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.
IF IT LOOKS AND SOUNDS LIKE A DUCK, IT MIGHT BE A RAPIST:
Christian Grey rapes Anastasia Steele in this book. He breaks into her house and exerts his control over her in a scene that’s non-consensual and an act of sexual violence and aggression.
During this scene, EL James takes the time to remind us how “yummy” he is.
And this in a nutshell is perhaps the biggest fault in EL James’ writing (which I’ve included at the bottom of the review for clatrity). She’s so 100% in love with her re-crafted Edward Cullen that she’s completely blinded to what it is he’s actually doing. Sure, she probably gets all of the context and emotions and ideas she was thinking of while writing, but because she’s forgotten to actually contextualise her context, we end up with accidental rape scenes.
It comes at a point where Anastasia is overwhelmed by the intensity of their relationship and needs some space. They’ve been exchanging emails and she sends him one that completely sounds like she’s breaking up with him, telling him “it was nice knowing you”. She thinks it’s a joke, but she’s an idiot on that front because there’s no other way to interpret it except as a send-off. From his point of view, he thinks she’s 100% broken up with him.
So he breaks into her house to “remind you of how nice it was knowing me.”
Anastasia does, at several points in this scene, narrate her desire for him, the “electricity” between them, how “yummy” he is in his pants and so on, but she never does this aloud. From an observer in the room, or more importantly, from Christian’s perspective, this is rape.
The only moment that can be construed as “consent” between them is after he’s pinned her down on her bed, and they’ve been kissing heavily. He stops and asks her if she “trusts him” and she “nods, wide-eyed” – this is it. In the physical context of the scene, she could be gasping for air. What’s more, given the dynamic of their relationship, it can be easily argued that she’s not so much consenting as being actively coerced, and it’s not up for debate that coercion and consent don’t mix.
More to the point, as he starts taking off her clothes (she’s just been for a run and has commented earlier that she feels gross), she gets embarrassed at her sweaty state and says “no”. The reader knows it’s her embarrassment at being post-run – Christian doesn’t, but keeps going, threatening to tie her down and gag her if she doesn’t stop resisting him.
What’s worse is that, aside from James’ clumsy depictions of the erotic pull in Anastasia, the scene is framed entirely as one of danger and threat. She talks about her panic at him being in the room, about looking for an escape route, at her fear of how he’s going to react to her “joke”.
It would be unsurprising to have a moment of tawdry-ravishing in this style of book, but it’s downright disturbing to frame the scene with tension and physical danger and have it devolve into an act of violent sexual aggression before allowing the main character to consent – but well after the point where consent should have been given.
This is perhaps the most unsettling moment of Christian Grey’s behaviour, because the scene is plotted as a tense scene wherein Anastasia is held captive in her bedroom. But it highlights my biggest and most significant problem with 50 Shades of Grey:
Christian Grey is not a dominant. He is an abuser. The novel normalises and idealises his abuse and misrepresents it as kinky sex and romance. He is allowed to get away with his behaviour. EL James as an author chose to allow this behaviour and to frame it the way it has been.
This is an element that we might be able to blame on Twilight, as it really cemented the creepy-stalker-boyfriend archetype as being OK, just as long as he’s gorgeous. Twilight suffers a huge blow to any potential credibility by framing Edward and Bella’s relationship up as romantic and passionate, when if anything, it’s unnervingly co-dependent. It’s actually failed on 15 different points to assess whether you may be in an abusive relationship (where failing against one point is a sign that you might be, so 15 is all sorts of trouble).
Given 50 Shades of Grey’s origin as a Twilight fan-fic, it might make sense that James would keep the same dynamic, but in amidst her hackery she really ramps it up. Edward Cullen has a supernatural awareness of Bella that might slightly mitigate his behaviour, (he stalks her because he’s connected to her, blah blah), but Christian Grey is a human character who goes to incredible lengths to exert his control over Anastasia.
After their first encounter, where Anastasia interviews Christian for her student paper, he starts showing up in some surprising places. Her work, her home, the bar she goes to with her friends. What’s initially a little unsettling crosses into “insane” when he reveals that he’s tracking her cell phone and just drops this into casual conversation.
There’s no way to make that romantic. It’s not him being protective or wanting to know more about her, it’s him exerting control and power over her, removing her privacy.
