There are three main issues I have with 50 Shades of Grey, and I’m offering nothing new in the world of criticisms of this book – these are the same issues a lot of people have. But I’ll be damned if I put myself through the torment of reading that book without offering my own two cents.
50 Shades of Grey is the story of Anastasia Steele, a quiet girl who ends up in a relationship with young billionaire Christian Grey. She’s unnerved by his attention to her but immensely attracted to him. But she’s also unprepared for his predilection for kinky sex in which she is the subordinate to his controlling master. Cue a story entirely about her concerns over surrendering herself to him, with her mind telling her no, but her body, her body is telling her yes.
LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX, BABY!
For a book that uses sex as its raison d’être, 50 Shades of Grey is remarkably bad at it. This comes in two different flavours of badness though: 1) how it’s written, 2) what it is.
For those who aren’t aware, the book contains a lot of sex, and it’s meant to be shocking the average reader that it’s kinky sex, or specifically an approximation of a submissive/dominant S&M relationship. Once Christian and Anastasia start having sex, they barely let up. Every scene is just an excuse to have more sex, or it’s a set-up on the way to have more sex, or it’s Anastasia thinking about sex, or fearing sex (more on this in part 3) or it’s them talking about sex, so on and so forth.
As such, the book has been dismissed as “mummy porn” (or “mommy porn” as your region may dictate) as it’s now seen as something for the bored housewives of the world to get their mitts on and be temporarily drawn out of their humdrum lives. On behalf of all the slighted mummies/mommies out there, I feel the need to defend most women in that they would still prefer their porn to be erotic, which this book is most certainly not.
50 Shades of Grey is an excuse for lots of sex scenes that EL James thinks are steamy and/or controversial. But without any editorial oversight, she runs the premise dry too soon and isn’t a talented enough writer to make the sheer quantity of sex in the book interesting or erotic to work.
There are a few components of any fictional sex scene that need to be considered. Given that sex scenes can be used as a narrative device for a great many different situations and effects, it’s worth making a distinction. For the purposes of this review, I’m specifically considering sex scenes that are designed to be erotic, or showcase the eroticism of the story’s character(s).
If characters in a novel are going to have sex, and the prose is designed to be erotic, then it’s pretty essential that we understand their desire for each other. That is the key part of eroticism. Awkward descriptions of what’s going on can be forgiven much easier if the reader understands why the characters want to connect at the genitals with such fervour. Of course, it also helps if the writing is good enough to also put the reader into the characters’ frame of mind, so that you want them to have sex as much as the characters do.
This is largely absent from 50 Shades of Grey, though in its (minor) defence, there are attempts made to at least convey these thoughts. Even if they still fail miserably.
In terms of attraction, there’s little explained except that Anastasia thinks Christian is really hot. From Christian’s side of things, he clearly identifies Anastasia as a potential submissive and sees in her the things that he wants to control as a dominant. That explains the initial impulse, but we also understand no reason as to why she is so different from any of the other women he’s been with and why she challenges him so.
What this means is that the reader has no reason to be invested in their attraction, and as the book devolves into a pattern of blandly-written sex scenes one after another, it becomes a tiresome exercise to read. The prose is not great, and as such there’s not even the sheer appeal that at least it might make you-the-reader a little hot under the collar yourself.
Instead of gaining any understanding of Anastasia’s sensations or impulses, what’s driving her to her sexual awakening with such force or what she’s actually getting out of their relationship, we instead get rudimentary descriptions of what body part is being used in what manner and to what effect before Anastasia summarises it all with an “Oh my…” and a few mentions about the inner goddess.
And because EL James thinks that her characters are the most beautiful in the world and that clearly any interaction between them is sufficient in and of itself, we’re treated to a bizarre mix of melodramatic Mills & Boon-esque and anatomical textbook prose in the sex scenes, which robs them of any passion.
Their initial sexual attraction is stated as fact (again, the book suffering from tell-don’t-show syndrome) but that covers off the conventional boy-meets-girl romance. When it comes down to the sub/dom side of the novel it becomes glaringly obvious that EL James doesn’t understand what’s making her characters tick on that front.
When Anastasia discovers Christian’s predilections, she’s initially stunned and a little revolted, before becoming distantly curious about it. Because she’s a virginal character who is so reserved and sheltered, it makes sense that she’d be apprehensive about it. It also makes sense that her naïveté would make her assume Christian is a perverted monster because she’s never had the need to consider an S/M relationship before.
But as she and Christian have sex with each other at such an exponential rate, and as he starts introducing more and more elements of his preferred style of sex into their relationship, we never understand Anastasia’s appeal to it. There is no period of discovery for her, or realisation that she does enjoy it (except that once or twice she mentions something being “hot” but with no explanation why), and there’s absolutely no depiction of what she’s gaining out of her increased submission. EL James gets it, we assume, but she has completely and utterly failed to explain why Anastasia is continuing down this road.
