E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey began in 2011 as self-published Twilight fan fiction, quickly became a bestselling ebook, was picked up by Vintage Books in March of 2012, and as of June 2015 has sold over 125 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 52 languages. 50 Shades of Grey is the first book in a trilogy of novels, which is followed by a fourth novel written from the male protagonist’s point of view. It narrates a romance between the very young billionaire Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, a 21 year old English major at Washington State University who is still a virgin. Until meeting Anastasia, Grey has had exclusively BDSM relationships with women. He makes his partners sign non-disclosure agreements and consent forms before he gets involved with them, and he never sleeps in the same bed with them or gets too emotionally intimate. This novel has been described as “mommy porn” because the majority of its readers are presumed to be middle-class housewives, and it has been the target of moral outrage by interest groups ranging from clinical psychologists, who warn about its unhealthy depiction of romantic relationships, feminists for how it glamorizes abuse of women, the religious right for its sexual deviance, and the BDSM community for its association of BDSM practices with non-consensual, abusive sex.
The book has been an almost universal target for aesthetic outrage as well. It is almost universally panned for being badly written. The lead female, Anastasia Steele, makes frequent reference to her “inner goddess,” as if an English major at Washington State’s primary reading would be 1970′s new-age self-help books for women. Sentences like these taken from samples posted online don’t help either: “Before I know it, he’s got both of my hands in his viselike grip above my head, and he’s pinning me to the wall using his lips…” Those must be some lips. I picture a giant pucker reaching from her wrists to her waist pinning her against the elevator wall. To be fair, it’s very difficult to write a good sex scene because the best ones imply the most while saying the least. Those that don’t, in the words of Don Delillo, sound like they’re describing the action in an elevator lobby, which this particular scene literally was.
You just think about that.
The true pinnacle of aesthetic contempt for the novel is the 50 Shades Generator, which automatically “generates world-class literature using a pre-defined vocabulary… at the click of a button.” However, I want to emphasize that what follows is a review of the film adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey, not the book, and that I have not read the book, so I can’t compare the two. In my opinion, Dave Barry has written a definitive review of the book, at least in the sense that I wish I had written it myself because it makes me laugh every time I read it. As an aesthetic product — especially taking into account that film is primarily a visual medium — the film was very well made. Some scenes are frankly beautiful, particularly the glider scene, as well as some shots in Christian’s penthouse apartment. Should I review the film scene by scene, I don’t think the cinematography would lapse in any of them, and its music is very beautiful, usually communicating a sad, delicate sensuality.
Judging from what I’ve read and heard about the book, the film also improves the book’s dialog and, by so doing, improves the presentation of Anastasia’s character. The words “inner goddess” only appear once in the film. They are not used by Anastasia, because the film writers apparently have actually met female English majors, but are instead spoken by her roommate, a Communications major, who uses them sarcastically. Christian’s character is controlling, but not a stalker, and while Anastasia never signs Christian’s contract, all sexual acts, even the most abusive ones, are clearly consensual: Christian takes the time to make sure that Anastasia knows what she is consenting to. And for the record, I’ve seen much worse acting in other serious, romantic films. There is, as expected, quite a bit of nudity in the film, which might lead some to classify it as soft porn, but its nudity is tastefully handled. Shots emphasize the beauty of the actors’ bodies.
I would like to comment particularly on the emotional dynamic between the two lead characters. I’m not interested in expressing moral outrage. Most public expressions of moral outrage are only self-gratifying, and people are generally capable of thinking for themselves about what they find morally repulsive. But the two lead characters’ emotional dynamic is potentially interesting. Because Anastasia is very inexperienced, she doesn’t understand Christian’s interest in BDSM practices, and of course has no interest in it of her own. She knows what she feels for him, and she knows what he feels for her, and that is all that she thinks she needs to know.
What matters on Christian’s side, in the film at least, is that he begins breaking his own rules for Anastasia. He kisses her in an elevator before she’s signed the non-disclosure agreement. He moves quickly toward real intimacy, even spending the night in bed with her on multiple occasions, when his rule is to never spend the night in bed with a partner. At no time does Anastasia sign the consent form, but Christian still introduces her to BDSM, very mildly and with her consent, and with the same limits and conditions that she negotiated with him on the form.
This last element of Christian’s and Anastasia’s relationship is important. From his point of view, the consent form and the non-disclosure agreement are in place to protect both his public image, which is important to the success of his company, and to protect him from legal liability and future possible lawsuits when his relationships invariably end. So by entering into a relationship with Anastasia before she has signed a consent form, he is making himself vulnerable to her in ways that he had not in any previous relationship. He is investing trust in her, and he has come to care more about that than self-protection because of his feelings for her.
Even after her limited and rather mild introduction to BDSM, Anastasia still does not understand its appeal to Christian, who seems to be driven by emotional need to engage in these practices. She wants him to let it go, or she wants to understand it so that she can understand him. In the end, she asks him to subject her to the “worst,” so that she can understand him and why he needs it.
In a scene that serves as the climax of the film, Christian gives Anastasia what she says that she wants by subjecting her to serious, painful punishment. Christian beats her hard on the buttocks with a studded leather paddle six times, telling her to count off each time she is hit. Part of their agreement included safe words — one word (“yellow”) to tell him to ease up, and one word (“red”) that would tell him to stop immediately. She didn’t use either of them, because I think she wanted him to stop on his own. Her question for Christian was, “Why do you want to hurt me?” And Christian couldn’t answer: he was speechless.
