In Defense of Fifty Shades of Grey (Sort of)

Since reading this book for our last episode (listen here), Kait and Renata have found themselves at odds with most of the internet on the subject of whether Fifty Shades of Grey is harmful to women. Below are their thoughts–written by Kait, but co-signed by Renata.

Fifty Shades of Grey is not a good book.

I’m not talking about the the things you might think I’m talking about. I don’t have a problem with the sex or the BDSM portrayal or the relationship itself. At its core, as a work of fiction, Fifty Shades is just poorly written. The narrative is weak, the characters are barely more than cardboard cutouts, the text is littered with repetition, and the plot is merely transparent connective tissue that links the sex scenes and doesn’t even come to an actual climax (pun intended). Fifty Shades is a book you read out loud to your friends, laughing at the awkwardly paced writing and doing a shot every time Ana says “jeez” or “oh my,” which is roughly once a page. Its origin as Twilight fanfiction isn’t just noticeable, it’s crucial knowledge if you want any of the character motivations and relationships to make any sense. EL James did a terrible job of filing the serial numbers off and it’s all to the book’s detriment. If someone asked me if I thought they should read this book, I would probably tell them not to waste their time–there’s better porn for free on the internet.

All that being said, I have spent the past two weeks since I read this book defending Fifty Shades against 90% of it’s detractors. Because it’s garbage, yes, but it’s not “abuse,” and I’m sick of people on the internet using that as an excuse to police and shame women’s reading habits.

I’m not sure exactly when the Fifty Shades backlash started, but I have a good idea how it started. Women went out in droves to buy this book, mostly average middle-aged women. Middle-aged women reading erotica became the joke–badly written “Mommy Porn,” hahaha, isn’t that funny, women reading sexy things for their own pleasure? Then, much like the Twilight backlash, “enlightened” people either read the book or read a Wikipedia summary of the book and decided that Christian’s behavior towards Ana was suspect. Now we’re not making fun of the women who read this book any longer, that would be cruel. No, we’re protecting them because they don’t realize that the relationship portrayed in the book is abusive and they’re going to read it and immediately run into the arms of an abusive man because they think it’s romantic! This book is gloryifying an abusive relationship and the women, who clearly can’t understand the difference between reality and fantasy, are going to be confused. They need to stop immediately! They’re hurting themselves by reading this and they don’t even know it. Luckily, we’re smart enough to know what’s good for them and put an end to it.

It’s frustrating to watch it play out, especially having now read the book. It’s frustrating that a podcast that should have been about how hilariously bad the prose in this book is has turned into thirty minutes of us defending it which left us zero time to talk about “laterz, baby.” It’s frustrating that the record-breaking number one movie in the box office is written by a woman, directed by a woman, and based on a novel by a woman, but is being boycotted by morality police on the internet. It’s frustrating that men can be trusted to know not to start a Fight Club or become a masked vigilante, but women can’t be trusted to understand that a man tracking you by your cellphone is not ideal behavior.

Let’s discuss some of the internet’s biggest issues with this novel.

The portrayal of BDSM is abusive/Ana has no safeword/the BDSM isn’t consensual.

This is entirely false. The entire novel is a continuing negotiation between Christian and Ana. When Christian first reveals his proclivities to Ana, he makes it very clear she’s free to leave at any time. He explains what he wants and what role he wants her to play. He shows her his playroom and answers her questions. He gives her a written document that very clearly outlines what he expects, what she should expect, what activities he would like to engage in, what activities are off-limits, and then asks her to read it, research it, ask him any questions, and let him know her thoughts.

The contract itself is hilarious and the fact that EL James includes the entire text is equally hilarious, but it does serve as a very concrete form of consent. Ana reads and researches and she comes back to negotiate. Some of Christian’s suggestions are off the table because she’s uncomfortable. He’s fine with that. She changes some clauses, and adds a demand of her own–she wants him to engage in a romance with her in addition to their sexual/BDSM relationship. He’s nervous, but agrees.

Ana has a safeword. She has two, actually, and Christian respects the use of them. She genuinely enjoys the things he does with her and is surprised to find they’re more pleasurable than she expected. She’s still disappointed and sometimes unhappy in their relationship, but it’s not because of the BDSM–it’s because she wants Christian to be her real boyfriend and he’s very resistant.

And that’s the heart of the story–the root of Ana’s upset, the reason she spends so much time crying over Christian is because he can’t give her what she wants, which is romance. He tells her at the start that he’s not the “flowers and candy” type, he’s not anyone’s boyfriend, that if she wants to be with him it has to be on these terms, and that’s not enough for her.

There is one problematic aspect to the BDSM, but it has nothing to do with Ana. It’s implied that Christian is only into this because he was abused as a child and statutory raped as a teenager. In the first book, it’s just breadcrumbs of hints to the larger story, but it’s explored more in later books and that’s definitely the most troubling aspect of the BDSM angle. Surprisingly, I’ve not seen anything online that interrogates this–it’s largely outweighed by misinformation about Christian using BDSM to abuse Ana, including out of context quotes of Ana struggling against Christian in scenes where she has a safeword she is consciously not using.

Christian is abusive to Ana during sex.

