Saturday, November 09, 2013

50 Shades of Smartass: Chapter 1

Here's something that I need our culture to do: STOP. ROMANTICIZING. AWKWARDNESS.

Remember how in Twilight, Bella Swan kept telling us that she was so awkward and clumsy and dull and stupid and ugly, but then everyone at her new school found her utterly fascinating and beautiful and captivating to the point where they were nearly fighting over her, and then supernatural creatures were literally fighting over her, because she was just too damn special to ever have anything approaching an ordinary, normal life. No, this girl--this girl whose name is only Bella Swan because Ugly Duckling sounds less natural--just didn't realize how amazingly magical and better than everyone else she was, and the only reason she was frustrated was that she hadn't yet met the creature who loved her so much that he had to force himself to be around her even though he wanted to kill her every second because she was his "personal heroin."

Now, Twilight didn't invent... well, anything, really, because it isn't like Stephenie Meyer was creative or anything. But what I was going to say was: Twilight didn't invent teen awkwardness. Teens are always awkward. Teens have doubts about themselves and self-esteem issues of varying degrees. But I feel like, since Twilight happened, what I'm seeing a lot in fiction and on television and social media is the romanticizing of Awkward Girl, the girl who probably has serious medical disorders but is also apparently irresistibly cute and compelling. I should also blame romantic comedies and teen romantic comedies from about the late nineties on, when a girl being a little clumsy was apparently so endearing that those flicks somehow figured that we'd really love the girls who fell off second story balconies or drove their bicycles headlong into trees or knocked over every row of racks in the library, domino-style. Because if a girl is book smart, it's very important that she be clumsy or have bad coordination or terrible balance or something to balance it out because, I guess, men don't want to be threatened.

It's a trope I'm sick of in fiction/TV/movies, where the girl has a crippling lack of self-esteem but is so damn adorkable and doesn't realize how great she is because the right man hasn't explained it to her yet. But I'm even more sick of it in real life, where a lot of young women have internalized this whole thing and talk about their insecurities and awkwardness in such over the top ways that I can't figure out how I'm supposed to react. Am I supposed to think their stories are sardonically funny, or am I supposed to think these girls are really cute because they're afraid to answer telephones, or am I supposed to be worried that they're not getting professional help?

I'm really trying to stop before I start getting sexist with this rant, but I feel like it's too late.

I'm awkward. I've always been awkward. But it's never really manifested itself, in my opinion, as cute or fascinating. Self-deprecating humor at best--AT. BEST.; at worst, monstrous selfishness and terrifying anger. Once or twice, almost violence. That's real awkwardness. It's not endearing, it's tragic. It's not Silver Linings Playbook, where love conquers incurable-but-manageable mental illness. It's real life, where I inconvenience and hurt the people I love because I don't always know how to stop myself.

This is why pop culture can really be dangerous: it normalizes something, even romanticizes something, that needs to be re-understood as a serious problem. Being awkward isn't cute. Bella Swan can ramble all she wants about how strange and disliked she is, but she's really a narcissist with an anxiety disorder. And it fostered a lot of readers who could relate because they were also narcissists with anxiety disorders.

This is why I got so annoyed when people used to compare Twilight and Harry Potter. The media only did it because they were similar successes--series of young adult novels that were very popular and very thick. But JK Rowling told you that past tragedies didn't make you a victim if you chose not to be one. The difference between Harry and Voldemort is that Voldemort's shitty childhood made him resentful and cruel, and he decided to make the world suffer for not recognizing how much better he was; Harry's shitty childhood made him compassionate and his friends' faith in him (and his growing faith in his own abilities) gave him confidence and bravery. I hate it when people dismiss Harry Potter's story as just another tale of a Chosen One, when JK Rowling goes out of her way time and again to make it plain that Harry could have failed at any time by trying to go it alone or becoming too full of himself or making the wrong choices. JK Rowling told you that even if you felt awkward you could have friends and, more importantly, be a friend.

Stephenie Meyer told you that the reason you feel out of place is that your magical boyfriend simply hasn't pulled you into the sweep of his life yet.

That's the long way around the barn of saying that I already despise the lead character in 50 Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele.

Oh, she's awkward. Crap, she's awkward. You know how I know? Because she keeps telling me she's awkward in pretty much that way. "Crap," she's always saying to herself. Crap, holy crap, and double crap. I see "crap" is the word I'm going to get really, really sick of reading here.

