Sunday, June 17, 2012

Why I Hate 50 Shades of Grey, Part 1

(NOTE: This post covers only the first eight chapters of the book. Because that was as far as I could get before feeling the mad desire to vent some anger about it. Perhaps some of my points will be totally invalidated by the book's conclusion. But this is the impression I've gotten thus far.) 

Some of the most ardent sexists I've met have been women who don't even recognize it. This worries me deeply because women influence each other greatly and when you have a woman unknowingly, happily stating that others should be submissive to their husbands, it's suddenly so much harder to argue.

I start out this post with this idea because it's one that's been heavily on my mind recently. Especially through the first one hundred pages of Fifty Shades of Grey. Yes, I bought this book. Yes, I am reading this book. As a purveyor of culture, it's kind of a must. Fanfiction turned best-seller, I was intrigued by it, bracing myself for the craziness that had been hyped-up on Tumblr with posts like this (funny story, the review from Amazon this post uses was the final straw and convinced me I had to read this book. You win, Amazon reviewer). I have the feeling that if this book had been written by a man, people would be decrying it as the most sexist thing to hit bookshelves in years. But it's written by a woman, a woman who's never published a book before. A woman who, as the bio describes, put her dreams of writing "on hold to focus on her family and her career. She finally plucked up the courage to put pen to paper with her first novel, Fifty Shades of Grey." And suddenly critiquing this book becomes so much harder.

So please, Ms. James, keep in mind that this is nothing personal. I don't mean to call you a sexist (as I've never met you, never heard you talk, never even read an interview with you), but I find your writing extraordinarily sexist. I don't want to judge a person I've never met and I separate the writer from the writing; one's craft is not a direct judgement of one's character. But the themes of this book a little over a hundred pages in has got me deeply worried and I worry for the image it presents to women.

So what's my beef with it? Here we go (and, oh yeah, SPOILERS AHEAD, BIG TIME):
1) Ana Steele: I know she's meant to be like Bella Swan, so already we've got a problem (for I'm certainly no Bella fan). But I find Ana Steele almost weaker than Bella. Perhaps age shouldn't be the main factor but it is. Ana is so naive for a college senior; I don't care that she's romantically inexperienced (I'm in the same boat, for God's sake), but her naivete makes her almost impossible to sympathize with. The fact that she doesn't know tequila-based cocktails are a bad idea after a crap-ton of champagne (pg 57), that not eating before going out drinking is dangerous (67), and calls Christian "yummy" (63) seems really juvenile for a character that's just graduated from college. She's also very much a cardboard cut-out of a woman; all minor flubs and flaws and no substance. She describes herself as thus:
"Romantically, though, I've never put myself out there, ever. A lifetime of insecurity - I'm too pale, too skinny, too scruffy, uncoordinated, my long list of faults go on. So I have always been the one to rebuff any would-be admirers. There was that one guy in my chemistry class who liked me, but no one has ever sparked my interest - no one except Christian Damn Grey. Maybe I should be kinder to the likes of Paul Clayton and Jose Rodrigues, though I'm sure neither of them has been found sobbing alone in dark places. Perhaps I just need a good cry."(51)
This brings me to:

2) The stereotypical fangirl: Ana Steele represents a cliche of fangirls. She is not in love with Christian Grey, it seems rather clear - she is obsessed. She complains how controlling he appears but swoons that, "He's not merely good-looking - he's the epitome of male beauty, breath-taking..." (25). In fact, it seems it is only his beauty that entrances her, not his personality or characteristics. When she thinks he doesn't like her, she is utterly devastated, "...crying over the loss of something I never had" (51). She calls Christian a Grecian god and is utterly intimidated by him. Boys like Paul do not entice her, which could be completely understandable except for her reasoning: "...Paul is cute in a wholesome all-American-boy-next-door kind of way, but he's no literary hero, not by any stretch of the imagination." (34).  She is looking for a literary hero, something that is fictional, in real-life. And while I have often shared this trait with her, no deeper understanding is given here, no acceptance that Ana could be idealistic, trying to find perfection in a culture that drives us to this urging. Rather than this, the assumption is that she's just abnormal, rather than sharing in an expression many women exhibit:
"Sometimes I wonder if there's something wrong with me. Perhaps I've spent too long in the company of literary romantic heroes, and consequently my ideals and expectations are far too high. But in reality, nobody's ever made me feel like that." (24)
As for what her ideals are, it's never exactly expressed. Really, if she's looking for a Mr. Darcy-eque man, she's probably not be asking for too much. But given her shallow character, this is never explored. And her literary interest seems to be a lot more...well...

