Fifty Shades Reviewed: In the first few lines of this much-celebrated, much-maligned book, Fifty Shades of Grey, Ana—the 21st century Mary Sue of kink—is repeating over and over to herself a mantra as she combs and blow-dries her hair. “I must not sleep with it wet”, she says. “I must not sleep with it wet.” I’m already pretty sure, as I read it sat on my bed on a cold January evening, that the same wasn't going to be a problem for me. By the end of the first page I was almost entirely convinced I was being trolled: this prose is so cliché, so godawful, that I can only assume it was an elaborate joke that did so well that E.L. James is now too embarrassed to own up. There is even an unironic scene where we find out what Ana looks like because she’s staring into a mirror and contemplating her own appearance. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was taught not to do that as a writer when I was ten years old.
Fifty Shades Reviewed: An alternative reading
The plot, as you might expect, is pretty simple. Geeky college bookworm Anastasia Steele (how’s that for an unlikely, fanfiction-esque name) meets wealthy businessman Christian Grey as a result of someone else getting a bad head cold. They both immediately come over all unnecessary, and through a series of almost comedically awful chance encounters they reveal their respective Dark Sexual Secrets. She is inexplicably a virgin who has never so much as fumbled with her own clitoris under the covers. He is a full-throttle sexual dominant with a repressed and traumatic past. Lots of sex happens and everyone has a great deal of emotional journeying to do. Her best friend starts fucking his brother for no apparent reason. Someone gives an unlikely blowjob in a bathtub. Eventually it all goes a bit tits up and Ana finds herself running out into the dark Seattle night with a sore ass and a tear-stained face. Fin
Cue a bestseller frenzy, shocked looks from all sides, and a lot of laughs to be had by looking through #fiftyshadesfail on Twitter.
A slightly alternative reading:
I’m not the first person to do this; not by a long shot. Snarky reviews of this book from feminist and kink-positive perspectives are ten a penny. Most of them say something like this from The Guardian
“It really is about a domestic violence perpetrator, taking someone who is less powerful, inexperienced, not entirely confident about the area of life she is being led into, and then spinning her a yarn. Then he starts doing absolutely horrific sexual things to her. He gradually moves her boundaries, normalising the violence against her. It's the whole mythology that women want to be hurt.”
So that, of course, is what I expected to read in the book. I thought it would happen slowly, dangerously; I thought he’d lose control of himself and hit her and she’d hate it and he’d apologise and she’d forgive him and he’d do it again. I thought he’d blow hot and cold, never certain, always calculated. Much to my eternal surprise, that isn't actually what I found.
Here, if you haven’t read it yourself, is Christian’s actual take on kink and consent:
“In Dom/sub relationships it is the sub who has all the power. That’s you. I’ll repeat this - you are the one with all the power. Not I. [...] I can’t touch you if you say no - that’s why we have an agreement - what you will and won’t do. If we try things and you don’t like them, we can revise the agreement. It’s up to you - not me. And if you don’t want to be bound and gagged in a crate, then it won’t happen.”
Now I don’t know about you, but when I first turned up on the kink scene at the tender age of just-about-legal-in-my-country, that is exactly the advice I was given, too. It’s good advice. It is, in fact, the generally accepted party line of the BDSM community. That’s the overriding theme of how Christian runs his sex life throughout the book: he’s clear about safewords, he stops instantly when she says ‘no’, he gives aftercare, he tries hard to figure her out, he practices safer sex.
So what’s the problem?
The essential problem is that Anastasia Steele (I can’t get over how stupid that name is) has no idea what the fuck she’s doing. She spends the whole book in a fixated panic—he doesn't love me, he wants to hurt me, I’m just a toy to him
—that is in truth the exact opposite of everything he ever says or does. She just doesn’t get it.
Not to say that that isn't okay. I mean, if she doesn't want to be flogged untill she can’t sit down for a week then more power to her; more leather tails for me, clearly. I’m just not sure what the point of this ridiculous fucking book is if it’s never going to click for her. We all loved 2002’s Secretary
for precisely that reason—when Maggie Gyllenhaal's enigmatic CEO dom by the name of Mr. Grey (Yes, that really is his name. Go back and check, I snorted in derision when I realised it too) temporarily breaks up with her because of his tortured soul or whatever, she spends the interim period desperately searching for the kinky sex she’s now realised she loves. Granted, she ends up chained to a radiator while a Hagrid look-a-like pelts her with rotten tomatoes, but at least she’s being open-minded about it.
The truth is, this book isn’t aimed at us. Those of us who actually do live like this—who have opinions on the traffic light system and argue the relative merits of SSC versus RACK
—we’re not E.L. James’s target audience here. She’s writing for people who aren’t entirely certain that BDSM is a morally defensible lifestyle, who agree with Ana that they’re better off “no longer wanting to see that libidinous woman in the mirror”.
Very early on, he pins her wrists down on the bed and entreats her to keep them perfectly still. This annoys her; she finds it inexplicable, frustrating. She doesn't see the point. I don’t know about you, but way back when someone first said something like that to me I was pleased as punch.
And that, right there, is the difference between real-world submissives and Anastasia Steele.
A parting shot
I would fuck Christian Grey. There, I said it. He’s intelligent, dominant, charismatic, gorgeous and as rich as Croesus, all wrapped up in a sharp suit.
That said, there’s only so much defending of this book I can take. Yes, I got a lot more into it than I expected. Yes, I think it’s been unfairly maligned in some ways, and yes, it is also a pile of festering shit of the highest order. It has been a long time since I met a fictional character as irritating as Ana, though in her defense I suppose it must be tiring to be three different people at once: a petulant Inner Goddess, a librarian-like Subconscious and a thinly-veiled Bella Swan. Constantly having to contend with that much clumsily executed internal dialogue. I was going to try and count how many times Anastasia bites her lip over the course of this narrative, but such an endeavour quickly became futile.
I can however make an educated guess that it happens approximately sixteen point three billion times in the first book alone. And yet despite all that, I've got the other two books in the trilogy loaded onto my tablet, and I have a horrible suspicion that I’m actually going to read them.
Perhaps that, rather than a love of verbal degradation and a predilection for riding crops, is what marks me out as a masochist.
Abi Brown is a freelance writer and general pen-for-hire devoted to genre fiction, social justice and M.A.C lipstick. Follow her on her website or @see_abi_write.
Images by Alex Pappajohn
and Alex Pappajohn
and Mike Mozart
with CC BY 2.0 licence