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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

In Defense of Fifty Shades of Grey

I honestly can't quite believe that I'm writing this, because between you and me, I HATE this book (and likely the subsequent books) with a passion.

But I feel like there is a certain lack of fairness, for lack of a better word, with regard to the way this book/upcoming movie is being treated.

This is inspired mostly by this tumblr post (I'm not entirely sure of the etiquette regarding linking tumblr posts, so I linked the one from one of my favorite author's tumblr.  I recommend her to anyone.  She's fantastic.)  This post has been reblogged, as of the time of me writing this, more than 175,000 times.  And that's fine.  Free speech and all that.  But it got me thinking about this entire thing.

I am absolutely in favor of donating to domestic violence shelters, by the way.  But I also think that if someone wants to see the damn movie, they should.

Basically, I think that we should be a little bit more fair in how we address Fifty Shades of Grey.

It's NOT that I think we shouldn't be criticizing this book.  There is a lot to criticize in this book.  One of my favorite hobbies is reading truly enraged, eloquent people tear this book and its sequels apart with true, glorious vitriol.

But at the same time, I think that a lot of people (myself included) go a bit overboard when we talk about these books.  And in doing so, I think we are doing a lot of people (intelligent people who, for whatever reason, actually like this book/series) a serious disservice.

Therefore, now that I have actually experienced the first book, I would like to talk about it.

Abusive Relationships

It's a common accusation that the relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele is abusive.  This accusation is absolutely correct..  This post can illustrate it far better than I can.  Christian Grey is a terrifying individual, Anastasia Steele spends most of the book bouncing back and forth between enthralled and terrified.  There is an actual rape scene (which neither character quite acknowledges.)  There's stalking, abuse of power, the use of alcohol and sex to manipulate.... what?

Don't get me wrong.  If this were a real life relationship, I'd want Ana to run screaming toward the hills.  As a reader, I still do.  But Ana is not a real person.  Christian is not a real person.  No real people are harmed during the course of reading this dreck.

Fifty Shades is hardly the first book/series to feature an abusive relationship and not really treat the subject with the seriousness it deserves.  Romance novel shelves are rife with tales upon tales of alpha males and the women they walk on (to be fair, there are also stories of truly maddening harpies and the beta males they've virtually castrated.  And there are even healthy portrayals of people in love.  But they are not relevant at this time.)

Romance novels aren't alone in this, but they're an easy target because unlike say, James Bond (for whom "No" also seems to be far more negotiable sometimes than it ought), the relationship is the crux of the story.  Fifty Shades isn't the first or the worst example of this type.  It is however the most popular.

And of course, it's that popularity that has a lot of us gasping and clutching our pearls when we read passages of this book.  "This book is normalizing abuse!  This book is teaching women to accept abusive relationships!"

Bullshit.  No one has yet proven correlation or causation between liking Fifty Shades of Grey (or Twilight before it, or any of the countless examples before that) and becoming a part of, or staying in an abusive relationship.

Something we really ought to remember is that while Anastasia Steele starts off as a virgin with no idea how to interact with a man in a sexual or romantic relationship, the primary readership of these books are not.  The majority of the readers of Fifty Shades of Grey are adult women who have had a broad depth of experience.  They know what a real relationship is like.  They know what abuse is.  And I'd wager that the vast majority of them would run screaming if their husbands actually acted like Christian Grey.

And okay, yes, there are those essays and articles that pop up every so often "I wish my husband was more like Christian Grey" and "I left my husband because he wasn't like Christian Grey."  But if you actually READ them, instead of looking horrified by the title, you see fairly similar narratives:  there are some women whose needs aren't being met in their relationships and now they finally have a way to articulate this.  They're not looking for their husbands to actually abuse, rape, stalk and terrify them like Christian does Ana.  They just feel bored, neglected, and want a little bit of an exciting fantasy to spice things up a little.

Rape/Abuse Stories Can Be Power Fantasies (and not always like you expect)

I mentioned above how Fifty Shades of Grey isn't the only book in which you see rape or abuse.  Romance novels featuring rape are hardly new.  One example, that pops up on TV Tropes all the time is E.M. Hull's The Sheik, from 1919.  The Gor novels have a substantial female fanbase.  And one day, I will blog my horrifying childhood experience with books by Sharon Green.

