Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why I Hate 50 Shades of Grey, Part 2

So I finished 50 Shades of Grey.

(This song kind of sums up my feelings whilst reading the book.)

In case you were wondering, my previous opinions still hold. However, I'm going to try to talk about the book as a whole and not to go on a furious, tangent-filled rant, citing every sentence that bothers me (because there would be a lot and this post would never end) (and of course, I've just jinxed myself and that's exactly what's going to happen now). Word of forewarning, I am going to talk about sex. Because there's a shit-ton of it in this damned book (it is erotica, after all). Don't say I didn't warn you if it makes you uncomfortable.

1) The "virgin problem": In the section shortly after where I had stopped reading before I wrote my first post, the ever charming Christian Grey gives Ana a lot of shit for not telling him right off the bat that she'd never slept with anyone before. Instead of realizing he assumed something, Christian snaps at her and says virgin "like it's a really dirty word."
"And a nice young man hasn't swept you off your feet? I just don't understand. You're twenty-one, nearly twenty-two. You're beautiful." (109)
He's implying that he can't believe someone of Ana's age and appearance hasn't been "swept off her feet" yet because Christian Grey is a normative asshole (wow, can you tell I'm taking too many classes about gender and ideology right now?) What does it matter if she hasn't had sex yet? What's the "problem" if this relationship is supposed be about the two of you (which it's most certainly not)? Point is, don't assume. Because it makes you look like an jerk.

Sorry, Grey; you had it coming.
Also, along with virginity, there's that whole vibe of Ana being with someone who is more sexually experienced than her. Apparently, this allows Ana to orgasm at the drop of the hat (or as her friend Kate says, "Wow, Christian must really know what he's doing."(158)) And while Kate didn't experience her first orgasm during sex until a year after she became sexually active, Ana experiences hers the first time. At least it is acknowledged that this is probably on the unusual side. More unusual is the fact that Christian is keeping track of Ana's orgasms:
"Miss Steele, you are not just a pretty face. You've had six orgasms so far and all of them belong to me," he boasts, playful again.
I flush and blink at the same time, as he stares down at me. He's keeping count! (270)
Obviously Ana lives in some mythical land where quantity and quality are synonyms. (You know what? I should never read erotica again; I am far too literal for this stuff). Also, Christian is really big on relishing in the fact that he "owns" all of Ana's orgasms and pleasure. Later, this is remarked upon:
"...And I don't want you touching yourself, either."
What? Ah yes, the no masturbation clause.
"Out of curiosity... why?"
"Because I want all of your pleasure." his voice is husky but determined. (223)
Side note - I don't know why Ana worries about the masturbation clause because she doesn't do it anyway. Just in case she couldn't get any more sexually innocent, this is emphasized, which just makes what follows... well, awkward. And the fact that Christian wants all of her pleasure... Jeez, dude. It's like you're a vampire for sex (oh, wait... you are).

2) Sex, sex, and more sex: I would like to politely remind people of something that I learned in health class years ago - men have refractory periods. Please keep this in mind when reading/writing erotica. Because otherwise we're going to have utterly impossible expectations for the human body and it's not going to get pretty. I know it's fictional and in a realm of fantasy but I think that's easily forgotten - which is annoying and certainly not going to make men feel good about their bodies. It's like expecting a woman to orgasm as easily as Ana does; people are different and that's just not going to happen for everyone.  