3) All the fucking Tess of D'Ubervilles allusions: Ana has an obsession with this book. And this is the point where my personal bias is going to cloud things. I hate this book; mainly because I've never been able to finish it. Seriously, every time I get to the part where Tess' child Sorrow dies, I can't get any farther. I'VE TRIED THREE TIMES TO READ IT. I DON'T GET IT. I don't think it's Thomas Hardy's writing; I think I just struggle with the plot and the characters.

Anyway, the point is, I've read enough of it to know what happens between Tess and Alec D'Uberville. And then this happens in Fifty Shades, after Christian Grey sends Ana a first edition of the book and a quote from it:
"This quote - Tess says it to her mother after Alec D'Uberville has his wicked way with her."
"I know," Kate muses. "What is he trying to say?"
"I don't know..." (55)
Ana, as a literature major, you should know. I believe what he might be saying is: I WANT TO RAPE YOU. Because, you know, THAT'S WHAT ALEC DOES TO TESS. Or did you not finish the book either? (And "wicked way" might be the worst allusion to rape I have ever heard).

Not good? A bit not good, yeah.

And then this part came along:
As I sit, I'm struck by the fact I feel like Tess Dubeyfield looking at the new house that belongs to the notorious Alec D'Uberville. The thought makes me smile...
  "...I could hold you to impossibly high ideal like Angel Clare or debase you completely like Alec d'Uberville," he murmurs, and his eyes flash dark and dangerous.
"If there are only two choices, I'll take the debasement," I whisper, gazing at him. (95)
May I remind you, ALEC D'UBERVILLE RAPED TESS. This is NOT okay. AT ALL.

Which brings me finally to:

4) Christian Grey: The appeal of this man is an absolute mystery. So what if he's hot. These are the things that come out of his mouth:
"I'm used to getting my own way, Anastasia," he murmurs. "In all things." (44)
"Anastasia, you were comatose. Necrophilia is not my thing. I like my women sentient and receptive," he says dryly. (66)
"Well, if you were mine, you wouldn't be able to sit down for a week after the stunt you pulled yesterday." (67)
 "If you follow these rules to my satisfaction, I shall reward you. If you don't, I shall punish you, and you will learn." (100)
 "Why the fuck didn't you tell me?" he growls. (108) [upon discovering Ana is still a virgin]
You know, I'm starting to think Ana isn't so picky after all. I'd rather be alone than date a cad who has things like this coming out of his mouth. I don't care how much of an emotional wreck he might turn out to be (because, if he's anything like Twilight's Edward, he's going to have emotional issues hidden under the surface). This sort of behavior is terribly dangerous. And thus:

5) S&M and abuse are completely separate things: I don't know much about S&M/BDSM/etc. However, I think the quote from page 67 shown above is definitely NOT alluding to any sort of fetishism but outright abuse. He describes his focus on such apparent S&M as all about his pleasure ("to please me" pg 100) rather than about both of their pleasures (which, from what I know about S&M, is the real focus). His rules and regulations for Ana are even appalling: a specific diet, ascribing to a workout program with a personal trainer, not getting involved with any other relationships while with Christian. This is beyond any sort of fetishism; this is absolute control over nearly every aspect of Ana's life. And yet the only problem she seems to have with it is getting free clothes and the amount of time she has to work out. But then, when Christian takes her home after she spent the night at his apartment, her reaction is:
I belatedly realize he's not asked me where I live - yet he knows. But then he sent the books; of course he knows where I live. What able, cell phone-tracking helicopter-owning stalker wouldn't? (82)
You know, if the guy you just spent the night with totally knows where you live because he's stalking you, YOU PROBABLY SHOULDN'T BE SEEING HIM. And the fact that he likes to hurt women "depresses me" (100). Only depression? Not fear? Anxiety? The fact that maybe you should learn some judo and karate in case things get absolutely mental? But, there's a problem with my opinion because I'm not ascribing to this thought (which brings me to my final point):