Later in the book, when Anastasia is completely overwhelmed by their relationship she goes to see her mother in Georgia (the majority of the book takes place in Seattle). She’s at the zenith of her uncertainty about Christian and on Kate’s behest, goes to see her mother to escape him for a bit, to consider the situation objectively. He shows up at the bar Anastasia and her mother are at – some 3000 odd miles away from where he’s meant to be – because he’s keeping tabs on her. Furthermore, your up-until-this-point rational and kind-of-awesome mother, who you sort of expect to kick his ass and tell him to take a hike, suddenly starts fawning over him because of how beautiful he is.
In any realistic setting, this would be so hugely disturbing. The second someone tells you they’ve started tracing your mobile phone is when you call the police. But because this is set firmly in the heart of EL James’ wankland, it’s romantic and damn convenient for the plot – having your romantic lead appear 3000 miles away from where he’s makes it much easier for he and Anastasia to have a chat, now that she’s decided she wants to talk.
So as I mentioned in Part 2, their relationship is not built on equal trust and exchange of power, it’s entirely driven from Christian’s wants and needs, with Anastasia assimilating to his sexual desires. They do have slightly more conventional sex early in the book, which Anastasia prefers and is greatly turned on by, but Christian constantly asserts that it won’t keep happening, that he was so surprised by it because he isn’t used to it.
The first time he spanks Anastasia, he’s doing it to punish her. He bends her over her knee and goes to town with his hands, despite the fact that she’s in immense pain. Once he’s done, he then fucks her hard – as he said he would – but again without caring for what she wants out of it.
Now none of this is what Anastasia wants, and she certainly doesn’t enjoy it. Perhaps the most key thing to take away from the failure of James to present a BDSM relationship is that she doesn’t enjoy being submissive to him. You might be able to pass it off as this being Anastasia’s introduction to Christian Grey’s particularly questionable version of sex, and had Anastasia responded with any form of sexual awakening at this point, that might (might) have been fine. But how does she respond?
She can’t bring herself to look at him, leaves as quickly as possible, goes home and finds she doesn’t feel safe or secure there, and breaks down in tears, needing consolation from a phone call to her mother and Kate’s arrival home. Adding another sweet layer to this victim-trauma dessert is that prior to doing this, Christian makes Anastasia sign a non-disclosure agreement, which – in this book’s universe and reality – legally restricts her from talking about why she’s upset. The icing on the cake is that Anastasia eventually overcomes this (understandable) grief because Christian comes and stays the night, and she can find peace in his arms. Not only is this co-dependent as fuck and hugely troubling given how rapidly EL James takes it from actual victimhood to cloying sentimentality at him being her big spoon for the night, he even manages to make her grief all about him – moaning that he can’t trust her if this is how she’s going to respond when she said she was fine earlier. Abuse isn’t forgivable just because your character is dense.
Later in the book, as Christian starts exerting his control in more oblique ways, he buys her a new car because he believes her old car might put her at risk – but he expresses this in the way that you talk about wanting inanimate cargo to arrive unbroken at a destination. Anastasia is very uncomfortable with him controlling her through using his money, and tells him she can’t accept it. He threatens to fuck her then and there if she refuses, because threatening rape is an appropriate response in the eyes of the author.
Later, when she and Christian go to his parents’ house for dinner, they take a quick stroll through the backyard, in as much as he strolls through the backyard with her slung over his shoulder. He tells her that they’re going to have sex there, and they do – but she’s never given a say in this. It’s either have sex she doesn’t want willingly, or refuse and get “punishment fucked” or as the real world views it, raped.
THE EL JAMES RESPONSE
It’s easy to see when I separate these moments from the rest of the book how obvious his behaviour is, but in context, it’s much more insidious. These are moments that are hidden in amidst (terrible) prose about how amazing and handsome and sent-from-the-heavens beautiful Christian Grey is, and the end result is that 50 Shades of Grey is a book that features a stridently abusive relationship masked as an edgy romance.
There are other questionable elements of the book, such as EL James’ homophobia (in their initial interview, Kate has Anastasia ask Christian if he is gay, something that’s then discussed several times, either by Christian punishing Anastasia for asking it (because how dare she ask that) or by his mother being introduced as a plot device to confirm his heterosexuality before we meet her properly), her seeming hatred and distrust of other women (seriously, all women in the book except Anastasia, Kate, or the female members of Christian or Anastasia’s families are dehumanised to their basic function in the scene, either “blondes” or “stepford wives” with no personality traits whatsoever, and Anastasia/James still feels threatened by them), or even her basic misunderstandings of terminology or practices in BDSM.
But chief among them is the refusal she has to make Christian Grey accountable for his actions, because that might take away his status as perfection and the ultimate goal to be attained.
