A couple of weeks ago I started reading Fifty Shades of Grey. At the time I not dishonestly blamed it on an unprepared plane ride where I had a dead computer battery and too much caffeine to sleep. I don’t say this from a haughty or judgmental standpoint, but I just don’t do much ‘pleasure reading’. I won’t backhandedly flatter myself by saying it’s due to lack of time or too many deep literature or treatises I’d rather dig through; the truth is I’d rather shut my brain off watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians than reading Hunger Games, sorry.
Anyway, the truth is that though I felt as late to the game as someone who just today signed a Kony petition or heard Rebecca Black’s “Friday” or stifled an angsty post-college workplace laugh reading Hipster Runoff, I kind of wanted to have an opinion about Fifty Shades of Grey (I’d call it ‘FSoG’ or something for the sake of expedient shorthand yet I’m afraid that looks too much like an acronym for some kind of backwards sex act. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
If you’ve been living under a rock/with dial-up for the last six months let me fill you in: without reading a single page, you should still probably know the following about the book: it’s about a 21-year-old virgin and her just-old-enough-not-to-raise-any-eyebrows-while-still-seeming-believable boyfriend, who just happens to have a pretty extreme (by romance novels’ standards, at least) fetish for BDSM (he’d occupy the ‘DS’ part of that acronym, to be specific).
Just about everyone had an opinion on this, but the most interesting ones came from pop culture-digesting feminists and sex positivists who made what I thought (and, really, still think) were/are positive statements and arguments about fetishes, sexual subjectivity, respect, gender roles, etc. I even made this response to this post, feeling authoritatively warranted to weigh in on the larger debate without actually having read the silly (and god awfully written, in my opinion) book that inspired it.
I expected to blaze out of the Fifty Shades cannon proclaiming that People Had Gotten It Wrong — though unfamiliar, the sex scenes in the book represented real feelings and desires that real people had that were representative of real and legitimate preferences and experiences that real normal, healthy, respectful people have. I don’t deny the coexistence of those ideals and ideologies, but I do vehemently reject that Fifty Shades establishes, supports, defends, or even properly depicts those types of relationships.
I hold this view for two reasons:
The first is a sneaking suspicion I’d maintained since the moment I began reading the book — that even though the (ummm?)tagonist Christian Grey is dominating, legalistic, vengeful, ‘just’ (LOL), etc., he still demonstrates traditional, complementarian, and, quite frankly respectful (in one sense of the word) behaviors towards his submissive Anastasia. He buys her lavish gifts, takes her on fancy and exclusive dates, introduces her to his family (the first one!), lets her sleep in his bed (also a first!), makes love to her (he’s never done that before! she tamed him!), the list goes on. This does less for establishing appropriate and socially unexpected sex and gender roles as it does feed the reader a tantalizingly taboo fantasy to indulge in that still manages to stay within their expected zone of tolerance (in this case I mean ‘tolerance’ as the antonym of ‘offense’ — Christian is, at the very least, incomprehensibly wealthy, incomparably attractive, sexually magnetic, charming, young, etc).
But the second is a worry that grew slowly as I moved from page to page, ultimately culminating in my having read the back jacket and prologue of the second book—truthfully all I will need to read of this series, ever again from this point. What the reader is ultimately informed of (or, more accurately, vaguely beaten over the head with) is the fact that Christian, for all his successes, spent the first few years of his life in horrifying poverty—beaten, scarred, neglected, starved.
Does this revelation make for interesting novel fodder? Sure. Does it humanize Christian? Yes. Does it attempt to justify and diminish the off-putting aspects of his unexpected (deviant?) sexual preferences? Most definitely. But there is something hugely troubling in this storyline, for victims of domestic abuse and violence and advocates of a BDSM lifestyle alike.
The problem, here, is that Christian’s behaviors are both explained and excused (the novel assumes they need an excuse) by his terrible, fucked up childhood, and, I suspect, by the later “relationship” he has with an older woman who dominates him for six years (it begins when he’s 15 and she’s his mother’s age—this is at worst child abuse and at best really cumbersome and insistent storytelling).
The truth of the matter is this:
People in BDSM (or WTFever else) relationships do not need heartstring-tugging justifications to explain whyyyyy oh god, why they engage in or enjoy or even think about having sex that might traditionally be conceived of us weird, awkward, unilateral, unenjoyable to/by the majority, painful, whatever. What they need is respect, inclusion, and most importantly, the understanding that ‘weird’ sexual preferences do not make a person, fucked up, crazy, depraved, over-compensating, etc. The characters in Fifty Shades of Grey work against the promotion of positive stereotypes by implicitly (and at times explicitly) justifying Christian’s fetish (as though it needs one) by pointing out that he’s–to utilize the author’s own phrase—“fifty shades of fucked up”. Nobody normal has these preferences so no need to consider them fairly, but they also don’t warrant raising the Super Offended Modern Lady flag, because it’s been so clearly justified to us that in fact we even go so far as to feel sorry for him.
But even worse about all of this is what’s implied by the Christian Grey character: the idea that a person can have a deeply troubled past, and that an appropriate reaction to that deeply troubled past is to exact those same experiences on someone vulnerable and unexpecting (much like they were when they were first subjected to it). On a practical level, this is the same as saying it’s totally okay to cheat because you were once cheated on. On at least a raw intellectual plane, this is amount to saying it’s okay to sexually abuse a child because you were abused as a child. This is of course not to say that an interest in bondage or dominance makes a person troubled, or comes from a troubled upbringing (I hope things I’ve said here and elsewhere clearly demonstrate that point so I don’t have to belabor it). But the acceptability of BDSM or B, D, S, M singularly on their own and for the sake of themselves is very different than saying “people have fucked me up so I am going to fuck others’ lives up as well”. Go to therapy? Get a grip? Try to treat people differently than you were treated?