Ana at one point in the book remarks that Christian acts "like he's just marked off another item on a checklist" after sex (269). This is how I feel about the sex scenes - like it's necessary to go through all these positions and do all of this stuff for Ana's "education" (again, one needs to learn about sex from a more knowledgeable person, or apparently, as Kate describes it, sex will suck). It also treats sex as a crazy other, not part of everyday life (especially for Ana). After coming home from her first weekend with Christian, Ana remarks, "It's so grounding and welcome after the last forty-eight hours of... madness." (163) While Christian is rather unorthodox about sex, sex as a whole is treated as this weird otherness that needs to be exploited and obsessed over. I know, I know, it's erotica, it comes with the territory. But it doesn't really have anything to do with BDSM or anything of that nature; it's just sex in general; sex in this book is treated as some other world, another planet that never coincided with Ana's until she met Christian, though it's natural - bees do it, birds do, even educated fleas do it (sorry, sorry, Cole Porter lapse there). Ana's world is completely void of sexual knowledge, so much so that she even bemoans her literature background:
He's the only one who knows and understands the rules. I'm just too naive and inexperienced. My only sphere of reference is Kate and she doesn't take any shit from men. My other references are all fictional: Elizabeth Bennent would be outraged, Jane Eyre too frightened, and Tess would succumb, just as I have. (224-225)
(May I remind you that was not succumbing for Tess, that was RAPE) (and fuck off, Jane Eyre would NOT be afraid (sorry, sorry, I'm very sensitive towards my Jane Eyre.)) But girlfriend, what books have you been reading for your lit major? Where is Germinal? Unbearable Lightness of Being? They both have sex in them. And if we're really going whole-hog on this, Lady Chatterley's Lover? I know, Ana, that these aren't your typical English novels that young romantic women are thought to have read, but I would think you'd have encountered at least one of my options for a literature class (and Chaucer. A lot of fucking Chaucer). I know it's not going to be a whole lot of help for your, "What do I do when a stalkerish, handsome man wants to slap me and screw me?" but, you know, that's not the sort of problem books could usually help you with anyway.

And in my opinion, Ana, you should probably listen to Kate more. (Actually, I sort of like Kate; she's practically the only character in the book I kind of care about. Mainly because she has this pithy one-liner: "Has that obscenely rich fucker upset you again?" (279). Kate wins, everyone else can go home).

3) Christian Grey: I have found my new most annoying character in writing. I really have. At least for the characters I really hate in literature (Paul Marshall and Humbert Humbert, if you're wondering), the hate comes from how human they are (if that makes any sense at all). No matter how monstrous their acts, they retain a good side, and then you hate them because you initially had a little bit of sympathy for them and it scares you (and so, really, for me at least, hating them is kind of enjoyable because they're complicated). Christian Grey is none of this, despite what this Tumblr use might think:

I'm sorry... this just makes me really, really sad.
The most complex thing about Christian Grey is that you never know if he's going to be a pissed-off jerk or a snarky, up-beat jerk. Ana repeats again and again that he has depravity or that he's depraved. And this is me...

What exactly is Christian's depravity? Are we speaking only of his BDSM interest (which is really not so deprived)? Or is this his fine line between BDSM and abuse, which are not clearly distinguished at all? In particular, he blurs the line between being submissive during sex and submissive ALL THE TIME. In the contract he wants Ana to sign, it is stated that the submissive becomes the "property of the dominate" (169). Now, I don't know much about BDSM but if you read the first paragraph about it on Wikipedia, you'll see that it mentions roleplay. ROLEPLAY, CHRISTIAN. Not teaching Ana how to become something she's not everyday of her life to please you. There are moments of clarity for Ana, where she realizes that this his what he wants, especially on her thoughts about the word obey, (175), that she could get hurt emotionally as well as physically, and upon her remark that he treats her like a car (251). But she never really thinks in depth about these issues, she just complains and moves on. Which is really odd, in my opinion. She's clearly not okay with the treatment she's receiving, but she lets it go. Why? Two reasons, I think.
First, she's desperate for a relationship with Christian, even though it's unhealthy as hell. She describes: "My inner goddess is jumping up and down, clapping her hands like a five-year-old. Please, let's do this... otherwise we'll end up alone with lots of cats and your classic novels to keep you company" (176). She's never felt this way about any man (and that's understandable considering it seems like the attraction between them could be turned into enough electricity to power a small town) and she fears the worst - being a lonely cat lady. Funny, considering my worst fears for her are assault and battery (which is actually the name of an email she sends to Christian, which he tosses off as over-dramatic).

Secondly, she feels bad for him. He's "poor, fucked-up, kinky, philanthropic Christian" (237) because he had a rough life before he was adopted at four (which is funny, because in psychology we talk about how you don't remember much before the ages of three or four, but maybe it was really traumatic) after being born to a crack whore (is that even politically correct? Can you actually call someone a crack whore? That seems totally offensive to me). And, for a guy in to BDSM, he has serious issues with being touched (which I'm not sure what that entails because it is PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE to have sex with someone without touching them. Maybe he just doesn't like tickling and cuddling).

