Book Review: 50 Shades of Grey by EL James.

The title of this post is something I never thought I’d write. Ever since the 50 Shades phenomenon hit the mainstream, however many subsequent BDSM and erotica-filled pop cultural months ago that was, I vowed to never let EL James’ literary abomination come between me and an actual good read. However, after hearing the anti-feminist and abusive relationship aspects of the trilogy in blog post after book review after writers festival talk, I finally succumbed to the pull of Christian Grey and swallowed my pride. (It must be noted that I am coming at 50 Shades from a critical and research perspective. It must also be noted that having finished with the first instalment, I will not be returning to the Red Room of Pain.)

Firstly, let me start by saying that I had very low expectations for 50 Shades, and while I won’t go as far to say it’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be, I will say that the writing is not as bad as I thought it would be (using its inspiration, Twilight, as a benchmark). However, I still found the book deeply problematic.

There’s Christian’s obsession with making Anastasia eat, which is included in the contract she must sign upon entering into a sexual, submissive relationship with him. (Conveniently, at the end of the first book she has yet to sign it.) Also included is the wearing of clothes provided by Christian, the requirement of eight (begrudgingly downgraded to seven at Anastasia’s request) hours sleep a night, refraining from physical endangerment with regard for safety (New Moon!) and the way Anastasia must conduct herself in the company of Christian, and others.

It must be noted that I’m not opposed to submissive sexual relationships. They’re not for me personally, but I don’t find a problem with them in general. I’m under the impression that most of these relationships focus on dominance and submission in the bedroom, whilst out of it the participants go about their daily life in relative equality (correct me if I’m wrong). Certainly, there are a myriad of sexual relationships out there, and some of them do take the form of Christian and Anastasia’s. But they are not the subject matter of the highest selling book in the world; one that’s sold in supermarkets next to the celery, no less.

What I find most troubling about the worldwide embrace of James’ “clit lit” is that it’s completely archaic and conservative, for all the sex-positivity it claims (or champions of it claim) to spout. For example, it holds up the notion that bad boys can be tamed. Despite Christian’s repeated pleas early on in the book that “You should steer clear of me… I’m not the man for you… I’m not a hearts and flowers kind of guy… I don’t make love, I fuck,” the catch-cries of commitment phobes everywhere looking for quick, easy sex without attachment, Anastasia still thinks that if she just did more of this or less of that, he would love her:

… He needs to walk before he can run… You are making him mad—think about all that’s [sic] he’s said, all he’s conceded… I need to be able to show him affection—then perhaps he can reciprocate. [Original emphasis]”

Somewhere in the midst of the trilogy (apparently it’s not at the climax, as writer Susan Johnson revealed at the Melbourne Writers Festival a couple of weeks ago), Christian marries Anastasia (note how I—and many others who’ve written and spoken about the book—referred to the union not as “they get married” but as “he married her”, insinuating that marriage is something that happens to Anastasia, like pretty well everything else in the book. For someone who’s the central protagonist and first person narrator of this sordid love affair, she actually has no autonomy over her own story), demonstrating to millions of impressionable young (and no so young) women and any men out there reading it that you can change a bad boy!

But Christian’s not just your average bad boy. He’s a filthy rich, disarmingly handsome (James, living vicariously through Anastasia, never fails to mention this as if it’s his only redeeming quality—who am I kidding? It kinda is—and all red blooded humans of the XX chromosome persuasion fall weak at the knees in his glorious presence), “control freak with stalker tendencies”: yep, sounding more and more like Edward Cullen with every adjective. In essence, he is an abusive partner. As mentioned above, he tries to control Anastasia’s eating, sleeping, sex- and friend-having, and pretty well everything else in her life. After a fight, he barges, uninvited, into her apartment she shares with a friend, who tells him to get out and that he’s not welcome there. He persists and spends the night with Anastasia, something he has previously said he will “never do”. He finds out which flight she’s on to Atlanta, where she’s going to visit her mother and escape him, and changes her seat to first class. Later, he turns up at the hotel Anastasia and her mother are dining at. He expresses jealousy and anger when Anastasia hangs out with her male friend Jose who, incidentally, tried to sexually assault her. He buys her a new phone, laptop, car and clothes. He likes her plied with alcohol because she’s more open with her emotions in an inebriated state. She is not allowed to masturbate (not that she does that anyway. It’s icky in 50 Shades’ world), because he “want[s] all your pleasure”.  Anastasia cannot touch or look Christian in the eyes when they’re having sex. If she does, he will discipline her. That last one isn’t inherently damaging, but the fact that Anastasia herself refers to the physical debasement that occurs in Christian’s playroom/Red Room of Pain as a “beating” and him “hitting” her shows that she’s definitely not into it, and that’s what makes the sex problematic.

