Jul 262012
 

I started this project to critique Fifty Shades of Grey, and instead I end up trying to diagnose it. What is this book? And why is it so unexpectedly popular?

As Genderfight on tumblr observes in “Fifty Shades of Grey is Unintelligible as a Novel“, the book’s position on BDSM is basically incoherent. It’s impossible to pin down EL James’ view on BDSM as condemnation or celebration. If BDSM is so horrible, why imagine a trilogy of a woman luring a man away from it? Why not just imagine a man who is vanilla?

So, why is a kinky novel about kinky sex only okay with fairly light kink? Why does EL James neither embrace kink, nor condemn it outright? I don’t think the text will ever give that answer. Inside of it, there is no explanation for this, no clear motivation, and it makes the novel tonally discordant.

But there is an answer. And that answer, like the answer to so many questions on the internet, is “because fan fiction.”

Fifty Shades was originally an alternate universe Twilight fanfiction hilariously titled Master of the Universe. And for all that the character names have been filed off and replaced with new ones, Fifty Shades remains a fan fiction. This explains why Fifty Shades is a kinky novel that hates kinky sex. It’s not a novel about characters, but an exploration of characters under new circumstances. Kink is a means to some ends: experimentation, suffering, and making it so that Bella Swan and Edward Cullen can have spanky sex.

Fanfiction allows writers and readers to explore characters in situations that the canon narrative would never put them in. It also allows for experimentation with themes not found in the canon narrative. It’s sort of the mix and match of storytelling. You get to choose characters, themes, and settings. When you throw them all together, you get a story that answers a “what if” question about another story. In this case, “What if Edward Cullen, instead of being a vampire, were some sort of S&M freak?” This doesn’t mean that James thinks that BDSM is good, or appealing, but perhaps merely that she finds it something interesting to engage with in the safe storytelling environment that is fanfiction.

(I strongly recommend reading the entire post.)

So, perhaps we should view FSOG as a laboratory piece, though that doesn’t explain why that particular experiment was so successful commercially. Would a fanfiction in which, say, Bela and Edward are a groupie and a rockstar in the early 1970s have had the same appeal?

I’ve read and enjoyed erotic stories that I knew had terrible prose, cardboard characters, ludicrous premises and questionable politics, because they hit some particular psychological button in me, some particular fetish or longing that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Sometimes trying to force such a story into anything resembling good literature would spoil the fantasy. I think, “I know, but still…”

Anyway, back to the critique/commentary/annotations/exegesis/whatever:

Christian and Ana are still back in the tub, talking.

“Maybe. Perhaps I should be stricter with you.” He cocks his head to one side and gives me an artful smile.
I swallow. Jeez, no. But at the same time, my muscles clench deliciously deep inside.
It is his way of showing that he cares. Perhaps the only way he can show he cares – I realize that. He’s staring at me, gauging my reaction.
“Was it that bad when I spanked you the first time?”
I gaze back at him, blinking. Was it that bad?  I remember feeling confused by my reaction. It hurt, but not that much in retrospect. He’s said over and over again it’s more in my head. And the second time… Well, that was good… hot.

This sets off alarms, with Christian getting Ana to second-guess her own responses to her experiences. Her first spanking was horrible for her, even without Christian abandoning her immediately after. This is just her making excuses for a bad situation.

“You can always safe-word, Anastasia. Don’t forget that. And, as long as you follow the rules, which fulfill a deep need in me for control and to keep you safe, then perhaps we can find a way forward.”
“Why do you need to control me?”
“Because it satisfies a need in me that wasn’t met in my formative years.”
“So it’s a form of therapy?”
“I’ve not thought of it like that, but yes, I suppose it is.”
This I can understand. This will help.

Christian’s insistence on the safeword illuminates the limitations of the safeword practice. It’s no good if the submissive/bottom doesn’t have the emotional maturity to use it, nor if the dominant/top can’t be counted on to stick to the rules. Add to this Christian is basically blackmailing her, coercing her into obedience in exchange for his company. Obviously, Christian needs a hell of a lot of therapy, but Ana doesn’t have the expertise or the resources to give it to him. Oh, and this reinforces the idea that kinky people are all damaged.

“But, here’s the thing – one moment you say don’t defy me, the next you say you like to be challenged. That’s a very fine line to tread successfully.”
He gazes at me for a moment, then frowns.
“I can see that. But you seem to be doing fine so far.”

“But at what personal cost? I’m tied up in knots here.”
“I like you tied up in knots,” he smirks.

There’s the problem right there: Ana is stressing herself out trying to manage this relationship, trying to handle this new BDSM thing, and to keep Christian’s emotions under control. Christian’s just cruising through.

Of course, this deep-rooted relationship problem is not actually discussed, because Christian shuts down any more relationship talk in favour of more sex.

I love this man. I love his passion, the effect I have on him. I love that he’s flown so far to see me. I love that he cares about me… he cares. It’s so unexpected, so fulfilling.
He is mine, and I am his.
“That’s right, baby,” he breathes.

Ana is grossly misinterpreting everything Christian does, seeing it as signs of his tremendous passion instead of warning signs.

Post coitus, Ana asks about his previous lovers/play partners.

“All submissives in training, when I was training. There are places in and around Seattle that one can go and practice. Learn to do what I do,” he says.
What?
“Oh.” I blink at him.
“Yep, I’ve paid for sex, Anastasia.”
“That’s nothing to be proud of,” I mutter haughtily. “And you’re right… I am deeply shocked. And cross that I can’t shock you.”

Remember Ana’s general lack of sexual experience. She’s pretty far off the statistical average, so probably pretty easy to shock.

“You let me work you over with a riding crop.”
“Did that shock you?”
“Yep.”
I grin.
“Well, I may let you do it again.”
“Oh, I do hope so, Miss Steele. This weekend?”
“Okay,” I agree, shyly.
“Okay?”
“Yes. I’ll go to the Red Room of Pain again.”

This is the first time Ana voices an unequivocal, if tentative, interest in doing something kinky. If this was a conventional BDSM initiation narrative, this would have happened a lot sooner, instead of 85% through the book.

  One Response to “The curious kinky person’s guide to Fifty Shades of Grey, chapter 23, part 2”

  1. Can I just say that if you’re acting out something in sex that you missed during your formative years, that is NOT therapy? It’s a symptom of an underlying condition. Real therapy helps you move from the state you’re in to something better. It’s not just making yourself feel better without changing at all.

    If Christian were my client, I’d diagnose him with narcissistic personality disorder with a side of antisocial personality disorder, and there’d be a paraphilia too if his selfish and harmful sexual habits ever seemed to cause trouble for him instead of everyone else.

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