The very first paragraph--in a novel irritatingly written in present tense first person--is just all about how Ana can't do anything with her hair because she's so stupid that she sleeps with it wet and how she's so ugly that even if she could do anything with her hair it wouldn't matter because she's just so damn awkward and unattractive. Oh, and she dresses badly, too. No nice clothes.

But here she is, trying to dress up to look nice as she goes to conduct an interview for her college newspaper, and jeez, you guys, she's only doing it as a favor to her friend Kate (who, we're informed right away, looks amazingly beautiful even though she's sick in bed, because Ana is just that much of a disgusting uggo with no self-esteem at all because worthlessness and awkward blah blah blah just get a therapist already, I am already fucking sick of you). It's just that it took Kate months to get this interview, and she can't reschedule it, but since she's too sick to go, she's begged her roommate Ana to go in her place, rather than, say, someone who actually works at the paper. Apparently it's okay for Kate to send a proxy to conduct an interview on her behalf, because college newspapers just don't bother with things like ethics or journalistic integrity.

(Honestly, I have to believe that if this interview was that hard to get and that important, Kate would have gone even if she were sick. It seems like such a big coup for her; if she's that worried about keeping it, why doesn't she just go and show a little determination? I'm guessing she's not planning on being a war correspondent. Oh, wait, she could file the stories from home like Jayson Blair.)

This is more of that weird dichotomy of awkward girl narrator: she's doing this favor for her friend, but complaining the whole time about how she "has" to do it and how much she's stepping out of her comfort zone to do it, and how big a deal it is and how uncomfortable she feels, to the point where it sounds like what she really wants is... I almost said "validation," but it's much more than that. It's praise. She wants praise for deigning to go out of her way to help a friend with something that runs counter to her awkwardness. So, it's not really a favor, it's an example of how much she's willing to suffer to help. See? Narcissist. Yes, a narcissist with panic disorder is still a narcissist. Someone get her a wooden cross for Christmas.

EL James seems to subscribe to the hack writer idea that using a lot of descriptive words is the same thing as describing something. It's all in the extraneous superficial details for some writers. We don't need to know if Kate prefers NyQuil or Tylenol; I don't care if Kate's "sporty Mercedes CLK" (a sporty Mercedes, imagine) is a better ride than "Wanda, my old VW Beetle"; and I'm not interested that you're driving on Interstate 5. You're not painting a picture, you're just throwing in a lot of detail that adds nothing.

Especially since it's very clear in other instances that James has no clue how to describe places that seem unfamiliar to her.

See, Ana's on her way to interview Christian Grey, an "enigmatic CEO," "exceptional entrepreneur," and "major benefactor of our university." But when she gets to his office building--clumsily described as "all curved glass and steel, an architect's utilitarian fantasy"--it's very clear that EL James doesn't know anything about the business world. And I don't, either, but none of her details ring remotely true. We're just told over and over again how the offices are large, full of glass and steel and white sandstone, stern, elegant, impeccable, spacious, dark, with floor-to-ceiling windows. James describes details of a building that could be Anybuilding, USA. Her descriptions are so vague that she could just be describing the Death Star as easily as her idea of what a ruthless business environment must be like. It's like she's picking images out of a catalog but not really imagining what it's like to be in one and feel out of place.

Oh, we know Anastasia's out of place, because she reminds us in almost every paragraph how she feels all awkward and nervous and fidgety around all of these impeccably groomed, smartly dressed blonde people rather than "reading a classic British novel, curled up in a chair in the campus library," which, come on. What annoys me here is that she goes out of her way to dehumanize the people that work there simply because they're efficient, not personable or warm, and all dressed better than she is. And blonde; she brings up their blondeness all the time, finally having an African American man enter the room literally only because it makes her look small-minded for assuming that everyone who works there is a Nazi in a bad science fiction movie. But she only refers to people as "Blonde Number One" in her inner monologue, even though the characters call each other by name in the dialogue. It just comes across as really bitchy; I can't be bothered to learn your names because I'm so out of place, and yet I will sit here and think condescendingly about HOW MUCH BETTER THAN YOU I AM because I'm a normal girl who drives an old VW Beetle and does things for her friends and just wants to go back to my dorm to read Unnamed British Novel because I AM SO MUCH BETTER AND MORE NORMAL THAN YOU because that's what people with no ambition or drive tell themselves when confronted by signifiers of success.

