Grey started out as an erotic Twilight fanfiction called Master of the Universe. When the book became massively popular online, E. L. James (who had written Master of the Universe under the penname “Snowqueen’s Icedragon”) rewrote it as independent book to avoid charges of copyright infringement. Apparently, she did this by basically using “find and replace” to change the names, because the supposedly stand-alone 50 Shades is more or less identical to the Twilight-derived Master of the Universe.
Fanfic is universally derided for poor quality compared to the source material, and Twilight is hardly great literature to begin with. Thus Sir Salman Rushdie: “[50 Shades of Grey] made Twilight look like War and Peace.” These books are truly, irredeemably bad.
Poor quality didn’t hurt sales, however, and by 2014 50 Shades had sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. In June 2012 when sales were at their peak, “nearly one in five adult fiction books purchased for women in June were from the 50 Shades Trilogy.” (Yes, world, there are two more: 50 Shades Darker and 50 Shades Freed. There will be movies. I’m sure we’ll all do our best to quell our rapture and maintain a decorous façade.) That quotes is from Jo Henry, by the way, who is the Director of Bowker Market Research which described the 50 Shades audience as “more likely to be women, live in the Northeast, and have a significantly higher household income.”
And this is where we come to a real puzzle. It’s not that 50 Shades is popular despite being awful. There’s no accounting for taste, after all. It’s not even that 50 Shades is popular despite being pornographic. That is, tragically, just a sign of the times. It’s that 50 Shades is popular specifically with women (80% of the audience) despite being (according to a plethora of writers) deeply and irredeemably misogynistic. The series is basically a tale of how one powerful man grooms one vulnerable woman, isolates her from her family and support network, stalks her, assumes domineering control over her life (the classes she takes! the clothes she wears!), and eventually abuses and rapes her. And then they get married and live happily ever after. (Sorry, spoilers.) Who says romance is dead?
I am, of course, not the first person to hazard an explanation for 50 Shades’ popularity, and I think many of the extant explanations have merit. One of the best comes from Kirsten Andersen who explains the story’s appeal this way:
All we know about each girl [Bella from Twilight, Ana from 50 Shades] is that she’s ordinary – like, so ordinary that if you looked up the word “ordinary” in the dictionary, you would find their pictures – only you wouldn’t; you’d find a little mirror reflecting your own face back at you, because that’s the entire point. You’re meant to insert yourself into the story, and suddenly it’s you, in all your banal lack of glory, who has proven irresistible to these powerful, godlike, beautiful, deeply damaged men, and only you can help them find their humanity again. The best part? You didn’t have to do anything to capture their undying devotion but be yourself.
The wish fulfillment angle is especially ironic given the reactions of the stars who play Christian and Ana in the film. Jamie Dornan (who plays the abusive billionaire) found his role “a massive challenge” compared to playing other characters who were “sick dudes, serial killers.” For her part, Dakota Johnson (who plays Ana) said simply “I don’t want anyone to see this movie.” The people who come closest to having fulfilled this particular wish don’t appear to have enjoyed the experience.
Andersen certainly has the voyeuristic narcissism pegged, and she also explains the appeal of “damaged men” by a need to be simultaneously saved and savior. Despite all the filth, she insists this reveals that the “core” of the story is “about unconditional love and redemption.” Not that Andersen has been beguiled. She points out that “in reality, Christian’s all-consuming “love” would warrant a restraining order, and Ana’s refusal to leave him would eventually land her at a battered women’s shelter or dead.”
I like Andersen’s explanation a lot, but there’s one aspect it doesn’t resolve. Christian is not just a damaged man in need of saving. He is a dangerous, abusive, manipulative rapist. What’s the appeal there?
It may be that there is some reality to conventional wisdom that girls prefer the bad boys and that nice guys finish last. Last year a Newsweek article reported on a study that determined that heterosexual men view kindness (measured as emotional responsiveness) as a favorable trait when evaluating potential mates. Women, by contrast, were less attracted to men that they rated as more responsive. One of the researchers speculated that “women may perceive a responsive man as… less dominant.”
