Fifty Shades Ad

What happens when you’re a dedicated fan of romance novels (which I am), and you really hate the most popular romance novel of all time (which I do)? You certainly can’t ignore it: Fifty Shades of Grey is the best-selling book of all time in the UK, and the fastest-selling series in the US, surpassing 70 million copies sold worldwide (in both print and ebook format) within two years after its first commercial publication (Singh 2012, Trachtenberg 2013). E. L. James’ book sold so well that it raised Random House’s operating profit by 75%, year over year in 2012 (Sweney 2012). The Fifty Shades phenomenon was everywhere, with discussions on US morning talk shows like Today and Good Morning, America dissecting the popularity of the book and the rise of so-called “mommy porn.” If you were a woman in the US or UK, Fifty Shades was hard to avoid, and seemingly everyone had at least one friend who adored the series. In this post, I’ll examine some of the reasons behind Fifty Shades’ runaway popularity, the ways its success is changing romance publishing, and how romance fans are grappling with these changes. I’ll also briefly examine some of the issues fans have with the content of the Fifty Shades series.

While a lot of ink has been spilled about the Fifty Shades phenomenon, not as much has been written about how the romance fan community approached the books (at least, not much has been written outside of the communities themselves). In an effort to locate some of the romance community’s reaction to Fifty Shades, I interviewed Sarah Wendell, Jane Litte, and Jenny Trout. All three were kind enough to answer my questions via email, and unless I have indicated otherwise, their quotes originate from these email exchanges. Sarah Wendell runs the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which began in 2005 as “a community of romance readers eager to talk about which romance novels rocked their worlds, and which ones made them throw the book with as much velocity as possible” (Wendell “About” http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/about). In 2009, Wendell published the book Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance, which is often used in undergraduate classrooms, and in 2011 she published Everything I Know About Love, I Learned from Romance Novels. Wendell is often used as a go-to expert on romance novels by publications like the New York Times and Salon. Jane Litte (along with Jayne S), runs the blog Dear Author which began in 2006, where “We review romance books, talk about ebooks and digital technology related to ebooks, and post about all the issues surrounding romance novels” (Litte, “For Readers” http://dearauthor.com/for-readers/). Jane writes particularly well about the ways the development of ereader technology are changing reader behaviors and the publishing industry and the implications on intellectual property rights brought about by the growing popularity of the monetization of fan fiction. Jenny Trout is a published romance author (under the names Jennifer Armintrout and Abigail Barnette) and blogger (under the name Jenny Trout) whose critical and hilarious chapter-by-chapter recaps of the Fifty Shades series have become quite popular and spurred her own series of novels in response. All three of these women’s blogs have active, engaged communities of readers who love romance novels but are not afraid to criticize their favorite genre. Because of this, all three can be considered experts on at least part of the romance fan community’s reaction to Fifty Shades of Grey, the rise of the monetization of fan fiction with the attending implications for intellectual property rights, and whether fans of Fifty Shades can – or even want to – become part of the romance fan community.

Whenever something becomes as popular as Fifty Shades, I always have to ask  “why?” What nerve has it hit? What unmet need is it satisfying? Sarah Wendell locates Fifty’s popularity in  its origin as Twilight fan fiction, because both share “deep first person narrative of a very insecure person, fascinating and somewhat threatening hero who may play the role of anti-hero at times, [and a] complete fixation on the heroine from said hero.” Jane agrees, adding the attraction of a narrative that “explored the emotional connection between characters more so than how the characters interacted with the world around them.” This deep first person narrative was something was was fairly unheard of in romance novels up to this point, but was fairly popular in fan fiction — perhaps because it allows the writer and reader to put themselves in the place of the protagonist. Trout believes that Fifty became popular first and foremost because it invited readers to read purely for pleasure, stating “I think to understand the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey, you have to understand the audience. This wasn’t a case of a book being embraced by the reading public, but by the public in general, and by many people who’d either never read romance or never read for pleasure full stop. So you’ve got these readers who were, up until recently, completely unaware that there are books out there that can be read purely for fun. I think that’s what’s driving the popularity of the books.”

Most of the ardent fans of Fifty are not established romance fans, then. Some may have enjoyed Twilight, but many readers were unaware of Fifty’s fan fiction origins that connected the two narratives. In the end, fans get a lot of pleasure from reading a first-person narrative that invites them to place themselves in the shoes of the protagonist, a young recent college graduate in love with a slightly older but extremely brooding billionaire who loves her — obsessively — back and often demonstrates that love by buying her expensive things and through excessive care about her personal safety. All of these elements can be found in Fifty’s Twilight origins.

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Sex, “Mommy Porn,” and BDSM

The primary difference between Twilight and Fifty lies in their respective attitudes toward sex. Twilight is often called “abstinence porn” because Bella and Edward, the romantic center of its universe, wait until they’re married to have sex. Fifty Shades, on the other hand, has been called (usually pejoratively) “mommy porn” because Anastasia and Christian have sex early and often in their relationship, and that sex is often tinged with BDSM elements. One of the primary pleasures for fan fiction writers and their readers lies in “fixing” the problems fans have with their favorite texts. While Twilight fans may love the deep emotional nature of the relationship between Bella and Edward, and parents laud its message that “true love waits,” others just want Bella and Edward to get it on, already!

Within the fan fiction community, Fifty Shades (or “Master of the Universe,” as it was then named) was popular because it fixed the “problem” of sexual abstinence within the Twilight universe, and fixed it well. For many readers outside of the fan fiction and romance communities, Fifty Shades is the first piece of erotic fiction they’ve ever read — and this opens up a naughty new world. As Jane states, “Initially I think it spread from the Twilight fan fiction community outward to book clubs who hadn’t ever realized that there were books that contained romance and sex in them. […] For individuals who’ve spent years reading Oprah book club picks, 50 Shades presented an entirely different kind of story and storytelling.” Abigail DeKosnik, author of “Should Fan Fiction Be Free?” notes that the sexual content of fan fiction, which some believe is a sticking point on making it profitable, is actually a selling point to women (2009 123). While mainstream media outlets express shock and surprise that women are interested in such a frankly sexual text, romance fans have long acknowledged women’s pleasure. Trout states that, “I still contend that “mommy porn” is a horrible label and we shouldn’t judge women for wanting to read books with sexual content—we don’t bat an eye, as a society, when it’s revealed that men enjoy porn.” Wendell agrees, writing on her blog that “Romance is not porn for women. Porn is porn for women. There is nothing wrong with either one.” She goes on to say that yes, some romance novels — including Fifty Shades — are erotic. One can make a case that erotica is pornographic. But she rejects calling erotica “porn” because she believes the label is used to shame women. “Politically and culturally we are instructed that we should feel shame for our own sexual curiosity and arousal” (http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/blog/romance-arousal-and-condescension). Romance fans staunchly defend women’s right to not only read for pleasure, but for the pleasure of sexual arousal and fantasy.

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The fact that Fifty Shades contains erotic scenes does not faze romance fans. What many can — and do — criticize is the way Fifty defines BDSM. Within Fifty, BDSM is defined as a “problem” Christian has that only Anastasia’s love can solve. If only Ana loves Christian well enough, he’ll be content with “vanilla” (non-BDSM) sex. In her recaps of the novels, Jenny Trout points out how often Christian’s “BDSM” sexual scenes are actually scenes of sexual abuse (and outright rape) that fail to live up to the ideal that BDSM sex should be “safe, sane, and consensual.” As Trout states, “I was so furious when I started reading the first book. I knew from the reviews and descriptions I had read that 50 Shades of Grey was not something that was going to interest me, but I was frustrated by the national conversation about ‘mommy porn’ and what a revelation it was that women are sexual creatures. I felt like I couldn’t accurately defend women’s choice to read the book if I didn’t read it myself, and when I did, it was such a rude awakening.”

Trout started writing the recaps of the novels because “after I saw the blatant abuse and poorly researched kink, I felt like I had to speak up and tell people that the books are not representative of a healthy relationship in any way.” In her recaps, Trout does not criticise BDSM, but instead James’ conception of it in the novels. As she writes, “Ana and Christian are not an example of a healthy BDSM relationship, and when 50 Shades defenders- whose only exposure to BDSM has come through this single source- frame it as though it is, they’re actually harming the image of BDSM more. But that’s not something they want to hear. They want to feel like they’re protecting misunderstood and beautiful people, who do sexy things in expensive high rise apartments.”  Ana and Christian are not in an unhealthy relationship because they engage in kink, but because “Ana is never allowed to ask for anything. She isn’t even allowed to say no to things she doesn’t want, because Christian’s needs are paramount” (http://jennytrout.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/dear-50-shades-fan-bdsm-doesnt-need-or-want-your-defense/). Trout keeps reading and recapping the books — even though she hates them — because she sees her recaps as a public service. She writes, “I’ve had so many women say, ‘I read 50 Shades of Grey and I loved it, and then I read your recap and I changed my mind.’ Once you can have an interaction with someone and you can say, ‘the way you perceive this thing is contrary to what it actually is,” if they see it, too, they’ll never un-see it. That’s very powerful.’ Trout’s fans agree. Before writing the recaps, Trout felt wonderful to get 50 hits a day on her blog, but “at the height of the 50 Shades of Grey recaps, I would get 50,000. It was a very bizarre experience.” Indeed, her fans have created a community and gift economy of their own, with readers commenting and emailing to suggest anti-abuse resources for women, healthier information for those curious about BDSM, as well as .gifs and fan art that depict scenes from Trout’s recaps.

Eventually, Trout began writing a novel in response to Fifty Shades called The Boss. The novel (which is the first in a series that also includes The Girlfriend and will soon include The Wife and future installments) follows the relationship of Sophie, a 20-something woman who works as an executive assistant at a fashion magazine, and Neil, a 40-something billionaire who buys the magazine and suddenly becomes her boss. The two had met 6 years before and shared an anonymous sexual encounter, and realize they are still attracted to one another. Throughout the series, the two fall in love, negotiate their age and wealth differences, and engage in a mutually satisfying BDSM sexual relationship. I asked Trout if she considered The Boss to be a type of “anti-fan fiction,” and she answered that “I had started writing The Boss in 2011, with the idea that my pen name, Abigail Barnette, might venture into category romance. The protagonists were a lot closer in age, the hero wasn’t exactly super rich, he was just editor-in-chief of a car magazine and the heroine worked in the art department. It was an office romance. But I couldn’t get into it, so I shelved it. Then I was writing these recaps, and one night I was working on one while watching the documentary The September Issue, about Ana Wintour and Vogue magazine, and the whole story just snapped together in my head. At every step of the plotting process, I was influenced by this little voice that would say, ‘If this were 50 Shades of Grey, what would happen next,’ so I suppose it could be classified as starting out as anti-fic, but as I grew to know the characters and their motivations a little better, I think it became its own thing, and I’m very proud of it.”

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Fifty Shades as a “Gateway Drug” to Romance Fandom

Some readers of Trout’s The Boss began as Fifty Shades fans who are now looking to read more romance and/or erotic fiction. Can a monster hit like Fifty Shades bring more readers into the romance fan community, or will readers who love Fifty dislike other romance narratives? The opinions of the women I interviewed are mixed. Litte believes that Fifty can serve as a gateway to fandom, stating that “I definitely view 50 Shades as a gateway drug to more romance fiction. It’s a matter of those readers finding other romance stories. A year after 50 Shades’s popularity, you are beginning to see readers who were brought into the genre starting to mine the extensive backlists of some popular traditionally published authors.”  She continues, stating Fifty “brought a lot of non-readers into the reading community, which is always a good thing.”

Wendell is less certain that fans of Fifty will enjoy other romance narratives, stating “I don’t think every 50 fan will find romance and think, ‘YES! This is what I wanted!’” Rather than mining the backlists of established authors, Wendell sees Fifty Shades changing the publishing industry and the types of stories that are published. She points to the sheer number of romance book covers that look eerily similar to the cover of Fifty Shades, the increasing use of deep first-person narratives and the popularity of a new genre, called “New Adult,” that features young 20-something female protagonists who are often unsure of themselves and enter into intense sexual and emotional relationships. Unsurprisingly, many (though certainly not all) New Adult titles began as Twilight fan fiction, too. Trout seems the same trends, but is less optimistic, writing “I think a lot of authors had that hope at the beginning of the craze. ‘Okay, this book has its problems, but now the readers will move on to other books in the erotic romance genre and they’ll realize what they were missing.’ Instead, what seems to be happening is this really horrible effect of even more anti-feminist, abusive and grossly misinformed kink fanfic flooding the market.”

