My personal experience with Fifty Shades of Grey went something like this:
Because I don’t live under a rock, I’d heard whispers about it. I was mildly intrigued, as most people would be upon hearing that word porn had somehow managed to become a socially acceptable bestseller (as an aside, once I overheard a classmate telling our elderly male prof that she had read it on her tablet in bed…like, he knows what it is! It’s not a secret!). I had the distinctly awkward experience of noticing that my mother owned all three books, and the distinctly awkward-er experience of witnessing my mother lending the books to my grandmother. One day, when I was alone in my mom’s bathroom, I noticed it on the bathtub ledge. Curiosity got the best of me, and I flipped open the first page.
I read approximately four pages before deciding that I was thoroughly unimpressed. I thought to myself, “Where’s the sex?” and proceeded to flip through the book, looking for said sex.
When I found the sex, I was unsurprised but mildly disappointed to find it entirely un-titillating. Sloppy writing, silly metaphors, and weird thought punctuation (such as inserting holy cow or oh, God every other sentence) left me truly praying for the art of the written word. Female lead Anastasia mentions the phrase “enter my sex” and refers to her genitals as her “sex” more than once. I have never encountered a less sexy way to refer to intercourse and sexy bits. If some dude ever said that to me in a serious sexual context, I would be re-clothed and out the door faster than the schwing of Christian Grey’s whip, my ovaries quickly sucking up any eggs that may have released themselves out of an instinctual fear that I might accidentally reproduce with such a person.
So, in short, I hated every second of my brief Fifty Shades reading experience.
Author E.L. James adapted what I would loosely refer to as a “novel” from a Twilight fanfiction she’d written and posted online. Indeed, in every respect, the quality of Fifty Shades suggests that Ms. James consumed the Twilight books along with a two full litres of milk, one pound of the smelliest cheese, and an entire fridge worth of week-old Chinese take-out, and subsequently violently shat it all out in one big repulsive mess. Then, she somehow managed to take this pile of exceptionally revolting human excrement and make millions of dollars off of it.
Now, contrary to what the preceding rant might have suggested, I’m really not much of a literary snob. I have pretty bad taste in books, actually, in spite of my English major conditioning. Most of what I read is mediocre teen romances. I’m just, you know, aware of their mediocrity, thanks to aforementioned English major conditioning. I still consider the Harry Potter series to be the best literary masterpiece ever created (this perhaps contributes to my bitter feelings towards Fifty Shades…since it broke records set by Harry Potter).
I do, however, have another much more important bone to pick with Ms. James’ creation.
Much like its much-more-chaste parent text, Fifty Shades of Grey does not accurately depict a loving, safe, and happy relationship. In actuality, Christian is the epitome of an abusive partner, and Ana is the embodiment of an abuse victim.
You may be thinking that I’m saying this in response to the BDSM. I’m not. I’m all for exploring your kinks and sexuality and all that. You wanna tie each other up and spank each other with ping-pong paddles or shove cucumbers up your butts or whatever? If all parties are consenting adults, go for it. Enjoy yourselves. The abuse to which I am referring is not physical in nature. No, our dear Mr. Grey has managed to ensnare Ana in a trap far more sinister than ropes and blindfolds: an emotionally abusive, manipulative relationship.
So, where’s my proof, and what exactly makes this so harmful?
Let’s take it back to the O.G. text, the Twilight saga. Like most 15-year-old girls at the time, I read the books and saw the movies and thirsted after Taylor Lautner before I realised his close resemblance to an alpaca. I joined those Facebook groups called things like “Screw Prince Charming, I’m waiting for my Edward Cullen.” I engaged in lively Team Edward vs. Team Jacob debates (Team Edward, obv). I went to the midnight release party for Breaking Dawn at Chapters and read the whole thing in one night. Then, I immediately read it twice more and proceeded to sleep with it in my bed like a teddy bear for a solid two weeks after (you think I’m kidding, but I’m completely serious. Ask my sister, with whom I had to share a bed when we went on vacation during this time period. She did not appreciate our brick-shaped bed buddy). Basically, I really fucking loved Twilight.
Well, 15-year-old Sam, I have some bad news. Bella and Edward’s relationship is basically the PG version of Ana and Christian’s (which makes sense, since Ana and Christian are merely reworked Bella and Edward). Edward is actually a giant creep, disguised as a pale sparkly bronze-haired “Adonis”. He watches Bella sleep at night (unbeknownst to her), and when she finds out, she isn’t even mildly freaked out for some reason. He follows her around without her knowledge and constantly keeps tabs on her via others’ thoughts (he has magic mind-reading powers that work on everybody but Bella, for those that are mercifully unaware). He controls her relationships with her friends and family, isolating her, even tampering with her car to prevent her from going to see her friend. He repeatedly puts her in danger, such as when he leaves her alone in the middle of a dark forest where there had been recent rumoured wild animal attacks. He tells her that if anything ever happens to her, he will kill himself. He pretty much forces her to get married, even after Bella expresses her discomfort with the idea. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Edward sucks (no pun intended. Seriously. I wrote that sentence and didn’t even realize the pun until the next day). Yet, these books convinced an entire generation of impressionable teenagers that this is love, this is how we should seek to be treated.
