Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lecherous, lewd, libidinous: An analysis of Fifty Shades of Grey

The first thing you should know is that I did enjoy this book. I’m a proponent of the idea that enjoyment of a literary or cultural product ≠ the product’s quality. Fifty Shades of Grey reads like it was written; I was rarely unaware of the fact that I was reading a novel. It did not disguise its own artifice and constructedness. Nevertheless, it engrossed me and I wanted to keep reading it, no matter how many times my “inner goddess” said “WTF?”

It is a greatly titillating novel. One of those books you feel naughty reading in the company of others. Like the time I read some of Fanny Hill with my family in the room and felt really embarrassed. E-readers are excellent for improved subject secrecy. Is Fifty Shades “porn?” Yes. By the definition of that it “must have the power to be or be intended to act as an aphrodisiac – that is, to excite sexual passions or desires” it is most certainly pornographic (H. Montgomery Hyde, A History of Pornography).

I finished Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James a few weeks ago and have been stewing ever since. I wanted to let my reactions simmer for a while before attempting to articulate my feelings. This post is only responding to the first book, as I haven’t yet read the next two. I like to know what people are talking about when it comes to new, exceedingly popular books (and book series). I decided to read Fifty Shades very quickly after first hearing the hype, before learning too much about the premise and getting reactions. All I knew about the novel was very basic: my mom had asked me, for instance, “have you heard about this book? The one all about sex?”

All about sex certainly doesn’t cover it, though.

First of all, I wish I had read the book without looking up the gender of the author. More on this later.

Fifty Shades of Grey is to popular conceptions of Bondage Discipline Sadism Masochism (BDSM) practices what Moby-Dick is to whaling. Not a helpful analogy for some of my friends? Fifty Shades basically feels like a dictionary/ textbook of BDSM practices. You still don’t necessary understand the principles, but you’ve learned a lot of jargon. One wonders about the inspiration, and if James gleaned this information from her personal life or from Wikipedia.

The basic premise is about a young, soon-to-be college graduate (of English literature – more on this later) in Washington state named Anastasia (Ana) Steele who, although inexperienced, virginal, generally clumsy and obtuse (or maybe…because?) attracts the attention of a (*deluge of adjectives ahead*) fabulously wealthy, successful, handsome, sexy, well-dressed, intelligent, controlling, confusing, brooding, CEO named Christian Grey. He pursues her, not to be his girlfriend, or even sex friend, but the submissive (sub) to his dominant (dom) in a BDSM relationship.

As Christian is wealthy and famous, he wants Ana to sign a non-disclosure agreement as well as a contract about their agreed upon activities and “arrangement.” The latter isn’t so much having to do with privacy, but because the dom-sub relationship relies upon previously established limits including everything from what kinds of bondage equipment can be used and how, to what kinds of pain punishment, to who can put what where, etc. A large portion of the novel involves negotiation and discussion about limits and recapitulation of the details of the contract...over and over again.

This arrangement isn’t just about getting to whip or spank or bind a submissive sexual partner – it’s about not having to discuss it in the moment. That would break the illusion and compromise the integrity of the arrangement. Who wants to be in the “playroom” and have to ask “can I do this?” There is no asking once the…performance of roles begins.

As a feminist, generally and literarily, I had many automatic reactions to the power dynamic developed in the novel. And very little of these reactions had to do with any prejudice against BDSM sexual practices (because I have none) or the woman playing the submissive sexual role. It’s how the dom-sub roles prevail into every aspect of these characters’ non-sexual lives (if you can even separate them) and how Ana is completely, utterly, enthralled by Christian to the point of witlessness. He tries to control every aspect of her life and often succeeds.

Fifty Shades of Grey is hyperbolic to the point of irritant. This isn’t a sort-of well-to-do young man who is a control freak in every aspect of his life and so, thus, in the bedroom as well – Christian flies helicopters and private jets and buys Ana a laptop, smart phone, and car as part of his control over all aspects of her life and well-being (and his accessibility to her).

Side note: While it’s perfectly plausible that a university student in 2011 can not have a cell phone, and maybe, maybe not even own a laptop (she apparently uses her roommate’s and goes to the library), Ana doesn’t even have an e-mail address before Christian sets one up for her. And this girl wants to go into the publishing industry straight from her four-year undergraduate degree in English – and gets an internship, despite how bumbling, inarticulate, and mediocre we’ve already learned she is. The only evidence we have that Ana has benefited from her literature education is that she knows about Tess of the D’Urbervilles. ANYWAY.