The idea of dominance cropped up in another study, this one reported in the Telegraph, which found that marriages are stronger when one partner is dominant. The study also found that in more than three quarters of cases, the dominant partner was the male partner. A German study covered in Psychology Today reached more nuanced conclusions. According to that study, women prefer more aggressive men (“who often embody the Dark Triad, a personality constellation that encompasses Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism.”) for short-term relationships, but preferred “less masculine” men for long-term relationships. The authors theorized that this strategy allows women to “maximize their reproductive success” because “appetitive-aggressive” violence (commonly found in stereotypical bad boys) might actually “be an advertisement of good genes.” If that’s the case, then a short-term relationship with a (genetically superior) bad boy followed by a long-term relationship with a (more reliable and supportive but genetically inferior) good guy could be the optimal evolutionary strategy.
Now, I’m not going to try and draw a straight line from popular journalistic accounts of a few academic studies to the sales figures for 50 Shades. If that worked, the best-seller lists would be dominated by professors cashing in on their expertise. Human nature is too complex for that and evolutionary psychology is particularly vulnerable to tendentious etiologies. At the same time, however, it would be foolhardy to presume that millions of years of evolution suddenly ceased to have an effect on human sexual behavior in the last few tens of thousands of years.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what the dominant feminist theory of today days. Christina Hoff Sommers identified this strain of feminism as gender feminism in Who Stole Feminism? She contrasted it with the older school of feminism she calls equity feminism. Equity feminism is about equal legal rights for men and women. Gender feminism is dedicated to ending sexism and defeating patriarchy.
Steven Pinker identified gender feminism as a part of the larger project of denying human nature in The Blank Slate. He wrote that this denialism is “entrenched in intellectual life” and specifically described gender feminism this way:
Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive—power—and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups—in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.
The reason that gender feminism is so compelling is that it has such a simple story to tell. If all the differences between men and women are socially constructed and artificial, then the path to equality is obvious: eradicate those socially constructed differences. Furthermore, because gender feminism sees society strictly in terms of power and dominance, the assumption is that any difference is not only an unnecessary impediment to equality, but an instance of oppression.
This is why gender feminists fixate on differences in gender representation, quickly assuming that whenever there are fewer women this is proof of successful male domination. This seems credible when we’re talking about fewer female CEOs, political leaders, or academics in STEM fields. It’s less clear how gender feminism’s belief in universal male domination holds up in the context of some other discrepancies, however, such as fewer women in prison, more women in college, fewer women unemployed, more women winning custody of children, and fewer women dying in workplace accidents.
Equity feminism, with roots in individualism and classical liberalism, is much more flexible. An equity feminist can examine gender differences on a case-by-case basis to determine when differences are the result of sexism or discrimination and when they might be the result of individual choices. But, where equity feminism may win on nuance or flexibility (not to mention compatibility with basic science), the conceptual simplicity and ability to manufacture unlimited amounts of righteous indignation make gender feminism perfectly adapted to our viral, outrage-addicted society.
The end result is that the most dominant form of feminism is also the one that is dogmatically opposed to any and all gender roles. Combine that with the fact that biology and anthropology both reveal that gender roles are a part of our innate human nature, and we have a recipe for trouble.
Of course, claiming that gender roles are innate is not one of those things that you’re supposed to do in modern discourse, so it’s worth pointing out that Pinker includes a bullet-point list of the evidence in The Blank Slate that is impossible to summarize because it goes on for five full pages. As a couple of highlights, for example, he notes that “All cultures divide their labor by sex, with more responsibility for childrearing by women and more control of the public and political realms by men. (The division of labor emerged even in a culture where everyone had been committed to stamping it out, the Isreali kibbutz.)” He also observes that “many of the psychological differences between the sexes are exactly what an evolutionary biologist who knew only their physical differences would predict.” He concludes by saying that “If that [social constructionism] were true, it would be an amazing coincidence that in every society the coin flip that assigns each sex to one set of roles would land the same way.”
So, going back to the research stated earlier, it is entirely possible that many women are attracted to men who show stereotypically masculine traits like aggression and domineering. The mistake that drives many people away from an understanding of evolved human nature is to erroneously assume that if we have innate characteristics then everything is pre-determined. That’s not true, because in many cases our innate characteristics conflict. The most important reason for being open-minded and accepting about the science of human nature is that—far from reducing us to impotent fatalism—it provides more control.
