Aug 212012
 

I didn’t have high expectations of this book when I started. If anything, now that I’ve read it, my low expectations of Fifty Shades of Grey were too high.

  1. At the most basic level, it is just a poor piece of work. Almost every page has something that any half-way competent copy editor should have corrected: clumsy sentences, punctuation errors, Americans using British expressions, factual errors, overuse of particular words and phrases (“murmur”, “cock his head”, etc.) and more. I am convinced that the publisher of this book took the word processor file from EL James and put it into production without any proofreading or copy editing.
  2. The story is thin, slow moving and depends on people acting in aggressively stupid ways.
  3. Not only are the sexual politics abhorrent (Ana quite literally calls what Christian does stalking, but considers it a sign of affection), but the class politics are incredibly conservative. Ana doesn’t think Christian is attractive and rich, but rich and therefore attractive. It’s the perfect romance for the recession.
  4. Anatasia Steele is ignorant, immature, self-righteous, passive-aggressive, judgmental, materialist, jealous to the point of delusional paranoia, narcissistic, social climbing, misogynist and possibly alcoholic.
  5. Likewise, Christian Grey is arrogant, puffed up with privilege, deceitful, threatening, angry, jealous, invasive, self-loathing and riddled with obsessive-compulsive tics. This man needs serious psychiatric help, and a restraining order.
  6. Their relationship is a travesty of abuse masquerading as BDSM. Christian attempts to get Ana, a woman with no sexual experience or self-knowledge at all, into a BDSM relationship through a combination of bribery and threats. Ana fails to take any steps to protect herself, and gives Christian free reign to do what he wants with her. He takes her up on it, and it all ends in tears.

I will concede a couple of points.

  1. As a heterosexual male submissive, Fifty Shades of Grey is just not for me.
  2. As a person involved in the BDSM subculture for about 20 years, I may be so jaded that I can’t appreciate a book aimed at a newcomer.
  3. For someone who does not grit their teeth or roll their eyes every other page, as I was, this could be a fast, entertaining read.

Regardless, I maintain that this is a bad book on several different levels. Elmore Leonard had a character in one of his novels describe the historical romances she wrote as “full of rape and adverbs”, which really sums up Fifty Shades of Grey in three words: reactionary sexual politics delivered via overblown prose.

If Fifty Shades of Grey was just some minor novel that sold a few thousand copies, I wouldn’t be so bothered. But against all odds it has become a best seller, has broken sales records and will be adapted to a feature film. Why? Why is this odd, terrible book made such an impact? What need does it meet?

For the purposes of this blog, I’ll ask a more specific question: what does function does BDSM serve in Fifty Shades of Grey?

There’s a guideline in writing known as Chekov’s Gun, paraphrased as, “If you introduce a loaded gun in the first act of the play, you must have it go off in the second act.” By introducing something so potent, so capable of changing the world irrevocably, the writer makes a promise to the reader that it will be used, one way or another. If it is not used, the reader is disappointed and frustrated, their expectations unfulfilled, their attention diverted from what was really going on. Better to not have the gun at all than to have it and leave it unfired.

Even to people who know little or nothing about the BDSM culture, BDSM imagery and language grabs attention, as potent as a gun. By reputation and by marketing, Fifty Shades of Grey is supposed to be about BDSM. And yet there’s a curious deflection. Though EL James reproduces Christian’s Master-slave contract three times in the book, eventually he just abandons it. His desire to “claim Ana’s ass” is forgotten. Most of the sex is quite vanilla. And, after Ana avoids and stalls as much as possible, the book ends with Ana completely rejecting Christian and his ways. This isn’t an unfired gun, it’s an unfired howitzer.

Why? Why spend an entire book dangling all kinds of sexual acts before the reader and not actually doing any of them?

One could argue that the “gun” does go off, in the last chapter, and Ana doesn’t like it. It’s not unlike the ending of Nine and a Half Weeks, in which Mickey Rourke finally takes Kim Basinger past her limits (that being blindfolded sex in a motel room with a Latina woman in orange lingerie who makes cat purring noises.)

But the narrative payoff is actually a terrible example of BDSM, of people who have no understanding of consent or negotiation getting hurt.

So, if FSOG doesn’t model a good romantic relationship or even a good BDSM relationship, what does it model? What does it do?