Fifty Shades Covers

Fan Fiction, Legacy Publishing, and the Limits of Intellectual Property Rights

Fifty Shades of Grey’s popularity has led to a boom in “pulled to publish” or P2P fiction. Legacy publishing houses are using fan fiction communities as places to find emerging new authors. For many female authors (because fan fiction tends to be overwhelmingly written by women), fan fiction serves as a safe place to practice one’s writing skills and find an audience.  Litte states that “writers can definitely hone their craft in fan fiction and can learn a lot from the instant feedback from readers.  One fan fiction author shared with me that she could know almost within an hour of posting whether the piece was a success or a failure.” Traditionally, authors find their voice as an author within the fan fiction community, aspire to become a professional author, then begin to craft their own characters, worlds, and narratives which they would then attempt to have traditionally published. Authors who have followed this path include (but are certainly not limited to) Lois McMaster Bujold, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mercedes Lackey, Meg Cabot, Cassandra Claire, and even Stephenie Meyer herself. Within the fan fiction and reader community, authors are encouraged to take themselves seriously as writers, and when one of their own becomes a published author based on original characters s/he often brings a built-in fanbase with her.

Problems occur when, as is the case with Fifty Shades of Grey, authors profit off of works that began as fan fiction. For many romance fans, this is where James crossed the line: she published — and profits quite handsomely from — a series that is built upon foundations created by Stephenie Meyer. Is it fair to profit off of someone else’s intellectual property? Most media corporations believe that it is not, and are quick to send cease and desist letters to prove it. Karen Hellekson, author of “A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture” states that fan fiction communities believe that one should not profit from fan fiction first and foremost to avoid legal troubles, since fan fiction exists in a murky area, legally speaking.  Stephenie Meyer has remained remarkably hands-off about authors profiting from fanfic based on her work, which may explain the boom in Twilight-based fan fiction being published. For works like Fifty Shades, then, legal arguments against publishing fan fiction aren’t an issue, and it seems like Meyer is tacitly giving fans free reign to do what they will.

However, for many fans the requirement to avoid monetizing fan works goes beyond just the legality of the issue. Hellekson states that “Online media fandom is a gift culture in the symbolic realm in which fan gift exchange is performed in complex, even exclusionary symbolic ways that create a stable nexus of giving, receiving, and reciprocity that results in a community occupied with theorizing its own genderedness” (Hellekson 2009 114). Within fan communities, the original text upon which all fan creations are built is considered a “gift,” and on this original gift a reciprocal economy is built, with fan fiction, fan art, videos, and the conversation in the comments section all serve to build, maintain, and strengthen community bonds. Money is usually not exchanged, unless it is to help defray the costs of running the website. Instead, readers of fan fiction narratives participate in a gift economy where payment for favorite stories consists in making artwork or videos that depict favorite scenes, publicizing the story to others who may like it, and offering critique in the comment section. In a very real way, fan fiction readers act as beta readers who help authors shape narrative and character and publicists who spread the news about their favorite stories to others.

As long as fan fiction remains within the gift economy, most (although not all) authors range from benignly ignoring fan fiction based on their work to vocally supporting it. Neil Gaiman, who has himself written fan fiction based upon Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft, states that “As long as nobody’s making any money off of it that should be the author or creator’s, I don’t mind it. And I think it does a lot of good.” Jenny Trout agrees, stating “I’ve always been very protective of fan fiction, because that’s the community where I learned how to write. If you’re writing a sexy story about Kirk and Spock solving a little Pon Farr problem, and you post it to fanfiction.net or archiveofourown.org, you’re not getting paid. I don’t feel that’s necessarily unethical; it’s the moment that you decide to monetize that content you’ve made that the line becomes blurred.” Not only authors fight against monetizing fan fiction; much of the community itself rejects the idea. As Wendell states, “There is a sizeable backlash against profiting from sale of fanfic” within fanfic communities. While no one really believes that monetizing fan fiction will destroy the amateur fan fiction community, it does create a certain amount of tension within it. Trout states that “I think there is going to be a lot of suspicion for a while, where people who truly enjoy fic and want to continue enjoying it are going to have this question in the back of their minds, ‘Is this author only in it for a chance at a payday, or does she really love the original work as much as I do?’”

Not everyone agrees that making money off of fan fiction is a terrible idea, though. Fifty Shades’ popularity means that publishers not going to stop looking for fan fiction narratives to publish any time soon, and some argue that fan fiction authors deserve to be paid for their work if it becomes popular enough to do so. Indeed, Abigail DeKosnik argues that someone is going to profit off of fan fiction, so shouldn’t it be the fan fiction writers themselves?  “Fan fiction is nearing what I call the “Sugarhill moment”: the moment when an outsider takes up a subculture’s invention and commodifies it for the mainstream before insiders do” (De Kosnik 2009, 119-120). The Sugarhill Gang was a producer-created hip hop group who took the sounds that rappers in the streets of L.A. were creating, created the single “Rappers Delight,” and profited off of them before rap’s inventors could do so. “Fan fiction is nearing what I call the “Sugarhill moment”: the moment when an outsider takes up a subculture’s invention and commodifies it for the mainstream before insiders do” (De Kosnik 2009, 119-120). DeKosnik wonders if fan fiction writers are expected not to profit off of their work because they are mostly women, and points out that fan communities are more than happy to purchase products from male gamers who make “mods” of popular video games or offer financial support to male filmmakers who make fan videos based on their favorite movies (121). While DeKosnik acknowledges that fans are justified in worrying about what will happen to their communities if fan fiction becomes monetized, she believes that this should not be their main area of concern. She states that “although fans have legitimate anxieties about fan fiction being corrupted or deformed by its entry into the commercial sphere, I argue that there is far greater danger of this happening if fan fiction is not commodified by its own producers, but by parties foreign to fandom who do not understand why or for whom the genre works, and who will promote it for purposes it is unsuited for, ignoring the aspects that make it attractive and dear to its readers (De Kosnik 2009, 124). The greatest danger is that no one will make money off of fanfic except for the corporate owners of the original text — since fanfic serves as a commercial for the original (De Kosnik 2009, 125).

If publishers and fan fiction authors are going to keep trying to profit off fan fiction — and it looks like they are– is it possible to do so ethically? What do fan fiction authors owe to the creators of the works upon which their narratives are built, and what do fan fiction authors owe their fellow fans, if anything? In other words, what are the limits of intellectual property rights, here, and what is the place of fan communities? Should we think of fan communities as collaborators with fan fiction authors, or mere consumers? On the subject of intellectual property rights, Litte argues that “I’ve always argued that the farther from the original canon a fan piece drifts, the less likely it is infringing [on intellectual property rights]. In fan fiction, though, the farther from the original canon you get the less appealing the fic. It’s a weird dichotomy.”

What would an ethical model for P2P fiction look like? Litte has suggested a licensing model that somewhat resembles the way covering a song works in music. In music, artists that want to cover an already recorded song pay what’s called a “mechanical licensing fee” for the right to re-record the song, then pay the songwriter a small fee per record sold. Would a similar licensing structure work for fan fiction? Litte suggested the model back in June of 2010, before the Fifty Shades phenomenon hit, and most of her commenters were against the idea, believing that the requirement to purchase a license would install a financial barrier to participating in fan communities, which should be free to all (http://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/could-compulsory-licensing-work-for-fiction/). However, the popularity of Fifty Shades may have changed people’s minds. Indeed, Amazon has started “Kindle Worlds” with a model that seems fairly close to what is described above. Amazon made licensing agreements with a few authors, who then allow authors to write additional stories within the universe. Authors submit these stories to Amazon, who set the prices (between .99 and $2.99) and pay both the original license holder and the fan fiction author royalties for any stories purchased. For longer works (10,000+ words), Amazon pays authors a royalty of 35%, while shorter works of 5-10,000 words earn royalties of 20%.

(http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html/ref=amb_link_375976362_2?ie=UTF8&docId=1001197431&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-3&pf_rd_r=1W3E43JE3FTBA51FJBTT&pf_rd_t=1401&pf_rd_p=1581752802&pf_rd_i=1001197421).

While it remains to be seen how popular the Kindle Worlds store will be for both authors and readers, it is an interesting experiment that allows both the original authors and fan fiction authors to be paid for their work — and a model that does not require the fan fiction author to pay-up front for the privilege of using another author’s intellectual property.

Regardless of how one feels about the Fifty Shades series, no one can deny its deep impact on romance publishing and fan culture. No doubt we’ll be feeling the effects of Fifty for years to come, for good and for ill, and we ignore that at our peril because if we fail to understand these effects we can’t understand the true state of romance publishing or fan fiction communities.

Works Cited

DeKosnik, Abigail. “Should Fan Fiction Be Free?” Cinema Journal. Number 48, Summer 2009. pp 118-124.

Gaiman, Neil “Neil Gaiman’s Journal.” 26 February, 2002. http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2002/02/they-just-changed-servers-for-faq-line.asp

Karen Hellekson. “A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture.” Cinema Journal. Number 48, Summer 2009. pp 113-117.

Litte, Jane. “Could Compulsory Licensing work for Fiction?” Dear Author. 15 June, 2010. http://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/could-compulsory-licensing-work-for-fiction/

Litte, Jane. Email. 15 September, 2013.

Singh, Anita. “50 Shades of Grey is Best-Selling Book of All Time.” The Telegraph 7 August, 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9459779/50-Shades-of-Grey-is-best-selling-book-of-all-time.html

Trachtenberg, Jeffrey A. “Oh, My! That Dirty Book Has Sold 70 Million Copies.” The Wall Street Journal. 26 March, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323466204578384743129294104.html

Trout, Jenny. “Dear 50 Shades fan: BDSM Doesn’t Need or Want Your Defense.” Sweaters for Days. 22 April, 2013. http://jennytrout.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/dear-50-shades-fan-bdsm-doesnt-need-or-want-your-defense/

Trout, Jenny. Email. 22 September, 2013.

Sweney, Mark. “Fifty Shades of Grey Publisher Posts Record Profits.” The Guardian. 26 March, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/mar/26/fifty-shades-random-house-record-profit

Wendell, Sarah. “Romance, Arousal, and Consescension.” Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. 15 March, 2012. http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/blog/romance-arousal-and-condescension

Wendell, Sarah. Email. 17 September, 2013

ABOUT

Meredith Guthrie is a lecturer and undergraduate academic advisor in the Communication Department at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on youth culture, fan culture, and the body in media. You can find her on Twitter at @meredithea.

[Universal Pictures, 2013. Director/ Writer: Jeff Wadlow. Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Iain Glen, and Jim Carrey]

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Jeff Wadlow’s Kick-Ass 2 (2013) is the follow up to Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (2010) the adaptation of the comic written by Mark Millar and illustrated by John Romita Jr. The latest film opens with familiar angst-driven issues that first prompted Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to construct himself a costume and take to the streets under the guise of ‘Kick-Ass’. Where the first film dealt with ideas centring on identity and affecting positive change, the sequels themes are less distinct in its message, making it a garbled regression.

Kick-Ass 2 opens with Dave considering his present situation (a dull high school life and seemingly pointless relationship with Katie portrayed by Lyndsy Fonseca) and weighs them against the effects his alter-ego have had on the city.

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He watches other self-proclaimed local ‘superheroes’ on television citing Kick Ass as their inspiration and says `Me? I gave up being a superhero because it was way too dangerous, but I was dying of boredom, like most high school seniors I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life`. . . ‘I inspired all those people to get off theirs asses, but now I was stuck on mine, so that night after dinner I decided to get my old costume out’.

Following Hit Girl’s (Chloe Grace Moretz) lead and instruction Dave is re-immersed back into his previous life.

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Concurrently in New Jersey, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is also hoping to resuscitate his costumed past, primarily to wreak revenge on Kick Ass. The accidental killing of his mother and the discovery of her S&M paraphernalia allows for a new self-styled ‘super-villain’ persona, troublingly named ‘The Motherfucker’.

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The film then follows a fairly straight forward trajectory, the three main characters, Kick Ass, Hit Girl and The Motherfucker, are violently bound to one another, due to each being directly responsible for the killing of each other’s father. The inclusion of side players, (most notably Jim Carrey as Colonel Stars and Stripes) has little bearing on the story and are given minimal opportunity to develop character complexity.

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Instead there is much musing on what it means to be a superhero, a super villain, have a lair, to be a sidekick or to have a secret identity. The focus tends to aim at the mythology of hero as a formula or a set of criteria. When the additional characters- including Dave’s own father (Garrett M. Brown) die terrible, violent deaths, there is an absence of emotional impact. Incidents that could have been shown as pivotal, life-defining moments for the characters are presented in brief scenes with little to none consideration of what the events mean. Instead the experiences simply fuel the feud, and presumably justify the events that have led up to the present.