6) I'd do anything for you - even that: Ana admits she would do anything to be with Christian. Anything. She goes through intense beauty tending:
Under Kate's tireless and frankly intrusive instruction, my legs and underarms are shaved to perfection, my eyebrows plucked, and I am buffed all over. It has been a most unpleasant experience. But she assures me that this is what men expect these days. (85)
(Quick note on this line - assuming that this is what men expect. This is something I have a serious problem with. There is no one way women are supposed to look; why continue this line of thought?)
Ana also signs over her rights to her diet, workout routine, and what sort of bodily hair she can have. (107)

Remember my concerns with Twilight in my Modern Love post? This is worse; way worse. Because what I've gotten from this book so far basically says it's okay to be abused and raped as long as it's by someone you really love, who apparently really loves you. And this scares me. Really, really scares me more than anything I've ever encountered. I'm truly hoping the rest of the book will change this vibe, but I have feeling that won't be the case. I understand that this erotica and that the characters are not going to be incredibly complex. This is also Ms. James' first book and I understand only too well the courage it takes to write. I don't expect her book to be perfect; nothing I've written ever has or ever will be. I've refrained from making comments on her writing style as, for her first book, that seems a bit harsh. But I really, truly do have a problem with the message I'm getting from it. It worries me that a writer or a reader might have never even thought about what appears on the page, that things that seems so blatantly sexist to me might seem as nothing more than an intense romance to another reader. And while I believe that books should be interpreted in a multitude of ways, this... this is just so wrong. This seems to normalize abuse, obsession, weak women, and domination of women.

 Maybe it gets better. I hope so. But dear God, I haven't even gotten to a sex scene yet...

Thanks, Jim. Thanks for that terrifying possibility.

Note: All citations are from Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Vintage Books 2012.


  1. I'm so glad I discovered your blog. :)

    Great article!

  2. I hope more people will read your blog before they waste their time and money on this mediocre book.

  3. So glad i am not alone hating this book. I could only get to Chapter 2.

    1. You are certainly not alone, dear anon. There are far better books to spend one's time with. But, if you do feel the mad desire to get through it, I recommend doing what my mother did to entertain herself throughout - counting the number of times phrases such as "my inner goddess" and "oh my!" are used and the number of times Ana bites her lip or mentions Christian's grey eyes. It, I am told, at least provides a goal whilst reading this book. And gives one an excuse to use highlighters.

  4. Enjoyed your insights. Wrote my brief review last night. Kept it brief b/c I just couldn't waste anymore thought on the book. Purposely avoided reading other reviews until today. Nice job! I was ready to quit by Ch. 9, but I pushed forward. That's time I'm never getting back.

    1. Thanks for reading! Yeah, that's time I'm not getting back too; it took me longer than I thought to read, mainly because I had to keep putting it down and venting about it!

  5. Wow! I totally agree! It's is not very well written.... To be honest, I don't understand how this book could become such a success. Christian is not a dreamboy but a nightmare. I hate that everyone is talking about it as if it is a masterpiece. It is definitely not. I stopped reading it because it bored me so much. Beside sex and stupid and senseless conversations, absolutely nothing happens...... I wasted my money..

    1. "Christian is not a dreamboy but a nightmare" - I couldn't agree more, Anon! Brilliantly said, and I'm just as confused as you are as to why it's so successful. I'd say it's the shock and awe factor but unless you're describing it's terribleness, I don't think that applies :P

  6. I'll admit, I've been reading a series of chapter synopsis instead of tormenting myself with the first book. From what I've seen in the comments DEFENDING the series, everything is OK, because Pedward (err, Christian) is really just a wounded bird, and after all his manipulative bull crap, the power of Ana's love fixes everything, and they get married and ride off into the sunset. Yep, that's the enduring message of this book: Staying with an abusive stalker pays off in the end if you just love him enough. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

    1. The description of Christian as a wounded bird is spot-on; great word choice :D Though it's nothing new for a romance novel to treat a male character this way, it is excessively more bothersome to me because Christian is just so obviously abusive. The whole idea of saving the dark hero really has a scary message, as you aptly point out.

