Jul 092012
 

I’m still trying to understand the “why” of this book. I can understand the appeal of the story it is telling, sort of; I concede that I’m somewhat handicapped in comprehending this work on a deep level because it is not for me, a heterosexual man. What’s really baffling is its astonishing popularity. It’s as if some niche fetish like pedal pumping, against all odds, became a hit.

I was talking about this with a bunch of other kinky people at a munch this week. Everybody had heard about it, and nobody had anything good to say about it. One, a woman who works as a psychiatric nurse, says that every woman she works with has read or is reading it. I asked if our table’s server if she had heard of it, and she said she had, though all she knew about it was that it was “dirty.” That got a big laugh from us depraved kinksters.

The best idea that I heard that the millions of women reading this book are reading selectively. One of the key ideas of my work is that reading is an active, not passive, process. If Christian Grey is a lightly sketched character, with little substance beyond “rich, handsome, damaged, fixable” the people reading this are filling in details. Likewise they are editing out certain details like his stalking, his threatening behaviour, and the fact that he’s not mentally sound.

It’s a little like when, decades ago, lesbian women read pulp exploitation novels about innocent women being seduced by evil butch lesbians, and mentally edited out the endings when the innocent woman goes back to heterosexuality. The lesbians did this because at this point in history, this was the only reflection of female-female desire and sexuality available in culture. It was this or nothing, and the lesbian readers strongly misread what the culture allowed.

If we apply that analogy to Fifty Shades, it suggests that there are a large number of women out there who want to see some kind of reflection of female desire, one that the culture (or the parts of it that they see) isn’t satisfying. They make their own strong-misreading of this book to edit out the parts they don’t like.

However, lesbians have worked long and hard to get to the point where they can have happy endings, and don’t have to put up with a tacked on ending in which heterosexuality is reaffirmed as the only proper way of life. Apparently some heterosexual women still haven’t made that transition.

Back to the summary:

Ana and Christian have a cute moment of dancing to Sinatra, but when Ana goes to meet his parents (without panties under her dress, shocking) Christian flips back to withdrawn and angry. There’s mercurial and there’s just plain unstable. (I have ‘strong misreading’ idea that Christian is actually an undiagnosed mentally ill person. His family and other enablers prop him up as a titan of industry, as in The Big Lebowski, and indulge him because they don’t want to admit to the world they have mental illness in their family.)

Mrs. Robinson comes up again.

Oh, my worst suspicions confirmed. She has taught him well, and the thought depresses me – there’s nothing I can teach him. I have no special skills.
[…]
My scalp prickles. Did she have the best of him? Before he became so closed? Or did she bring him out of himself? He has such a fun, playful side. I smile involuntarily as I recall being in his arms as he spun me around his living room, so unexpected, and he has my panties, somewhere.
And then there’s the Red Room of Pain. I rub my wrists reflexively – thin strips of plastic will do that to a girl. She taught him all that too or ruined him, depending on one’s point of view. Or perhaps he would have found his way there anyway in spite of Mrs. R.
I realize, in that moment, that I hate her. I hope that I never meet her because I will not be responsible for my actions if I do. I can’t remember ever feeling this passionately about anyone, especially someone I’ve never met. Gazing unseeing out of the window, I nurse my irrational anger and jealousy.

I get the impression that the real conflict in this story is actually between Ana and this as-yet unseen Mrs. Robinson, over Christian. A bad woman (i.e. Mrs. Robinson) damaged Christian and a good woman (i.e. Ana) is trying to fix him. Ana has terrible relationships with other women, including ones she never met, and she’s ambivalent about the ones she’s close to like her mother and Kate (whom she regards with passive-aggressive resentment). Other than Kate, she apparently has no female friends. Her main social circle is men who are attracted to but she doesn’t respond to. Add to that Ana’s “irrational anger and jealousy” over Mrs. Robinson and the 15 other submissives.

Ana seems to view her BDSM with Christian as the necessary price she has to pay to compete with those other women.

Given what I understand of his preferences, I think he’s been easy on me. Would I do it again?  I can’t even pretend to put up an argument against that. Of course I would, if he asked me – as long as he didn’t hurt me and if it’s the only way to be with him.
That’s the bottom line. I want to be with him. My inner goddess sighs with relief. I reach the conclusion that she rarely uses her brain to think but another vital part of her anatomy, and at the moment, it’s a rather exposed part.

At this point, Christian tells her not to over-think things. If only.

Ana is introduced to Christian’s family at their home, with Kate in attendance. I wonder if it ties into the class politics of this story that Ana seems to regard Christian’s large, wealthy and blue-blooded family, with monogamous parents, as an ideal, while her own family background (serial monogamist mother, absent father, loving but ineffectual step-father) is a source of shame. Remember that Kate is specified as upper-class and wealthy too, and Ana has basically been living off her through college.

When Ana mentions she’s thinking of going to Georgia to visit her mother, Christian flips from Jekyll to Hyde.

“What about our arrangement?”
“We don’t have an arrangement yet.”
He narrows his eyes, and then seems to remember himself. Releasing my hand, he takes my elbow and leads me out of the room.
“This conversation is not over,” he whispers threateningly as we enter the dining room.

Ana’s “yet” is part of the game she’s playing, asserting some control over Christian by strategically delaying the actual contract which would begin her submission. In effect, she’s being a tease. Unfortunately, with a person as short-tempered and powerful as Christian, that’s a strategy that can badly backfire.

Ana’s green-eyed monster elbows out her inner goddess and her subconscious, the moment she sees Christian next to a woman he’s not related to.