The most problematic difference between the first film and the second is the shift in tone. The original film is funnier, able to laugh at itself and is more self-aware. The second film lacks the wit and reflexivity of the first. The scenes involving highly stylized choreographed hyper violence in the sequel now read more grotesque than the first film’s ability to heighten the absurdity and spectacle of given situations. The novelty of the youth of the characters who are thrust into these dangerous lives is wearing off as the actors who portray them have aged, and the ‘cuteness’ of their baby voiced one liners is diminished.

The film ends with Dave and Mindy parting ways. His voiceover explains that ‘Superheroes can’t exist in the real world for a reason, because the real world needs real heroes and not some punk in a wet suit playing dress up, but a genuine bad ass that can really kick ass’. This observation takes place as Mindy races away from New York on a motorcycle, her face obscured by the purple tinted visor of her helmet, suggesting a new guise in her future.

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Meanwhile Dave is back training in Big Daddy’s hide-out, in the foreground: a visored helmet in the familiar Kick Ass costume colours. The Motherfucker is presumed dead, eaten by his shark, until the last of the credits roll and he is revealed to be in hospital without legs, hands and his ‘dick’. The implications are clear, their story is not over yet. These three will meet again, presumably dressed in new get-ups with new signatures, prepared to take each other down regardless of cost or consequence. This flies in the face of Dave’s final message – it directly contradicts it. There is no evidence of any of the characters learning or evolving; the constant interrogation of the notion of heroism bears no revelation for themselves or the viewer. A new helmet does not a new identity or hero make.

Written by Áine Llang Young, September 25, 2013

ABOUT

Áine Llang Young is a recent doctoral graduate of Film Studies at Queen`s University Belfast. She lives in Vancouver, researching and publishing on subjects that examine the practice of comic-to-film adaptation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Lionsgate, 2011/ 2013. Director: Adam Wingard. Writer: Simon Barrett. Starring: Sharni Vinson; Nicolas Tucci]

‘If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace’ (Bachelard 1958).

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What would Gaston Bachelard make of the home invasion movie? As a philosopher of space, and proponent of the house as sanctuary, he would surely be horrified by the flood of such films in recent years. But isn’t that the point of this sub-genre; to take advantage of a primal fear of threat entering the space in which you’re most comfortable and vulnerable. You’re Next (Adam Wingard, 2011) is the latest in a long line of intruder films, from The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972), to Funny Games (Michael Hanneke 1997; 2008), Panic Room (David Fincher, 2002), and The Strangers (Bryan Bertino, 2008). Horror is the preferred genre of Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard, who have also collaborated as writer and director on A Horrible Way to Die (2010), and the found-footage anthologies, V/H/S (2012) and V/H/S/2 (2013).

Many reviewers drew a comparison between You’re Next and Scream (Wes Craven, 2006), the first ten minutes of which inspired Wingard to make his film (Taylor 2013).

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Scream and its sequels (1997; 2000; 2011) deconstructed audience expectations about how slasher films play out and, as is often the case with postmodern cinema, there is a positive relationship between the viewer’s existing knowledge of the sub-genre and how rewarding they find the film. Since then, audiences have come to expect a certain amount of knowingness from the horror film. You’re Next distinguishes itself, however, by taking advantage of the overlaps between horror and the dysfunctional family comedy. Like Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine, 2013), a zombie-rom-com released earlier this year, You’re Next is what Geoff King (2002) terms a ‘genre bender’. This allows the film to breathe some life (pun intended) into a familiar staple. In the dysfunctional family comedy people rarely get hurt. In the dysfunctional family dramatic-comedy, words cut like knives. In You’re Next, a dysfunctional family horror-dramedy, words and knives cut like knives. Here we have a family that, even when their lives are under threat, cannot put aside years of petty differences and rivalry. Indeed, once the twists unfold, Blood is Thicker than Water emerges as an alternative title. For the most part, these characters are not designed to be sympathetic: we’re quickly told that the patriarch (Paul Davison), a former defence contractor, earned his fortune from a severance package. A sense of privileged entitlement is also built into the names of his children: Crispian (Joe Swanberg), Drake (Nicholas Tucci), and Felix (AJ Bowen). As Amy Nicholson sums up in her Village Voice review, the film ‘slices up a family of useless 1 percenters’, making its 2011 film festival debut perfectly timed to capture Occupy Wall Street frustration (Nicholson 2013).

Another of You’re Next’s strengths is the way in which it plays with the trope of horror’s ‘Final Girl’, the ubiquitous female character who, gifted with more lives than a cat, survives despite all odds. Carol J. Clover coined the term back in 1993, in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film. Adam Rockoff (2002) has since summed up the character of the Final Girl as ‘defined by her toughness, resourcefulness, determination and perseverance’. The joke in You’re Next is that, while Erin (Sharni Vinson) initially appears to be yet another in a line of preternaturally tough females, she conveniently grew up in a survivalist compound in the Australian outback. This is explained half way through and changes everything; convenient for her, inconvenient for nearly everyone else, particularly her amoral boyfriend, who brought her to the family gathering (turned massacre) to be the sole survivor (but a passive one). With her survival camp background revealed, Erin is given free rein to be as hard as nails (incidentally, one of her weapons of choice). The filmmakers take full advantage of her resourcefulness but, in a moment when she throws a pot of boiled water over an attacker, they also mockingly undermine it; Erin’s would-be victim exclaims that the water has gone cold. In other words, even the professionally-trained Final Girl makes silly mistakes, something that could equally be said for viewers who thought otherwise.

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A trifecta of tame animal masks (lamb, tiger, fox) provide another play on the well-established genre norms. While the masks of Michael Myers, Leatherface and Hannibal Lecter were an added source of fear, it is now enough just to acknowledge the convention, albeit with ironically innocent disguises. Reviewers who call the film’s use of familiar tropes unoriginal are, therefore, missing the point.

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Dark humour is also derived from the repetition of the 1977 song ‘Lookin for the Magic’ by the Dwight Twilley Band, originally played diegetically in the opening sequence, in which a couple are killed. Right before the girl meets her end we see her put the song on repeat. As the only neighbours of the family under attack, we later understand the motivation for the killing when various members of the family run to the house for safety and, of course, ‘Lookin for the Magic’ continues to play. Unlike for us, the clued in observers, the song provides false hope that there are people in the house (people who are alive) to help them. Instead, there is a killer waiting, with the death cycle looping like the music.

Michel Chion (2009), a prominent film sound theorist, uses the term ‘anempathetic’ to describe music that is ostensibly indifferent ‘to the pathetic or tragic quality of the scene in which it occurs’. He gives the example of a music heard ‘during a scene of murder, rape, [or] torture’ that continues during and afterward ‘as if nothing has happened’. You’re Next takes this to another, darkly humourous level; we keep revisiting the same song, at various points in the film, reminding us that the poor bodies of the first victims are still waiting to be found. The sound design seems inspired by the recurrence of Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ in Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007). Heard non-diegetically over scenes of murder, the dreamy 1968 song is turned into a dark anthem by connotation. Also, not only are both songs repeated at various moments in their respective films, but the parts played are highly repetitive; the Dwight Twiley song features the band’s characteristic ‘rockabilly “slapback” echo’, while Donovan’s vocals are overlaid to create an echo. Indeed, if the metaphor for You’re Next’s violence is a vicious circle, then it fits well with the broken record metaphor of the song on repeat. Like with the film as a whole, senseless violence is rarely this well thought out or this much fun.

[You’re Next, Hanway Films; Snoot Entertainment, 2011. Director: Adam Wingard. Writer: Simon Barrett. Starring: Sharni Vinson, Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen].

Works Cited

Bachelard, G. (1958). The Poetics of Space.

Chion, M. (2003; 2009). Film, A Sound Art. Trans. Claudia Gorbman. Columbia University Press: 467

Clover, C. J. (1993). Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film. Princeton University Press.

King, G. (2002). New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction. I.B.Tauris: 116-146

Nicholson, A. (2013). ‘You’re Next Is a Horror Movie for Film Students’, Village Voice, August 21. Available at  http://www.villagevoice.com/2013-08-21/film/you-re-next/ [4/10/13]

Rockoff, A. (2002). Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986. McFarland: 13

Taylor, D. (2013). ‘Interview: ‘You’re Next’ Writer Simon Barrett & Director Adam Wingard On Sequel Ideas, Inspiration & The ‘V/H/S’ Franchise.’Indiewire.com, August 26. Available at: http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/interview-youre-next-writer-simon-barrett-and-director-adam-wingard-on-the-movies-long-journey-to-theaters-potential-sequels-inspiration-and-the-v-h-s-franchise-20130822 [4/10/13]

ABOUT

Jennifer O’Meara is a PhD Candidate in Film Studies at Trinity College Dublin, where her research focuses on verbal style in art cinema, particularly independent American cinema. Jennifer has contributed chapters to Verse, Voice and Vision: Poetry and the Cinema (ed. Santos, 2013) and The Films of Wes Anderson (ed. Kunze, 2014). Her writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Cinema Journal, Literature/Film Quarterly, and Scope.

 

A Capital Conundrum

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Any number of circumstances can cause comic book writers to revitalise, resurrect or otherwise re-launch an old character. The diversification of a story, for instance, or the desire to have a new hero face off with an old villain. Slightly rarer, though, is the opportunity to bring a golden-age comic book hero back from oblivion: such is the case with those recently fallen into the public domain. Some probably should remain in the sewers of history, such as Inspector Cosmic[1] – whose short-lived crime-fighting career occurred some 23,000 light years off Mercury where he and ‘Comics’ McCormick defeated the Space Pirates – or Ventrilo – ventriloquist-cum-private eye. For the keen-eyed writer, however, there are gems waiting to be found.

J.T. Krul probably thought he was onto a winner when he found Nick Terry. Terry first appeared in Crackajack Funnies #25 in 1940, and then again in a series of Popular Comics, but then fell victim to that most deadly of comic book villains: a lack of readership. By day, Terry is a cop, driven by the purest of desires to see justice done. By night, the same determination fuels his adventures as his alter ego, The Owl. Terry is not blessed with supernatural powers of any kind, but his incredible athleticism and agility is augmented with a series of helpful devices, such as his signature Owl Bombs, a blacklight torch, and his souped up Owl Roadster. Krul certainly would have drawn parallels with another cowl- and cape-wearing crusader, but the point of difference is The Owl’s permanent partnership with Owl Girl. This relationship – which flourishes both in and out of costume – fuels the overall narrative arc, which weaves in and out of encounters with various scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells. This re-launched Owl is far from a re-boot: the story goes that sixty years ago (around the time of Terry’s last appearance), all the evils of the world were trapped in a mysterious urn. The catch, though, was that all the heroes had to be trapped as well. Recently, the urn was opened, and the heroes and villains were unleashed upon the world. It was up to The Owl and his comrades to restore balance, which they eventually did.

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The Owl, then, is not only a self-made hero, but also a hero out of time.

At the risk of over-simplifying an extensive back-catalogue – not to mention alienating legions of fans of graphically-based narratives – it feels safe to suggest that the vast majority of comic books about crime are centred on a world somehow out of order. Be it the rise of a megalomaniacal super-villain, or organised crime gone out of hand, there is usually something truly amiss. Throughout the history of comic books, the heroes we know and love have striven to restore – if not peace, then at least – balance and equilibrium. Conard holds that ‘flux metaphysics’ refers to system of evolution, rather than of checks and balances, or ebbs and flows[2]. Friedrich Nietzsche’s view, however, is that if our senses detect a world that is always evolving (everything constantly in flux), we would never survive. Our biology detects the natural ebbs and flows of the world, but our brains – our reason – allows us to overcome this overwhelming system. Furthermore, Nietzsche posits that language – like reason – is a controlling device, i.e. a method, however hollow and superficial, of imposing order on the chaos of the world[3]. Morality, like language, is a construct. The spectrum of morality as a controlling device, thus, is as problematic as language.

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As previously alluded, this uncontrollable evolution is perhaps best depicted in the world of Batman. A flawed hero, reliant on innovative technology that only augments what strength he can obtain from diet and exercise, Bruce Wayne swiftly realises that acting alone is ineffective. Batman forms partnerships where he can – though notably only partnerships, very rarely ensembles a la The Avengers – and these are often successful. However, Mike Pottenger has identified flaws in the ‘system’ of the Dark Knight’s modus operandi. It all comes down to running costs: Mike Pottenger has determined that it costs around US$900,000 per annum to be Batman[4]. I would argue, however, that this is offset by another element of Wayne’s existence: his business interests. Obviously Batman and his associated accessories are funded by Wayne Enterprises – and the majority of research and development, scouting enemies, and so forth, is done under the auspices of same – but the corporation’s activities exert an obscene amount of control over financial markets, commodities, and growth in technology and future research. Thus, while Batman attempts to rid Gotham’s streets of evil, his company is, by its monopolistic nature, trying to rid the world of diversity in the marketplace. Consider Nick Terry, then, as something of an anti-Batman. With little to no interest in diversifying his assets and moving into big business, Terry has merely to scrape by. He could achieve this by flipping burgers or cleaning toilets, but instead tries to become a detective with the police. His alter ego, then, becomes somewhat less ‘alter,’ and certainly makes him a more holistic character.

