I thought the worst thing Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James would be guilty of was terrible writing. Oh my, how wrong I was.
I have a confession to make: Until today, I knew very little about Fifty Shades of Grey, apart from the unavoidable. Twilight is one of the only books in my life that I haven’t been able to finish, in part because of the emotionally abusive relationship between Edward and Bella. As such, I had so little interest in this Twilight-inspired smash success that I actively tuned out anytime someone mentioned it, or I saw a news story about it. I even wrote about all the things I would rather do than watch the Fifty Shades of Grey movie…and reading the book was number one on my list.
Here’s what I knew before reading the book: E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy was a poorly-disguised piece of Twilight fan fiction masquerading as an original story. It featured the unconventional love story of Christian Grey and Anastasia (whose last name had not registered) who were involved in a BDSM relationship, depicted with a lot of poorly written sex scenes. I imagined my review might be a lighthearted, somewhat humorous look at just how terrible a bestselling book can be.
Here’s what I know now: Compared to the other incredibly problematic aspects, the poor writing in Fifty Shades is almost welcome. Because at its core, Fifty Shades of Grey is the glorification of an abusive relationship, one that the author professes to be a love story, and there is nothing funny about that.
So just who are Anastasia and Christian? Much like Bella in Twilight, Anastasia is a vessel character, designed to be bland enough for the reader to put themselves in her place. A klutz with low self-esteem, she is a walking stereotype; she bites her lip, she murmurs and mutters, she looks down, and blushes. Side note: she says “Oh my” over 70 times in the book, which is an average of almost three exclamations per chapter. Ana has no personal or sexual identity before meeting Christian, and he quickly consumes her life. Fulfilling both the Madonna and Whore sexual fantasies, she is a supremely innocent virgin, who just happens to develop an insatiable sexual appetite for Christian alone, and, amazingly, has no gag reflex. What a lucky man Christian Grey is.
Ana is certainly not doing feminism any favours, but she is also not the most misogynistic character I have ever read. Christian Grey, on the other hand, is utterly despicable. The problem is, author E.L. James sets us up to call him our hero. A misunderstood and damaged hero, but a hero all the same. We, just like Ana, are expected to feel bad for him, and encourage her to save him. Well, hell no to that.
Fifty Shades might be from Ana’s perspective, but as the title makes clear, this is entirely Christian’s story. The author informs us in a seemingly off-hand manner that at 15, Christian was the victim of statutory rape and child molestation at the hands of one of his mother’s friends, with whom he has remained in contact with as an adult. Ana shows some disgust over this (although oftentimes she’s just jealous of Christian’s sexual history), however Christian dismisses her concerns as evidence of her jealousy or innocence, and not understanding his wonderful relationship with his child molester. This is only the beginning of James’ problematic portrayal of consent.
The power dynamic in Ana and Christian’s relationship mimics that of himself and his abuser. Christian is controlling, jealous, and obsessed with power. He taps Ana’s phone, stalks her to find her and her mother’s addresses, all instances that are shrugged off as jokes or are intended to convey his care for Ana. When Ana passes out drunk, he takes her to his hotel room without her consent, and undresses her while she is unconscious. He admits that he is sexually aroused when she says no to him.
Then in chapter 12, Christian rapes Ana. I read this chapter through twice, sure that I had missed something. How did I not know about this? Was this scene in the movie? But there is no other way to read it. Ana sends Christian an email that can be construed as her breaking up with him, at which point he turns up at her house and pins her down, forcing himself on her even after she has said “No.” Ana’s internal monologue informs us that she is actually saying “no” because she’s worried her feet will smell when he takes her shoes off (after she looks for an escape route), but Christian has no way of knowing that. Although she breaks down with tears after he leaves, she is later shown to have enjoyed the experience, which I suppose was James’ way of informing me that it’s all okay in the end.
When Ana tells him that her message was a joke, Christian responds, “Only certain things are funny, Anastasia. I thought you were saying no, no discussion at all.” This, apparently, is reason enough for him to break into his ex-girlfriend’s house and rape her. This sequence is never mentioned again.