James' grasp on the business world becomes even more tenuous when we meet Christian Grey himself, who is so young and so very attractive with "unruly dark copper-colored hair" and "intense, bright gray eyes" and who, of course, has a really big, cold, clinical office that she actually describes as dark even though she goes on to add that he has floor to ceiling windows and everything but the desk is white. She's really done her research on modern office decor, I guess. Ooh, paintings.

Ugh, those paintings. He has on his wall 36 paintings, arranged in a square, of "mundane, forgotten objects in such precise detail they look like photographs," which is the exact opposite of James' writing skill. She assures us they're "breathtaking," and her appreciation for them as "raising the ordinary to extraordinary" (CHARACTER SYMBOLISM, THE PAGE SCREAMED!!!) earns her Christian's approval. She couldn't even give us a bit more description about this wonderful series of paintings? It's such a bare-bones description that it's almost dismissive, and yet her appreciation of the paintings and what they mean is apparently going to be the catalyst for Christian attempting a relationship with Ana, isn't it? It's like a charged, symbolic moment, except that EL James has forgotten to add a charge or imbue the symbolism with any power or personality. It barely exists because she's so uninterested in what they're talking about, only in how they're talking about it.

Grey, by the way, is younger than she expected, but it's mostly because--and she even says so--she's incapable of imagining someone being successful who isn't that much older than her. She actually shivers when she shakes his hand (she really needs to see a doctor, y'all), and then follows what is definitely my favorite Sentence of Stupidity so far in the book: "If this guy is over thirty, then I'm a monkey's uncle."

Crap, I'm a monkey's uncle!

This... this, is just a person I don't want to know on a personal level. Has EL James ever heard people speak before?

Oh, and the inevitable awkward cherry on top of this meeting: the second she walks into his office, she literally trips and falls headlong into his office. Meet cute! People actually have to help her up. Is this sort of thing supposed to make her seem vulnerable? Because it doesn't. It makes her seem like a moron.

Anyway, the business world. Yes, she begins interviewing Christian, and it's one of those scenes I hate where the man is basically more amused by the woman than anything else. Insight into his paintings or not, she's kind of an asshole (constantly thinking smugly to herself that Christian is a control freak and arrogant), and she's overplaying the whole "I'm awkward but I'm better than everyone" trait, and he's just kind of a dick. I understand what we're going for here--being charitable--is that she's vulnerable but smart and he's arrogant but enjoys being punctured a little. But that's not how it's coming across. It's coming across as a woman who doesn't want to be where she is and doesn't want to be doing what she's doing, and a guy who thinks she's ridiculous enjoying how much of a threat to his intelligence she isn't. This is not the basis of a relationship, people. This is a guy sizing up a future victim.

But the business. Oh, the business! EL James seems to have no idea what a CEO does, nor what Christian's company actually does. He's an investor but also kind of a philanthropist but he also manufactures... something? I think? Also something with telecommunications, I guess. Look, it's all about jobs and the right team and directing their energies and other buzzwords and clumsily quoting successful businessmen of the past. And CONTROL. EXERCISING CONTROL. CONTROL, amirite ladies? He keeps emphasizing that word over and over again, like the ham-handed set-up that it is.

Everything he says about his business is so fucking stupid, guys. I guess as the CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc. (a name only slightly less generic and silly than Really Important Business Structures Group Trading Heritage Partnership, Ltd.), Christian is so busy that he can't be bothered to actually explain what he does and why. Seriously, the passages where he's talking about how he does business... imagine Tracy Morgan reading them out loud. "My belief is to achieve success in any scheme one has to make oneself master of that scheme, know it inside and out, know every detail. I work hard, very hard to do that. I make decisions based on logic and facts. I have a natural gut instinct that can spot and nurture a good solid idea and good people. The bottom line is it's always down to good people, Liz Lemon."

I may have added that last bit.

But, seriously, that's a long way of saying nothing. It's like having Sarah Palin back in the national spotlight.

I would say the whole "mastering" ramadoola is subtext, but there's barely enough text for it to have a sub.