I’ve never been so irritated by a first-person character narrator. James’s writing consists of finding a gimmick and overusing it to the point that it becomes tired and infuriating. Ana’s “inner goddess” descriptions may be the most frustrating narratological creation of all time. We can only assume “inner goddess” is code for “shred of dignity.”

Another overused gimmick is the repetitive e-mail correspondence between Ana and Christian. While a novel written in 2011 can and perhaps should include real life Internet-age communication and technology, certainly for realism, the initially cute transcription of e-mails between them goes too far, recalling writing notes back and forth with your crush in junior high, except these notes include discussion of whether or not to allow fisting.

I’m not into censorship and I’m not against written pornography and erotica (if you read my previous post you’ll know I like to study it). That being said, I do hope that no one without sexual experience reads Fifty Shades of Grey and is wildly mislead in their expectations. A digest of some of my issues:

1.     Anastasia is a virgin before she has sex with Christian; not only is she able to achieve orgasm incredibly early in her sexual career, she is able to do so vaginally. Ana has allegedly never masturbated, either. I suppose Christian is supposed to be that good? (And then every guy felt inadequate).
2.     Christian has virtually no refractory period. None. (And then every guy felt inadequate).
3.     Ana is 21-years-old and seems to have had no real sexual feelings prior to being awakened by Christian. For a novel published in 2011, this sounds rather Victorian to me. The novel perversely reinforces the nineteenth-century view of women as “passionless” until men provoke and arouse their sexual desire. (Nancy Cott, “Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790-1850”).

Anyone with a modicum of feminist leaning will react strongly to the obvious issues of the book. The female is in the submissive role: sexually, intellectually, financially…it goes on. The power gap is extremely exaggerated.

I questioned how I would have reacted if the novel portrayed a rich, powerful woman seeking a naïve young man as the submissive to her dominant. That didn’t really fix anything for me, though. We learn that Christian started his BDSM career as the submissive to an older woman. The dynamic can and does work both ways.

Then I wondered what the book would have been like if Christian had sought Ana to be his dom. That would have been ridiculous as Ana, as she is portrayed, is passive and inexperienced, and it certainly seems more fitting to introduce someone to this world in the passive role. I don’t think the dynamic really works if the dom doesn’t derive great sexual gratification from BDSM.

Then I reprimanded myself for having a knee-jerk response that deems this a misogynistic or anti-feminist creation. Criticizing something based on an obvious, superficial feminist reading is not usually my style.

I questioned: why would I automatically expect a woman writing in 2011, writing a novel that apparently started as a fan fiction response to Twilight, to have a feminist perspective? If I had read the novel under the impression that James was a man, it would have almost (almost) permitted some of the ridiculous depictions of Ana’s sexuality and self-concept. I dont know Jamess intentions or ideologies, but things can be and often are - written to show the world as it is, not as it should be. How do I know James didnt write this book to show a relationship she personally deems ridiculous and unhealthy? To educate young girls about the dangers of hot sex with a sadistic man? I doubt it, but who knows.

And this brings me to a big issue when responding critically to fiction – the disjunctions between “quality,” “success,” and simply what the novel is trying to do.

E L James has clearly written a very successful, well-selling series of novels. I bought it. I read it. I enjoyed it. It frustrated and irritated me immensely, but also provoked a torrent of questions and reflections. The novel may not be well written, but it achieves its desired effect on the reader. It certainly gave me a lot to stew over.


  1. Well, this is one book I most definitely will not be reading.
    The content may be interesting, though from what you're written it really doesn't sound like anything one wouldn't be able to glean from Wikipedia, but badly written books aren't worth reading.
    I believe Oscar Wilde said something about there being no such thing as a moral or an immoral book, just well written or badly written books. Why bother with a badly written book?

  2. Thanks for your comment! It's true, I'm confident that E L James didn't have to immerse herself in a BDSM lifestyle to write these novels - basic knowledge of these practices can easily be learned from the Internet. The sense that much of the research was carried out in such a way, is a detriment, in my opinion.

    I enjoy the Wilde quote mainly for the suggestion that books, in and of themselves, are not moral or immoral; I interpret that quote as meaning that books can do things well or poorly but they are, at the end of the day, fictional, cultural products that should not be banned (or cherished) for their "moral" content. Books can provoke and suggest but should not be held up as ethical guidebooks for our lives - rather they reflect aspects of our lives and culture and we interact in them in such a way that improves our emotional intelligence.

    I am very interested in "lowbrow," "pulp," and "non-literary" novels - things that engross the mainstream reading public but may never be considered canonical. Of course, a lot of the 19th-century versions of pop literature I'm interested in are very well written - it isn't necessarily a novel's quality that designates it as belonging to low or high culture. When a book like Fifty Shades of Grey comes along and takes the mainstream reading public by storm and is selling out and stirring up controversy, I need to read it to be able to comment.