The single smartest thing the movie has done so far is used Beyonce’s Haunted in the trailer, a song that effortlessly creates the heady sense of passion and lust that the book so wholly mishandles. It also manages through its use of some dubstep-influenced breaks to convey the sense of excitement and danger that their kinky relationship should entail. That song, in its three-and-a-quarter minutes manages to be entirely more erotic than the entirety of 50 Shades of Grey as its written.
In the music video particularly, we’re also treated to the dilemma that the book wishes it could analyse – there’s a liberation in being sexually free and expressing that in whatever form it may take, but that it runs the risk of crossing your own personal boundaries; significantly, Beyoncé allows herself to succumb to her more carnal impulses and is seemingly empowered by them, but retreats from the hotel at the end of the clip – this encapsulates the desire/danger dilemma that Anastasia should be able to go through, but is never given the opportunity to do because EL James didn’t bother to address that with as much focus as it needs. Haunted being able to so quickly trounce the novel’s sexiness brings me to the second problem for this review:
50 Shades of Grey does not accurately portray a submissive/dominant relationship, to the detriment of people who are actually into sub/dom sex/relationships.
What their relationship actually is, I’ll discuss in part 3. But for the moment, the record should be set straight here, and with a little context, although with some large generalisations to follow.
We live in a society that has been largely led to believe that aberrant sexuality is equal to perversion or varying degrees of psychopathy. Anything outside of a heterosexual pairing on a bed is often something to raise questions and eyebrows, regardless of the truth of the matter.
In the case of BDSM, because it can involve elements of pain or confinement, it’s often been associated as shorthand for depravity, that those who enjoy or seek out BDSM are damaged or deranged. This is categorically wrong, but EL James uses this conception to her advantage throughout all of 50 Shades of Grey, not only as the only source of tension in the novel, but also through its marketing and beyond.
Despite the sex scenes being dull as dishwater, James has capitalised wholeheartedly on the conception that BDSM is strange and different and dangerous, and that’s where the book’s bewildering success lies. It’s a safe avenue to explore a world of sex and sexuality that’s intrinsically different from mainstream heteronormativity, without having to put you-as-casual-sexual-curio at any personal risk, either by experience or association. Yes reader, you are no longer a filthy deviant because you like BDSM, because 50 Shades of Grey did it and that’s ok, because everyone’s read 50 Shades of Grey.
The problem here is that what’s presented in 50 Shades of Grey is not a healthy sexual relationship between two willing participants. It’s a list of demands from Christian that Anastasia has to comply with. Muddying the waters a little is the fact that he offers her the chance to negotiate on his list of demands – in and of itself a positive thing as such a relationship requires a mutual understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable – except that her needs are not explored anywhere near as much as his.
Christian, by the book’s internal logic, is a sexually experienced man (quoth Anastasia: “He’s so good at sex – even I’ve figured this out.”) who knows what he wants and how to get it. Anastasia, in complete contrast with Christian, is a sheltered virgin with little understanding of the sexual world beyond the basics of it. Beyond the fact that his presentation of his contract is far too full-on for someone whose experience is so limited, he introduces her to his lifestyle then demands she accept and conform almost straight away.
As mentioned before, we never understand what Anastasia’s appeal to S/M is beyond the few instances where she mentions that something seems hot, but these few moments are incongruous to the vast amount of time devoted to her discomfort with the idea. Christian allows her a few concessions by removing some of the things from his list that she is uncomfortable with, but never explores what her needs and desires may be – it’s entirely framed up from what he wants and she’s willing to go along with, rather than what they both want together on an even footing. In and of itself, this is not an even footing in the relationship.
It’s not as though her desire is to be completely controlled by him (something that would be completely fine if she consented to it) and in fact much of the book that isn’t made up of endless sex scene is her agonising over how conflicted she feels about wanting him but not being able to reconcile that with her own discomfort at the idea of being a submissive.
And significantly, both parties do not enter into an agreement based on trust and control. She doesn’t trust Christian (and nor should she) but he still manipulates situations so that she’s submitting to him even when she doesn’t want to be. He makes her question herself endlessly and given that she voices this several times, it’s clear that if he respected her wishes he would discuss that with her more than just telling her “but soon you’ll want to feel like this” (or words to that effect).
Furthermore, there are some glaring logistical errors too. Aftercare is barely a thought beyond Christian offering a lotion or two to Anastasia’s recently-spanked skin; they don’t establish safe words; they don’t agree to what’s going to happen before they go at it (partially excused as being caught-up-in-the-moment except when they’re specifically in Christian’s playroom); Christian uses cable-ties as a restraint (which are painful as a restraint and can cut and damage the skin) – the list goes on.