Also, he was seduced by a friend of his mother's (who is called Mrs. Robinson for half the book) when he was fifteen. Which brings up more complicated issues of seduction and rape (and pedophilia) which are really... well, here's a conversation dealing with it:
"I don't think you'll ever convince me that she's not some kind of pedophile."
"I don't think of her that way. I never have. Now that's enough," he snaps. (423)
Due to Christian's disinterest in talking about anything regarding him, a lot of stuff remains unclear (probably to make him remain shrouded in mystery). However, I feel it really backfires. The "you'd rather have sex than talk" (497) notion might make for a kinky joke but it sure doesn't make for a healthy relationship and it doesn't give the reader a whole lot of room to sympathize with Christian. By the end, I feel like I don't know anything about him. Sure, he like BDSM, he has the habit of saying douchey things:
"I will fuck you, any time, any way I want - anywhere I want. I will discipline you, because you will screw up. I will train you to please me." (220-221)
(Yeah, this relationship is DEFINITELY not one of equality; it's all about Christian. Wonderful.)
"It's taking all my self-control not to fuck you on the hood of this car right now, just to show you that you are mine, and if I want to buy you a fucking car, I'll buy you a fucking car," he growls. "Now let's get you inside and get you naked." He plants a swift rough kiss on me. (262)
You know, if you want me to sympathize with Christian, I'm going to need something more than "he had a bad childhood and he was sort-of-maybe wrongfully seduced when he was fifteen and he's TOTALLY HOT so just deal with is downfalls" in order to connect with him. Simply enough, I can't hate Christian because he's not human enough to hate; I just have a disdainful apathy. He's a cardboard cutout of a man, a fantasy that is trying to be two things at once. On one side, he's supposed to be the dark knight who apparently feels undeserving of love (we have this opinion from Ana, and Ana only) (472). A sort of Mr. Rochester or Heathcliff, maybe, apparently going more for the Byronic side. But he's also supposed to be linked to Alec D'Uberville, who is an outright villain, a cad, one who gets no shred of sympathy in Tess of D'Uberville. Or as Ana describes:
This man, whom I once thought of as a romantic hero, a brave shining white knight - or dark knight, as he said. He's not a hero; he's a man with serious, deep emotional flaws, and he's dragging me into the dark. Can I not guide him into the light? (355)
Honestly, this deals with some really interesting notions. For one, romanticizing violence - and not in a BDSM way but in honest relationship violence, because what Christian does is abusive. He tries to convince Ana that she wants punishment to be linked with sex, that he wants the same things as him; he stalks her, he won't let her pay for anything ("are you trying to completely emasculate me?" he says when she wants to buy their meal at IHOP - because God forbid a woman pay for her own breakfast (459)); one moment he reminds her that she can stop at any time and then the next he says she has to do something (it's like a freaking Stanley Milgram experiment; is Ana going to listen to "authority" or listen to her own opinions?) I don't care enough about Christian to hate him - but what I do care about his how he represents men. He's pulled in two superficial directions but not given any real depths. Any depth is glazed over because he won't FREAKING TALK (another stereotype of men; thanks for that) so he remains nothing but a facade and we never get to see what's behind it in this book (and I'm only reading the next two if I can get them for free). All he is capable of being is a rude, good-looking sex machine. And any chance of getting any insight in Ana's attempts to change him are glossed over as all she can think about when she looks at him is how hot he is. How Ana surmises her relationship with Grey (and in a line I think sums up the whole book): Oh yes, I've fallen in love with him, and he can fly. (460)

How I feel about that:
If you want me to believe that Christian is a more complicated character than Dorian Gray, I'm going to need a lot more character development. You remember when I said I wasn't going to critique the writing style? That's getting harder to do (and pretty sure I stopped doing that half way through my first post). Sorry, Ms. James; from one writer to another, I know criticism is rough. But this book is one of the biggest best-sellers of all-time now (apparently it outsold the paperback copies of Harry Potter) (wow, we're calling this "mummy porn" now, according to that article) and it's rather influential. Which means it's a subtle, powerful force. It's fanfiction, erotica, and written by a woman - its going to be read as an illustration of what women desire (which I clearly think it does a pretty poor job of).

