So... The Fifty Shades Trilogy. Let's discuss. Apparently we're calling it "Mommy Porn"?
Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard of the Fifty Shades Trilogy, and you know that it has exploded in popularity basically overnight. Last count puts it as the fastest selling paperback of all time, edging out J.K. Rowling's (far superior) Harry Potter series.
A lot has been said about the books. Some people love it, and profess that it's forever changed their sex lives. Some think it's simply a poorly written story. Some can't seem to get over the fact that Ana is the world's first 21-year-old luddite, and others refuse to read it entirely. But the narrative that seems to keep getting lost, and the one that I think is most important, is the fact that the Fifty Shades trilogy glorifies abuse.
Yes, ABUSE. And it's not okay that you're okay with that.
Before I continue, let me be clear: I am not saying or implying that these novels promote abuse and violence because they depict a relationship that includes BDSM.
BDSM within a consenting sexual relationship is NOT abuse.
I'll repeat myself because that last part is important. BDSM is not, in and of itself, abuse, and Christian's interest in BDSM is not what makes him an abuser.
My opinion about these novels is not based on how these characters choose to get their jollies, but rather on how one half of the couple (Christian) exerts control over the other half (Ana) by emotionally manipulating her into submission.
The fact of the matter, is that Christian Grey preys on Ana Steele. He controls every aspect of her life and even goes so far as to legally isolate her, by having her sign a non-disclosure. A non-disclosure for a romantic relationship. Not at all problematic. Additionally, he continually pressure her into giving him more than she feels comfortable with. Date rape. Basically.
Jennifer Armintrout of Sweater for Days and Moves like Jagger has written the best analysis of the abuse in Christian and Ana's relationship that I have seen so far. In it, she details the red flags in their relationship, working from a list in the book How to Spot a Dangerous Man.
She writes, “The following "red flags" are from a hand out entitled "Universal Red Flags" taken from a book called How To Spot A Dangerous Man. The instructions read: "Check all the following that apply even if only remotely". Let me share the ones I checked on Ana's behalf:
You wish he would go away, you want to cry, and you want to run away from him.
Ana often thinks about how she can "escape" Christian, how she needs to find an exit, how she can't handle being around him because she can't trust herself to think clearly. In just the portion of the book we've reviewed so far, Ana has ended three of her encounters with Christian as a sobbing mess.
You feel bad about yourself when you are around him.
One of the clearest indicators, to me, anyway, that there is a power imbalance in their relationship is the fact that Ana constantly compares herself - how she looks, how she acts, how she's dressed - to Christian and his very wealthy lifestyle, and she always finds herself lacking. She often wonders why he's interested in her.
You only feel good about yourself when you are with him.
Conversely, Ana doesn't have a nice word to say about herself unless it's confirmed by Christian. When her roommate tells her that she's pretty, Ana interprets it as a patronizing compliment Kate can't possibly mean, but when Christian Grey calls Ana beautiful, she suddenly believes she is. In fact, the only time she believes anything good about herself is when Christian is saying it.
Your value system and his are very different, and it's problematic.
I have this phrase I trot out from time to time with my friends who are dating: If you have to "work on" the relationship within the first month, it's not going to work out. Sometimes, people are simply incompatible. Ana and Christian have spent most of their relationship with Ana trying to find ways around giving Christian what he wants, and Christian refusing to bend on his expectations. This is not going to clear up in a few more dates.
If you're paying attention, the message these novels are trying to send is that "Love will overcome all", that love and passion consume you, and that if you try hard enough, you can change a person into someone better. Better for them, and better for you. But the implicit message is that if you love someone, you should stick it out with them no matter what, even when the situation is no longer safe or comfortable for you. These books are a manual on how to become an abused woman. Ana is unwittingly part of her own subjugation, and ignores her own instincts in order to preserve a relationship that she thinks is the best thing to ever happen to her. She's so completely invested in the fantasy of her relationship with Christian that she doesn't think she deserves him. Not healthy.
