Seriously, I tried to write a witty title for this for so long before I realized I could have written the damn blog by now. While this is no doubt largely a symptom of my general inability to compose titles, I also realized that somehow, I think the “50 Shades of (blank)” genre of titles has already run its course. I feel bummed I didn’t write on this topic sooner in any official capacity.
Having learned this tragic lesson about urgency and the lifespan of jokes in digital humanities/new media work, I want to turn back to the question of love I was considering yesterday, but ground it in an object I’m (despite the chagrin of at least one of my supervisors) planning to work on in my dissertation. That is, of course, 50 Shades of Grey.
There’s been a ton said about this series already, and my intent is not to reproduce a set of already well-articulated critiques of its questionable representations of BDSM, its sexism, or its periodically painful style. (The article I'm about to link to provides examples of all of these.) Rather, I want to think about how all of those critiques circulate and interact with critiques of the text as an embodiment of labour.
In an awesome piece in Transformative Works and Cultures, Bethan Jones tracks reactions to the text through precisely this question. 50 Shades’ shift from fanfiction to published series, she notes, exemplifies an increasing division between fans who determine “cultural value based on the profit motive”, and those who believe in “cultural production for its own take—that is, the gift economy” (2.6) For the latter group, 50 Shades is troubling because it monetizes a set of relations previously not tethered to capital in that particular way.
I don’t think Jones is wrong by any stretch, nor do I feel that there aren’t serious and valid concerns to be raised about the implications of monetizing fandom. But I also find it difficult to consider these questions without linking them more concretely to the ones I named above—the quality of the writing, the sexual politics of the text, and the gender of its author*.
Henry Jenkins, who is cited numerous times in the article has, after all, discussed numerous other examples of occasions where fan culture has formed intimate relationships with corporate and capitalist structures. One example of many is the number of folks, primarily men, who were hired by Lucasfilm as a result of their labours as Star Wars fans. These two instances, 50 Shades and the hiring of Star Wars fans, are by no means identical, of course; there’s a distinction to be made between gaining waged labour because of fan labour and gaining money directly from those products originally distributed freely amongst fans. Even so, I do not think the response to E.L. James would be quite the same were she male, nor if her work was not so deeply troubling to many.
In other words, here are the questions I’m asking: what might the response to James’ monetization of her work have been if 50 Shades was the best that fandom had to offer? If it were a phenomenally well-written, well-researched, and responsible take on the BDSM community? Or if it didn’t deal with representations of kink at all, spinning of the Twilight verse in an alternate universe which was still saleable as a commodity, but not dominated by representations of non-normative sexuality? Or if it were written by a white, straight dude?
My guess is that while there would certainly have always been critiques from some about monetizing fan-fiction, James would not be regarded with the visceral rage so many exhibit when discussing her case. And even for those of us who don’t like the work, some part of me thinks this should give us pause. Because if monetization is inherently problematic in fandom, shouldn’t it be so for everyone?
To return to the watchword of the day, love, let me ask this a different way: Jones quotes Sarah Wanenchak, who argues that fandom is “driven by a collective love for a particular media property”, and (mostly) united by a sense that “the seeking of monetary gain from fannish works…sullies the respect that fans ideally have for the objects of their fandom” (qtd. in 3.6). But why are female fans, especially those trying (and, sure, in James’ case, largely failing) to represent non-normative sexuality asked to love harder and better than others who are also monetizing their work in one way or another? Doesn’t asking women to align themselves more stringently with the so-called gift economy resemble in some respects the rhetoric than women should undertake domestic labour and childcare for the sake of love, rather than payment?
Is it going too far (and it very seriously might be, but if this isn’t a space for big and potentially horrible ideas, what is?) to align a call for Wages for Fanfic with programs like Wages for Facebook and Wages for Housework?
*One thing I’m very aware I’m leaving out here is the fact that fannish labour, including James’s, is really often collaborative. Master of the Universe, as 50 Shades was then, was influenced in no small way by beta readers and reviewers, and I think one of most uncomplicatedly troubling elements of this case for me is that none of those folks, to the best of my knowledge, received any payment for their work.