This could be a really fascinating, engaging story about issues in relationships, such as the difficulties of falling in love with someone who's abusive, or the rise of fetishes or BDSM in sexual relationships. But it's clearly not that kind of book. It takes on both topics and leaves them shallowly floating at the surface, neither engaging them or discussing them at length, simply leaving them as products of a men, who are "tricky... a different species" (279) and perpetuates stereotypes of both genders (especially of Ana, as the young, innocent submissive girl, along with the Bella influence of someone who would throw away their entire life for a relationship). It shows violence against women in an ambiguous context where it's unclear what the situation is (even Ana doesn't know if she's okay with it or not). It does the same for rape, pedophilia, stalking, and controlling relationships. All said, it actually does a decent job highlighting problems in society - focused only appearance, the conflicts of love and abuse, perhaps if you REALLY look, hidden racial stereotypes (I direct you to Jose- rather blatant - and the more subtle one of Ana's full name (Anastasia), the fact that she basically becomes a sexual pleasure object for Christian, and the history of Russian mail-order brides). But the book wasn't created to be read this way.

BUT it could be read that way. Maybe if we choose to see Ana as ridiculous and Christian as a terrible facade of a man, a faulty idea of the "perfect man," both products of a hyper-abstinence culture meets a sex-crazed one, where we are offered no middle ground, maybe then we'd be getting somewhere. There is a rather great line in the book, on page 510, where Ana remarks: "My worst fears have been realized. And strangely, it's liberating." This is the most honest, accurate line in the book - after having one of my worst nightmares come true this year, suddenly nothing is as scary or as limiting after you overcome it. However, Ana's worst nightmare (that Christian is incapable of giving or receiving love) is far different from my own and one she states is liberating - but not one that actually liberates her. At the end of the book (SPOILERS!) she leaves Grey but we are left with her bawling in her apartment. Even her taking a stand is a defeat because we are not left with the encouragement that she made the right decision; the end itself is a confirmation of how this book is meant to be read. Which highlights another fear of mine - the pervasiveness of sexism in culture, so much so that people think interpretations like mine are madness; that feminists are getting up in arms about nothing. However, realizing such a fear IS liberating; because if I see it without trying then I can't be the only one. (And while we're on the topic of things that scare me, apparently Angelina Joli is in talks to be the director for the movie version of Fifty Shades; if anyone out there has ANY sort of clout in Hollywood, can we please make this not happen? Unless Ms. Joli feels like making a deeper statement about the book in the film version and in that case GO FOR IT. Because I really like Angelina Joli and I kind of cringe at the thought of her being associated with the book as it's written. So yeah - if for some reason, you know, you have influence in Hollywood... maybe kind of, sort of mention it's more than just sexy time with a hot guy and presents both men and women in an unhealthy light? Which is kind of the last thing we need in Hollywood right now...)

I could, of course, talk about this book for a thousand posts, as I really enjoy doing this sort of thing (because, if we're still going with the idea that to hate something means you have to see good in it, in some aspect, that means I enjoy hating Fifty Shades). But I will spare you. Much of it, after all, are my own subjective opinions on romance novels. So I'll save that for something else (The Other Boleyn Girl; I should definitely write a post on The Other Boleyn Girl). So that's that; here's a picture of Martin Freeman for your troubles if you actually read this far (and I have no idea what's going on in this photo, but it just seemed to fit. So roll with it):
 Note: All citations are from Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Vintage Books 2012.