If you ever decide to look at the non-consent/reluctance category at, or under the Rape/Non-Con tags at Archive of Our Own, it becomes pretty clear that quite a lot of people, the vast majority of them are not rapists or wannabe rape victims, like to read and write erotic stories featuring rape.

I like to call this "ravishment fantasy" because, while the situations in the stories/books are rape and abuse, without question, and would be terrible if they happened to a real person, the point of the story really isn't the rape.  The point is often the power fantasy.  And the power dynamic isn't always as obvious as it looks.

Here's one: Good Girl redeems a Bad Boy:  A cruel man meets an innocent girl and through her kindness and love, she makes him want to be better than what he was.  He becomes a good man for her.  This is Beauty and the Beast.  This is Fifty Shades of Grey.  In this sort of fantasy, the rape and abuse are actually part of the woman's power fantasy.  Yes, Christian Grey can physically overpower Anastasia Steele, yes, he controls pretty much every aspect of her life.  But in the end, Ana essentially rewires who he is.  (Spoiler: He's still a dick.)

Please note that while I use heteronormative scenarios for this, the actual pairings in these stories do not have to be heterosexual male-female, nor does the male character have to be the one who is the abuser or rapist when it is a heterosexual relationship.

Here's another:  Good Man Can't Help Himself.  This one's a bit darker.  The man, normally a morally upright fellow, generally stoic and controlled, meets a girl and simply cannot control himself.  He must have her!  He can't resist his urges!  This is what she does to him!  Of course in the real world, this is utter bullshit. It is never the victim's fault when an abuser hurts him or her.  But escapism isn't the same as reality.  The key part of the fantasy, of course, is that the man in this fantasy is someone the woman desires.  One that she imagines never would have noticed her.  But he did notice her!  He can't help BUT notice her!  And of course, he's torn up by guilt afterwards.  But now, she knows how he feels so the power is in her hands.

The Good Girl who Never Gives Up:  Here's a kind of perverse power fantasy when you think about it.  Our culture is so very fucked up about female sexuality.  Promiscuity is bad, fantasies are to be mocked, and god forbid any woman over fifty confess to sexual inclinations.  EW!  And if you're raped, you deserve it, because only bad girls wear those skirts, go to those parties, walk in the park at night.  Good girls don't do that.  But then, how does a good girl get to explore sex.  It has to be forced onto her by someone she would have desired if she ever understood that kind of thing!  This is a moral high ground sort of power fantasy.  The fun of sex, without the guilt.

The Guy Who Provides Everything Whether You Like it Or Not:  This is the rapey version of the Cinderella fantasy, really.  The girl is under a lot of pressure, overwhelmed, lacking the finer things in life.  And the guy, rich and handsome, swoops in to take her away.  He gives her clothes, fine things, takes her places.  But of course, the girl, being the modest sort and not a Gold Digger At All, can't possibly just accept these gifts.  HE must force her to take them.  She gets to enjoy everything she could ever want, guilt free.  And he does this because he is obsessed with making her happy.  She might protest the sex too, but he can give her everything she could possibly want there too, without her ever needing to ask.

Of course there are other reasons people read and write ravishment fantasies, and this isn't intended to be an extensive list.  But using the ones above, how many can you check off for Fifty Shades?  Obviously the first.  Sort of, the second.  Christian's not a good man, but he is driven by his obsession for Ana which seems to have no real explanation in the text.  Ana hadn't ever had an orgasm before Christian, and he certainly is able to provide her with everything she could ever want.  Including orgasms.

So yeah, on a realistic level, Fifty Shades of Grey is a horrible book featuring an abusive relationship between a stalking psychopath and his passive victim.  But from a ravishment fantasy perspective, the story appears to be fairly satisfying.

Bad BDSM versus Meta BDSM

Another common complaint about the book is that the BDSM is terrible.  Which is, to my limited knowledge of the practice, absolutely true.