It’s the same issue with Fifty Shades. Christian Grey somehow manages to be even more horrible than his sparkly counterpart, and Ana even more bland and worryingly submissive than our friend Bella. I’ll give a few examples of red flags, but this is by no means an exhaustive list:
- Ana clearly has low self-esteem, making her a prime target for manipulative shitstains like Christian. In the trailer for the film, she even says, “There’s really not much to know about me…I mean, look at me,” in response to Christian asking about her. This implies that she has an incredibly weak sense of self and that she does not think she is attractive, despite being a perfectly nice-looking young woman. Such personalities are common targets for abuse.
- Christian emphasizes his tragic past, in which his mother was killed by a pimp. He so eloquently tells Ana that he is “fifty shades of fucked up”. There are two issues with this. One, in that this implies that only people who have experienced trauma or are otherwise emotionally damaged are interested in BDSM, which is simply not true. Two, this puts Christian in the “broken man” position, simultaneously attempting to excuse his violent nature and causing Ana to want to try and “fix him”.
- Much like Mr. Sparkles, Christain stalks Ana, even turning up at her workplace three hours away from where he lives.
- At the start of the story, Ana has never had sex, and tells Christian that she’s never even pleasured herself. Thus, she has literally no experience with sex, let alone BDSM. Rather than being sensitive to this fact, Christian instead tells her that “I’m going to fuck you now, Miss Steele… Hard,” and proceeds to “rip through” her virginity. (Which, as a side-note, shouldn’t happen anyway. You shouldn’t be “ripping” anything.)
- After Christian shows up uninvited and attempts to seduce Ana, she tells him “no” and tries to kick him off. In response, he says, “If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet, too. If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you. Keep quiet. Katherine is probably outside listening, right now.” Threatening to tie up and gag someone who has said “no” to sex, and having sex with them anyway, is what one would colloquially refer to as “rape”.
- He writes up a bullshit contract for a proposed Dom/Sub relationship, with overly-controlling clauses outlining things such as what she can eat and how much she exercises, effectively asking her to sign away ownership of her body.
- He demeans and invalidates her when she expresses her emotions, instilling doubt and further manipulating her: “So, you felt demeaned, debased, abused, and assaulted – How very Tess Durbeyfield of you. I believe it was you who decided on the debasement if I remember correctly. Do you really feel like this or do you think you ought to feel like this? Two very different things. If that is how you feel, do you think you could just try to embrace these feelings, deal with them, for me? That’s what a good submissive would do.” NO, CHRISTIAN. THAT IS NOT WHAT A GOOD SUBMISSIVE WOULD DO. Good BDSM partners discuss their limits and what they are comfortable with in a mutually respectful manner. It is not a literal slave/master relationship where only the Dom’s feelings are important.
If that short list isn’t enough to convince you, here is an entire list of fifty examples (some of which were referenced above).
Of course, some might be wondering why Ana doesn’t just leave Christian if the relationship is so abusive. That’s the thing about abuse victims of both the physical and emotional variety. It’s not that simple. Furthermore, we’re forgetting that Christian is a super creepy stalker, telling Ana that even if she ran away to Alaska, he would find her and track her cell phone. Romance at its finest, folks.
I’m not saying that Fifty Shades should be banned or that people shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy it if they want to. I’m not about that censorship life. If you enjoy (supposedly sexy) descriptions of a man removing a tampon from his lover’s – to use fanfiction jargon – love tunnel, or revel in the mental image evoked by “He’s my very own Christian Grey-flavored popsicle. I suck harder and harder…My inner goddess is doing the Merengue with some salsa moves,” who am I to stop you? The problem arises with the lack of education and information available to the general public about abusive relationships, particularly emotional ones, coupled with the fact that the book is being marketed as an epic love story and a kind of BDSM how-to. In summary, it normalizes and even glorifies abuse.
Millions of people have read and enjoyed this book, not realizing or even denying the unhealthy nature of the relationship shown. Numerous actual abused women have come forward to voice the similarities between their own personal horror stories and Christian and Ana’s relationship. In addition, the BDSM community has repeatedly expressed concerns over the fact that the book grossly misrepresents their lifestyle. And, instead of accepting this criticism in a respectful and thoughtful manner, E.L. James has taken the incredibly mature route of blocking anyone who dare call her out on Twitter and calling them names (such as the sick burn “sad fuck”). Maybe, Ms. James, instead of taking the ears-plugged-lalala route, consider what these women are saying about their lived experiences. We all occasionally enjoy (or create) problematic material, but in order to be responsible consumers and creators, we should be able to acknowledge and be critical of any perceived problems.
So, my friends, in light of the recent film release, I urge you to think critically. Don’t give this abuse-glorifying sure-to-be-crap-anyway movie your money. To be honest, abusive content aside, I’m a little confused as to why people would want to go see it in theatres anyway. You’re basically going into a large public space to openly watch softcore porn with a theatre full of other people. But, whatever floats your boat, I guess. Anyway, be a responsible consumer and do the ethical thing: Please, just download and/or watch Fifty Shades of Grey illegally.