I think Christian was speechless because the thought of hurting her – or what he was doing to her – never occurred to him. I think that Christian was not focused on what he was doing to Anastasia, but on what she was giving to him: her entire self, without boundaries, even when her giving crossed over into severe pain. Romantic relationships as “total self giving” are in fact the Roman Catholic definition of marriage: not in any abusive sense, but in the sense that both partners understand that each belongs to the other without barriers between the two. They are “one flesh.”
But he can’t articulate this feeling. He just stands there, mutely, in the face of her question. He can’t explain to her why he wants to hurt her because he doesn’t; he explained to Anastasia in a previous conversation the attraction of BDSM from the point of view of the recipient of punishment, not the giver. But he also can’t speak because, at the end, Anastasia won’t allow it. After she has been seriously hurt, she becomes the dominant one, ordering him when to speak, and when not to speak, and then refusing to allow him to touch her or to follow her into the elevator car as she’s leaving.
He complies because she was always in charge. That was the real message of the language of the contract. If she wasn’t in charge — completely — her submission to him would not constitute an act of self-giving.
The film glamorizes BDSM in unrealistic ways. Not just because Christian’s wealth and the film setting sterilizes it and aestheticizes it, but because the rules propagated by the BDSM community are in place because of regularly occurring abuse, as an attempt to prevent future abuse or to curb ongoing abuse. The more shrill and insistent the rules, the more likely these rules are in place against what is really, in fact, very common practice.
But the film also makes BDSM out to be an intrusion into what seems to be a potentially real love story. Christian and Anastasia seem good together. His interests are a distraction from what should be a deeply intimate and loving relationship, which is what makes up the most interesting part of the film apart from the music and cinematography. Perhaps the tragedy of the film is that Christian himself didn’t understand what he wanted from BDSM relationships until Anastasia gave it to him outside of the context of those relationships. In this case, BDSM relationships are one outlet for impulses and emotions present in the most intense of our romantic attachments: not abuse and punishment, but complete vulnerability between partners in a relationship that involves an equitable exchange of power between the two members.
Amanda Taub’s “50 Shades of Grey is a Fantasy of Female Laziness,” written for Vox Culture in February 2015, is a snarky, entertaining takedown of Anastasia’s character, accusing the film of presenting a lazy female protagonist who strikes it big:
“It’s not a window into a world filled with kinky sex, of which there is shockingly little in the film. Rather, it’s an imagined universe in which women are free to resist all pressure to self-improve, need never worry that their professional mistakes might have negative consequences for their careers, and can reject every piece of sex and relationship advice a women’s magazine ever gave them, and have it work out great for them.”
Not a single one of Taub’s points are incorrect. But I think the article has two flaws. The first is that it refuses to engage the film’s final scene with its thesis. Because Anastasia took control of herself and of her relationship with Christian at the very end, her bumbling passivity throughout the film — which might otherwise make Anastasia just another manic pixie dream girl — is an object of the film’s critique, just like the film’s sarcastic use of “inner goddess” is a critique of the book’s dialog. Since the story arc very predictably leads toward a conventional relationship between the two, culminating in marriage and children, 50 Shades is going to follow a Jane Austen plot pattern in which the weaknesses of each partner force both partners to grow up, and to grow into better partners for one another.
The second flaw in the article is that it doesn’t recognize how Anastasia’s character fits the conventional pattern of gothic romances: she is innocent, morally perfect, and naive, and that’s the very thing she seeks to be saved from in her relationship with a bad boy. But if you accept that the very beautiful Anastasia is a twenty-one year old virgin who is very inexperienced with boys — which is unrealistic, but possible, in our culture — then her reactions to someone of Christian’s wealth, stature, and physical beauty are in fact realistic. Who wouldn’t be a bit bumbling and nervous around him? When was the last time you met a billionaire, and how did you act? Many very inexperienced twenty-one year old men or women might act the same way around him. The real question is that of Christian’s attraction to Anastasia, but I think I’ve answered that question already: she gave him, willingly and innocently, what he could only take from others through a short-term contractual relationship.
So Christian and Anastasia wind up married and with children by the end of the trilogy. This ending is of course painfully conventional in romance novels: the young, innocent heroine saves the bad boy, while the bad boy’s persistent pursuit helps the young, innocent heroine overcome her sexual anxiety, giving her the courage, or the excuse, to have her first sexual experience. But this plot, involving a wealthy, powerful, disturbing, and abusive male in pursuit of a much poorer and defenseless female — who because of her virtue and purity redeems the man and is rewarded with marriage to a very rich spouse — makes the novel not a retelling of Twilight, but a retelling of Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela, in which a virtuous maidservant holds off the aggressive pursuit of a wealthy member of the landed gentry, escapes being raped by him, and is “rewarded” for her virtue with marriage to him.
Both narratives communicate, in the end, very conventional values that should be made less conventional: that women are ultimately the ones responsible for both their own and for male virtue, that men are “naturally” morally defective until a woman “saves” them, and that a man’s primary virtue is as a provider of wealth, not companionship. That is why this novel and film about BDSM has sold tens of millions of copies around the world to middle-class female reading audiences. The BDSM in 50 Shades adds a tang of the forbidden to what’s otherwise very meat and potatoes: we’ve seen this story before and have consumed it in a hundred different packages.
What we have not yet seen, however, is a romance between two loving, giving, and truly equal partners, in which each are responsible for their own virtue, each are equally matched, and both are truly equals in the relationship. Neither novelists nor Hollywood seem to be able to imagine such a relationship, though, so they mask servile inferiority with a staging of physical dominance, and they don’t let the man talk too much: it’s not like it matters what he has to say anyhow, so long as he’s rich enough.
It never becomes a real love story, though, until the power games are laid aside.