Fifty Shades of Grey: Abusive or Sexy?
When the Supernaughts asked me to write an article on the theme of Fifty Shades of Grey: Abusive or Sexy, my first instinct was to say no. It’s Fifty Shades; the point has been made. Better authors than me have explained that this is an abusive relationship straight into the ground.
But the fact that people are still asking that question (people other than the hoards of Twilight fans who already love it and reserved their tickets ages ago) suggests that it is worth taking a whack at elaborating on the point. If nothing else, most of those critiques are based off the first book alone, and I’m so hideously stubborn that I read all three, so If I don’t have better awful to add to the pile, at least I have more of it.
Fifty shades was aimed directly at the giant, hungry market of Twilight fans, who absorbed all the abusive subtext the book had to offer and still wanted more. All those ‘mommies’ and all those former tweens who thought Edward was so dreamy and Bella was so lucky got a second book and film series to cherish. For all that the sex in the book steals the spotlight, encouraging mommy and daddy to try doing it with a blindfold isn’t the main impact the Fifty Shades series will actually have; the true legacy of this book is filling in the weaknesses in the Twilight ‘how to be a domestic violence victim’ correspondence course. This one, unlike its PG predecessor, doesn’t just want to evangelize to you about the joys of victimization; it wants to give you instructions. The author, E.L. James, is on record saying that this series is about a woman with agency negotiating the terms of a loving & consensual relationship.
If Fifty Shades is supposed to be about an empowered woman in a consensual relationship, it is the creepiest, worst written series in the universe.
Unfortunately, it isn’t about that, not really. It is about a woman with really bad luck coming to the attention of a sexual predator, being stalked, hunted, isolated, controlled, subdued, and victimized.
As far as that kind of book goes, I suppose it is a pretty good example of the form. Other than Twilight I haven’t encountered very many, and all the sex probably makes a nice break for people looking for an instruction manual on how to abuse a partner.
As effective as Twilight was for preparing readers to become domestic violence victims, laying it on thick with how romantic it is when someone is so intense they want to hurt you, its lessons may still fall a bit flat in the face of actual reality and physical pain.
But don’t worry folks, Fifty Shades is here to show you all about the nitty gritty of surviving an ultra-controlling, violent partner; just focus on how deep and troubled he is, and how you can fix him! You’ll barely even feel the belt! Well, actually, you will, and it’ll hurt like an s.o.b., but your dark, troubled man will make it all better with Cartier and violent sex.
The flaw in the Twilight indoctrination scheme is that Bella is so outrageously ridiculous that the reader can’t really aspire to be her; you can pine all day and trip over everything you see, but actual humans rarely have the capacity to respond to a breakup by laying in the woods for two days and waiting for a wolf to eat them. Very few people can picture themselves pushing as close as possible to suicide so they can have flashbacks to their ex’s voice.
Ana, on the other hand, is a much better role model for potential victims. She is a more realistic victim, and before she meets Christian she is a more realistic person. Everyone has a sensuous side they can conjure up on occasion, as she does with her inner goddess, and everyone has a doubting subconscious; Christian makes full use of both to control her. Most people would push back when initially subjected to controlling behaviors and extreme jealousy; most push back when they are isolated from their family and friends, just as Ana does.
As with real-world relationships, however, Ana is eventually worn down. Increasingly, her internal dialogue turns hostile and derogatory. She tells herself she is ‘Ho’, and a ‘gold-digger’. She blames herself when Christian gets angry about things. She occasionally rebels in small ways, going drinking with a friend at a bar, rather than at home as she was ordered, or riding Christian’s jet-ski instead of taking a boat to shore, but more and more she regrets doing so and is filled with feelings ranging from apprehension to outright terror. As well she should; almost all banter with Christian is filled with references to his ‘twitching palm’, spankings being permitted even in ‘vanilla’ relationships, or being unable to sit for a week after transgressions. In her sleep he will bite every inch of her to ensure she can’t sunbathe; he will read her boss’ emails, then absorb the company to be certain she can’t get away from with a career and income stream that is hers alone.
Naturally, as this is a romance novel, Ana’s transgressions can’t be ‘burning the roast’ or ‘dinner not ready on time’ so typical in traditional abusive households; here there is a domestic staff to take care of the cooking. Instead, it is her stubborn insistence on going to work, the clothing she selects, her name, talking to the staff, the way she sunbathes, or asking questions on certain topics. Her birth control failing is the ultimate transgression, and met with the most extreme reaction. Sitting in the car after she receives the news, she shakes in terror, and considers whether it would be better to tell Christian in the car, when their driver is present as a witness, or on her own. Or during sex! No, wait, that would be physically dangerous. No shit, honey. Almost every decision Ana makes in the course of her day is analyzed and driven entirely by fear of making Christian angry.
