Like many, Abi Brown lost the will to live when she sat down to read E.L. James's much-maligned Fifty Shades of Grey. Here she explores the book's many issues.


What is Fifty Shades of Grey about?

The plot of Fifty Shades of Grey, 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 comically 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 kinky sex happens, and everyone has a great deal of emotional journeying to do. Anastasia's 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 butt and a tear-stained face. The end.

Cue a bestseller frenzy, shocked looks from all sides, and a lot of laughs to be had by looking through #fiftyshadesfail on Twitter.


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An alternative reading

I’m not the first person to do this; not by a long shot. Snarky reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey 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.


Fifty shades submissive
Is Fifty Shades giving a realistic portrait of the BDSM lifestyle? Image: Alex Pappajohn via CC BY 2.0 license


Fifty Shades of Grey on kink and consent

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.”

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.

Anastasia Steele 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 mention that that isn't okay. I mean, if she doesn't want to be flogged until she can’t sit down for a week then more power to her. I’m just not sure what the point of this ridiculous fucking book is if it’s never going to click for her.

Fifty Shades of Grey and target audience

The truth is, this Fifty Shades of Grey 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. People who agree with Ana that they’re better off “no longer wanting to see that libidinous woman in the mirror”.

Very early on, Christian pins Anastasia's 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.

Abi Brown is a freelance writer and general pen-for-hire devoted to genre fiction, social justice and M.A.C lipstick. 

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Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey? Was there anything that you actually thought was a realistic portrayal of the BDSM lifestyle? Let us know in the forum

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Cover image: Mike Mozart via CC BY 2.0 license


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