Super wrong. One of the things that makes me angriest about this is that the sex is extremely centered on Ana. Most of the descriptions of her how she feels during sex. She has multiple orgasms during sex. Christian goes down on her. This is a NYT bestselling book where a man goes down on a woman in erotic detail and tells her not to be ashamed of it because he enjoys it. He tells her again and again, actually, that she’s attractive and she shouldn’t be ashamed of her body. In a society where women are told constantly to be ashamed of every single aspect of their appearance, having a hugely mainstream erotic novel telling them not to is not insignificant.

Christian is a stalker.

Okay, this one is kind of true. Christian buys Ana expensive gifts. Christian tracks Ana’s cellphone to a club when she drunk dials him, mocks him, and then refuses to take any more of his calls. Christian gets jealous of Ana’s male friend and gets possessive when she announces, out of the blue, that she plans on leaving for the east coast to Christian’s family before she brings it up with him. And, the one most people seems to focus on, Christian then follows Ana to the east coast and then surprises her with a hotel room tryst.

It’s definitely creepy behavior. It’s definitely red flag behavior. But it’s also the same behavior displayed by a long line of romantic leading men.

The emotionally unavailable man who finds himself obsessed with the girl no one would have suspected and doesn’t know how to process those feelings is a romantic trope for sure. He clings to her and controls her until she teaches him what love is and he trusts her enough to understand that he doesn’t need to be that way. It’s a character type repeated again and again from classic literature all the way up to current novels with romantic heroes.

It isn’t healthy behavior. It isn’t something to duplicate in your own relationship. It’s a fantasy, and that’s something that women recognize. When someone says, “I want a boyfriend like Edward Cullen,” they’re not saying they want someone who stalks them and breaks into their house and watches them sleep–they’re saying they want someone who’s devoted to them, who thinks about them all the time, who goes out of their way to do things for them and think of them.

When Christian shows up at Ana’s mother’s house, it’s not entirely out of the blue. The night before, they’re texting each other and Ana says, “I wish you were here.” And Christian, who is a multi-billionaire with a private jet, grants that desire. He gets in his jet and he flies to Georgia and he shows up to sweep Ana off her feet.

It’s absolutely creepy and stalkery and weird. But it’s not anymore creepy and stalkery and weird than any other romcom lead or romantic hero. It’s a fantasy of a man who is always there for you out of ultimate devotion, because you’re all he can think about, because your needs are more important than his own.

A fantasy. It’s a fantasy like Batman is a fantasy, like James Bond is a fantasy, like Breaking Bad is a fantasy. Funny how we expect men to know not to become vigilantes or murderers or meth-cookers for the greater good, but we don’t expect women to be able to make good romantic choices without our guidance.

Christian is emotionally abusive.

Again, like the stalking, there’s a good argument for this. Throughout the narrative, there are several points that Christian and Ana exhibit behaviors that follow the honeymoon – tension – explosion cycle of violence. However, the same defense as above applies–this is a novel, and as poorly crafted as the plot is, it does need to have movement. The core of the story is Ana and Christian’s relationship and these moments of tension and arguments are the half-hearted way the plot moves along. I can absolutely see how this can be read as emotional abuse out of context, without having read the book. Reading the book, however, it’s clear that this is mostly sloppy writing for dramatic tension. It’s just another part of the romantic fantasy, the tension that makes the reunion worth it in the end.

Ana is a passive participant in the events of the book.

This actually applies to all of these points. The books are told entirely from Ana’s point of view. We know she’s enjoying the sex because she tells us. We know she’s enjoying the way Christian treats her because she tells us. We know she secretly wants Christian to be there and is happy to see him because she tells us.

But there are things Ana doesn’t like. There are times she’s mad at Christian, times she’s annoyed by events of the books, times she’s unhappy with what’s going on. She doesn’t hesitate to tell us these things either, nor does she hesitate to tell Christian. As I mentioned in the BDSM section above, Ana is quick to point out problems with Christian’s demands and to negotiate her own. She pushes him to give her what she wants and outright refuses to do things that she doesn’t want to do. Ana isn’t in the running for Strongest Portrayal of a Female Protagonist, but she’s not passive. Much of the story is about Ana figuring out what she wants and how it meshes with what Christian wants and how they fit together. She’s not someone who needs to be saved, but rather a young woman, in a relationship for the first time, and trying to understand how to compromise with her partner so they’re both happy.

I’m not recommending Fifty Shades of Grey. It is absolutely, objectively, not a good book. But it’s clearly resonating with huge groups of women. It’s giving women a narrative that revolves around the sexual experimentation and awakening of a young woman being courted by a rich man. It’s speaking to these women and it’s not my place to police that. It’s definitely not my place to shame it. It’s easy for us to say, “There’s better fanfiction on the internet!” and “There’s much better written sex out there!” when we’re well-versed on what that means and how to find it, when we’ve read enough erotica to know exactly what we want and what appeals to us. For people without that background, Fifty Shades is revolutionary. It’s maybe just the first step on their journey, but they’re not going to get anywhere at all if we tell them that it’s wrong and imply they should feel wrong for liking it.

Trust women to take care of themselves. If you don’t, you’re no better than the controlling men you’re trying to protect them from.

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