[Christian’s mother] Grace reappears carrying two plates, followed by a pretty young woman with blonde pigtails, dressed smartly in pale blue, carrying a tray of plates. Her eyes immediately find Christian in the room. She blushes and gazes at him from under her long mascara’d lashes.
What!
[…]
So the Greys have staff, and the staff are eyeing up my would-be Dominant. Can this evening get any worse? I scowl at my hands in my lap.

[…]

As we finish our starters, Gretchen appears, and not for the first time, I wish I felt able to put my hands freely on Christian just to let her know – he may be fifty shades of fucked-up, but he’s mine. She proceeds to clear the table, brushing rather too closely to Christian for my liking. Fortunately, he seems oblivious to her, but my inner goddess is smoldering and not in a good way.

Two delusional jealous people does not make for a good relationship. Again, Ana is deflecting her concerns about Christian away from him and towards any woman who comes near him.

After dinner, Christian takes her out to the boathouse, literally picking her up and carrying her over his shoulder. This is the kind of thing a lot of submissives would like, if it came from somebody they trusted.

  2 Responses to “The Curious Kinky person’s guide to Fifty Shades of Grey, Chapter 19”

  1. “Ana’s “yet” is part of the game she’s playing, asserting some control over Christian by strategically delaying the actual contract which would begin her submission. In effect, she’s being a tease. Unfortunately, with a person as short-tempered and powerful as Christian, that’s a strategy that can badly backfire.”

    What the hell? Are you trying to victim-blame Ana? You seem to, at some points, realize that Christian is an abusive asshole, and that Ana just can’t say no, can’t defend herself, and now you’re calling her “a tease” and say that her “strategy” can “backfire”, as if it’s her responsibility not to anger an abusive asshole!

    She does not dare to tell him “no”, and rightly so; he already knows she means “no” and chooses to ignore it. An actual “no”, that he cannot ignore, would make him angry. He would attack her.
    He THREATENS her! It’s in the text!
    She’s merely trying to ensure her safety by dangling this “yet” in front of him, so that he has the illusion he can talk her into it and doesn’t resort to violence.
    Ana herself is much too stupid to tease Christian, or to get him to give her anything. Her subconscious seems to be trying to save her, though. Her subconscious likely is where that “yet” came from.

    Why this is claimed to be “erotic” is beyond me.

    The only explanation I have for this is that the author tried to write about an abusive relationship, got millions of fans who thought it was a romance, and decided to continue the story in this manner rather than lose the readers.

  2. As part of the masses, I thought I’d take a stab at your question of, “Why.” 🙂 I can only speak for myself, and I’m not sure if my reasons for enjoying the books were/are typical. Basically, they boil down to “low expectations.”

    A little background: I’m a middle-aged, reclusive woman. I am very shy, and don’t get out much.

    Some time before reading 50 Shades, I read all of Twilight, and actually enjoyed it, as I was reading it, for the vicarious thrills. After reading, though, through fridge logic, and through reading on the Internet, I became fully aware of just how abusive the relationship portrayed in Twilight is. Now, I’m actually quite angry with it. Not precisely because it portrays a domineering, stalkery man going after a teenaged girl over a century his junior, but because this book is geared towards teenaged girls, many of whom have been documented as saying that they really want an Edward in their lives, and because, at no point in the Twilight series, does Meyer show any understanding that Edward’s behavior is controlling, abusive, and stalkery. Instead, it’s excused as being “Love.”

    This is relevant. 🙂

    So when I finally picked up the 50 Shades trilogy, I went in knowing three things. I knew that it was women’s porn (which was what I wanted), that featured bondage, and was based on a Twilight fanfic. My expectations were not high. Not because of the “fanfic” (like you, I’ve written fanfic myself, and have read many excellent fanfics), but because it was Twilight fanfic. And also porn. I was expecting a Harlequin novel, at best. But with bondage.

    It definitely did its job, of giving vicarious thrills. And I don’t really understand your reference to it being about an “obscure” fetish. Trust me… what you call, “the initiation fantasy,” combined with, “bondage plus vanilla,” is not an obscure fetish. In fact, I’d be very surprised if the percentage of “vanilla” women who fantasize about it was smaller than 50%. (“Fantasize” being the operative word. The actual percentage of vanilla women who would actually enjoy it in real life is probably much smaller). Or at least, single vanilla women. I can’t speak for those who aren’t single.

    So that’s the appeal going in, and while reading. Why the fans, in spite of the stalkery, abusive “Dom?”

    Well, speaking for myself, Twilight in the back of my mind during the entire first book. I knew that Christian=Edward. I knew that going in. So, far from being put off by Christian’s behavior, I mainly found myself just admiring the way James actually brought up his stalkerish, controlling ways. And didn’t try to sugar-coat them, or portray them in a positive light. I think I may be unusual in this regard, though, because many other fans of the books do try to excuse Christian’s behavior in the first book, whereas when I read the book, I saw behavior that wasn’t supposed to be excused. As in, I didn’t think James intended for it to be excused (at least, not beyond the fact that he was abused as a child).

    This actually gave me high hopes for the rest of the series (which were mostly realized)… hopes that this book was self-aware enough to start by portraying “Edward” and “Bella,” but then evolve into an actual mutual relationship. And I think that did happen – as the books progress, Ana becomes progressively more assertive and able to take equal control in the relationship, and Christian becomes less needy and insistent on controlling every aspect of her entire life, and they both develop an understanding of a BDSM relationship that works for both of them. That’s what I saw in the books, at least.

    But anyway, back to your original question about the appeal: it’s the same as the appeal of any trashy novel. Except with bondage. That’s new and different. At least to those of us who either don’t normally have access to those books, or don’t know where/how to find the good ones. 🙂

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