  1. All romance/erotica novels ever. If this novel isn't particularly singular then (not really any new scenes or topics, just really popular because Harlequin is so 1990s :P), it would be interesting to think about the apparent pervasive need for dominance in personal relationships. Why does it appear in 90% (guesstimate) of fantasies (i.e. romance/erotica and porn)--and not just today, but spanning history? It's there, and it has stuck around due to more reasons than simply The Man. The way I see it, BDSM a channel for a need that exists in the raw--and that raw material is what often leads to abuse. Why can't the world concretely draw the line of intervention between abuse and "rough play"? Why is this book so popular? I would hesitate to use the "uneducated masses" card, because the distinction between abusive violence and fun pleasure is easy enough to make--or is it? No one is born knowing exactly what they want in the bedroom, so how do you explore without getting risky? How is that exploration different when it is you and your partner, and as a third-party observer? I haven't read the book, you know that--but why does it take her forever to leave him? Why is the book so popular? It may be trash, but it speaks to some bigger ideas. Sexism is one, yes, as well as physical idealization and cultural stereotypes, agreed. But those things also speak to something that is both bigger and diving back in to the individual. There's something there that we do like/need/want, even if we can't recognize that tiny tiny tiny fragment in the quagmire of the book, the ideals, the culture, the society, the humanity, and the flailing, that we fumble to express--a small trip up (in one moment, with one other person, in one small place) that has earth-shocking rippling effects.

    Anyway, I'm not trying to defend her specific work; I haven't read it, duh :P Just thought I'd give you some dialogue, since I actually read the posts. I just keep seeing Bateman in my head, when he's having sex with that prostitute and he points to the mirror, lol. Anyway....

    1. I wholeheartedly agree; it definitely speaks to larger cultural issues. While BDSM and abuse is a fine, fine line that's not so easily distinguished (and I hope I didn't play the "uneducated masses" card while writing about it; it was hard for me to articulate) and I think highlights a really interesting idea of risks in relationships, it's really hard to get a grasp on this in Fifty Shades. I guess why I went on my "this is totally abuse" stance is because I feel like there's actually less BDSM represented in the book than I thought there would be (something amongst my "Christian Grey is a douche" ranting that I forgot to articulate). I was expecting body suits (like the Rubber Man from American Horror Story) and some serious, dark stuff. But I thought sex was fairly un-extreme - hand tying with ties and rope, some stuff with a riding crop, etc. But then again - does BDSM have to be extreme? No, it does not! But does spanking count as BDSM? There was a lot of Christian's interest in that and in control and, with the way it was presented, it felt a whole lot less to me like kinky stuff and more like actual abuse (but is that because I personally may not be interested in BDSM? Maybe). But, I suppose the fact that Ana is still turned on by it and, as you said, she stays with Grey for so long, speaks to a different issue. I like what you say about the individual - that's definitely something the book incorporates and one of the reasons it's a best seller (and why I actually read it :P)

      Oh my God you're right about Bateman. Plot twist - Christian Grey is actually Christian Bale in American Psycho. Brilliant!

    2. Fifty Shades is probably exactly what it is; again, I don't know, I haven't read it. In its meat, it probably has none of this philosophical intensity and is merely a jumping off point.

      Yes on the spank. There is no one definition of BDSM; in fact, the only word I would tie to it permanently is "safety"; there are healthy and unhealthy practitioners of BDSM activities, and it is the role of the unversed observer (i.e. absolutely NO IDEA what BDSM is; stereotypical middle-class mom reading this book--but then again, do they know, and just not know the name? That too is significant in creating the "gray area") to declaim everything as abuse. Which you did not do, but I think it is worth it to go even farther: if you accept all of the sexual activity between what's-her-name and douche-face as legitimate (even if unconsented to, for now; I don't want to get into that convo right now), what kinds of questions then arise about the relationship between the book and the age group(s) of the readers?

      I guess what I was getting at is that if we look at this situation in a broader picture, what if it's not a cultural "issue", but rather something that we name as that to avoid talking about it? Re-normalizing it from it's already embedded norm? What happens we bring the word "shame" into the conversation? Who is bringing that word in, and what significance does that have? Why am I "playing devil's advocate" right now; why does looking at it from this angle require that qualification? Why are Sarah Palins everywhere reading this book, and yet in their own lives condemning sexual activity and personal relationships that are "non-missionary"/non-traditional? Of course, I am wholesale assuming who the majority of the reading audience is of this book, but nonetheless the repression of individual desires on the part of the reader is so potent in extreme examples like erotica.