Mean Betty on '50 Shades of Grey,' Banned Books, and the Freedom to Read

Mean Betty finds in 50 Shades of Grey an unlikely champion against the banning of books. Support the freedom to read!

Mean Betty on ‘50 Shades of Grey,’ Banned Books, and the Freedom to Read

Mean Betty finds in 50 Shades of Grey an unlikely champion against the banning of books. Support the freedom to read!

-Mean Betty

50 Shades of Grey

Kittens, this morning Meanie would like to address a certain craze which has recently been sweeping the nation. What craze, you ask? Hula Hoops? Pet Rocks? The Twist? Of course not; don’t be silly, kittens! Those crazes have been over for decades! No, Meanie is, in fact, talking about a more literary craze: A little book by E. L. James called 50 Shades of Grey. No doubt you have heard of this novel, kittens, for in its short lifetime, it has already become quite notorious. But though it first gained its notoriety through its graphic sexual content and its questionable literary merit, it may now add another item to its list of achievements—one which may possibly be its most powerful yet. You see, 50 Shades of Grey has recently made its way onto several banned books lists. And oddly, Meanie wonders if this act, ostensibly an attempt to bury the novel, may have instead made its lead characters, Anastasia and Christian, into unlikely heroes: Champions fighting for the freedom to read.

You see, kittens, a variety of libraries, most notably those in Florida’s Brevard County Public Library System, have recently pulled the erotic novel from its shelves, and in doing so have engaged in an act of literary censorship. Random House, which publishes 50 Shades of Grey, has spoken out against this act, saying that it “fervently opposes literary censorship and supports the First Amendment rights of readers to make their own reading choices. We believe the Brevard County Public Library System… is saying to library patrons: We will judge what you can read.”

In some ways, perhaps this—the banning as well as the response to it—is unsurprising; after all, 50 Shades of Grey has hit all the high notes of the Song of Controversy. Consider, for example, that not unlike Twilight (to which 50 Shades owes its origins), E. L. James’ novel can be seen to have a problematic message. Some agree with this statement and some don’t; the waters are murky in both cases. On the negative side, academics and feminists the world over have decried Twilight for the fact that it romanticizes what is at base an abusive relationship; they might also say the same about 50 Shades of Grey, which, as one response described it, has a plot that sounds like this: “Young virgin meets formerly abused man, man tries to make her his sexual submissive, girl lives in fear but yearns to please him.” The writer of this response continued, “If S&M is your thing, be my guest. If vapid books are your thing, to each their own. If it helps awaken your bedroom imagination, so be it. But let’s not tout this book as anything other than the big step backwards that it is.” Well, when you put it that way…

But then consider that on the other hand, 50 Shades of Grey can also be seen as something to be applauded—not for its literary achievements, but for its social ones. Not only has it brought BDSM a little more into the fore, but also, as pointed out by Soraya Chemaly of the Huffington Post, it demonstrates that women are consuming sexual content (not just romantic content), using technology to bypass the shame associated with it, and discussing both of these things openly—which can be seen as a feminist victory.

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So, kittens: 50 Shades of Grey might be putting across a terrible message. But, it might also be accomplishing something good as well. These two points push and pull against each other with the book split somewhat uncomfortably between them—a situation which just so happens to be the picture-perfect recipe for a controversy! But controversy or no, the question still remains: Does any library—or anyONE, really—have the right to dictate what the public is or is not allowed to read? Meanie thinks that we might be steering dangerously close to Fahrenheit 451 here—especially when one considers the reasoning behind the censorship.

According to Brevard County, they haven’t banned the book because of its potentially problematic message. The banning isn’t even really because of the sexual content, though as they state, “We don’t collect porn.” The principal problem, kittens? Is the fact that it’s not a classic. The library stocks copies of The Kama Sutra, Fanny Hill, Fear of Flying, Topic of Cancer, and Lolita—“because those other books were written years ago and became classics because of the quality of the writing.” 50 Shades of Grey, however, “is not a classic.”

In other words? The book has been banned for its terrible prose.

Given the amount of poorly written, non-classics stocked by most libraries, Meanie imagines you can see why this argument is ridiculous.

So here, then, is why 50 Shades of Grey may end up being the hero of the day: If the book is not being challenged because of its risqué content, then by this logic, all of the wonderful classics which have been challenged over the years—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, The Bluest Eye, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the aforementioned Lolita, and on and on and on—should also be excused from the content issue. After all, there can be no denying that the prose of these works is magnificent across the board. So what’s the trouble, then? Problem solved!

Does Meanie have any desire to read 50 Shades of Grey? Not in the slightest. But let Meanie make it abundantly clear that under no circumstances whatsoever does she condone the banning of books—even a book such as 50 Shades of Grey. Meanie may disagree with its message. She may have little patience for its bad writing. But she doesn’t believe that anyone should control what a reader can and cannot read. That question is between the reader and the book—and the reader and the book ONLY.

Hmmm… The butler has been peeking over Meanie’s shoulder rather a lot this morning. He looks relieved. Poor dear! Meanie can’t blame him; she DID catch him in the pantry hastily shoving something behind the canned goods yesterday… Something which looked suspiciously like a certain book.

Pardon Meanie while she giggles into her mimosa. She may not believe in the banning of books, but she still believes in the power of good-natured teasing!

XO,

Mean Betty

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