The Troubling Message in Fifty Shades of Grey
The Twilight-inspired fan fiction-turned-series Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James has captured the imagination of millions, helping it make its way to the top of the New York Times best-seller list largely through the power of word-of-mouth.
As someone who believes the world could do with a more open-minded approach to people's consensual sexual interests, I initially thought the book was doing bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism (BDSM) a service by bringing it into the national dialogue through fantasy.
Cover of E. L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey.
Before I could make any such statement, of course, I had to read it. I wasn't far into the story when I realized that Fifty Shades of Grey not only sets people who live a BDSM lifestyle back decades in terms of being understood by society, but that it eroticizes dangerous practices as well, especially for those who are new to this aspect of sexuality and looking to incorporate it into their lives. I'll start with the first and more general problem this book presents for the BDSM community and work myself back to how this series might inspire more danger than eroticism and sexual transcendence.
One of the biggest problems I see with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it treats the interest in BDSM as the result of trauma, trauma that in this case was suffered by Christian Grey, the love interest of the protagonist, when he was a child. As the protagonist, Anastasia Steele, tells us:
He doesn't even love himself. I recall his self-loathing, her love being the only form he found acceptable. Punished -- whipped, beaten, whatever their relationship entailed -- he feels underserving of love. Why does he feel like that? How can he feel like that?
I am concerned that this introduction to the lifestyle will lead many to suppose that all people who practice BDSM are, in E.L. James' words, "fifty shades of fucked up." This is not the case. There is no single or even prevalent reason that people turn to BDSM. Further, the practice of BDSM does not necessarily constitute a disordered sexual behavior.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which listed sadomasochism in 1952 as a sociopathic personality disorder, has since reclassified it, making a distinction between people who practice it as a lifestyle and those whose "fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning" and find it the only way to achieve sexual gratification for a period of six months or more -- or, in seeking gratification through their practice, violate someone else's consent. This definition refers to the paraphilic aspect of sadomasochism. Most people practicing BDSM do not fall into this classification.
Christian Grey for the most part is depicted as caring and gentlemanly -- opening doors, pulling chairs, rising when a woman enters the room, worrying that his sweet Anastasia will not be safe in her old car, dashing to her home immediately after Anastasia sends him a rather oblique e-mail about how he always leaves her after they're together, and so on. Indeed, James does a fine job of crafting the narrative to convince readers that Christian cannot do without a submissive's consent and that in exchange for her subjugation, he will give his submissive everything she needs and also protect her from the world, which again and again he points out as dangerous.
However, in truth, the world -- with all its old cars and commercial airlines -- is nowhere nearly as dangerous as Christian is himself, not because he practices BDSM but because he's a terrible dominant. This is where Fifty Shades of Grey started to make me nervous -- those with no other experience of the lifestyle have nothing to guide them in their journey into BDSM but the eroticization of reckless practices.
For starters, it's one thing to lead someone who has never experienced BDSM into new experiences but it's really quite another to so eagerly select a virgin with no sexual experience whatsoever. Can a person with no experience in the sexual realm from which to draw from convincingly consent? The scene where Christian tries to convince Anastasia that her being wet means she wants to be abused makes me physically ill. James should have done her homework: the body will do whatever it can to minimize injury during assault, and often, this means lubrication. Such physical response should never be decontextualized and held up as proof that someone is asking for something that they're clearly unsure about.
Unless, of course, James wants us to see Christian as a coercive sadist.
Somehow, I don't think this is the case. Christian's overwhelming attention to Anastasia's well-being is controlling, obsessive and unhealthy, yes, but it is not sadistic. If James tried to create a despot, she failed. All we have in this story is a terrible dominant, a child as naïve as Anastasia is naïve, who is tasked with caring for her well-being -- something he cannot do. Christian's complete lack of regard for his charge's emotional state after her perfunctory "deflowering" so he can get on with his plan to subjugate her is further proof of this -- as is the fact that he abandons her almost immediately after her first venture into submission.
The glaring omission of aftercare in James’ story is another indication of Christian's failure as a dominant. "Aftercare," for those unfamiliar with BDSM, is the essential and immediate follow-up that occurs after play of any sort ("play" is the consensual session during which any previously agreed-upon aspect of BDSM may be acted on). Play can be incredibly draining, and may engender intense emotional or psychological turmoil -- especially in the case of people who have only just started their journey into BDSM. Most people who practice BDSM, regardless of their level of experience, require some level of aftercare and leaving someone who is only experimenting, someone who is not only new to the lifestyle but to sexual experience in general, alone after play is unconscionable.
Unfortunately, this is not a one-time situation. The pattern of immediate abandonment is repeated frequently. After Anastasia finally has a go in Christian's "Red Room of Pain," a Rococo dungeon Christian keeps in his massive Seattle apartment, we're lead to another instance of it. Upon the conclusion of their session, Anastasia nearly collapses from exhaustion and her inability to suppress a yawn causes Christian to bark at her, demanding to know whether he's boring her.