When Ana assets herself in any way, Christian reacts as if following a script: first he finds out where she is and follows her there. Then he gets straight into her personal space and becomes cruel and threatening. Where that isn’t sufficient, he goes straight to demanding sex. The sex in this series is bland and ‘vanilla’ in the extreme, and its only real relevance to the plot is how it is used as a weapon or a tool to achieve goals. At the office, in a car, in an alley, its all the same. Sometimes there is a quick break while he play insecure to get a little extra guilt going. Ana gets derailed from important conversations by sex constantly. She also gets derailed by commands to eat, sleep, or remember his twitching palm. I’m fairly sure the book series ends because at the close of the story she successfully got one full piece of information out of Christian, then died of shock just after the last page. And she only had to get hospitalized and spend four days in a coma to do it!
As so many victims of abusive relationships do, Ana struggles with the question of whether to free herself, or whether she even can. In Ana’s case, the too-familiar tales are somewhat exaggerated for dramatic effect, but nonetheless recognizable. Early in their relationship Ana seeks refuge with her family in another state, but is encouraged to stick it out and returned to her abuser by her mother, mirroring many victims seeking places of safety away from a violent spouse. Later, her decision after a troubling conversation to spend the night at her own home rather than with Christian results in being carried screaming down a crowded street, and finally agreeing to come voluntarily rather than by force. While one sincerely hopes someone would intervene in that situation, it reflects the sense of isolation and indifference a victim may feel from the world at large. At home she is surrounded by staff who express sympathy for her or understanding of her feelings, but do nothing help her and report her to Christian the second she disobeys him. At the end of Fifty Shades of Grey Ana, like many abuse victims, leaves when things first become severely dangerous, but is hunted down and brought back under control less than a week later, filled with guilt over how she upset Christian and expressed her feelings about being beaten.
Ana tries to leave again after her pregnancy is discovered; this plot is interrupted by the hackneyed drama of a kidnapping and demand for a ransom. When, in the course of getting the ransom money she tells Christian via phone that she is indeed leaving him, he tells her to take it and go, but hunts her down and follows her so fast he arrives at the site of the kidnapping within 10 minutes. Naturally, she is returned to her proper place, and extensively scolded by Christian, their friends, and both their families for not telling her husband everything in the first place, instead of exercising agency.
Top to bottom, there truly is nothing in this book that isn’t colored by the incredibly toxic relationship between Christian and Ana. Every character is tainted by association with this couple in some way. The Greys took in a seriously troubled four year old. They loved him (though apparently they never said those words), they raised him with respect for his boundaries and the help of many therapists, and their family friend assaulted him. What does his adoptive mother do when the victimization comes to light? Yell at her son. Extensively. Remain angry for months. Like ya do when a child is assaulted by an adult.
Ana’s friend Kate wind up marrying Christian’s brother Elliot, because sometimes when you ask your brother to distract a girl so you can drag her drunk roommate off unnoticed, true love strikes. Kate, having an IQ well above the rest of the book put together, is suspicious of Christian the creeper, and discovers the infamous BDSM contract Ana never signed. But intelligence is relative, and while Christian is still trying to decide where to hide the body Ana is able to diffuse the situation by promising that everything is ok, and the contract is old news. El’s Advice for the Day: If that sentence alone diffuses your friend’s concerns that the guy she’s seen controlling you and sending you into crying fits and going a week without food isn’t actually hitting you, get a better friend. That one is broken.
It is worth noting, in the interest of sharing the irritation, that Ana isn’t the only person done a disservice by this book.
Christian starts off as a smarmy dominant who doesn’t want to be touched, but as the books drag on he gets saddled with an increasingly melodramatic backstory, until he winds up a delayed adolescent with PTSD, a victim of child abuse, severe abandonment issues, and the most spectacularly Oedipal relationship you could possibly have with a corpse. Add that to the hypercontrolling, abusive jerk from the first book, and I was having a hard time feeling bad for him while Ana triggered the hell out of him over and over on purpose, waiting until some emotional event occurred to force her way past boundary after boundary until she brought on a complete dissociative episode and sent him back to where he was mentally when abused as a teen. Don’t worry though; after he came out of it he had five whole minutes to get his shit together before she was hounding him for info all over again.
The best part of Christian’s characterization, however, is an added bonus chapter at the end (following the Twilight model to the last) which depicts the pair meeting for the first time from Christian’s perspective.
Yeah… Well, now we know what an Male Rights Activist is thinking when carrying on a conversation. So, that’s something, I guess. I don’t know what could have driven James to believe that men think like this, but I’m sorry it happened to her. Yikes.
There really isn’t any way to express the enormity and range of the issues with this series. The BDSM lifestyle deserves a place at the cultural table; there is no better way to help those inclined to get exotic in the bedroom find a safe environment to do it in. With all my lack of interest in this genre of literature, I wouldn’t mind an actual romance novel on the subject hitting shelves.
But this isn’t it; that lifestyle only enters Fifty Shades through lip-service.
This isn’t anything but glorification and normalization of abusive relationships in the eyes of women, the most likely future victims.
So in closing all I can say is no, this isn’t sexy.