I am certainly not the first person to point out this abuse. Both Mara Wilson and Jenny Trout have taken James to task on it, and there are countless examples of people from within the kink community detailing just how much and why the sex in 50 Shades of Grey is either categorically not BDSM, or why it’s abuse. (I seriously recommend reading The Pervocracy’s recaps)
And at this point, it’s important to remember that 50 Shades of Grey has been sold as and marketed as a sort of self-help guide for the bedrooms of bored housewives. There are constant editions printed with little “awake your inner goddess” stickers, and through countless interviews, EL James has advocated people to use this as a guide to introduce themselves to the world of BDSM or kink as though she’s some shining beacon of progressive sexuality.
But when several people, namely survivors of domestic abuse, contacted EL James on Twitter to highlight that what she’d written dangerously echoed their real-life experiences, she simply ignored them, or blocked them without comment. When others have caller her out on it, she’s lashed back at them (even labelling Mara Wilson a “sad fuck” when Wilson suggested she should start donating money to women’s shelters).
Other than this highlighting just what sort of repugnant character we’re dealing with in the form of EL James, this is where the heart of the problem lies. EL James has created an un-researched and misguided story and appropriated the practices and lifestyle of a particular subculture (the BDSM community) to spice up an otherwise inert narrative.
When this story has become a huge success, she’s gladly ridden the highs of that rollercoaster without taking any accountability for what she’s created. When you then have her willingly taking part in the promotion of said story as something to be imitated in real life – so therefore actively advocating for the creation of immense imbalances of power in domestic couplings – but then have people tell her why this shouldn’t be done, and just what the greater implications of this are, she reacts by creating a wall of silence.
Now, lest I seem too irrational here, I don’t mean to suggest that reading 50 Shades of Grey is going to turn anyone into a victim or abuser by its mere content. It would need to be a hell of a lot better written for starters, but it’s also just a ridiculous thing to suggest. No one is going to be greatly swayed by the power of 50 Shades of Grey into becoming a part of Domestic Violence more than anyone watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer is going to start trawling cemeteries at night and fighting shadows acrobatically.
Read more on this one here
But the problem is that when something like 50 Shades of Grey comes along and sets women’s rights back half a century, it then enters into a common lexicon. It spawns imitators that might suggest a similar theme, it creates conversations where maybe people think it’s acceptable to be dominated sexually when they’re not comfortable with that, because their frame of reference has now been altered to include a suggestion that it’s all worth it for love.
The abuse in the book is only bad because it’s not called out as such. I’m not saying that the story shouldn’t have had this element, but if it did, it should have mattered so much more than simply “will he stay the night now?” I am all in favour of confrontational material in fiction (my favourite novel is also the most disturbing book I’ve read) but the difference comes in knowing what you’re doing with that content. For anyone who has suffered abuse similar to what EL James thinks is “kink”, then this book must be a complete slap in the face to their experience, not because it’s representative of it, but because it’s unrecognisable and labelled as “love”.
Put it this way – if 50 Shades of Grey is teaching people about BDSM and relationships, would you teach your child about human reproduction by making them watch Anal Sluts 78?
It’s not worth it just so EL James can call herself a success. Nothing she’s created in 50 Shades of Grey is worth the success it’s received. That she’s so wilfully presented domestic violence as romance – which I genuinely believe she’s done unwittingly – but then so pig-headedly ignored when it’s been brought to her attention is further testament to the complete worthlessness of this book, and her as an author.
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RAPE SCENE TEXT:
I don’t know why I glance up, maybe I catch a slight movement from the corner of my eye, I don’t know, but when I do, he’s standing in the doorway of my bedroom watching me intently. He’s wearing his grey flannel pants and a white linen shirt, gently twirling his car keys. I pull my ear buds out and freeze. Fuck!
“Good evening, Anastasia.” His voice is cool, his expression completely guarded and unreadable. The capacity to speak deserts me. Damn Kate for letting him in here with no warning. Vaguely, I’m aware that I’m still in my sweats, un-showered, yucky, and he’s just gloriously yummy, his pants doing that hanging from the hips thing, and what’s more, he’s here in my bedroom.
“I felt that your email warranted a reply in person,” he explains dryly.
I open my mouth and then close it again, twice. The joke is on me. Never in this or any alternative universe did I expect him to drop everything and turn up here.
“May I sit?” he asks, his eyes now dancing with humor – thank heavens – maybe he’ll see the funny side?