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In the world of Nick Terry – in The Owl’s Yorktown – the world has evolved, as a flux metaphysics suggests it must. The ‘hero out of time’ must deal, of course, with changed technologies – ‘The guns are louder now. Faster. More powerful.’[5] – but also with changed attitudes. Where his enemies once saw The Owl as a fearsome freedom fighter, they now see him as little more than a nuisance. Similarly, Nick Terry’s once fruitful relationship with the police department now yields him grief: ‘I’m no hero to them,’ Terry says. ‘I’m a pain in the ass.’[6] The police’s treatment of both Nick Terry and The Owl demonstrate one issue, and suggest another. The first is the lack of funding for public services and law enforcement, a universal current issue that contemporises the story for the twenty-first century. The second, suggested, issue, is an implied complacency on the part of law enforcement officers, and an equally inherent openness to bribes and corruption. The universe of the Dark Knight espouses what might be called ‘altruistic capitalism.’ That said, Slavoj Zizek lays bare Bruce Wayne’s wealth as having been built upon arms manufacturing and playing the stock market.[7] On the other hand, Nick Terry is content to live well within his means. The antagonist of this new Owl, then – almost predictably – is an obscenely wealthy aristocratic type, happy to hire malevolent underlings to do his dirty work.

This villain is not revealed until the second issue, however. The first concerns itself predominantly with Nick Terry’s past – attempting to justify the re-launch in terms of a continued chronology (stasis and ‘rebirth’). The risen hero must adapt to his new surroundings while attempting to reconcile his past. This process of recovery is complicated in the final scene by the appearance of a masked heroine, who appears at first glance to be Owl Girl. This is the most compelling of plot points, and is not given nearly enough set-up. Even for a re-launch, it seems unjustified to spend half an issue re-hashing the events leading to the present timeline. This can often be condensed to an opening crawl or an opening dialogue – however expository – that gives a reader enough detail while still establishing the current environment. Overall, Issue #1 of Krul’s Owl does nothing new, but goes some way to establishing the central protagonist. Like any opening teaser, the issue leaves many questions unanswered. The largest concern this reviewer has, however, is that they are the wrong questions.


[1] Public Domain Superheroes. 2013. ‘Inspector Cosmic.’ Retrieved 26 September 2013 from http://pdsh.wikia.com/wiki/Inspector_Cosmic.

[2] Conard, M. T. 2007. ‘Chaos, Order and Morality.’ In Abrams, J. J. (Ed.)., The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press. p. 34.

[3] Ibid., p. 35-6.

[4] Pottenger, M. 2013, January 13. ‘What economics can teach us about Batman.’ ESSA. Retrieved 28 September 2013 from http://economicstudents.com/2013/01/what-economics-can-teach-us-about-batman/

[5] Krul, J. T. (writer), & Michael, H. K. (illustrator). 2013. The Owl #1. Mt. Laurel, New Jersey: Dynamite Entertainment. p. 5.

[6] Ibid., p. 7.

[7] Zizek, S. 2012, August 23. ‘The politics of Batman.’ The New Statesman. Retrieved 27 September 2013 from http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2012/08/slavoj-%C5%BEi%C5%BEek-politics-batman.

About

Daniel Binns is a doctoral candidate in the School of Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. His research encompasses many aspects of cinema, and he has written widely on the war film and economies of blockbuster cinema. Dan teaches in film and media studies, and works in the film industry as a writer and producer.

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Slacker. Loafer. Couch potato. Man-child. Fuck-up. Dude. This modern filmic anti-hero has many names, and he has a special place in the heart of writer/director team Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. Their Cornetto trilogy, which concluded this year with the spectacularly hyperbolic The World’s End, features an array of men who can’t or won’t grow up: from the titular Shaun of Shaun of the Dead, who tries to hold off the zombie apocalypse with his LP collection (but only the ones that aren’t worth anything); through Hot Fuzz’s Constable Danny Butterman, who dreams of “fir[ing] a gun up in the air and going ‘Aaarrgghh!’” a la Point Break; and ending with The World’s End’s Gary King, whose dress sense and maturity have failed to progress since the early 1990s. All three movies play their leads’ performance of masculinity for laughs, but all three share a similar affection for the loveable loser, for whom the performance of adult responsibility is out of reach. They’re informed to a considerable extent by the proliferation of the “slacker” archetype that has pervaded popular culture for at least as long as Generation X (and, more latterly, Generation Y) has had a name — an archetype that, as yet, shows few signs of losing its relevance, and which tells its own story about the plurality of modern masculinities and the struggle to define the boundaries of masculine performance in the wake of paradigm shifts in gender roles — and by the kind of self-effacing, pop culture-savvy humour that is a key source of the Cornetto trilogy’s appeal. And yet, while The World’s End is, in many ways, a more adult, less genre-referential piece of filmmaking than the two movies that precede it, it’s also, in no small measure, the ultimate veneration of the man-child sensibilities that the earlier two narratives sought to resolve. In fact, when considered on a spectrum of responsibility, the Cornetto trilogy can, in many ways, be viewed as a slide out of adulthood and back into what scholar Gary Cross calls “adultescence” (2013: 5). I want to use this article to discuss notions of “slacker” masculinity, maturity, and popular culture, and to argue that the Cornetto trilogy, while mapping a kind of cinematic coming-of-age for Wright and Pegg, also institutes a gradual exaltation of the man-child that escalates as the trilogy proceeds, culminating in an apotheosis embodied in the narrative arc of The World’s End’s problematic protagonist, Gary King.

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“Slacker” Masculinity

The term “slacker” has a lengthy pedigree (going back to the late 19th century, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary), but arguably owes its current usage to Richard Linklater’s 1991 film of the same name. The movie, a meditation on the sense of disconnection from society experienced by the children of the Baby Boom generation (soon to be known as Generation X, from the title of the Douglas Coupland novel that helped sketch its defining characteristics), introduced a semiological complexity to the word and a instituted a problematic recuperation of its connotative meaning that persists, to a certain extent, into the current pop culture phenomenon. Linklater, says Tom Lutz in Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums, “thought of the title Slacker as akin to the gay community taking the social condemnation ‘queer’ and proudly appropriating it, and this makes sense given his own hardworking relation to the slacker ethos” (2006: 288).

Yet, while Linklater and Coupland sought to recuperate the terminology, later appropriations, while feeding into the same vein of disaffected youth and confusion about one’s place in the (adult) world, have been more straightforward in their application of the slacker philosophy. Where early studies concluded that “It’s not that Gen Xers are rebellious and sullen; they’re just clear about what they want. Like the Generation Yers, they have a free-agent mind-set, [Bruce] Tulgan says, so managers have to keep them happy or they will leave” (Lutz, 2006: 290, referring to conclusions drawn by Bruce Tulgan in 1995), the evolution of the slacker in popular culture has come to mean something rather more gender-specific, and has tended to tie it to notions of maturation, and specifically failure to achieve maturation.

Writing in 2007, New Yorker film critic David Denby identifies a trend that he calls “the slacker-striver romance,” which features the following hero:

His beard is haphazard and unintentional, and he dresses in sweats, or in shorts and a T-shirt, or with his shirt hanging out like the tongue of a Labrador retriever. He’s about thirty, though he may be younger, and he spends a lot of time with friends who are like him, only more so… When he’s with them, punched beer cans and bongs of various sizes lie around like spent shells;
alone, and walrus-heavy on his couch, he watches football, basketball, or baseball on television, or spends time memorializing his youth—archiving old movies, games, and jokes… Whatever he does, he hardly breaks a sweat, and sometimes he does nothing at all (2007 [online]).

This is the generic cycle — or, more correctly, this is one of the generic cycles — into which the Cornetto trilogy feeds, but it’s the cycle that most visibly informs the masculine performance of its leads. Yet the key term in Denby’s description is romance: these are movies constructed around a central love story that devolves the protagonists into a masculine/feminine binary configured as the struggle against (and, ultimately, towards) adult masculinity. “[I]f he does have a girlfriend,” says Denby of his slacker hero, “she works hard.” He continues:

Usually, she’s the same age as he is but seems older, as if the disparity between boys and girls in ninth grade had been recapitulated fifteen years later… She’s good-tempered, honest, great-looking, and serious. She wants to “get to the next stage of life” — settle down, marry, maybe have children… When she breaks up with him, he talks his situation over with his hopeless pals, who give him bits of misogynist advice. Suddenly, it’s the end of youth for him. It’s a crisis for her, too, and they can get back together only if both undertake some drastic alteration… He has to shape up, and she has to loosen up (2007 [online]).

This is critical for the constitution of slacker masculinity, and is, arguably, a trope as old as society itself. Entering into a committed (heterosexual) union is a — perhaps the — key signifier of the achievement of hegemonic adult masculinity, and the slacker resists it for all that he’s worth, mostly because he’s entirely aware that it represents the abandonment of youth for manhood. In Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity, Gary Cross discusses at length the desire to resist adulthood that he has observed in the post-Baby Boom generation and compares it to generations past: “Many are frustrated and confused about what maturity is and whether they can or want to achieve it,” he says. “I call them boy-men. I’ve noticed how men deep in their twenties or even thirties, when their parents and grandparents had themselves been parents and homeowners, have not yet settled down” (2013: 1). Again, “settling down,” becoming “parents and homeowners” is closely related to achieving adulthood and maturity, and Cross considers that the statistics speak for themselves: “Once the key marker of maturity,” he says, “marriage has declined sharply in the United States, dropping from 70 percent of households in 1970 to just 53 percent in 2000” (2013: 3). Correlation does not imply causation, of course, and Cross is keen to emphasise that he is “not making an essentialist argument about ‘maturity,’” but rather that “the standards of maturity that were so strongly expressed in the postwar popular culture have declined” (2013: 24), that this is part of a growing tendency within modern western culture to reclaim and reconstitute youth and youthful pursuits as one way of performing modern masculinity, and that this mode of masculine performance goes hand in hand with rejection of the “adult” worlds of marriage, commitment, children, and/or career. Cross calls this the “man-boy.” Others call it the slacker.

To be clear, although the terminology describing this mode of masculinity has acquired a pejorative overtone, I am not intending to ascribe to it a value judgement, simply to situate it socio-historically as a product of modern popular culture, generational discourse, and gender performance. That, and to establish the groundwork for an examination of the evolution of slacker masculinity within the Cornetto trilogy.

Shaun of the Dead

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The first film in the trilogy, Shaun of the Dead (2004) tells the story of the eponymous Shaun (Simon Pegg), a 29-year-old television salesman from north London, who shares a house with the career-minded Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) and his best friend from childhood, Ed (Nick Frost), an unemployed drug dealer who spends his day on the couch playing video games, drinking beer, and smoking weed. Shaun’s long-term girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), wants more from life than their routine trips to Shaun’s local pub, the Winchester, and, after Shaun fails to follow through on his promises that “Things will change. I promise,” she breaks off their relationship, leaving Shaun heartbroken and determined to win her back. Before he can get started, however, the zombie apocalypse begins.

As with all the Cornetto films, Shaun derives much of its comedic thrust from the collision of two separate but overlapping genres — in this case the zombie movie and the zeitgeist-friendly slacker movie. It works, in large part, because positioning the two leads as exemplars of slacker masculinity inverts the typical dynamic of the warrior hero, an archetype that embodies hegemonic masculinity at its zenith.

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The hegemonic man, as defined by Mike Donaldson is, “A culturally idealized form, it is… both a personal and a collective project, and is the common sense about breadwinning and manhood” (1993: 646). The hegemonic man does not necessarily have to perform the warrior hero, but the warrior hero must exhibit hegemonic masculinity. Ben Knights describes him as follows:

Onto the figure of the hero as celebrated in social narrative are projected fantasies of a purified and invulnerable identity. He is a model both as a strong, admirable character, but also because he seeks out and confronts danger… The central masculine figure is imagined as a maker, rather than a victim of events… In representing strength and hardened boundaries against the chaotic — even treacherous — world on which he sets his mark, the hero glorifies the male body as a phallic weapon. He thus articulates a purified masculine identity achieved through courageous acceptance of risk (2004: 380).