    As a wannabe literary critic, I'm interested in what the book does and how. A poorly written novel - in terms of everything from plot and character development to syntax - can still be extremely successful. We can never manage to read everything that is published, and have to be selective, however, I'm not interested in only reading books that I will ultimately reflect on and think "that was excellent." A book like Fifty Shades attests to the fact that what people want to read need not be *good* and I believe we can learn a lot about ourselves, as people and readers, from "bad" books as well as "good" ones.

  3. You write that the power “dynamic can and does work both ways” because Christian’s and Ana’s relationship is ostensibly balanced by Elena’s and Christian’s relationship. I disagree. I think that this might be a little bit harder to tell from the first novel, but Elena’s relationship with Christian is absolutely framed within an assumption that there is something wrong with a powerful woman.

    There are many reasons for this:
    1. Ana is the one narrating and therefore is able to make us suffer through both her rather hypocritical assessment of the supposed power imbalance between Elena and Christian and her self-satisfied overuse of Elena’s nickname, Mrs. Robinson.
    2. Elena “creates” Christian in some very important ways. Through her, he discovers (according to him) a way to direct his self-destructive tendencies into a sexual relationship. The result of this is that he develops “unnatural” sexual proclivities; being sub to Elena’s domme simultaneously destroys him and reconstructs him as hyper-aware of control and desperately in need of affirmation that he can, in fact, control himself by controlling women.
    3. Elena is a villain for manipulating, controlling, and sexually awaking a relatively “innocent” individual. Christian is a dreamboat for doing the same thing, and the most important distinction between them seems to be that he has a penis. There are other factors (she was married, he was 15ish—but probably still more mature and independent than Ana at 21, Ana is supposedly a functioning adult), but the big one really seems to be that he’s a man and Elena is not.

    Furthermore, almost all of the women in the novel seem to be somehow incapable of dealing with power and power dynamics:

    Ana: Ana is apparently in desperate need of a keeper but also unable to handle his power over her. She simply cannot reconcile anything with anything else. Not wants, not needs, not Tess, not her inner goddess, not her resume, not her sexuality, not her apparent irresistibility to members of the other sex, blahblahblah.

    Christian’s biological mom: I’m not really even sure where to go with this one, but the book seems to set this up as the seed for Christian’s need for power. Is it that the mother let herself be overpowered? Is it that Christian never recovers from being unable to protect her and translates that into a need to “protect” all women by controlling them? Either way, it would seem that the mother becomes metonymic for the consequences of lost control/power, thereby destroying any chance Christian had of understanding that not all women must be steered in order to survive.

    Elena: Even though she’s the domme, she is framed as completely dependent on Christian both financially and emotionally. Furthermore, as I mentioned above in #2, she is the Frankenstein to his monster.

    Kate: Somehow Kate becomes defined by her reaction/relationship to Christian. Ana struggles with her friend speaking against her keeper. This comes up more later in the series, so I’ll just let you discover that for yourself.

    The adoptive mom and sister seem to have their shit straight, but maybe I’m missing something. Maybe part of the problem is that even Christian can’t manage to turn them into a fetish, or maybe it’s that I’m missing an opportunity to analyze them ad nauseam.

    But none of these other women work. It’s no wonder Christian has to ride in and fix them; they couldn’t find their way out of a paper bag without him. And though he may be constructed by them, it’s in a very formulaic way that simply reaffirms his superiority: the women with obvious control over him (his domme, his mom) fuck him up. The women who obviously submit to him (Ana, the host of other subs, the housekeeper whose name I can’t remember) provide him with opportunities to show himself in all of his nauseating Fifty glory.

    We should discuss this further on our road trip (SO EXCITING). Or we can just get drunk and hang out on the boat.

  4. Kate - excellent points! I love this breakdown of the female characters. I think I was being too generous about the depiction of Elena / Mrs. Robinson as compensating for the primary power dynamic as illustrated by Christian and Ana. The main issues with Elena's depiction (vilifying, child molesting type depictions) definitely undercut a positive depiction of a woman in the dominant position. I meant moreso that, in this back story, James "shows" that the dom/sub roles aren't gender fixed and that because of the portrayal of that relationship, I realized that James writing the novel with a female Christian character and a male Ana character wouldn't have improved things for me. The subjective gender allocation felt less important to me than how the characters are constructed as people (and the potentially misogynistic or anti-feminist elements of having the girl as the witless, powerless submissive just exacerbating it).