Many BDSM practitioners are justifiably upset with the book, because of the damaging and dangerous way that the books portray their lifestyle.  (If you are interested, writer Jennifer Armintrout/Abigail Barnette has utterly demolished the books' portrayal of BDSM at her Jealous Hater Book Club, and Peter Tupper of also posted his own reviews from a BDSM perspective.)

It seems like the vast majority of BDSM practitioners who talk about these books condemn Christian Grey as a terrible dom, the consent as being dubious at best, and the negotiation is lip service.  He spends 3/4 of the first book trying to push this idiotic fucking contract down her throat, ignoring her/distracting her when she attempts to negotiate anything closer to her own liking.  She gives him some limits of her own (i.e. anal sex), and he blithely decides to ignore them.

I'm certainly not going to say these practitioners are wrong to be mad.  This is completely offensive.  But I think some of the worry that this will inspire new people to try BDSM without any real understanding of consent or potential harm, or that it will scare people away from BDSM by portraying it as abuse, is a bit much.

The average reader of this book was never going to be a hardcore BDSM person.  She's a middle aged woman who wants a little spice in her life and maybe she can realize that despite what society tends to say, it's perfectly fine to own a sex toy or two.

Though on an interesting, meta level, there is a more consensual BDSM situation going on here.  Not Ana's and Christian's of course.  That is just fuckery.  But one between E. L. James and the reader.

I'm thinking about roleplay scenarios.  Even non-BDSM folk occasionally like to play with those.  "I'll be Han, you be Leia.",  "I'll be the naughty school girl, you be the principal with a firm hand on his ruler,"  "I'll be the naive college student, you be the millionaire who just can't resist her for no real reason."

That's basically what this is.  E. L. James has set up a scene for us.  We get to play Ana, through the first person story, while E. L. James controls everything else to give us the experience we are (or are not as the case may be) looking for.

Ana's relationship with Christian may not be Safe, Sane and Consensual, but the reader gets to indulge in this silly ravishment fantasy with the ultimate, foolproof safeword in the fact that we can close the damn book.


The one thing that Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels have done that is legitimately positive is that it has given a generation of women a somewhat more legitimized outlet for sexual fantasies.  For whatever reason, this thing has taken off, and people are actually talking about it.  A lot.  When female sexuality, especially older female sexuality, gets derided so often, it's actually pretty refreshing.

Of course, this isn't going to stop people from derisively calling it "mommy-porn" or whatever other term is cool right now.  That term, if nothing else, proves why we shouldn't belittle or ignore this effect.  Women shouldn't be shamed for having sexual fantasies, and the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey seems to be inspiring a lot more criticism than Hot Tub Time Machine 2, or whatever the fuck that crap is, really says something.

A Conclusion Of Sorts

Again, I am absolutely not saying that people shouldn't be criticizing these books.  There is a LOT to criticize.  Ana is one of the most genuinely unlikable characters that I've ever seen, Christian's a psychopath, the relationship is terrible, the BDSM is awful, the sex is overrated, the series is rife with sexism, racism and homophobia both overt and understated.  If you want to tear these books apart, do it, please, and give me a link!  I love reading that!

But let's keep the whole thing in perspective.  It's a crappy book series.  It's not going to lead to an upswing in abusive relationships.  It's not going to ruin sex, BDSM, or popular literature in general.  It's not the end of feminist empowerment as we know it.

And per the tumblr post that inspired this: yes, absolutely give money to domestic violence shelters.  They really need the help.

But go see the movie if you want to.  Even if you're just curious.  Even if you want to mock the shit out of it.  You're a consenting adult, do whatever the hell you want.


  • At February 12, 2015 1:36 PM, Blogger SallyP said…

    I think you have nailed the appeal of the trashy romance. I have never read this particular book, and have no real desire to do so, but Lord knows I've read plenty of trashy romances in my day! It is a fantasy...a little silly, a bit lurid, but still a fantasy.

  • At February 14, 2015 5:26 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Heh, I admit, I read a lot of silly fantasies myself.

    (I wouldn't recommend this particular book, personally.)

  • At August 21, 2019 11:55 PM, Anonymous M.Jack said…

    I'm appreciate your writing skill. Please keep on working hard. Thanks for sharing.


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