Let me be very clear. Ana and Christian’s relationship is not admirable, or romantic, or even vaguely consensual. This is a sexually and emotionally abusive relationship that the author expects us to swoon over. Christian uses abuse tactics to ensure Anastasia complies to his every whim and wish; he physically threatens her, changes mood so quickly that she is constantly off balance or unsettled, makes her feel that he is the only one who can make her feel special, estranges her from the few friends she has so that she is forced to rely on him alone, and makes her apologize for her own feelings or concerns. He puts her in a position where she feels that she can’t say no to him, either sexually or emotionally, and where she feels lucky when he manages to act like a normal human being.
At one point, Ana actually thinks, “But now I feel like a receptacle – an empty vessel to be filled at his whim.” It’s bizarre and uncomfortable how often James makes Ana aware of how she should be acting in order to protect herself, only to have her disregard it for her apparent love for Christian.
Christian aspires to take control of every aspect of Ana’s life, from her workouts, to how often and what she eats (seriously, his obsession with food is so creepy), what she wears, and even if she is allowed to masturbate (she’s not). He does this using the main premise of the book — their negotiations over the Dominant/Submissive contract — although it must be noted that any compromises Ana makes are made within the framework Christian has already established. She must fit herself to fit him, never the other way.
When she tells him — via email, because she is unable to honestly communicate in person with the man she is in a relationship with — that he made her feel “demeaned, debased, abused and assaulted,” he tells her, “do you think you could just try and embrace these feelings, deal with them, for me? That’s what a submissive would do.” That’s right Ana, crush those emotions down, because they aren’t convenient for Christian right now.
The portrayal of their BDSM relationship is not just unrealistic, but damaging. Rather than being an act of trust, love, and understanding, this is simply another mechanism through which Christian can control Ana. He is obsessed with possessing her, owning her, and claiming her as his own. It is the most blatant act of objectification I can recall reading, ever. When I think about the humorous review I intended to write, I feel sick.
What about the rest of the book? To be fair to my pre-Fifty Shades self, the writing was predictably bad. You’ll think I’m making these lines up, but I assure you that they appear in the book: “My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves,” “I thought it was chocolate fudge brownie sex that we had, with a cherry on the top. But hey, what do I know?,” and — perhaps the best — “Finally, my medulla oblongata recalls its purpose, I breathe.”
Even if you can get past the abusive aspect (and I can’t, but hey, let’s try for the aim of this exercise), the sex scenes are so dull, impractical, and at times essentially impossible, that I wonder if this author has actually had sex at any point. Anastasia is invariably turned on by Christian tugging her earlobe and licking her feet, but hey, whatever does it for you. I remain unsure how these sex scenes managed to endear this book to so many readers worldwide, but you can’t account for taste
or the internalized misogyny that makes us think abusive relationships are okay. Also, despite him being the apparent expert on sex, maybe someone should tell Christian that women can still get pregnant during their periods (and that pulling out someone else’s tampon is just gross, so please don’t).
The end of Fifty Shades of Grey is also the end of Christian and Ana’s relationship (although spoiler alert, there are two more installments so let’s guess how long that lasts). It’s not quite the cheer worthy moment you might be hoping for though. This is not the culmination of Ana recognizing and removing herself from an abusive situation; rather, she leaves because she has failed Christian, because she can’t fix him or fulfill his needs. In this situation, we are expected to understand that Ana is the “complete failure,” not her rapist and abuser. I would like to hope that books two and three deal with the criminal charges she levels against Christian and her slow path to recovery through the emotional support of her friends and family, and the seeking of professional help, but I have a feeling I’ll be disappointed.
So why does it all matter? Fifty Shades of Grey has sold over 100 million copies worldwide and been translated into 52 languages. The film is tracking for a huge weekend at the box office, and adaptations of James’ two sequels (Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed) are probably on the way. Through the popular success of her books, E.L. James normalizes this type of abusive relationship, even making it something for readers to aspire to.
I shudder to think of women or men wanting and hoping to find their very own Christian Grey.