This is the man who's supposed to be able to read his submissive's body language to see how much further he can take her during a session -- and he doesn't know that after a scene she has every right to feel exhausted? What next, chastising her for not saying the safeword because she wants so badly to please him? Going further than we should because we don't want to disappoint is a very real, very human problem, and in BDSM it is crucial to have a dominant who understands a submissive's body language and can read her nonverbal cues for this very reason.
The fact that Christian asks Anastasia constantly whether she trusts him is telling -- it's almost as though he needs this reassurance from her because he cannot find it within himself. If James did this on purpose, she's a more masterful writer than she is given credit for. If not, she failed to see that in Christian Grey, she forged a run-of-the-mill abuser that has no idea what he is doing as he plays dungeon in his opulent den of pleasure and pain.
Every time a reader gets close to writing off the character, however, James finds a way to remind us that Christian can't care for Ana in a responsible way because of the abuse he suffered before he was adopted at the age of four. Soon enough we find that the reason Christian so readily fell into BDSM when he was taken as a lover at the age of 15 by one of his mother's friends (another can of worms) is that this kind of interaction enables him to have sexual relationships that allow him to remain distant and bind women to prevent them from touching him.
Put simply, Christian Grey is not the kind of dominant that any man or woman wants in their life. The cost is far too great and no amount of first edition books, gadgetry, clothes, cars and rides in a private jet, glider or chopper will ever change that.
But then, this where Fifty Shades of Grey starts to show us its true colors. You see, this isn't really a story about a young, naïve girl who is taken in by a beautiful tyrant to be debased and subjugated, as the media has been telling us. ("Oh, shit," whines Anastasia when push finally comes to shove on page 313 of the 580-page whopper. "Can't we just get this over with?")
She's being led nowhere. Anastasia isn't here to don the mask worn by the protagonist of Story of O and suffer the humiliation and abuse of submission. No, this is a tale of a constantly-blushing virgin who turns a broken monster into a prince.
They set their limits and while Christian only presses up against Anastasia's, Anastasia has zero regard for breaching his. Christian tells her that he will never sleep with her, for instance, but after she sends him a whinny e-mail, Christian immediately presents himself in her apartment, letting Anastasia wrap him around her in bed "like a victory flag." Later, the self-satisfied protagonist muses, "Christian Grey spent the night with me, and I feel rested. And there was no sex, only cuddling. He told me he never slept with anyone -- but he's slept three times with me." When prompted, Anastasia notes she slept very well, and Christian admits he did also, with "confused surprise." So wonderful was it, he even overslept, which made him late for a meeting, something the narrative assures us has never happened to him before.
Anastasia wants more -- and by more, she means “hearts and flowers” -- a "normal" relationship. At first, Christian assures her firmly this is not who he is. Yet at every turn, he cedes more and more ground to her demands. For all her blushing, Anastasia seems to know what she's doing, chastising herself when she goes too far: "Touching is his hard limit. Too soon, you idiot. He needs to walk before he can run." This is not the language of someone working with someone's limits.
Finally, Christian agrees that he will try to give her more, shaking his head as he tells her, "I've never wanted more until I met you."
I raise my eyebrows. "You're going to settle for plain old vanilla?"
He cocks his head to one side. "Nothing plain or old about vanilla -- it's a very intriguing flavor," he breathes.
"Since last Saturday."
It is a story we have heard before, though I daresay Disney does a far better job in Beauty and the Beast. This, perhaps, is the most egregious attempt against people who live a BDSM lifestyle. Not only does this book make broken monsters out of people who have examined their desires and had the courage to see where they will take them, but it promises readers that they can be cured -- and cured through bad communication, passive aggression, and petulant fits, at that.
We have all met a lover who was perfect in every way except for that one thing. At some point or another in our lives, most of us have dreamed that if we did enough, gave enough, suffered enough, compromised enough, pushed enough, begged enough, worked it out enough, that we might be able to change things, to make him or her perfect for us. It's not a healthy perspective, nor something that will lead us to a greater happiness, but a majority of us have been there. And that's what I think is so alluring about this book. In telling us this story, E.L. James is directly tapping into this fantasy of transforming a lover to suit us perfectly. If I could forgive the damage she does BDSM in the process, I'd leave it alone.
But I can't. My only hope is that those who feel inspired to explore BDSM as a result of reading Fifty Shades of Grey will go about it slowly, with care and self-awareness. I hope they learn, sooner rather than later, that there exists a big difference between a coercive man and a dominant and that no matter what one does, some things can't be changed in our partners -- in fact, the best relationships are those in which we needn't change or be changed, but explore, together, the realm of possibilities available to all of us.