Shaun, on the other hand, embodies an archetype much closer to Knights’ description of the anti-hero: “the male who through his clownishness, deviousness, or cowardice fails to live up to the high expectations placed upon the male leader” (ibid.). He fails to realise there’s a problem at all until the zombie invasion is already well advanced, instead getting drunk with Ed and mistaking the living dead for other punters as intoxicated as he is. He flicks idly through the television channels without noticing the increasing sense of urgency on the news, and, even when a zombie girl attacks him in his back garden, neither Shaun nor Ed registers the threat until she impales herself on the stump of an old whirligig and, instead of dying, struggles to her feet and comes back for more. It’s at this point that the duo spring to action, but their weapons are not the blades or guns of the warrior: they are assorted kitchen cutlery, a toaster, and Shaun’s record collection. And, though their quest to rescue Shaun’s mum and ex-girlfriend and carry them to a place of safety to wait out the invasion might just fit Joseph Campbell’s idea of the “road of trials” (Piper, 2011: 172, quoting Campbell, 2008: 81-90), the choice of the Winchester as zombie-proof fortress is much more in keeping with slacker sensibilities than heroic.

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Yet, though he may not embody the archetype, Shaun is, unquestionably, the hero of the narrative, and, though, in the moments before the denouement, he laments that “I’ve really ballsed this up… I couldn’t save us” (Wright, 2004), in fact, he does save them: both he and Liz survive. This, as I’ll explain, is crucial.

Lynn Piper, in Slacker Bites Back: Shaun of the Dead Finds New Life for Deadbeats, argues that the collision of genres in Shaun is more than simply a comedic device. “Zombies and slackers get the same bad rap: unproductive deadbeats feeding off society,” she says. “But Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright reveal another side to these societal monsters in their 2004 film Shaun of the Dead. In Shaun, the zombie functions as the Other who is, nonetheless, uncannily familiar, and the slacker, rather than feeding off society, becomes its hero. If a society’s monsters expose the deepest anxieties of the culture that created them, then Pegg and Wright’s zombies follow George Romero’s tradition of critiquing capitalistic culture by revealing the life-sucking effects of modern urban culture on working-class London” (2011: 163). According to Piper, the positioning of the slacker hero is not coincidental; it is, in fact, critical to the narrative’s overarching allegory. “Ultimately,” she argues, “Pegg and Wright are not interested in merely eradicating zombies; they seek to examine how productive members of society already resemble zombies, and how we might compartmentalize those aspects of modern life that deaden us and nourish the more playful aspects” (2011: 169). Viewed in this light, the movie can be read as an interrogation of the pressures on Shaun to conform to adult, productive life and his resistance to its “zombificatory” potential, and several early scenes make it clear that these pressures are, in fact, turning him into a zombie of sorts before the apocalypse begins: he is coasting through his life, stuck in a job that he does not enjoy, and his behaviour is, on several occasions, mapped onto the iconography of the zombie — for example, when he shuffles out of his bedroom on unwilling feet, groaning a deep yawn. It is telling, also, that the first two main characters to be turned into zombies are the two main characters most closely affiliated with Adult: Pete — hardworking, responsible, and utterly exasperated with Shaun and Ed’s sophomoric antics —  and Philip, Shaun’s step-father, whose insistence that Shaun achieve maturity despite Shaun’s desire to remain ensconced within his perpetual childishness is a longstanding source of conflict between them. These are the two characters most closely conflated with the spectre of maturity, and they are, therefore, according to the narrative’s central conceit, already subject to “those aspects of modern life that deaden us.” In effect, they were zombies before they were bitten.

What Shaun wants is to be allowed to dictate the terms of his own maturity. Yet, for his goals to be achievable — save the people he cares about and win back Liz’s affections — he must mature, at least enough to assume the status of warrior and thereby demonstrate his entitlement, through his (broadly) hegemonic masculine performance, to the adult heterosexual union.[1] The means by which the movie accomplishes both are intriguing. In the first place, for Shaun to relinquish Boy, he must resolve the Oedipal crisis at the heart of his relationship with his mother and stepfather, which is achieved through Philip’s dying act of reconciliation with his stepson (and, indeed, Philip’s death), and, later, through the death of Shaun’s mother herself. Reincarnated as a zombie, it falls to Shaun to kill her before she kills them, which both serves as a visual signifier of his progression to warrior, as he places the safety of the group above his own personal tragedy, and, on a deeper level, as a metaphor for the repudiation of the childishness associated with Shaun’s reliance on her.

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This somewhat extreme severing of the apron strings, however, is not sufficient to mark Shaun’s rejection of immaturity — there remains one important signifier of his resistance to adulthood, and this is Ed. If Shaun embodies slacker masculinity, Ed is its zenith: the man-child trading in fart jokes, obscenities and inappropriate behaviour, and for Shaun to achieve the adult, Ed’s influence must be excised. When Ed is bitten and elects to remain behind in the Winchester while Shaun and Liz — the only other survivors of the group — make one last, desperate bid for safety, the understated emotionality of Ed and Shaun’s final farewell works both diegetically, as two friends saying goodbye for the last time, and on a deeper level as Shaun’s ultimate surrender of his youth. By leaving Ed — and childhood — behind, Shaun and Liz are able to make their escape, and the crisis, in all its forms, is resolved. The sequence that follows shows Shaun and Liz, six months on, comfortably cohabiting in Shaun’s old house, now transformed from the beer cans and mess of bachelor life, into a clean, comfortable, throw-rug-festooned home for an adult male and his partner.

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Yet what is notable about this sequence is that, although Shaun and Liz have reconciled and appear content, the scene inverts Liz’s earlier complaint that “I need something more, more than spending every night in the Winchester,” when she sets out their plans for a lazy Sunday: “Right, a cup of tea, then we get the Sundays, head down the Phoenix for a roast, veg out in the pub for a bit, then wander home, watch a bit of telly, go to bed” (Wright, 2004). That she has been able to accommodate Shaun’s preferred routine is an indication of how successfully he has been able to integrate his new adult masculinity into his old adolescent lifestyle, and this, according to Piper, is a question of Ed — the spectre of immature masculinity — and, more specifically, his containment:

Although Shaun has found a way to keep Ed in his life, now Ed is chained in the shed… Shaun holds in check the friend who formerly had held him back. The shed and the video games may beckon, but the rest of Shaun’s life is Ed-free. By compartmentalizing the monster, Shaun is able to regain his relationship with Liz. He also manages to deconstruct the loser/hero binary. The loser who nonetheless wins in the end, the slacker who heads, he is always both (2011: 174).

Maturity has been achieved, but it’s on the slacker’s terms.

Hot Fuzz

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However, while the maturation arc may be conditional within the narrative of Shaun of the Dead, inasmuch as it’s contingent on the possibility of retaining Boy (albeit in a manner that allows it to be held separately from Adult), it is, at least, present. Shaun of the Dead is available to a wide range of readings, but one of them is, unquestionably, the manner in which adolescent masculinity throws off the iconography of childhood in order to progress towards adulthood and thereby get the girl. Hot Fuzz, by contrast, begins with adult masculinity — and proceeds to deconstruct it.

“In Hot Fuzz,” says director Edgar Wright, “you’ve got the professional who sacrifices his life for work, and the naive idiot. They have to find a middle ground – one of them’s going to get dumber and the other’s going to get smarter, and they’re going to meet in the middle” (Huddleston, 2013b [online]). “Naive idiot” is one way to describe Constable Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), and, to be fair, it’s probably more appropriate than “slacker.” Danny holds down a career of sorts that he neither resents nor particularly dislikes (if he does express a level of discontent with the lack of thrills in small-town policing), and, if he and the Sandford police force are not exactly invested in solving the mysterious series of deaths plaguing their village, this is framed more as bucolic inexperience than disconnected apathy. Moreover, far from the slacker’s passive disinterest in the iconography of adult responsibility, Danny is the only member of the service to express enthusiasm for the theories expounded by the diligent, conscientious Sergeant Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg). Finally, this text contains no heterosexual object choice to act as the reward for either of the male leads’ progress in learning to perform the hegemonic, since it sets out to poke gentle fun at the homoeroticism of the buddy cop genre.

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However, commonalities persist. For Shaun’s LP collection, we can substitute Danny’s extensive selection of DVDs, among the few items he has managed to unpack since moving into his house “about five years ago,” and which are stored in a walk-in cupboard that takes on the aspect of a shrine as he steps inside. For Shaun’s fondness for video games, there is Danny’s almost fetishistic appreciation of weapons, encapsulated in an awed “By the power of Grayskull!” as he steps into farmer Webley’s armament-packed outhouse. And there’s also his “By the power of Greyskull!” refrain, echoed by Pegg when he sets eyes of Danny’s movie collection, a reference to the 1980s cartoon series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe — exactly the kind of retro-hip pop-culture reference that is the slacker’s hallmark (what Denby identifies as the practice of “memorializing his youth”). Like Shaun, Danny drinks to excess; like Shaun, his social world revolves around the local pub. And, while he may not feel stifled in his job, he’s content to do as little as possible in the performance of his duty — to quote again from Denby: “Whatever he does, he hardly breaks a sweat, and sometimes he does nothing at all” (2007 [online]).

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Moreover, even those traits that are not specifically slacker could most usefully be described as infantile: he dresses up, with his dad, in cowboy costumes; the police station is a hotbed of cake and ice-cream consumption, led by Danny, whose drunken indiscretions are atoned for by the involuntary purchase of high-sucrose comestibles; his conversational style most closely resembles an excitable pre-pubescent boy; and, in the sequence during and immediately after the church fete, he’s cuddling an oversized stuffed monkey toy, won for him by Angel at the rifle range. Finally, although his trajectory is not specifically Oedipal, like Shaun, he must overcome the father before he is able to realise his progress towards adulthood, repudiating Frank’s influence in the final act in order to locate himself further along the path to mature independence.

And then there’s Angel. Much of the movie’s comedy focuses on the “fish out of water” motif invoked by planting the serious, career-minded, incorruptible sergeant in the middle of rural Gloucestershire and watching him struggle to adapt to emergencies like escaped swans and the blight of the Living Statue, but Angel is also useful in establishing an alternative, oppositional mode of performing masculinity to that performed by Danny. He is highly decorated, focused, and deliberate; he is educated, capable, and ambitious; he works out, does not drink alcohol, refuses cake, and consumes no caffeine after midday. Where Danny’s physique is of the overweight, out of condition couch-potato type, Angel’s body is a temple: all lean, spare lines, honed to perfection by his daily runs and a course in advanced cycling. His intuition tells him that something is rotten in the state of Sandford, and he has the tenacity, self-knowledge, and expertise to follow it up, borne of his superior embodiment of what Moss calls “the traditional male heroes – firemen, policemen, soldiers” (2012: 7). Yet, for all that several tropes of the masculine ideal find expression in the body of Nicholas Angel, he does not achieve the hegemonic paradigm, as several clues within the narrative make clear.

In the first place, the movie establishes in an early scene that not only has Angel’s masculine performance, as articulated through his devotion to his “traditional male hero” role, not rewarded him with his choice of love interest, it has actually been instrumental in destroying his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Janine. “You were already married to the force, weren’t you?” she snaps as Angel tells her about his transfer to Sandford. “It’s only ever about the job. That’s all you care about… You just can’t switch off, Nicholas.” Moreover, Angel’s single-minded devotion to his calling has isolated him from his peers; when he insists that his team will object to the transfer, he discovers instead that they’ve already set up his leaving party, and he fares no better in Sandford, alienating the majority of his new workplace and several locals within twenty-four hours of his arrival as a result of his immutable observance of the law. Adult masculinity, as embodied in Angel, is neither ideal nor particularly healthy: it is excessive, divisive, and frustrates the progress of daily life.

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If Shaun dramatised the struggle of the slacker to achieve just enough maturity to make him an acceptable choice of mate, Hot Fuzz inverts the narrative arc and positions adult masculinity, from the beginning, as disruptive and undesirable. The “middle ground” that Angel and Danny end up sharing involves the former learning to swear and make crude jokes, to drink beer and open up to the possibility of bending the rules enough to make room for human companionship. Danny’s progress is less in evidence. True, he is able to relinquish Boy to the extent that he steps out from his father’s shadow and begins to act autonomously, but there is little evidence beyond this that he has made significant progress out of the realms of slacker masculinity. Indeed, the closing exchange between Angel and Danny suggests precisely the opposite: on receiving a report of “some hippie types messing with the recycling bins at the supermarket,” Angel comments to Danny, “Sergeant Butterman, little hand says it’s time to rock and roll.” It’s an overt reference to the high-octane, Hollywood cop movies that Danny reveres — the Point Breaks and the Bad Boys IIs — and evidences, rather than Danny’s surrender of the preoccupations of youth, Angel’s acceptance of their place within adult life. Danny’s response confirms this when he replies with, “Bring the noise,” and Angel throws the car into a handbrake turn and speeds off. It’s less a middle ground between “the professional who sacrifices his life for work and the naive idiot” than the encroach of the slacker sensibilities into the hegemonic, to everyone’s benefit.

