It’s badly-written, especially considering all the hype. The sex isn’t very sexy. It idealizes virginity in a really unhealthy way. It stereotypes BDSM role-players as depraved and broken people. The characters are flat and wooden. The dialogue sucks.
There’s a lot I find wrong with Fifty Shades of Grey (some of which I covered in a prior post, if you’re interested).
But I spent some time the other day thinking about whether Fifty Shades of Grey got anything right. I mean, nothing that poorly-written deserved to be published, much less become the summer’s blockbuster read and get a movie deal, but isn’t there anything that makes its popularity more significant than just a tragic waste of ink and e-book memory?
And I found it: the one good thing about Fifty Shades.
It gives us an opportunity to talk about abuse and control.
However much the Twilight series on which Fifty Shades was based depicted control as romance – “Edward loves me so much, he’d rather have me kidnapped than let me see my other friends! Isn’t that romantic!” – there’s no doubt Fifty Shades ups the ante. The dominant/submissive relationship plays on power dynamics of that kind. The difference is, in BDSM, it’s done with consent; it’s not just somebody’s jackass
vampire boyfriend trying to force her to behave in a way that pleases him, and instead of getting pissed off at being controlled she cries, “I’m sorry! Please don’t leave me!”
In Fifty Shades of Grey, however, there are different levels of controlling. Some of it is done in service of a sexy BDSM relationship, and because it turns Anastasia on. (We assume we can trust her judgment of what she enjoys even though she’s apparently a sexual blank slate. See prior comments about idealizing virginity.) She lets him boss her around in a sexual context, relinquishing control because he likes to take it and she likes to give it up. That’s not problematic.
It gets problematic, though, when he starts trying to control her life outside of their sexual relationship and outside of their BDSM partnership. He commands her to eat even if she says she isn’t hungry. She goes to visit her mother – she specifically says she wants to get some distance from him and figure out how she feels about the relationship – and he just happens to show up when mom and daughter go out for cocktails. He gives her lavish gifts and places her in luxurious settings, whether or not she wants it, even when she feels like it might compromise her judgment. And of course it does – or maybe it’s just that he’s so ridiculously good-looking – because instead of saying, “Back off, jerk, I can figure out for myself whether or not I’m hungry” or “What part of ‘I want to get some space from you’ was unclear?” she spends most of the first book rhapsodizing about how she can’t resist him.
Oh, but we can’t use the word “love” to describe that, because then he might not like her as much and she would be sad.
It’s a ludicrous story and she’s a ludicrous person. And so is he. But it can also open up some conversation amongst women about where the boundaries lie and what it looks like when a lover crosses them.
See, women in our society tend to be discouraged from having boundaries. We’re supposed to be the loving, giving gender. The ones who embrace and love everybody, who go the extra mile for those we care about. Nice girls don’t say no – or, more accurately, they say no to sex but they say yes to everything else, whether it’s a kid who needs a ride to the mall, a friend who wants eight dozen cookies for her birthday party, or a relative demanding to move into the spare room indefinitely. We’re taught that it’s selfish to set out limits about what we are and aren’t prepared to handle.
Fifty Shades of Grey gives women a chance to talk about these kinds of issues, starting off with a relationship where a little bit of control is desirable (because it’s sexy) but there’s definitely too much control going on. Ana is an unreliable narrator; we don’t have to accept her bad judgment. And because it’s so spectacularly bad – “I didn’t want him to follow me to Georgia but he only did it because he loves me so I’m actually glad” – it gives us carte blanche to criticize her. And that can lead into some pretty important questions.
- What does Ana put up with where you would lay down the law and tell him “that’s not okay”?
- At what point does the control that they like to play with in their sex life spill over too far into the rest of their relationship? Does her submissiveness in the bedroom need to translate into submissiveness in all things?
- When are Christian’s demands playful and when are they serious?
- When is Ana’s defiance of those demands playful and cheeky, and when does she actually mean it? How does she show she means it? How does he react when she means it?
- What does she do if/when Christian doesn’t take her seriously? In what ways does her reaction teach Christian to respect or disrespect her wishes in the future?
- Is Christian treating Ana like a child? Are there ways Christian treats her – sexuality aside, of course – that you wouldn’t want a parent to treat a child? (For instance, my husband and I agree that we wouldn’t want to command our child to eat if he said he wasn’t hungry, because the child needs to read his own body cues. But Christian does that to Ana, a grown woman, multiple times.)
- Does Christian use anger and withdrawal of love to manipulate her? In what ways?
- Does he use money, gifts, and luxury to manipulate her? In what ways?
- At what point do Christian Grey’s control tactics cross the line from bossy into outright abusive?
See what I mean? It’s a badly-written story, but at least it does some good. It lets us raise these questions with the women in our lives, and that can help us talk about some really serious issues like controlling boyfriends, domestic violence (which often includes a control element), power balance in relationships, the battle between the sexes, and . . . well, let’s just see where the conversation takes us.
But it only works if we’re actually willing to talk about it. So let’s put aside any concept of shame about what people read. Even terribly-written, horribly-characterized books tell us something about the human condition – even if it’s an example of what not to do. Your assignment for today: tell somebody what you really think about Fifty Shades, and let’s have a conversation.