I think one of the driving emotions behind the popularity of FSOG is not lust, but loneliness. It provides the (heterosexual female) reader with the idea of a man who is utterly focused on the woman in his life, who never thinks about anyone else, who is so invested in her that he can’t stand another man being near her, who makes a point of giving her mind shattering orgasms every time (say what you like about Christian Grey, he’s not selfish in bed), who showers her with expensive gifts, who flies across the country because he misses her. If you go through life with the nagging feeling of unimportance, abandonment and neglect, why not fantasize about some person magically appearing who will solve your problem, who will think you are utterly fascinating no matter what you do?

The secondary driving emotion of FSOG is curiosity. This book will be millions of people’s first exposure to the entire concept of BDSM, and they will probably run screaming away like Ana’s subconscious. You could almost imagine that FSOG is targeted at women who are just a bit curious about kink, structured so as to draw them in and then scare them away. The classic exploitation man0euver of titillate and punish, the big tease followed by the moral condemnation.

Another comparison that comes to mind is Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut. After the protagonist Bill’s wife tells him that she thought about fucking another man, he goes on a nighttime odyssey in which he repeatedly finds himself (or puts himself) in situations where something dramatic could happen. He could have had a tryst with two models at an elite party. Some street toughs could gay-bash him. He could have sex with several women. He could call the police about what he thinks is a case of underage prostitution. He could partake of the clandestine (and rather bland) orgy he infiltrates. However, the film keeps going to the edge and then backing away. Bill is basically a voyeur, not a sexual adventurer; M. Hulot, not Don Juan. (The idea seems to be that the only thing better than sex with several beautiful women is having several beautiful women propose sex and turning them down.)

On the film’s downward slope from the orgy at the high-water mark, Bill finds out that the prostitute he almost had sex with had HIV, the friend who got him into the orgy-party has disappeared, and the woman who apparently saved him at the orgy-party has died under suspicious circumstances. Sketchy-looking men are following him. Bill’s sexual fantasy has turned into a paranoid nightmare. The film ends with Bill cowed and slinking back to his wife; i.e. to bourgeois monogamy, heterosexuality and vanilla sex.

Like Fifty Shades of Grey, Eyes Wide Shut presents the possibility of sexual adventure but in the end does not deliver. It’s basically a big tease. In Kubrick’s case, there is an underlying message about class: that Bill is basically a bourgeois, and if he sets one toe outside his assigned space in the class hierarchy, he finds it too dangerous to handle.

Like Bill, Ana dangles a toe in the bigger pool of non-bourgeois sexuality, flirting with various ideas such as anal intercourse and BDSM, but ultimately rejecting them and reverting to her ideals of heterosexuality, monogamy and vanilla.

This is why FSOG is so crazy-making for kinky people: through some idiot-savant evolutionary process, EL James has written the perfect book for policing the boundaries between vanilla and kink. People fear that the people who read FSOG will start doing BDSM that is physically and/or emotionally unsafe. I fear that because they have read FSOG, people won’t try anything kinky, and will stay within the bounds of vanilla sexuality. They’ll be scared vanilla.

***

Over Pride weekend in Vancouver, I had three conversations about Fifty Shades of Grey that indicate what role it plays in the ongoing history of BDSM.

The first was at a workshop on “pridespeak”. We were talking about the intersections of queer, kink, poly, transgender and other overlapping subcultures.

The topic worked around to negative stereotypes, and one guy mentioned how, when he tried to explain to non-poly people what polyamory was, he kept hearing people say, “Oh, like in Big Love?” This is a cable TV series about a polygynous Mormon family of a man and his three wives, and far, far removed from the kind of loose polyamorous networks you see these days.

Kinky people have our own mainstream stereotypes to deal with, and FSOG reproduces so many of them: kinky people are mentally traumatized, incapable of love, decadent, and perhaps the most pernicious stereotype attached to all sexual minorities, bent on seducing or coercing new recruits.

The second was on Sunday morning, before the Pride parade. I was with a bunch of people setting up the Metro Vancouver Kink float. Our float, a flatbed trailer with a large cage on it build from two-by-fours painted black, was located in between the Canadian Conservative Party and a group called the Brazen Hussies, who wore schoolgirl outfits and danced. (I’m not sure if they were a burlesque troupe or something else.)