This is particularly true of maladaptations. Citing Pinker again:
The study of humans from an evolutionary perspective has shown that many psychological faculties (such as our hunger for fatty food, for social status, and for risky sexual laisions) are better adapted to the evolutionary demands of our ancestral environment than to the actual demands of the current environment.
So, in an ancient setting where calories were scarce, a hunger for fatty food made sense. In a modern setting where calories are plentiful, the same trait is one reason why obesity is a leading cause of death. And yet many techniques for combatting this maladaptation work by tapping into other innate characteristics. Think of a dieting group like WeightWatchers; it taps into our innately social natures and allows us to leverage mentor and friend relationships to win the battle against our drive to eat fatty food. Innate characteristics is not the same thing as genetic determinism.
So in a world where innate characteristics and gender roles are openly discussed and considered, it is possible to bend them in useful directions. A lot of this already happens without any conscious direction on our part. Organized sports, for example, can form a more civilized, pro-social alternative to violent aggression between men.
But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where gender feminism is categorically opposed to all gender roles, and therefore overt, potentially beneficial, and healthy avenues for exploring female attraction to male aggression and dominance are categorically ruled out. Men are actively discouraged from enacting these roles, and women are actively discouraged from appreciating them. Dating and courtship are dead, long live the hookup culture.
In simple terms: if you see huge demand for an inferior good, the most reasonable conclusion to draw is that there must be a dearth of the superior good. There are some major works with overt and pronounced depictions of gender roles (Twilight was one of them), but by and large any major book or movie has to go out of its way to apologize for, downplay, or offset any appearance of traditional gender roles. If you want to unabashedly celebrate gender roles, you’re going to run afoul of the gender feminism dogma police. It is therefore absolutely no surprise to find the pre-eminent example (50 Shades) coming from the margins of our entertainment ecosystem. There just aren’t enough dogma police to patrol every pornographic, self-published, fanfic out there.
In a healthier environment, 50 Shades would face competing models of male leadership, but gender feminism’s take-down of gender roles has left 50 Shades as pretty much the only game in town. It represents the collision of deep human desires for gender roles with an ascendant political ideology that is dedicated to eradicating them. It’s possible that the rape, abuse, and general misogyny play no role in attracting women to Christian Grey, but when it comes to finding someone to represent that aggressive male role there just aren’t a lot of options. When gender roles become monstrous in the eyes of society, only monsters like Christian Grey are left to enact them.
Le Gouffre (“The Gulf”) is a short film that was Kickstarted back in October 2013 with $24,155 out of $5,000 raised. I heard about the finished version from The Verge, and I have to say: it’s pretty incredible. So watch it now or bookmark it for later because it is definitely worth 10 minutes of your time.
Asexual (“We don’t have sex… but we sure enjoy cuddling!”)
Mixed Sexual/Asexual (“She fills her sexual needs with other people.”)
Open (“We also have romantic and sexual relationships with other people. That doesn’t make our love any less valid.”)
Polyamarous (“We do have to take turns for who gets to sleep in the middle” / “Tonight it’s me! I’m going to get all the cuddles.”)
BDSM / Kink (“Who’s a good boy?” / “ruff”)
None (“I’m happy flying solo.”)
The one thing that all of these relationships have in common is that they are defined exclusively in terms of their utility to the voluntary participants. Once you accept that premise, the rest follows. If relationships exist for the pleasure, security, comfort, and fulfillment of the parties to the relationship, then any relationship that meets those needs is an equally valid relationship.
It’s a nice picture, but it’s leaving somebody out. This is a worldview for the privileged and the powerful. Not in terms of gender or sexuality or class distinctions, but in terms even more profound: adults vs. children. Children have no vote about the relationships they enter into. They get no say in the circumstances of their conception, nor do they have any influence over the environment in which they are raised. They are truly and completely powerless and vulnerable.
Because children are held hostage to the behavior of the adults who care for them, they will face the consequences–for good or ill–of how adults choose to manage their romantic lives. Regardless of how effective polyamorous, asexusl, etc could be at providing a good home for children, that only works if children are in the picture to begin with. How can a theory of romantic / sexual relationship that doesn’t even admit to the existence of children possibly serve to protect their interests? It can’t.
As positive as it may attempt to be, what this image implies (but does not show), is a world where the needs of children come a definitive second to the adult pursuit of happiness.