I have a confession.
I read 50 Shades of Grey.
Just the first book, I didn’t have it in me to finish the entire trilogy.
I know these books are old news now, but since the movie is due on Valentine’s Day, and the previews have been flooding the Internet, I feel like it’s a relevant conversation piece.
Let me begin by saying that I picked up the first book because I was intrigued. Here was a book that everyone was talking about. It was on the news, social media, and women everywhere (of every age/race/lifestyle) were talking about it. I appreciate a good piece of erotic literature, so I figured okay, why not? Plus, I'm interested in pop culture and being up on what people are talking about – especially when it's in regards to writing/reading.
So I bought 50 Shades on my Kindle and started reading.
First and foremost I was struck by the absolutely ridiculous writing. Holy moly it is bad. But delightfully so. I’m not sure whether the poor writing was intentional (I don’t think it was), but it had me giggling incessantly (when I was probably supposed to be feeling all hot and bothered). The main character, Anastasia, has some of the most annoying tics and habits, and author E.L. James makes sure to remind us of them pretty much every other page. She bites her lower lip incessantly, uses the word ‘jeez’ non-stop, and she has an inner goddess that makes frequent appearances to relay Ana’s state of mind. It’s annoying and entertaining all at once.
So yeah, I took pleasure in the writing. Plus, I think I read it over a winter vacation so it was akin to a beach read – AKA something you read when you don’t really want to think or be bothered with large words and intricate plots.
What I did not take pleasure in was just about everything else.
I wasn’t a feminist when I read this book the first time around, but looking back now, and rereading parts of the story, I can tell you 100% that 50 Shades of Grey is about as far from feminism as a book can get.
This is true for many romance novels and teen fiction (Twilight I’m looking at you). We’re given a female character who falls in love with a man (so generic, I know), and who makes it her mission to save him. In 50 Shades of Grey, the only twist is that there’s BDSM involved. Ana’s love interest – Christian Grey – is into bondage and domination. Ana’s not so sure about this, but determines that she must help him overcome his dark past and dark desires. The result? She spends all of her time with (and I believe ends up marrying) a controlling, obsessive, rather worthless guy. Besides being super hot and rich, as far as I can conclude, Christian doesn't have that much going for him (and obviously money and looks don’t amount to much). He’s actually rather dull. Trying to come up with positive personality descriptors for him is almost impossible.
But he buys her things! Sure, he buys her all sorts of shit. But it’s in an effort to control her. And again, are fancy gifts really indicative of a great guy? Uh no.
He’s only controlling because he loves her SO much! He literally can’t let the girl out of his sight. He has serious jealously issues. He ‘punishes’ her when she doesn't do as he pleases (and not in relation to BDSM, just in normal everyday life). There’s a part later in the “50 Shades” trilogy that Roxanne Gay talks about in her book ‘Bad Feminist,’ where Ana sunbathes nude during she and Christian’s honeymoon. Filled with jealousy, Christian leaves hickyes all over her boobs so she can’t even wear a bikini top in public.
Ew. What a fucking asshole. You can’t possibly defend that as being ‘romantic.’
Roxanne Gay goes on to write that, “Christian Grey uses sex as a weapon. He takes real pleasure in fucking her into submission when he cannot otherwise will her into submission.” There are moments when Ana reflects that Christian isn’t treating her right. But she always forgives his ‘mistakes,’ and carries on letting him control and abuse her mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically.
Speaking of the physical, this book is a sorry excuse for a look into BDSM. It gets a good deal of information wrong. BDSM relationships can be extremely fulfilling, healthy, and fun. But James uses Christian’s kinky interests as a way to manifest his dark past. Essentially she’s saying that, because this guy had a messed up childhood, he’s now into BDSM. That’s an irresponsible thing to imply. BDSM is not a symptom of trauma or darkness or sadness. What’s more, BDSM is all about consent and safety and trust. The whole deal in 50 Shades is that Ana doesn’t want a BDSM relationship. And yet, Christian continues to pressure and take advantage of her. While I don’t think Ana every explicitly says ‘no,’ she doesn’t offer a resounding ‘yes’ very often either. Their relationship is abusive and manipulative, and that’s offensive to BDSM. It also sends women a very dangerous message. It says, “Look! Here’s a guy who has problems. He’s controlling and manipulative and not a nice dude. But look! The girl sticks with him and they stay together! Yay!”
Yes, but at what price? There’s a “happily” ever after – and lots of (unrealistic) orgasms – but what has the girl – in this case Ana - lost? What has she dealt with, been through, and accepted as ‘normal’ and ‘okay’ to reach this so-called happy ending?
And how many women in the real world will read these books and take away the message that this is indeed a happy ending? Suffice to say I will NOT be seeing the movie. I encourage everyone to spend Valentine’s Day engaging in some serious self-love (physical or otherwise heehee), instead of supporting books and a movie that don't support women.