I nod. The power of speech remains elusive. Christian Grey is sitting on my bed.
“I wondered what your bedroom would look like,” he says.
I glance around it, plotting an escape route, no – there’s still only the door or window.
My room is functional but cozy – sparse white wicker furniture and a white iron double bed with a patchwork quilt, made by my mother when she was in her folksy American quilting phase. It’s all pale blue and cream.
“It’s very serene and peaceful in here,” he murmurs. Not at the moment… not with you here. Finally, my medulla oblongata recalls its purpose, I breathe.
He smiles at me. “I’m still at the Heathman.”
I know that.
“Would you like a drink?” Politeness wins out over everything else I’d like to say.
“No, thank you, Anastasia.” He smiles a dazzling, crooked smile, his head cocked slightly to one side.
Well, I might need one.
“So, it was nice knowing me?”
Holy cow, is he offended? I stare down at my fingers. How am I going to dig myself out of this? If I tell him it was a joke, I don’t think he’ll be impressed.
“I thought you’d reply by email.” My voice is small, pathetic.
“Are you biting your lower lip deliberately?” he asks darkly.
I blink up at him, gasping, freeing my lip.
“I wasn’t aware I was biting my lip,” I murmur softly.
My heart is pounding. I can feel that pull, that delicious electricity between us charging, filling the space between us with static. He’s sitting so close to me, his eyes dark smoky gray, his elbows resting on his knees, his legs apart. Leaning forward, he slowly undoes one of my pigtails, his fingers freeing my hair. My breathing is shallow, and I cannot move. I watch hypnotized as his hand moves to my second pigtail, and pulling the hair tie, he loosens the braid with his long, skilled fingers.
“So you decided on some exercise,” he breathes, his voice soft and melodious. His fingers gently tuck my hair behind my ear. “Why, Anastasia?” His fingers circle my ear, and very softly, he tugs my earlobe, rhythmically. It’s so sexual.
“I needed time to think,” I whisper. I’m all rabbit/headlights, moth/flame, bird/snake…and he knows exactly what he’s doing to me.
“Think about what, Anastasia?”
“And you decided that it was nice knowing me. Do you mean knowing me in the biblical sense?”
Oh shit. I flush.
“I didn’t think you were familiar with the Bible.”
“I went to Sunday School, Anastasia. It taught me a great deal.”
“I don’t remember reading about nipple clamps in the Bible. Perhaps you were taught from a modern translation.”
His lips arch with a trace of a smile, and my eyes are drawn to his beautiful sculptured mouth.
“Well, I thought I should come and remind you how nice it was knowing me.”
Holy crap. I stare at him open mouthed, and his fingers move from my ear to my chin.
“What do you say to that, Miss Steele?”
His gray eyes blaze at me, his challenge intrinsic in his stare. His lips are parted – he’s waiting, coiled to strike. Desire – acute, liquid and smoldering, combusts deep in my belly.
I take pre-emptive action and launch myself at him. Somehow he moves, I have no idea how, and in the blink of an eye I’m on the bed pinned beneath him, my arms stretched out and held above my head, his free hand clutching my face, and his mouth finds mine.
His tongue is in my mouth, claiming and possessing me, and I revel in the force he uses. I feel him against the length of my body. He wants me, and this does strange, delicious things to my insides. Not Kate in her little bikinis, not one of the fifteen, not evil Mrs. Robinson. Me. This beautiful man wants me. My inner goddess glows so bright she could light up Portland. He stops kissing me, and opening my eyes, I find him gazing down at me.
“Trust me?” he breathes.
I nod, wide-eyed, my heart bouncing off my ribs, my blood thundering around my body. He reaches down, and from his pants pocket, he takes out his silver grey silk tie… that silver grey woven tie that leaves small impressions of its weave on my skin. He moves so quickly, sitting astride me as he fastens my wrists together, but this time, he ties the other end of the tie to one of the spokes of my white iron headboard. He pulls at my binding checking it’s secure. I’m not going anywhere. I’m tied, literally, to my bed, and I’m so aroused.
He slides off me and stands beside the bed, staring down at me, his eyes dark with want. His look is triumphant, mixed with relief.
“That’s better,” he murmurs and smiles a wicked, knowing smile. He bends and starts undoing one of my sneakers. Oh no…no…my feet. No. I’ve just been running.
“No,” I protest, trying to kick him off.
“If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet too. If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you.
Keep quiet. Katherine is probably outside listening right now.”
Gag me! Kate! I shut up.