The World’s End

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Gary King, however, is another matter entirely. Where Shaun required the protagonist to achieve adult masculinity only inasmuch as this allowed him to contain and compartmentalise Boy (as embodied in his relationship with zombie Ed), and Hot Fuzz required Angel to sacrifice a measure of his adulthood in order to partially embrace slacker sensibilities and his own personal happiness, The World’s End, on first glance, apparently presents a wholly negative picture of the man-child who cannot or will not grow up. Gary King (Simon Pegg) is a forty-something loser obsessed with the glories of lost youth. These found their apogee in a pub crawl on the night of June 22, 1990, in which he and his friends, Oliver Chamberlain (Martin Freeman), Peter Page (Eddie Marsan), Steven Prince (Paddy Considine), and Andy Knight (Nick Frost), attempted to take on the twelve pubs of the legendary Golden Mile in their native middle-England town of Newton Haven. The plan sputtered to a drunken halt halfway through, but it has been elevated, in Gary’s mind to the best night of his life, a pinnacle of hedonism that can never be matched.

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Oliver, Peter, Steven and Andy have all transitioned into successful middle age, all with good, productive jobs, and Peter and Andy are apparently happily married at the beginning of the narrative. Gary, on the other hand, wears the same Sisters of Mercy t-shirt and long black trench coat that he favoured in the early 1990s, listens to the mix-tape that Steven made for him in school, and drives the beat-up old car that he bought from Peter in his late teens. But, more than that, he retains the abrasive, obnoxious, self-centred attitude of a spoiled teenage boy a little too accustomed to the unproblematic adoration of his peers, and is completely unable to recognise that, not only do his peers no longer adore him, they actively dislike him.

We’re introduced to Gary as he relates the story of the Golden Mile in voiceover flashback, and, on its conclusion, we discover that he’s actually speaking the words in-text — telling the story of his youthful alcoholic shenanigans to a circle of listeners that looks suspiciously like an AA meeting. That this does not strike Gary as inappropriate — in fact, there’s a sense that he’s supremely proud of his story, and expecting the wholehearted approbation of his companions — serves as an effective positioning mechanism for his character. Tom Huddleston, reviewing the movie for TimeOut, sums him up perfectly when he writes that “As Gary, Pegg boldly plays up the most aggravating aspects of his persona; it’s hard to remember a movie hero as unashamedly obnoxious as this… [he] flirts dangerously with bearability: yes, we recognise and understand Gary’s flaws, but it can still be hard to resist the temptation to punch the screen” (2013a, online). And, if the audience is left wanting to inflict actual bodily harm on the man, how much more insufferable must he be to his diegetic companions, left to suffer the consequences of his excessive, uncontainable childishness?

The World’s End pulls no punches in establishing Gary’s performance of slacker masculinity as thoroughly disruptive: he is greeted with cold-blooded fury by Peter’s father, manager of the upmarket car showroom where Peter now works, and a hissed, “What’s he doing here?” as Peter tries to get him out the door. Gary has no interest in Peter’s life, wishes or desires, to the extent that he cannot remember the name of Peter’s wife, even when Peter has told him only moments earlier. He causes havoc as “the helmet without a helmet,” when he walks, blithely unconcerned, across the building site where Steven works, lighting a cigarette and waving as workmen struggle to avoid dropping rubble on him. Oliver, now an agent for a boutique real estate company, is showing a young couple around a £1.2 million house when Gary turns up, foul-mouthed and inappropriate, and cheerfully assures the couple, who are uncertain as to whether or not they can afford the asking price, that “He’ll knock some off for you — what’s it on for?” “One point two million,” replies the husband, to which Gary sputters, “Fuck off!” Unsurprisingly, they do, despite Oliver’s attempts to salvage the sale. Finally, Andy: once Gary’s closest friend, he has now cut him out of his life entirely, replying to his secretary’s announcement that, “You have a friend here to see you,” with “No, I don’t.” As the narrative unfolds, it emerges that, several years ago, Andy crashed his car while drunk during a desperate attempt to get Gary, who was mid-overdose, to hospital. Andy was seriously injured in the crash, but Gary suddenly recovered from his OD and fled the scene, leaving Andy to face the consequences alone. This revelation, however, comes late in the narrative; for the majority, all we know is that Andy harbours a long-standing antipathy towards his erstwhile friend and, though we don’t need the details, by this stage in the narrative — no more than ten minutes in — we’ve seen enough of Gary to understand that, whatever it is that has come between the two of them, Andy’s complaint is sure to be well-founded.

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What the opening section establishes, the text follows through: Gary pretends to be Peter when he’s pulled over for speeding, and it turns out that he’s been doing this for several years, and has accrued a number of penalty points on Peter’s license. He rings doorbells and runs away, leaving his friends to bear the wrath of the angry home owner. He impugns Andy’s masculinity when Andy orders water instead of beer, having given up drinking alcohol after their crash. He makes inappropriate comments about Oliver’s sister, Sam, with whom Gary had sex in the toilets of the Two Headed Dog on their long-ago pub crawl, and follows her into the ladies room of The Old Familiar minutes after she arrives to say hello to her brother, assuming that they’ll be having sex again. And it’s Gary’s insistence that they continue their pub crawl that keeps them in Newton Haven, even after all four have expressed a desire to leave — and even after it emerges that their lives are in danger. Moreover, as Wright explains, “the thing that’s different in this movie, as opposed to Shaun of the Dead and some of the apocalypse films around at the moment, is that in Shaun, it’s not his fault that the zombie apocalypse is happening, and it’s not his job to save the day. In World War Z, it’s not Brad Pitt’s fault, he’s just a guy. But in The World’s End, Simon’s character Gary literally provokes a cosmic intervention. We liked the idea that you take this character who’s a walking car crash, whose fuck-ups have become legend. And he goes from being a social nuisance to becoming a galactic nuisance” (2013b [online]). Gary King’s slacker masculinity is not just an annoyance to the folks around him: it’s a causative factor in bringing about the end of the world.

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And yet, for all of their frustration and amply justified irritation, there remains a sense that, though they might not like to admit it, adulthood has invested the lives of Gary’s friends with a certain ennui at best, outright dissatisfaction at worst. Peter, might have a good job, a nice house, and a wife and family, but he remains cowed by everyone: his father is formidable in his brief scene at the car showroom, and it appears that Peter is regularly required to seek his wife’s permission before he acts. Steven’s marriage ended and he’s now dating a much younger woman, though he has remained in love with Sam from afar ever since their schooldays, when Gary wooed her after discovering Steven’s crush. Finally, Andy’s marriage is in difficulty, as we discover in an emotional scene at The World’s End, in which he reveals that his wife left him three weeks earlier. But more than this: despite Gary’s skill at manipulation and his habit of getting his own way, none of the four had any obligation to join him in his quest to reach The World’s End, and yet they all turn up anyway, protesting to each other that it’s against their better judgment. And they all remain — to Sam’s horror — even once it’s clear that they ought to leave, and even after she offers them a way out. There is a sense that, no matter how exasperated they might be, a small part of each of them shares Gary’s hankering for days gone by; that the performance of adult masculinity — with its attendant responsibilities and concomitant surrender of freedoms — is less than satisfactory, however undesirable they may find Gary’s choices. They don’t want to be him — except they do, just a little bit.

It is, however, the film’s coda that provides the most interesting insight into the movie’s positioning of masculinity, both adult and slacker. The World’s End, it turns out, is not simply the last pub of the Golden Mile, it’s also the nexus for the alien invasion of Newton Haven. Simon Pegg describes the film as “a quest movie with an extremely irresponsible King Arthur at the helm of it” (Shaw-Williams, 2013 [online]), but, irresponsible as Gary may be, his quest, in fact, appears to be the only spanner in the works of the Network’s plans, which are now in an advanced state of readiness. Had Gary done the sensible thing — the adult thing — and quit the town when he had the chance, had he abandoned his irresponsible quest, the planned assimilation of planet Earth would have proceeded unchecked and there would have been a whole lot more robot simulacra running around, and a whole lot less free will for the human race. The Network, it emerges, have spread across the galaxy in a reign of peace and harmony (instituted by infiltrating planets and indoctrinating them, willingly or otherwise, to their way of thinking) and they’ve “seen something” in humanity that has sent them Earthwards.

In fact, Gary’s interview with the voice of the Network resembles nothing so much as a discussion with a school guidance counsellor, in a nod to a number of references throughout the narrative to Guy Shepherd (Pearse Brosnan), the fatherly teacher from Gary’s school who always wanted to talk to him about his future. “We are here,” says the voice (played by Bill Nighy), “to enable your full potential.” The scene that follows plays out like an argument between a rebellious teenager and any figure of authority, but what is most interesting about it is that it resonates perfectly with the complaints voiced against Gary by his companions throughout the movie — except that now Steven and Andy are siding with Gary, and, by extension, positioning themselves as performers of the same adolescent tendencies that he expresses. When the Network argue that “we are here for your betterment… you are children and you require guidance,” Andy’s response is to ask, not unreasonably, “Who put you in charge? Who are you to criticise anyone?” His point is undeniable, but it’s the first step on his path that leads inexorably towards conflating the behaviour of Gary King in a world full of adult masculinity with the behaviour of the human race in a galaxy full of Network-based tranquility and consensus. “You act out the same cycles of self-destruction again and again,” points out the Network, to which Gary replies, “Hey! It is our basic human right to be fuck-ups! This civilisation was founded on fuck-ups! And you know what? That makes me proud!” “Yeah!” agrees Andy. “And me!”

In the space of minutes, Andy has shrugged off the self-denying adult masculinity that caused him to wrestle Gary to the floor of The World’s End, yelling, “You need help, Gary!” and assumed a Gary-lite mantle of “adultescence” (Cross, 2013: 5) to make the heartfelt argument that the human race “are more belligerent, more stubborn, and more idiotic than you could possibly imagine. And I am not just talking about Gary.” His point is that, if the Network thinks humanity will sit back and accept blind acquiescence to a galactic order, they have seriously underestimated our desire for freedom of thought and will, but, in so doing, he has explicitly conflated that desire with Gary’s life choices: humanity’s freedom from the Network’s constricting conformity is no different, in the final analysis, to Gary’s freedom from the constricting conformity of adult masculinity. Freedom is aligned with childishness, and, more than this, the freedom of childishness is positioned as fundamental to human happiness. Conformity, constriction — the maturity required by the Network — is, by extension, antithetical to the human spirit, which can only be truly free if it retains the “basic human right to be fuck-ups.” And thus Gary’s slackerdom is recuperated, integrated with the all-consuming human need for self-determination — regardless of the cost — and invested as a fundamental aspect of human existence, and something in which to take pride. “Face it!” snaps Gary. “We are the human race, and we don’t like being told what to do!”

There’s a loaded pause. Then, the Network asks, “Just what is it that you want to do?” Gary’s answer, true to form, is the answer of the man-child, who seeks to evade the responsibilities of adulthood: “We wanna be free!” he says. “We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time.” And this, it seems, is what it takes to convince the Network to withdraw. “It’s pointless arguing with you,” says the voice, a replica of Andy’s words from earlier in the narrative when the group were attempting to talk Gary out of one more wildly irresponsible idea that would inevitably lead to trouble for everyone but himself. “You will be left to your own devices.” Slacker sensibilities, extended to the human race as a whole, are more effort than they are worth to the exasperated Network, and humanity’s freedom is thereby assured: nobody is going to make us step up to mature conformity.

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But the Network’s withdrawal is not the end of the narrative. A spectacular explosion follows their departure, levelling Newton Haven, and it’s only the timely return of Sam, who had earlier escaped the town in the group’s single working car, that saves Gary, Andy and Steven from being levelled along with it. They gather on the hillside to view the ruins of their home town in a reprise of the movie’s opening sequence, in which Gary and friends watched the sun come up on the morning of June 23, 1991, and it’s possible to read this scene as fulfilling a similar function to Shaun and Ed’s farewell in the cellar of the Winchester at the end of Hot Fuzz: a final goodbye to youth, in the sense that Gary is watching the destruction of the site of his exalted adolescence in a manner that overtly echoes the zenith of his glorified past. In fact, though it signifies change — a paradigm shift, in fact — it is not the metamorphosis from Boy into Adult that we might expect. Rather, as suggested by the preceding scene in The World’s End, the shift is in the narrative positioning of Boy.

