Frontline Lessons from Other Sectors · International Issues · Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

We Need 50 Shades of Boycotts

My mother saw ’50 Shades of Grey’ on Saturday. This troubles me.

i will gag you

Not because my mother should know better – I’m absolutely sure she wouldn’t (and if she did, I’d kinda be freaked out). But it does concern me because she has witnessed all the controversy circling around the movie – it promotes and romanticizes abuse and sexual violence – and still went to see the film when her friends invited her. She never read the book, nor did she ever really want to. She never saw the trailer, nor did she try to see it when she heard what film she was going to get dragged along to see. All she knew was the controversy. And she went anyway. To me, that means we might be having conversations about boycotting all wrong…

I’m starting to think that the controversy was exactly what made her want to see it. It also is what made her come back and say that the film wasn’t so bad at all. Of course, my mother wasn’t raised in the socio-political training grounds that I’ve been living in for some time. Working in sexual and reproductive health and rights for a number of years might not make a prude like me an expert on anything sexual, but it definitely puts you on to a community of folks whose word you can trust about safe, sane and consensual sex. When all of them said that this didn’t cross those thresholds, I took their word for it. But I’m also aware that when folks like my friends and I talk to folks like my mother, they hear ‘those crazy liberals are trying to make everyone uncomfortable’.

give to a domestic shelter

On one end, the folks I trust did something right. They took someone who didn’t know enough about what they could’ve ended up paying for (in this case, me), and informed him against giving money to a film that at best accidentally romanticized abuse. But I was in the personal place that allowed me to receive that easily. Folks like my mother are not – they’re from the place where any sex on screen has the likelihood to be titillating, and BDSM is so taboo that if I told my mother I knew what it really meant she’d send me to speak to her priest (again). She doesn’t know something’s wrong here, and telling them might not be enough, because the amount of information we have to share plus the language we’d have to couch it in for them to understand is not something you can truly do in an elevator pitch. There is only one shade of boycott, that only activists trained to look for it can see. Most other people are completely colour-blind to these issues, and we still only have one way for them to see. Unfortunately, it might not be working…

I’m not saying my mother’s a regular philistine (well…maybe I am). What I am saying is that the language that we’ve traditionally used to inspire others to join in boycotts against potentially problematic work have only worked for folks who already know or are likely to accept that the work is problematic. We’ve not yet truly discovered how to convert the philistine, to educate them about these sorts of issues quickly and effectively to have them join the cause. And, in that, we are failing. ’50 Shades of Grey’ is at the top of the Box Office charts, with a worldwide total of well over USD $400 million. While almost all the critical conversations about the film are bad – not just Certified Rotten reviews, but genuine concerns that the film reduces our ability to recognize abuse in all its forms. Everything that people who know better are saying is trying to guide folks away from the film, and it may very well be doing the opposite.

I’m not here to say that everyone needs to stop what they’re doing and tie their friends and family down to stop them from watching the movie. As you can imagine, that’s just as problematic… But, if we are to perfect a system of preventing our money from perpetuating the harmful, we do need to figure out some things. We need to figure out how to make boycotting easier than it already is – as easy as Buycott – but in different forms for different folks. We need to figure out how to have these very dense conversations quicker and more effectively (I think memes like the first image are a decent place to start). And we need to cater those conversations specifically for those who have no clue what we’re talking about. Because those folks are in the majority, keeping dangerous things alive with their money. Learning how to have the noise travel outside of our well-curated echo chambers, however we figure out how, is how we make a better world. Or, at least, stop participating in the worse one…

a feminist fantasy


2 thoughts on “We Need 50 Shades of Boycotts


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