It goes on like that, a conversation between a self-absorbed asshole judging Business 100 Robot for also being a self-absorbed asshole. He keeps saying things like "Well, to 'chill out,' as you put it [...]" because apparently he's an alien and the only person under 30 in America who doesn't use the phrase "chill out." He keeps reacting like that every time she uses colloquial slang, like he's unfamiliar with your human language and trying to acclimate himself. When she just blurts out the question "Are you gay?" and he just stops, totally offended by the notion, I couldn't tell at first if he was annoyed or if the servos that power his speech processes were catching and Dorothy Gale needed to come out from a closet and wind up his mechanisms. Disneyland's Lincoln is more lifelike than Christian Grey. He also speaks in vagaries with qualifiers like "I believe that" or "I think it was," using a lot of extraneous words when I feel like the commanding, confident man we're supposed to believe Christian Grey is would be much more decisive in his language. I keep imagining Jim Henson taking notes about what mistakes to correct in the next model of the Grey animatronic.

Anyway, their talk leads to him "figuring her out," I guess--correctly assuming she doesn't normally do these interviews, that these aren't her questions, and then treating her like shit because she doesn't have a plan about what to do after college. Then he tells her they have internship programs and offers to show her around, though she declines. Yeah, the girl who trips over things and judges you (the way you're judging her) is definitely worth keeping around. She's glowering inside and then leaves, reminding us again that he's so attractive that it's unnerving. (Not really special; the prospect of driving, having to speak, and doing her hair in the morning were also unnerving for her, so it's not like Christian Grey stands out among her various triggers.)

The chapter ends with the words "And mercifully, the doors close."

Mercifully, indeed. As in, this chapter is mercifully over.

I don't know why it was such a big deal who they were going to cast in the movie version of this novel. So far, it could only be lively if the leads were played by Tracy Morgan and a Japanese body pillow with an anime character painted on it.

I would rather see that version, actually. They wouldn't even have to change the dialogue in order for it to be a parody.


Autumn said...

Wait until she starts talking about the fact that her great figure comes from her completely forgetting to eat all the time. know, she's so absent minded. And then they move on to the dirty sexy stuff (which I guess is these books...hook?) and all she does is treat his sexual preferences like a disease...unless she likes it. Then it's okay.

I actually made it through the second one because I wanted to read it before I made fun of it, but I just had to stop. The plot is just the most ridiculous background-for-the-sexy-relationship plot ever. Real life does not work this way, guys...

Kal said...

Great stuff. I love it when you get all worked up about something stupid.

Carl said...

This... This sounds horrible...

Roger Owen Green said...

Talk about taking one for the team. You are a braver soul than I.

Friend Mouse said...

Oh my hell - I am so glad that I can read you reading this and not have to read it myself. Thank you thank you thank you! And a belated thank you for the Twilight series too. I utterly despised that book - I rarely hate books but that is one I hated - and it makes me so angry that a shitty character like Bella Swan ended up meaning so much to so many impressionable minds.

New York Erratic said...

I didn't know that the main character was named Ana spelled that way. "Ana" is a slang term for anorexia as a lifestyle. Google "pro ana."

Now I'm waiting for you to take a second glance at the obsession about Dany from GoT...

SamuraiFrog said...

I had a friend who was being actively encouraged for a year by a pro ana/mia website. Those people disgust me. She nearly ruined her health.

What about Dany in GoT?

New York Erratic said...

It's not that she's a bad character. She's definitely interesting.

But she seems to enjoy victimization and gets drawn into dominating, victimizing relationships, particularly sexual relationships.

In fact, the only female main characters in GoT who don't get into morbidly S&M personal relationships are the virgins, such as Sansa and Brianne.

New York Erratic said...

I actually feel like an idiot, because I've been thinking of that for a couple of weeks and it wasn't until I wrote it down and looked at it that I realized I was wrong.

Asha Greyjoy doesn't look for S&M. She's just enthusiastic about sex.

So I bow to myself and withdraw. (Although I still say Dany is creepy, especially when juxtaposed with Asha.)

SamuraiFrog said...

I've been reluctant to criticize a lot of the aspects of GoT because I still feel like GRRM is going somewhere with it and it's all in a very messy middle act right now, but I get a lot of what you're saying. Dany started off as one of my favorite characters, but she and her tastes have become rather exhausting, and I never quite thought about it the way you said it until now.

SamuraiFrog said...

I should clarify, too, that I'm just waiting until it's over to see if GRRM is going to use some of the personal horror to attempt to make a point, not that I'm apologizing for it.

New York Erratic said...

And I really don't feel it's GRRM's fault, what's creepy are all the guys out there who think Dany's awesome.

Dany's really creepy. Asha is cool. Brianne is a female Don Quixote. Sansa's not even really a "character" yet - she's not mature enough to make choices.

So he does have a diversity of female characters. But I know waaaay too many guys who think Dany is the coolest female character in GoT.