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As they watch the town burn, a voiceover from Andy segues us into the final sequence, set in a post-apocalyptic world laid waste by a global technological shutdown that was precipitated by the Network’s retreat. As the scene cuts, it turns out that he’s telling their story to a group of children huddled around a fire by night, effectively tying up the remaining narrative threads, and the generic shift from effects-heavy, killer-robot sci-fi hyperbole to gritty, near-future dystopia is both startling and, narratively speaking, completely unexpected. In fact, the final five minutes of screen time might be drawn from a completely different movie — except for the manner in which they draw to a close the movie’s interrogation of Gary’s masculine performance.

The other characters have restored some level of adult, responsible normality into their post-apocalyptic lives, integrating their new reality into the old, for the most part (on a superficial examination, at least) successfully. Steven and Sam have finally become a couple and live in a caravan outside London. Oliver and Peter, replaced by simulacra — or “blanks,” as the characters refer to them — have returned to their old lives; Oliver as an estate agent in a world without real estate, Peter as the henpecked husband of Vanessa (says Andy, of Peter’s reincarnation as a robot, “I’m not sure his wife noticed”). As for Andy himself, he was able to rescue his marriage, both parties having decided that their marital problems didn’t seem quite so significant in the face of the end of the world.

And Gary? Nobody has heard from Gary since “the lights went out,” but, though Andy isn’t able to relate his story, we see it play out as he concludes his tale. “Wherever he is, I hope he’s happy,” finishes Andy. “That’s all he ever wanted really — to have a good time. I just hope he found it beyond the bottom of the glass. Because real happiness, real friends — those are things worth living for. Worth fighting for.” As he speaks, we see a masked man at the head of a team of five who, as they emerge from a smoky haze, turn out to be the robotic younger versions of Steven, Andy, Oliver and Peter from the Network’s Newton Haven HQ, now reanimated and following a mysterious leader. They approach a lonely rural bar, emblazoned with a sign proclaiming “NO BLANKS.” Unperturbed, the group enter anyway, crossing the floor to mutters of “Blank bastards” from the patrons. As they approach the bar, their leader removes his mask to reveal a clean-shaven, smiling Gary, who cheerfully asks the barman for “Five waters, please.” “You can have one,” says the barman, “but I ain’t serving this scum.” “Oh well,” says Gary, with a grin, “I’m afraid it’s all for one and one for all. You see, my young friends and I are on an adventure — a quest, if you will — and, since we find ourselves in need of refreshment, you, sir, have the honour of drawing first blood.” As chaos, predictably, breaks out, the barman growls, “Who the hell do you think you are?”

“Me?” says Gary. “They call me the king.”

And, with joyful abandon, he flings himself into the fight. The others may have found quiet, adult contentment in their post-apocalyptic world, but Gary has found something more profound: his true place. Freed forever from the constraints of civilised, responsible society, he is able to devote the rest of his life to the pursuit of old glories, riding at the head of his erstwhile teenage compatriots. Healthy, happy, and ebullient, this is the slacker in his element: transported to a place where his performance of masculinity is no longer derided, but is, in fact, actively as useful as any other. The world has not managed to persuade Gary King to change, to relinquish his slacker masculinity in order to fit a proscribed role. Instead, Gary’s slacker masculinity has, effectively, reordered the world itself so that it fits him.

Conclusion: The Triumph of the Man-Child

The Cornetto trilogy, according to TimeOut, is “a tale of emotionally stunted boy-men trying to find their way in an unfriendly universe” (Huddleston, 2013a). “They’re all relationship comedies, and they’re all about perpetual adolescence,” says Edgar Wright of his movies the close of a saga in which The World’s End figures  as “a final act — and it is very final” (Huddleston, 2013b). It’s true that the trilogy was not conceived of as such, and, in fact, only became a trilogy in the minds of its creators after the second instalment was already on cinematic release (Shaw-Williams, 2013), but the interrogation of the slacker archetype remains consistent throughout, indicating a certain investment in this particular mode of performing masculinity. The first two movies may have been conceived of as standalone texts, but the third was instituted from the beginning as a coda to a set of three, and so its gender paradigm is constructed in such a manner as to integrate it with its predecessors. As such, the conclusion is all the more noteworthy. Where Shaun’s narrative arc dragged him, somewhat against his will, out of his adolescent rut and obliged him to overcome the disruptive influence of Boy in order to ascend sufficiently to adult masculinity that he was capable of performing Warrior and reconciling with his love interest, and Angel, already a performer par excellence of responsible maturity, found that the path to fulfilment required him to partially relinquish Adult and embrace the more playful aspects of slacker sensibilities, Gary’s masculine performance is the trilogy’s final word on the matter, and it is, in the final analysis, the most overt celebration of the man-child to be found in any of the three films.

It’s true that his performance of masculinity has rendered him unable to function adequately within adult society, to the extent that he has alienated all his (adult, responsible) friends and, as we discover on the floor of The World’s End, such is the depth of his misery that he has recently attempted suicide. Moreover, the film goes to considerable lengths to pathologise his efforts to remain infantilised, his inability to leave the past behind, and his veneration of an idealised lost youth which he seeks to recapture in order to validate his refusal to achieve adulthood: he is deceitful, manipulative, inappropriate, oblivious,  disruptive, threatening to the established hegemonic performance of the other players, and irritating enough that it’s “hard to resist the temptation to punch the screen” (2013a, online) when he speaks. And yet, despite all this, the narrative resolution actively glorifies the infantilism, to the extent that his happy ending is to re-enact his mythologised past as a quasi-heroic figure -– essentially unchanged, other than the fact that what was formerly pathetic is now redeemed by virtue of the fact that the paradigm has shifted so completely that this rebellious, fringe behaviour is recuperated, made noble, and given prestige within the new reality.

The genre conventions invoked by Gary’s final appearance recall the Outsider Anti-hero of Mad Max, himself an echo of an archetype of masculinity intrinsic to the western, with its interrogation of civilisation/wilderness, and its conflation of this binary with feminine/masculine. This final sequence, then, undermines the gender discourse of the previous two hours, in which excessive, infantilised adult masculinity is the disruptive, dis-ordering force that threatens the settled status quo, and, to a certain extent, inverts it: Gary has not shifted to accommodate the paradigm — the paradigm has shifted to accommodate him. The extreme shift of the final few minutes of the movie recuperates him into a warrior hero of sorts, embodying a traditional – even essentialised – performance of masculinity. And, while it is, perhaps, not fair to say that Gary’s infantilised actions have explicitly caused the paradigm shift, they have caused the abandonment of “civilisation,” now problematised (and, essentially, rejected) by its affiliation with The Network. Gary, it seems, was right all along: adulthood, conformity, responsible social productivity is a trap. Human beings are not designed to function in this way. It’s a fundamental mis-reading of our essential nature –- and the solution, it would appear, is to revert to a pre-industrial stage of human evolution in which the constrictions of modern, adult life are removed and everyone is free to make their own, individualised determination of what appropriate masculine performance ought to look like. It’s a testament to the slacker aesthetic embodied in the Cornetto trilogy that its ideal is a return to playfulness, the endless quest for adventure, the denial of adult responsibilities and everything that entails: a world in which the man-child is King.

Bibliography

Gary Cross (2013). Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity (New York, Columbia University Press)

Denby, D. (2007, July 23rd). A Fine Romance. Retrieved September 18, 2013, from newyorker.com: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/07/23/070723fa_fact_denby

Huddleston, T (2013a, July 8th). The World’s End. Retrieved July 26, 2013, from Timeout.com: http://www.timeout.com/london/film/the-worlds-end

Huddleston, T. (2013b, July 9th). Edgar Wright: ‘I Can’t Watch Zombie Movies’. Retrieved July 26, 2013, from Timeout.com: http://www.timeout.com/london/film/edgar-wright-i-cant-watch-zombie-movies

Tom Lutz (2006). Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums (New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)

Lynn Piper (2011). “Slacker Bites Back: Shaun of the Dead Finds New Life for Deadbeats” in Christie, Deborah and Lauro, Sarah Juliet [eds]: Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie As Post-Human (New York, Fordham University Press)

Shaw-Williams, H. (2013, June). ‘The World’s End’ Featurette: The Accidental Cornetto Trilogy. Retrieved July 27, 2013, from Screenrant.com:http://screenrant.com/the-worlds-end-movie-featurette-cornetto-trilogy/


[1] Regardless of the material reality for modern masculine performance, heterosexuality remains critical to the constitution of hegemonic masculinity (Donaldson, 1993: 646). The fact that the heterosexual object of desire functions as a “reward” of sorts for the performance of hegemonic masculinity within the majority of texts that feature the heroic archetype is linked to the notion of heteroperformativity — the means by which the heterosexual hero affirms his heterosexuality — and the institution of the heterosexual union as a marker of appropriate masculine performance. The heterosexual union affirms the hero’s hegemonic masculine performance, and his hegemonic masculine performance affirms his entitlement to the heterosexual union.

ABOUT

Rachael Kelly received her PhD in Film Studies from the University of Ulster, where she researched the performance of gender anxiety in the historical epic film. She is the author of the forthcoming Mark Antony and Popular Culture: Masculinity and the Construction of an Icon (IB Tauris, January 2014).

‘Stop acting like I’m not a monster [. . .] Look at yourself [. . .] Then tell me I’m not a monster’ (Meyer 2008: 54)

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The potency of Romance never wears out and, as proven by the genre’s outstanding position at the consumer market – $1.438 billion in sales in 2012 (Romance Writers of America 2013) – the stories of bewildering affection, emotional struggle, solid bond and exclusive togetherness still raise interest and sell extremely well. Popular Romance fiction is thriving and seems to have reached another climactic moment, marked by exceptional (at least for now) inventiveness in  representing love, the emblem of which became the Fifty Shades trilogy by E. L. James, that confirmed the potential of fandom ‘fantasies’ and pleasure deficits to be met in readers worldwide.

With a Cinderella storyline, Fifty Shades of Grey (2011), and the two subsequent volumes, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed (2012), offer an extensive narrative on the relationship between 21-year old Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey (28) who express their fondness and emotional engagement through BDSM (bondage / discipline, dominance / submission, sadism / masochism). Relying on conventional patterns – love at first sight -, well-working schemata – he is wealthy, handsome and unapproachable; she is pretty, mysterious, smart and poor –  and cultural codes – the eventual marriage proposal – the books create an ideal romance as they tell a story of ‘an intelligent and independent woman . . .[who] is overwhelmed, after much suspicion and distrust, and some cruelty and violence, by the love of an intelligent, tender . . . man, who in the course of their relationship is transformed form an emotional pre-literate to someone who can care for her and nurture her in ways that traditionally we would expect only from a woman to a man’ (Storey 1996, p. 48).

But content-wise, the novels arguably exceed the frames of a popular love narrative; as the two characters go beyond common courtship and replace the well-tried forms of physical togetherness with non-normative sexual acts.

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The peculiar combination of aesthetics emerges slowly in the story and is administered to the reader in incremental doses. The series opens with the couple’s encounter, when Ana substitutes her friend to interview Christian (a young multimillionaire) for a college magazine at his company headquarters in Seattle. They make a tremendous impression on each other and develop an obsessive need for mutual company which eventually leads to the union sealed with a contract in which Ana agrees to be Christian’s submissive. The agreement is preceded by chivalric gestures (Christian rescues drunk Ana from an abusive civility of her beau José); expensive presents (after her finals, Christian sends Ana, a literature student, a first edition copy of Tess d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy); demonstrations of affluence (he flies her to his apartment in a private helicopter); and scenes of transition (Christian takes Ana’s virginity in a tender physical union). Since the contract, they ‘don’t make love. [They] fuck… hard’, (James 2011, p. 69), which causes a dramatic break up at the end of book  one, followed by a happy reunion in book two, and a long anticipated marriage with two kids, hearth’n’home and continued ‘kinky fuckery’ (James 2012, p. 88) in book three.

Reviewed as ‘awesome,’ ‘captivating’ and ‘thought-provoking’ (Amazon 2012), the novels begat a cultural phenomenon; originating from Twilight fandom, they started a new cult, the scale of which exceeded expectations of the very author. Offering the alternative version of the immensely popular story by Stephanie Mayer, Snowqueen Icedragon (the pen name of E. L. James) intended only to give Twilight a more mature slant and customize it to the needs of adult readership. As James admits, she ‘never, ever, ever, ever’ imagined her Fifty Shades fantasy succeed the way it has, and finds the aftermath of the book ‘really, quite scary’ (ABCNews 2012).

