Sunday, December 16, 2012

Literary Showdown: Twilight Vs. Fifty Shades of Grey (Part III of the Twilight Review Series)

To read my previous relevant reviews before diving in: Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, and New Moon.

Because I put off reading Twilight as long as possible and had a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey gleefully shoved into my hands by an actual evil sadist (thanks a bunch, Cousin E), I read E.L. James's fanfiction knock-off before I'd read the original material.

I'm now halfway through the Twilight series, and if I were Stephenie Meyer, I'd be cringing with embarrassment every time Fifty Shades was mentioned. See, Twilight is stupid. No doubt about it. But Fifty Shades is much worse: it's a mindless misinterpretation of already stupid ideas that, despite the elementary simplicity of the source material, manages to completely miss what little point Twilight has.*

Fifty Shades of Grey is essentially a Twilight cargo cult. Allow me to explain for those of you too lazy to follow the link to Wikipedia. During WWII, both the Americans and the Japanese used Pacific islands as airbases. The native islanders saw mass quantities of food, clothing, and ammunition brought in after the airstrips were built, and came to a perfectly straightforward and illogical conclusion: that the structures and the soldiers' ritualistic activities magically caused cargo to appear.

When the soldiers left, they took their cargo with them. The locals then built replicas of the airstrips, radios, planes, and so on out of wood, and walked around waving their arms like the guys who used to direct the aircraft. (Spoiler: it didn't work, although one group got some nifty photos of Prince Philip.)

James's apparent writing process is a similar correlation-causation error. What I can only assume she saw in Meyer's books was a girl whose boyfriend is much stronger than she is, who could easily hurt her if he's not careful, and who by the very nature of the relationship is in a position of power, both physical and emotional. She saw a man who exerts control over a woman as an expression of love. She then figured that if she built a story that superficially resembled Meyer's, it would be a decent story too.

While this is to some extent the balsa-and-reeds outline of Meyer's books, it also misses everything that makes these elements work. Edward is stronger because he's an immortal vampire. Christian Grey is stronger because . . . he's a dude? I don't know. Christian could easily hurt Ana if he misuses his bondage toys, something he could immediately and easily choose not to do simply by putting the whips and chains away in the closet with his dusty collection (I can only assume, given his personality) of My Little Pony toys; Edward could hurt Bella just by bumping into her, completely by accident. Edward, in short, can't help being a vampire. Christian could easily help being a jerk.

The most obnoxiously out of place Edward-trait in Fifty Shades is Christian's stalkeresque controlling behavior, though. While it's certainly cheesy, and eye-rollingly juvenile, Edward's over-the-top protectiveness makes sense in context, as he's dealing with a naive teenage girl who's being hunted by vampires and werewolves and whatnot who actually want to kill her. What does Christian protect Ana from in Fifty Shades? Umm . . . mostly the potentially life-threatening experience of having a beer with her friends, as I recall. That and his own insistence on rough sex. Ooh. How romantic.

Ana is also a skewed knock-off of Bella. While Bella (one-dimensional as she may be) is represented as an oddball who longs to be a weird bloodsucking immortal monster and wants nothing to do with normal people her own age, Ana seems to want all the regular college stuff Christian drags her away from. She wants to go to a bar, have a drink, hang out with her roommate. Christian stops her every time, very much in Edward's manner but without any of his justification.

Much as I hate to say it, I really don't hate the dynamic between Edward and Bella. Edward's much older, he's irritating, and he's sometimes high-handed. But -- and this was a big but for me** -- he's also a virgin, and he's never been in love before. That gives them one point of parity, one experience they can have for the first time together. I've seen Meyer mocked for her characters' abstinence before marriage, and you know what? I'm on her side on this one.*** That was the only way she could establish some equality in the relationship, and for me, it's the only thing that makes their romance seem . . . what's the technical term? Ah, yes. Not icky. If it also happens to reflect her religious views****, then who cares?

From Mormonism, poorly imagined supernatural beings, and many, oh so many words, Stephenie Meyer managed to create a mostly inoffensive tale of dull, melodramatic romance. From lost-in-translation-across-the-pond Mormonism, poorly imagined rip-off normal beings, and many, oh so many misused words strung together with the wrong punctuation marks, E.L. James managed to create just about the worst thing I've ever read.

This Literary Showdown is officially called in favor of Stephenie Meyer, whose books both suck and are the cause of suckage in others, but do not at least cause my brain to implode.

* Curious about what the point of Twilight is? Look for the next in the Showdown series: Twilight Vs. Harry Potter. Because I'm a grown-up, and my reading habits reflect that.

** Yep, I like them. I cannot lie.

*** Not to mention the fact that the literary critics who are quickest to scoff at a romance between virgins are also quickest to shriek when someone of a more morally conservative persuasion criticizes erotica, lambasting said prudes for their lack of open-minded tolerance for people who hold opposing views. Maybe those critics should chip in with Laurell K. Hamilton and Alanis Morissette and buy a dictionary so they can all look up the meaning of "irony" together.

**** More on that in an upcoming sequel review.

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