And let's talk about Christian Grey for a moment. Other than his blinding and overwhelming beauty/handsomeness, he seems to have no redeeming qualities. He blatantly manipulates Ana, controls her life, makes choices on her behalf and against her will, all while murmuring a constant string of compliments meant to lull her into resignation. He is aggressively and violently possessive. This is the man that millions of women are fantasizing about? This is the man that women are wishing their husbands would emulate? You should be so lucky that your husband/boyfriend is not like this prick.
The feminist in me cries loud, racking tears that these books are so popular. It makes me sad and angry that so many women (many of whom I respect and admire, mind you) are somehow selectively blind to the sadistic overtones of this romance. I'm genuinely confused as to how anyone, much less a self proclaimed feminist, can read these novels and not take issue with the pretty explicit abuse storyline at play.
It doesn't help that Ana is the world's biggest Mary Sue. She is a vacuous mess of a person who essentially has no purpose but to be infatuated with Christian. Her entire life is consumed with her relationship with him, and she spends all of her time trying to make sense of how to interact with him. Christian is her Manic Pixie Dream Guy, except that contrary to what she thinks, he is far from perfect, and she has learned nothing from him except how to "behave". Ana is the woman that millions of women are wishing they were. This ignorant, naive little wisp of a thing whose entire life revolves around a man and that man's sexual desires.
And I'm supposed to hold Ana Steele up as some sort of progressive example of women's sexual evolution? Bitch, please. This is also not about sexual repression or expression. Some have speculated that the reason these novels have flown off the shelves is because women secretly want to be submissive. That's bullshit. Women "secretly" want to be able to say that they like sex, and to be able to talk about it without being shamed for it, and without having to use shitty erotic fiction to do. Sex is amazing and awesome and fun and good for your health. I'm all about women discovering and enjoying their sexuality, and taking charge of it in no uncertain terms. But I'm deeply troubled that so many are using the roadmap set out by a naive and inexperienced young woman and her controlling and dominating boyfriend in order to do so. Believe me, I understand the appeal of this novel. Even so-called vanilla sex is seen as forbidden or taboo to some people, so the idea that people are reading and discussing an erotic novel so widely and so openly is a pretty big deal. It's about the sexual fantasy, and the exploration of themes that we might be to ashamed to broach in our real lives.
Unfortunately, it's not just a matter of the fantasy. It's not okay to say, "It's not real! It's about escapism!" This trilogy promotes an emotionally (and borderline physically) abusive relationship as a romantic ideal. Its "heroine" continues to make excuses for her partner, and she rewards his bad behavior against her better judgement. It's the classic domestic violence story, but this time it's wrapped in a pretty bow. You cannot be a person who is against domestic violence and abuse in all its forms, and also be a person who enjoys this novel. The two ideals are inherently mutually incompatible. It's like saying that killing kittens is horrible, but then loving the shit out of a book that is all about how killing kittens is the most awesome and innovative thing you've ever heard of, because dammit, that book makes killing kittens sound AWESOME. Killing kittens in not awesome. Stop telling people that it's cool to kill kittens.
It's not lost on me that these novels began as Twilight fanfiction. The Twilight novels are just as damaging, there just isn't any X-rated sex. Edward and Bella's romance is essentially a farce that renders Bella (the original Mary Sue) powerless, incompetent, and a dependent and obsessive slave to Edward's whims. Bella never once stands up for herself. She has no autonomy in the relationship, and almost literally loses her mind when Edward leaves her.
There is nothing sexy or cool about the way that Christian treats Ana in these novels, and the idea that he behaves that way because he's "damaged" seeks only to lift the blame from his shoulders and place it squarely on Ana's. It is not okay that he dominates her life and actively tries to bend her to his will. It's not okay that he takes advantage of her youth and inexperience. It is not okay that he exploits her desperate need for acceptance and validation.
I won't be recapping the novels as I originally intended, because it's already been done, (quite hilariously, actually) and I've already said all that I wanted to say. But I do hope that reading this will give women (and men) a new perspective on the novels, and help them understand that far from sexually liberating women, these books are doing more harm than good by touting a relationship that is marred by inequality and subjugation as the standard to which we should hold our own relationships.