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  8. why do people love to hate a story about people with flaws?

    would you rather read a story about perfect people?

    thats not realistic.

    Ana & Christian both are flawed unperfect people.

    yet by the end of the trilogy they have grown and become better.

    Ana realized she couldnt just do whatever Christian said - she couldnt live the life he wanted.

    Christian slowly began to heal and didnt need control and power in order to cope with his horrific childhood (and it was, he isnt just a wounded bird that should 'get over it' - he wasnt just some kid that feels unwanted even though he was adopted by people that love him. he went through some traumatic experiences. - which may not be common, but sadly are realistic for too many kids in the world.)

    whats wrong with a story where the characters are flawed? they dont glory in it, they actually grow and overcome them.

    mirroring the story with Tess & Alec proves Ana & Christians growth.

    in the beginning they were headed down the path of an unhealthy relationship, but they realized this and fought to make the changes and compromises necessary to be in a healthy one.

    whats realistic is every one of us has flaws - we are sexist, we are insecure, we think that even when we are wrong we are right.

    and if you are so blind and self righteous to say you havent been guilty of those things you simply an ignorant liar.

    and you are hopeless to ever be saved because the one person that could, with the haters perspective, in this perfect world you speak of, would say you are 'just too dark and dangerous' to be helped.

  9. how dare a book written from the perspective of a college girl sound like its written from the perspective of a college girl!!!!

    people dont think its a good read because of the writing but the content (not talking about the mindless fangirls, the ones that do have a brain):

    - that someone doesnt have to write 'they went to bed...a few hours later...' when we all know and (some of us) want to hear what happens in the middle sometimes.
    - that people are messed up. we arent all perfectly emotionally healthy and a great partner all the time. we have baggage and that carries over into our love lives.

    this is the real world. maybe without the billionaire ceo, but a boyfriend will control issues? thats pretty real. could he turn out to be Alec from Tess of the D'Urbervilles? yep - and Christian almost did. Ana had to leave him. but then he realized he was wrong and wanted to change. staying with someone that doesnt think they are wrong in an unhealthy relationship is obviously not okay...but when they want to make it right? you've never given someone a second chance? they never came through and became a better person? youve never helped someone through that? or know someone that has been through that?

    how can people overlook the lesson to be learned in these books? yes they can just be pure mindless entertainment, but the whole point is the author created something that wasnt just a fun fantasy but also a very real situation that most likely we all have been in, either not as bad or sadly way worse. and we've chosen to work on a relationship or run like hell or stay even though we know its wrong.

    cause thats what people do in real life. we make mistakes and grow from them.

    Christian himself at the end of the third book would tell you what a messed up guy he was at the beginning of the first. that no one should be with him. that he thought there was no hope. but with Ana he found some. and they turned an unhealthy relationship into a healthy one.

  10. Hi Anons:

    I wrote this post sometime ago and I commend you for still commenting on it, even though its long since floated into the slush pile of content on this blog. I'd also like to thank you for sharing your opinion with me, especially as it disagreed with what I wrote here. While I'll never be a fan of 50 Shades, I'm really glad you said what you said about the book being written in the voice of a college girl and about Ana and Christian being flawed. I admit I haven't read all three books so I don't know the story arch through the trilogy. Now knowing that things change, maybe I ought to give the books another look. Also, I admit that I was in a far different state of mind about the books than I am now - I understand that there is an appeal to this sort of story. I was once a Twilight fan, it should have been move obvious to me at the start. My apologies if my tone seemed overly harsh to you and upset you. I may still dislike these books but it is important for me to know that people do like them, they were best sellers for a reason, and that there is something more than what they are made out to be. Thank you very much for sharing your opinion here.