50 Shades of Ethnic Stereotypes

Warnings: The Fifty Shades series is extremely sexually explicit and involves BDSM. Because of that, and because they are not exactly well-researched or high-quality literature, I will mention things such as abuse, rape, rape culture, male dominance, sexism, relationship violence, and consensual BDSM. Also, the books began as Twilight fanfic, so I will be mentioning Twilight (which is a major squick for a lot of people just by itself).

Question of the Day: Has E. L. James ever interacted with any non-white Americans?

Answer: My best guess is no.

I promise to get back on track next week talking through the “plot” (*cough, cough*) of the book.  Today, however, I need to take a short break to rant about discuss the way Ms. James includes a glaring example of stereotyping.

First of all, what on God’s green Earth was Ms. James thinking when she decided to make her Jacob (remember, this is a warping of Twilight) into a Hispanic man?  Somehow, she has managed to make an even more ethnically caricatured version of a non-white person.  We could have an entire seminar on the ways in which the original Jacob fits right into our misunderstandings about Native Americans; we can even argue about how bad it is.  But there is no possible way to argue about the badness of José.  Every time he appears in a scene, I want to hide in shame.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Ms. James has absolutely no idea what a Hispanic American would be like in person.  I’m not saying here that all Hispanic Americans are alike; not at all.  We have people here who come from all sorts of different places, people who were born in this country but whose parents weren’t, people who were born in other countries but grew up here, and people who are third generation American and beyond.  There is a lot of wonderful diversity.  And that’s my point; Ms. James appears never to have met any of them.  She’s made an utterly boring, generic “Hispanic” character.  Not a man from Mexico or Puerto Rico or Dominican Republic or Cuba or anywhere else; just a guy who happens to know a couple of Spanish words (see below).

My experience has been that my friends are always happy to share about their families and culture if I ask.  Instead of doing some research, Ms. James has chosen to create a flat character who fits the ethnic stereotype in her head.  There is no excuse for this kind of sloppy work.  Not only is it painful and embarrassing to read, it shows a lack of depth in her writing skills.

Now that I’ve said all that, let me explain what else bothers me.   First, the only non-white character we’ve seen so far is the guy who takes his crush on Ana too far.  Was that really necessary?  Here in America, we already have the idea that non-white people are to be feared.  Why extend that to nearly making him commit a crime?  I have the distinct impression that we’re supposed to be unimpressed with José but sympathetic to Christian.  I’m not saying that it was okay for José to manhandle Ana, but his actions are tame in comparison to Christian, and he at least regrets it.  It really, really annoys me that Ms. James has created this obvious ethnic line.  Of course, she’s merely reenforcing the message of the original books, so perhaps we can forgive her.

That is, until we come to my second point, which is that Ms. James should have done her damn research.  I lost count after about the first twenty times José says, “Dios mio!”  Seriously?  Ms. James can use the word fuck, she can describe bathtub blow jobs, and she can make her characters have umpteen orgasms, but she can’t come up with a better Spanish exclamation?  I spent approximately five seconds typing “Spanish swear words” into Google and came up with hundreds of results.  Surely a published author could have taken a little extra time to make her character seem less…I don’t know.  Fake Hispanic?  It’s almost as if she has him use that expression to reiterate that he is completely, entirely, super-duper, actually-in-fact Hispanic.  Oh, wait…that’s exactly what she does.

So to sum up:  Instead of taking the time to meet some Hispanic Americans, or at least do a good Internet search, Ms. James resorts to 1) creating an “ethnic” character to match an “ethnic” character in the original, only with even less depth; 2) making her one minority character into a potential criminal; and 3) overusing the only Spanish she knows to demonstrate her character’s ethnicity.  Those reasons alone confirm this book as one of the worst things I’ve ever read.

Let this be a lesson to you, future authors, on the importance of doing the hard work of understanding your characters and your subject matter before you put it in writing.

2 thoughts on “50 Shades of Ethnic Stereotypes

  1. Well said, Amy.
    My weekly commentary.. Overall I found so many of the characters flat. Totally flat. This is really just bad writing. But again..this is just an example. The whole series is like junk food. So terrible for your mind but it tastes good so you just keep going til the bag is empty!

    • Ha! Yes, exactly. Literary junk food. What’s funny is that in the original Twilight books, although there were certainly issues, the characters weren’t quite so flat. Not perfectly developed, but definitely not so bland. I honestly believe the problem isn’t just bad writing (well, okay, it IS) but the fact that it started as fan fiction. Readers of fan fiction know the book’s characters so well that they just fill in the gaps. But original fiction needs to spend time developing characters in some way, because they are unknown to anyone but the author. This book is like the worst of both worlds, somehow.

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