By this time, all of us have heard of E.L. James’ bestselling erotic novels: Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. These books have sold over 300 million copies worldwide, and the movie based on the first book opened at USD 60 million. Moreover, the long-awaited release of the movie based on the second book is finally upon us. There are elements in Fifty Shades that warrant discussion. I am firm with my convictions, and I choose to air them publicly.
I first stumbled upon Fifty Shades of Grey in the year of 2012, and a part of me was fond of it. But I also knew that something was extremely wrong about the book. Next, I read Fifty Shades Darker followed by Fifty Shades Freed, and continued to harbour the same perception.
The story is fairly simple. Anastasia Steele, a middle-class senior at Washington State University Vancouver, meets Christian Grey, an incredibly handsome, debonair 27-year-old multi-millionaire CEO. They fall in love, hard and fast. Theirs is a romance full of drama and passion, and they end up living the conventional fantasy: love, marriage and a kid. What’s not so conventional is their sex. Early on in the first book, Anastasia discovers that Christian is obsessed with BDSM – a condensed abbreviation for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. This is the central tension of the books. Anastasia loves Christian, but she does not want to be his submissive. Christian loves Anastasia, but he is turned on by violent sex.
Throughout the books, it showed the transitioning of a relationship which started off as ‘play’ with no intimacy into ‘play’ becoming the topping on the ‘vanilla’ relationship shared between Anastasia and Christian. One positive aspect of the book was that the readers would see how the characters grew, alongside and into each other. I believe that character development is an important element which should be present in every book or movie.
Though it may appear that Christian was controlling Anastasia, one can observe that he was dancing to her tunes. It is acknowledged by Christian himself. Even though Christian did make Anastasia feel anxious and uncertain (not healthy), she called the shots whenever he behaved erratically. She questioned and challenged him. And above that, she knows that she can leave at any time. That resulted in Christian defying every rule in his book just to win her over.
Moreover, Anastasia proved to be free from critical nature by accepting Christian with his f***ed up past and heavy baggage. She did everything within her power to reinstate self-confidence within him and dismiss his insecurities. She had hopes of taming him, thus became stronger than all other teaching.
One cannot deem Christian a ‘monster’ for wanting to spank the hell out of Anastasia, because kinks are valid. There is nothing wrong with one being turned on by something atypical, as long as everyone involved is being safe, sane and consensual. At the end of the first book, Ana asked Christian to punish her (“Punish me. I want to know how bad it can get.”) in order to show her how extreme a BDSM relationship with him could be. So Christian fulfilled Anastasia’s request by beating her with a belt. Therefore, it is evident that consent was involved even though she did not safe-word, despite being asked to do so if it became too much for her to bear. So why does Anastasia get to call Christian “one f***ed up son a bitch” when she had exhibited willingness to experience what she did?
One can justify this act of Anastasia by saying that she was willing to endure all that because of love, which could be put up for debate. The books did portray Anastasia as weak as she succumbed to Christian while defying every rule in her book. At the end of the first book, she left Christian after she realised that they are incompatible. At the beginning of the second book, Christian offered her a ride to José Rodriguez’s gallery exhibit and that was all he had to do to win her back. While I read the aforesaid chapter, there was a chant going on in my head begging Anastasia not to go back…
From the beginning, Christian actively stalked Anastasia. He also controlled her behaviour and food intake and dictated who she is allowed to spend her time with. He belittled her, threatened her and blamed her. As a result, Anastasia was afraid of provoking Christian and was insecure in her own personhood.
Preferring to be submissive or dominant does not demean ones self. Some people criticise women who enjoy being submissive in the bedroom as they are ‘weakening’ themselves for their (usually) male-bodied partner, which is the same kind of logic as people who claim that all men need to be sexually dominant in their relationships or else they are not really a man to begin with. Both scenarios rely on an oversimplification of sexuality and of people. We cannot change what we are turned on by and repressing that is a miserable experience for everyone involved. But according to the books, it is evident that Anastasia did not want to be Christian’s submissive in the first place.
As several experienced BDSM practitioners emphasised, there are healthy and ethical ways to consensually combine sex and pain. All of them require self-knowledge, communication skills and emotional maturity in order to make the sex safe and mutually gratifying. The problem is that Fifty Shades casually associated hot sex with violence, but without any of this context. Anastasia had said yes to sex she was uncomfortable with because she was too shy to speak her mind or because she was afraid of losing Christian. She gave consent when he wanted to inflict pain, yet that did not prevent her from being harmed.
“Fifty Shades is just fantasy!” has been popular in defending the movie’s treatment of its protagonist, but it does not quite ring true. Unfortunately, for one in four women, Fifty Shades is a brutal reality. Would you be happy with a partner who micro-managed your life, dictated what you ate, picked out what contraceptive you used, required you to exercise a certain amount of days and cut you off from your friends and family? Add some good looks, a six pack and billionaire status and voilà, you have Christian Grey!
You cannot fix a violent person with your love, nor is it romantic to be scared. For Anastasia, love was not always gentle and equitable. It was tempestuous and emotionally draining. But then again, isn’t black technically a shade of grey?