But on top of all of this, despite the problems with how their relationship is discussed and portrayed, there’s one absolutely glaring flaw of their kinky sex – it’s not that kinky! Honestly, Anastasia gets tied up at one point, and blindfolded at another, but beyond that, it’s mainly just a shit-tonne of spanking. Sure, you won’t necessarily see a whole lot of that in soft-focus romantic movies, but as controversial sex goes, it’s pretty uncontroversial. For all that Christian and Anastasia make of their mind-blowing vanilla sex as their first time (vanilla being the term for run-of-the-mill genital smushery with little fanfare beyond it) it’s not hugely different by the time they get into the more esoteric practices they think are dark and dangerous.
The problem here is just research failure. Experience isn’t essential to offer this perspective – most of what I’ve discussed in this review can be found on easily accessible sources such as Wikipedia or Tumblr. Furthermore, James could’ve bothered to actually explain what her characters found appealing about it, or more of why the dom/sub relationship was so essential, beyond having Christian want things his own way. There’s no reason for the reader to invest in their relationship, in their sex or in their problems. It’s not an interesting relationship, it’s not an erotic experience reading about their endless banging, and it’s not an accurate representation of the relationship James thinks she’s portraying.
A FEW FURTHER NOTES
BDSM is a much more intricate lifestyle and practice than I’ve devoted attention to here.
It’s worth noting that despite its forays into the mainstream more and more, and despite changing social perceptions on sex and sexuality, it is still not something widely discussed. Those who partake in BDSM sex are often likely to keep the fact to themselves, as the stigma around it is still one that perceives an interest in BDSM as problematic in a person’s professional and personal lives.
It’s also true that the version of a sub/dom relationship I’ve presented here is not indicative of all those relationships. Many do find the appeal of surrendering all of their control to a person, or of having a person surrender their control to them as highly erotic, but this is still usually something that both parties want and agree to. There are also different mindsets around what is and isn’t acceptable in a sub/dom relationship, such as the usage of safewords and the materials that are introduced into the sexual act – some might like the idea of being hurt by cable ties, but the general mindset amongst the larger share of the BDSM community is “safe, sane and consensual” which is the benchmark 50 Shades of Grey fails to meet.
50 Shades of Grey also makes the mistake of continuing to conflate BDSM as a sign of a damaged personality. The few insights the reader is granted into Christian Grey’s personality and backstory are centred in abuse. He was abandoned by his mother as a toddler and the book assumes that he suffered for a period of time before being adopted by his filthy rich new parents, and his sexual awakening came in the form of an older woman molesting him for a prolonged period of time and introducing him to the BDSM world.
Both of these things are treated as the key to explaining why Christian is the way he is. I wouldn’t object to this if James took the time to analyse Christian and explain why X means Y and why he might be an unusual example, but she simply uses it as another signifier that Christian is “dangerous” and tries to use that to amp up the appeal of their sordid lifestyle.
Over the last few decades, BDSM has been upgraded from “disorder” to “paraphilia” in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual – for a long time, it’s been considered that it was a mental defect to enjoy kinky sex, whereas it’s now (correctly) being understood as simply a different way of enjoying sex. The stigma that’s already attached to BDSM doesn’t get diminished by one of the most popular books in the world continuing the same form of misinformation or stereotyping. Again, this comes down to EL James failing to put in enough context, and most likely enough research.
She probably heard the “sticks and stones may break my bones but whips and chains excite me” from Rihanna’s S&M and thought “Oh, I get excited by those too!” but failed to realise that there’s more to it than that. In both S&M and 50 Shades of Grey, it’s almost a form of cultural appropriation for the sake of a provocative gimmick. Rihanna at least adds a sense of lustful urgency to her singing that makes it seem as though she’s aware of what whips and chains feel like – but neither example is very good at portraying why people can get excited by BDSM, what they get out of it, or why it interests them in the first place. “I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it” croons Rihanna, assuming that “being bad” is impetus enough for appreciating kink, whereas EL James has decided that her character’s dark past explains his sexual present. This is in stark contrast to the increasing evidence that BDSM relationships are among the healthiest, and that it’s NOT still something practiced only by a select few questionable individuals.
The reason I’ve harped on at this is because 50 Shades of Grey actually has a foundation for a decent story involving BDSM in it. It’s a shaky foundation that would need to have a completely new structure built on top of it, but it’s there. It’s clear that EL James has an understanding of BDSM that’s slightly above “those are the people who dress in leather and whip each other” but she’s failed to present that knowledge in her novel. It would be quite progressive of her to portray Christian as a man who suffered some adversity in his life and then grew into a man who still enjoyed BDSM – in fact it would provide some much needed complexity to his character – but the current form of “he was abused and now he likes BDSM” is a cop-out and shitty excuse for something so pivotal to the story.