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Scary is a word most apt to describe the entire Fifty Shades phenomenon. There is something monstrous about the novels, its literary position, social functions and the representations of love they offer. This monstrosity manifests itself at many levels and is most demonstrated by: (1) the terrifying popularity of the series, which has already sold over 60 million copies worldwide, crushing ‘Rowling . . . Shakespeare, Austen, and all the Booker Prize nominees combined’ (Lennard 2012); (2) the abhorrent literary style of the narrative, referred to as ‘repetitive,’ which some may pin on the fandom origin of the story, but which, in fact, comes from the simplistic manner of framing the plot that is ‘terribly badly written’ (De Lacey 2013); (3) the hybrid (fandom-originated) nature of the story, and the generic cross-breed of ‘mommy porn’ it produced; (4) the horrifying impact of the series on non-literary markets, observable in trend-setting the Fifty Shades lifestyle, followed by the emergence of gadgets, sex toys, events and rituals imitating practices from the novel; (5) and finally, its hideously superficial image of non-normative intimacy, which appropriates and domesticates hard-core sex, providing it by means of legitimized symbols (monogamous, heterosexual marriage) and most appreciated aesthetics of literary production (popular romance novel).

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Modern Romance is a literary form designed to support specific cultural models that have contributed to the development of Western societies. Introduced by the bourgeoisie, romance has served to encourage love ideals expected to reinforce the social structures of the Western world, and stimulated emotional evolution which, as Eva Illouz observes, changed ‘sexual arousal [in]to the codified sentiment of love’ (Illouz 1997, p. 4). For a long time, the Romance novel has promoted the value of strong bonds and heteronormative, monogamous relationships. The genre has underpinned the establishment of social order where marriage is sacred and crucial to the organization of life. Putting a monogamous and stable relationship in its centre, romance has supported the idea of social stability and critiqued or disavowed any ‘aberrant’ relationship form that could be viewed as endangering or corrupting the established order – that is, one in which heteronormativity is regarded as ‘correct’. The genre has not abstained from erotic representations and, since Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), it has eagerly explored the exotic and scandalous. Fifty Shades of Grey, however, marks a certain shift: for the first time hard-core sexual practices (no matter how ‘vanilla’ they are in the book) have impacted upon the popular circuit of culture with such intensity. The enthusiastic reactions to the novels have proven high interest in, and even a higher acceptance for, non-normative sexualities.  The novels became a successful formula to sell the hard-core to the mainstream, and a good recipe to transform the status of porn that, served and consumed as a popular product, lost its marginal flavour, turning into something ‘well-liked’ and ‘widely favoured’ (Williams R 1988, p. 236). Although some romance scholars question the novelty of tropes used in Fifty Shades claiming that ‘nothing (E.L. James) has done is new, apart from having 20,000 fan fiction followers ready to buy the book the instant it was available’ (Teach Me Tonight 2012), the phenomenon of Fifty Shades has been of an immense impact on the genre of romance, the book market and the entire process of consuming romance fiction, which emphasizes the social status of love narrative and defining anew its cultural functions.

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As defined in the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Romance is ‘principally a form of entertainment’ (Cuddon 1999, p. 758), and thus ‘is only to give pleasure’ (Fuchs 2004, p. 86). It stands out as a form of exceptional developmental dynamics, characterized by a particular ‘instability of narratological and ideological foundations’ (Fletcher 2008, p. 4). The dynamics observable in the romance novel results from, as Diane Elam asserts, the genre’s ‘concern with the persistence of excess’ (Elam 1992, p. 2). If, as definitions say, Romance is to generate pleasure – if it is primarily to help find contentment and satisfaction – or, at the causative level – thrill and excitement, the discussion on contemporary Romance could be phrased as a discussion on contemporary pleasure – namely, love fantasies produced by the imagination of contemporary mind.

The phenomenon of Fifty Shades has revealed that consumers’ expectations from romance fiction have shifted. The ‘pleasure’ which consumers seek in romance (as a literary genre and a cultural practice) arguably exceed “traditional” representations of love and the fantasies they pursue challenge the common institutions of intimacy, namely, that of the heterosexual – and therefore legitimate – couple). Central to the change of expectations from the popular images of togetherness is the mainstreaming of hard-core sexuality, a tendency Linda Williams defines as “proliferating obscenity on-scene”. As she explains in the preface to Porn Studies, a work that explores the shift in sexual standards,

[r]epresentations of sex that were once deemed obscene, in the literal sense of being off (sic) the public scene, have today insistently appeared in the new public/private realms. . . . The term that I have coined to describe this paradoxical state of affairs is on/scenity: the gesture by which a culture brings on to its public arena the very organs, acts, bodies, and pleasures that have heretofore been designated ob/scene and kept literally off-scene. In Latin, the accepted meaning of the term obscene is quite literally “off-stage” or that which should be kept “out of public view” (OED). On/scene is one way of signaling not just that pornographies are proliferating but that once off (ob) scene sexual scenarios have been brought onto the public sphere. On/scenity marks both the controversy and scandal of the increasingly public representations of diverse forms of sexuality and the fact that they have become increasing available to the public at large (Williams L 2004, p. 3).

The trilogy of novels by E. L. James, referred to by Thorpe as ‘the porn version of cupcakes and Cath Kidston’ (Thorpe 2012), has indicated that the Twilight-like gentle intimacy is no longer sufficient to satisfy the popular vision of a romantic relationship.” Data behind the popularity of the Fifty Shades series show that pleasures of romance wish to reach beyond the usual / standardized sex package. Although ‘sadomasochism has always had its articulate evangelists’ (Thorpe 2012), the appreciation of sex scenes presented in the novel – which critics described as “overly kinky” or unusual enough to make ‘unconventional modern relationships [in] Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy read like Charlotte Brontë (Thorpe 2012) – communicate a substantial change of standards. Consequently, romance becomes suspended between different experiences: the one (using Barthesian distinction) ‘that contents, fills, grants euphoria; . . . that comes from culture and does not break with it’, and the other, ‘that imposes the state of loss, . . . that discomforts . . ., unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language’ (Barthes 1975, p. 14). The mixture of qualities offered by Fifty Shades of Grey provide inconsistent representations and equally inconsistent pleasures. The book combines two orders: the marginal and the mainstream, subjugating the first to the custody of a conjugal couple and its ‘juridical dimension in the deployment of sexuality’ as well as ‘the economy of pleasure and the intensity of sensations [caught] in the regime of alliance’ (Foucault 1990, pp. 3&108).

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It is difficult to say whether Fifty Shades of Grey is a ‘porn dressed up as romance, or romance dressed up as porn’ (Thorpe 2012). Even if properly deployed, the pleasures in the books operate by the economy of surplus. Sexual representations they depict are excessive and outgrow the conventional images of love making. They complicate the cultural status of a normative love scene, which, according to Žižek – should be kept ‘out of sight’, aestheticized and fantasized.

[A] love scene is always built around a certain insurmountable limit; . . . at a certain point the image is blurred, the camera moves off, the scene is interrupted, we never directly see ‘that’ (the penetration of sexual organs, etc.). In contrast to this limit of representability defining the ‘normal’ love story or melodrama, pornography goes beyond, it ‘shows everything’. The paradox is, however, that by trespassing the limit, it always goes too far, i.e., it misses what remains concealed in a ‘normal’, nonpornographic love scene (Žižek 1992, p. 86).

In a story where everything is revealed, the ‘charm is dispelled . . .. Instead of the sublime Thing, we are struck with vulgar, groaning fornication’ (Žižek 1992, p. 86). As Northrop Frye states in his Study of the Structure of Romance, the pornographic and the erotic are the not same thing (Frye 1975, p. 24). ‘Pornography,’,  Žižek writes, ‘is perverse’ and ‘its perverse character lies not in the obvious fact that it ’goes all the way and shows us all the dirty details’; its perversity is, rather, to be conceived in a strictly formal way. In pornography, the spectator is forced a priori to occupy a perverse position’ (1992, p. 86), which does not mean all the viewers of pornography are perverts, but rather suggest the possibility (or even necessity) of embracing a viewing perspective that guaranties the satisfaction of specific pleasures. Developing such a perspective when reading the Fifty Shades novels is a task hard to achieve due to the inconsistent development of the narrative and the inconsequent location of pleasures.

Fifty Shades of Grey is marked with a constructional breakage. It fails to maintain the balance between the classical representations of affection (‘I love you’) and unconventional forms of  expressing fondness (‘I want to fuck your mouth’, James 2012, p. 88). As much as the books want to marry the good old love story with progressive forms of physical fulfillment, they get disconnected from either, producing, in my opinion, a very irritating piece of writing. In Fifty Shades of Grey, pleasures associated with the experience of romance mix with what protagonists themselves see as disgusting and abnormal (Christian hates his passion for bondage and Ana believes she can heal him with her love). In consequence, the pleasure to be experienced in the trilling encounter with the BDSM sex is dispersed. The reader can neither enjoy the delight of the romantic nor the bliss of transgression.

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Fifty Shades of Grey is a narrative of conflicting intentions. This is where its monstrosity can be located, and where it communicates the false ‘constuctedness of . . .reality’ and uncovers the incompatibilities of discourses used in the Symbolic order (Hock-soon Ng 2005, p. 6). Words ‘monster,’ ‘monstrous,’ ‘monstrosity’ are etymologically associated with two Latin verbs: moneo, monere  – warn, advise – and monstro, monstrare – show, command (Collins 1985, pp. 48&236). Fifty Shades of Grey conveys both the meanings, suspending the pleasures it negotiates to the public gaze between demonstration and warning. The pleasure of of porn is being balanced with its potential hazards.  It is probably where the titillating tension arises. It is probably how the excitement of pushing Kink to the mainstream is being constructed. The phenomenon of Fifty Shades was born from the friction between the urge to show and the obligation to warn. It has become a part of a larger process in which representations of hard-core and normativity are being mediated and expected to
reach a compromise. The ongoing negotiation of the obscene in forms like Fifty Shades of Grey might be, for now, a new way of reconciling the traditional social model with unsocial love fantasies. Monstrous, destabilizing, inconsistently kinky, irritating and annoying, Fifty Shades of Grey and ’love story recipe’ seem to open a new chapter in the genre’s evolution. After the novels’ success, a stream of similar books have flooded the book market and more are to be published. Big publishing houses call for manuscripts that would imitate Fifty Shades style and tropes. Amy Pierpont from Grand Central admits, ‘we are looking for angsty, emotion-packed stories, stories that tease out the ‘will she/won’t she/should she/shouldn’t she” question for a longer ride . . ., stories that get a little (or a lot!) naughty, stories that emphasize that undeniable, unquenchable passion that burns brighter and hotter by the minute, stories that feature gritty bad boys who make you go weak in the knees and do things you NEVER imagined you’d do – or like so flipping much! We are looking at stories featuring younger characters – heroines in their early to mid-twenties, falling for ‘older’ guys in their late twenties – this is a shift we’re making in response to such strong reader response to characters in those age groups.’ (Smart Bitches 2012). Even if erotic fiction have featured the ‘controlling alpha male trope’ for quite a while, the dynamic provided by Fifty Shades, brought it back to the spotlight, developing a new trend, or a subgenre within erotica. The books title alone makes a sort of cultural coinage used to promote or scoff the phenomenon the story has become

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The phenomenon of Fifty Shades shows that the mechanisms of pleasure – pleasure production and reception – that stimulate contemporary representations of love have largely expanded, and the romantic utopia, offered by popular culture (popular understood in terms of popularity and consumption, as well as in terms of processes of the utopia manufacturing), is definitely searching for new cultural codes.  The juxtaposition of mainstream and marginal aesthetics involved in the process produces the effect of suspension, which makes the pleasure of romance lost between what Barthes calls ‘the heavy desire of pornography’ and ‘the light good desire of eroticism’ (Williams L 2004, p. 6).

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Bibliography

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De Lacey, M 2013, ‘’It’s not even sexy!’ EL James’ Fifty Shades Of Grey dismissed as ‘terribly badly written’ by novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford’, Mail Online, 17 June, viewed 5 September 2013, <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2343532/Fifty-Shades-Grey-terrible-EL-James-erotic-fiction-slammed-writer-Barbara-Taylor-Bradford.html>.

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Žižek, S 1992, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture, MIT PRESS, Cambridge, MA.

ABOUT

Dr Anna Malinowska is a lecturer (Pl. Adiunkt / Assistant Professor) in literary and cultural studies at the Department of Literary and Cultural Theory, IKILA (University of Silesia, Poland). Her research interests embrace critical theory, cultural narratives, social and aesthetic codes of cultural production. She is particularly interested in the idea of normativity, the cultural functioning of the ‘lowbrow’ (camp, kitsch, filth), popular culture and the romance genre. Her first book, Characters of Camp. The Study of Posing, is due to be released in 2014. She is currently working on a new project, Postmodern love story.