Anastasia is scared of Christian. She often tells him, “I’m sorry… Please don’t be angry/Please don’t hit me,” the hallmark of a battered spouse. At the end of book one, when he pushes her physical limits too far and she makes the decision to leave him, she tells him it’s her fault: “I asked for it.” “I’m a complete failure. I had hoped to drag my Fifty Shades into the light, but it’s proved a task beyond my meagre abilities,” she laments. From an abuser’s point of view, he’s got her right where he wants her. Anastasia lacks self-confidence to begin with, and often expresses disbelief that someone like him could want someone like her. She defends him to his detractors (namely the abovementioned roommate), shouting subconsciously, “I KNOW WHAT HE’S REALLY LIKE—YOU DONT!” After a fight, he makes puppy dog eyes at her or some such thing and she melts: “How can I resist him when he’s like this [emphasis mine]?” Her “innocence” and “naivety” which Christian loves so much blind her to the fact that this is a classic abusive relationship: as someone who grew up amongst one, I can vouch for it.

When it comes to Anastasia as the protagonist, her incessant whining about her “inner goddess” versus her “subconscious” is infuriating. While it makes for consistency in terms of character traits, it certainly doesn’t make her any more likeable. Her conservative personality (Anastasia’s literary heroines are all submissives—Tess Durbeyfield and Jane Austen’s female characters—not to mention her reaction to Christian having paid for sex in the past. So being shackled and whipped semi-unwillingly is fine, but prostitution isn’t? Perhaps it hints at Anastasia’s deep-seated  discomfort at having Christian buy her things as part of their contract), however, makes it less likely that she would so willingly enter into a contractual agreement to be Christian’s sex slave, essentially. Oh, but then there’s that “innocence” again…

And the sex. Don’t even get me started on the sex. Author John Flaus mentioned at the Bendigo Writers Festival last month that he thought the sex scenes were really “clinical” and written from an “outsider’s” perspective. Like a lot of sex scenes I’ve read and seen before, though never in real life, the virgin experiences orgasm her first time. She also comes quickly and without fail during each instance of vaginally penetrative sex, a highly unlikely occurrence, and when her clitoris is whipped with a riding crop. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t connote the most warm and fuzzy feelings down there. (Oh, and “down there” and “sex” instead of vagina, vulva and clitoris, the latter of which is only mentioned once or twice, are repetitive, conservative euphemisms that are littered throughout.) Further to the dominance Christian seeks to exert over Anastasia, he repeatedly demands her to “sit still” when he performs sex acts on her. I, for one, don’t know many men who prefer a woman to be unresponsive to his touch, but then this book isn’t exactly based on reality. Despite James being the (seemingly biological) mother of two children, it’s as though 50 Shades was written by someone who’s never had sex before.

One last thing I want to add before I attempt to erase the experience of 50 Shades of Grey from my memory is that I can kind of understand where James is coming from when she writes about the tumultuous, sometimes physically and emotionally painful relationship between Christian and Anastasia. I have fantasised about being emotionally hurt by a lover and having him come back and make it all better again. I have also felt the need to be overpowered by a man, in the seemingly simple, harmless way of pulling me to him in an embrace when I don’t want to be. In that sense I think she taps into a biological need (and I hate to buy into the notion that men and women are evolutionally different and that’s why one hunts and gathers while the other tends to the “heart and home”. Ugh.) to be physically (not necessarily sexually) loved. Like, as a child, when you fall down or mum yells at you and you just want her to hug you and make it all better again. I think it’s also important to note that just because a fantasy occurs in the mind, doesn’t mean it has, needs or wants to be acted out in reality: rape fantasy, for example. That is the one tiny, take-away titbit that warrants merit in 50 Shades, I think. The rest can be filed under the severely abusive, gender- and hetero-normative guidelines that so much of popular culture is today. 50 Shades of Grey as sexual liberation for women? My ass.      

Related: My Week in Pictures 16th August 2012.

Melbourne Writers Festival: Notes on Women in Culture.

Melbourne Writers Festival: Censorship, The Body & Porn.

Elsewhere: [Good Reads] Katrina Lumsden’s Review of 50 Shades of Grey.

Image via November Grey.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: 50 Shades of Grey by EL James.

  1. Let me start by saying, this is the first book that literally caught my attention to the point where I might have been a little delusional while reading it. I am completely consumed with college and all the massive textbooks I am forced to read. So for me to just actually choose a book that is worthy for my attention outside of a classroom is rare. Within the first two chapter I was captivated my the story of Annastasia Steele and Christian Grey. I found myself waking up in the morning after reading the book all night feeling like I need to text Christian grey.
    Cheers. Doreen

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