One of the Brazen Hussies, a thirty-something woman, came up onto the float and asked some of us about BDSM. I overheard one of our group recommending Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy (which at least has the virtues that nobody will mistake it for reality, and is much more inclusive of queer sexuality.)

I loaned my favorite flogger to her by way of demonstration.

Brazen Hussy: Wow, is that a flogger?

Me: Yes, it is.

Brazen Hussy: Yeah, I read about that in Fifty Shades of Grey.

I think I gave a tiny little scream at that point. This was precisely the kind of thing I feared hearing. I urged her to abandon it and read other books. This is what kinky people, and especially educators and community leaders, will have to deal with for the next decade.

The third conversation was with a friend who has been in the Scene for many years, and he and I have served on the board of the same organization. He had read the first book and was part way through the second, so he did know what he was talking about. He took the “any publicity is good publicity” position, and we, as kinky leaders, should welcome FSOG as a way to get new people into the fold.

I wasn’t convinced, saying that I feared that people would read FSOG and take it for all they needed to know about BDSM: that BDSM is done by sick people, that it is diametrically opposed to love and intimacy and respect, and while you might think about it, it’s better left as a dirty little fantasy, not something you should actually do.

Another friend once tried to convince me that James Cameron’s Avatar is not irretrievably bad because it presented a “teachable moment” for talking about environmentalism and colonialism and the conditions of indigenous peoples (or of disability issues, for that matter). I disagree.

A movie like Avatar is structured so as to provide narrative closure. The noble savages win, the corporate thugs lose, and our hero gets to be a three-metre-tall blue cat person on another planet instead of being stuck in a wheelchair. All dilemmas are resolved, all further discussion is foreclosed. If anything, a movie like Avatar actually entrenches dominant ideas about colonialism, primitivism, disability, etc. They raise a question and then provide a particular answer.

If FSOG poses a question, it is, can a vanilla person and a kinky person find love? Realistically, no, they can’t, at least not the kind of monogamous, heteronormative love Ana wants and expects. I’ve met couples in which one partner is vanilla and the other is kinky, and they work out systems for the kinky person to play outside the couple. Ana will not accept this, of course; it’s all or nothing.

What FSOG does, is provide an answer that appeals to lots of vanilla, heterosexual women: you can somehow get a man to give up the whole world of sexual adventure in favour of monogamy, heteronormative sex and the nuclear family. The cult of domesticity defeats its greatest enemy, the sexual revolution. The white picket fence triumphs over the Red Room of Pain. The Virgin tames the Unicorn. Beauty defeats the Beast and turns him into just another schmuck. The vampire is slain.

It’s worth noting that Christian is an analog of Edward Cullen, the vampire, in FSOG’s ancestor-text Twilight, and there’s a long history of associating vampirism with deviant sexuality. E.g. one of the first lesbians in Western literature was in Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmila, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula was all about an Oriental foreigner ripping the Victorian bourgeoisie a new one. Christian is the perceived enemy, but unlike the vampire, he does not rise again. He is permanently defeated, made human, recuperated into the cult of domesticity.

***

My feelings of relief at finishing this book were short lived, as I knew there were two other books after this.

If I continue this, I will probably skim over them, covering two or three chapters per post, focusing on the kink and not critiquing any other issues.

  3 Responses to “The curious kinky person’s guide to Fifty Shades of Grey: conclusion”

  1. I, too, grit my teeth and rolled my eyes on every page. My face started to hurt after a while.

  2. Thank you for this summary. It encapsulates many of the problems with this book.

    I hope there are people who become intrigued by FSOG enough to find out what bDsm is really about. As long as not everyone either recoils in horror or tries it with the misunderstandings this book promotes.

  3. You’re absolutely right about FSOG leading to misconceptions of BDSM in readers; I’ve had conversations with friends that read it and they see Christian as creepy in the first book, but sweeter in the second. Why? Because starting from Fifty Shades Darker, he vows to give up his kink for his sweet virgin lover. I’ve tried to explain to them that Christian’s problem isn’t his kink, it’s his abusive behavior, but they won’t distinguish the two. To them, as to Ana, Christian’s kink /is/ his abuse.

    Thank you for taking the time to read and review these books; it helps make sense of one of the greatest literary shames I’ve ever come across.

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