If E L James sought only to make money from her less than stellar literary skills… she succeeded, greatly. However, I wonder if she ever intended to, or even pondered the possibility, that her trilogy perpetuates sexism and reinforces passivity in women. Did she think about the young minds consuming her word garbage?
The trilogy beginning with 50 Shades of Grey has become a worldwide cultural phenomenon. It has sold over 100 million copies worldwide and is only surpassed in popularity by the Bible. If that does not terrify you, it should. You would be doing yourself and the women around you a disservice by not talking about it. Before you get all bent out of shape, yes, I have read the trilogy in it’s entirety and no, I still don’t believe the relationship between Ana and Christian ever developed into a healthy one. If you’re turned on by the books, I am not here to shame you. I’m here to hopefully open your mind and lend a critical eye to the media that you’re consuming. What’s deeply problematic to me about the series is not its overtly sexual nature … but the portrayal of the dynamic between Ana and Christian as “normal” and characterizing it as a love story.
Now, I have to say, not one man I have been in love with has ever attempted to make me sign a contract essentially giving up my consent, which is absolutely absurd, as every sexual act needs to incorporate consent. What deeply saddens me is that when discussing the power dynamic in the relationship with other young women, many defend Christian by saying that he “gives Ana some power as the series goes on.” I felt like I had been punched in the stomach when I heard a young lady say that. No one, not a man, not anyone, should be in a position to “give you power.” You have it yourself, already. You have the power to say no. Sadly, I don’t think Ana was really given a chance to say no in this series, like how when Christian pretty much decided to take care of her virginity without really asking her if that’s what she wanted. He literally called it “rectifying this situation” and called taking her virginity as a “means to an end.” To me, that’s not sexy, to me, that doesn’t scream love story– it screams cattle. Property. Moving on…
Granted, I am not part of the BDSM community, but I feel like I know enough to write about it in a semi-educated manner. If you’re going to engage in anything involving BDSM, trust needs to be established. There may be some aftercare involved after the act. If it’s someone’s first time, there should maybe even be check-ins along the way and obviously safe words should be discussed. Christian didn’t do that. He didn’t prepare her, he took advantage of her innocence and now if Ana were to date someone else, she’d really be in for a shock because she has no idea what a “normal” relationship looks like. The normal progression of engaging in a BDSM sex act and then aftercare did not always occur. Ana was not always turned on by what Christian did to her, she was terrified. She once stated that she feared her orgasm, and not in a fun “OMG I’m gonna cum so hard” sort of way. What he put her through was emotional manipulation: throwing her a bone (no pun intended) of true affection every now and then to bait her and keep her around. Throughout the entire series he was hot and cold with her. Mostly cold and impassive, the relationship was about control and not growing together. His coldness speaks to the flawed logic that is perpetuated, namely: If you, as a woman, can just love a troubled man long enough and hard enough, even to your detriment– you will cure/change him and then your life will be butterflies, gum drops, and rainbows.
Is this a love story? What are we teaching young people? Our young girls? Our young boys? About acceptable ways to treat others in a relationship. No matter what gender you identify with … I’d like you to engage in an exploratory exercise with me. Picture your mother, sister, daughter, or friend as Anastasia … does it seem acceptable how Christian treats her? Is it enticing? Is it okay? And if the relationship still doesn’t leave you unsettled, consider this last telling excerpt directly from the text in the first book:
Anastasia: “He opens the door and, still grasping my arm, grabs what looks like a belt from the rack beside the door, then leads me over to the red leather bench in the far corner of the room.” Christian Grey: “bend over the bench”
Anastasia thinks: “okay I can do this. I bend over the smooth soft leather. He’s left my bathrobe on. In a quiet part of my brain, I’m vaguely surprised that hasn’t made me take it off. Holy fuck this going to hurt… I know.”
Christian Grey: “we’re here because you said yes, Anastasia. And you ran from me. I am going to hit you six times, and you will count with me.”
Anastasia thinks: “why the hell doesn’t he just get on with it? He always makes such a meal of punishing me. I roll my eyes, knowing full well he can’t see me.” “He lifts the hem of my bathrobe, and for some reason, this feels more intimate than being naked. He gently caresses my behind, running his warm hand all over both cheeks and down to the tops of my thighs.”
Christian Grey: “I’m doing this so that you remember not to run from me, and as exciting as it is, I never want you to run from me.”
Anastasia thinks: “the irony is not lost on me. I was running to avoid this. If he’d open his arms, I’d run to him, not away from him.”
Christian Grey: “and you rolled your eyes at me. You know how I feel about that.”
Anastasia describes Christian: “he’s back from wherever he’s been. I hear it in his tone, in the way he places his fingers on my back, holding me, and the atmosphere in the room changes.
Anastasia: “I close my eyes, bracing myself for the blow. It comes hard, snapping across my backside, and the bite of the belt is everything I feared. I cried out involuntarily and take a huge gulp of air.”
Christian Grey: “Count Anastasia!”
Anastasia: “ONE!” I shout at him and it sounds like an expletive.
Anastasia: “He hits me again, and the pain pulses and echoes along the line of the belt. Holy shit that smarts…”
Anastasia: “TWO!” I scream.
Anastasia: “his breathing is ragged and harsh, whereas mine is almost nonexistent as I desperately scrabble around my psyche looking for some internal strength. The belt cuts into my flesh again.”
Anastasia: “THREE!” Tears spring unwelcome into my eyes. This is harder than I thought, so much harder than the spanking. He’s not holding anything back.”
Anastasia: “FOUR!” I yell as the belt bites me again, and now the tears are streaming down my face. I don’t want to cry. It angers me that I am crying. He hits me again.
Anastasia: “FIVE!” My voice is more choked, strangled sob, and in this moment I think I hate him. One more, I can do one more. My backside feels as if it’s on fire.
Anastasia:“Six” I whisper as the blister pain cuts across me again, and I hear him drop the belt behind me and he is pulling me into his arms, all breathless and compassionate….and I want none of him.
She wants NONE OF HIM. This is not some kinky/emotionally charged experience that’s getting Ana turned on … she’s defeated. Humiliated. And angry.My hope is that at the very least, people start to think about these books in a new way and hopefully don’t strive to have a relationship like this one. Would Christian be so attractive if he were 55? Blue collar? Fat? It really shows what we value as a culture and how deeply problematic it is.
Take away message: Personal agency should never be diminished by a relationship … and if it is, that’s not a relationship you should be in.