Jan 262013
 

On a strictly literary and technical level, Freed is actually a worse book than its predecessors. EL James’ prose remains about the same, her characters are no better developed, and Ana’s response to everything is to flush or think “Holy shit!”

Furthermore, the plot is shapeless. Fifty Shades of Grey had the will-she-won’t-she-sign-the-contract plotline to create tension and give events some structure, though the contract was later abandoned. Darker was about whether they would stay together. Freed opens with Ana and Christian already married, and from there the plot was fight-makeup-fight-makeup, interrupted by one artificial crisis after another, usually resolved in the next chapter, or completely irrelevant events like the entire cast going to Aspen for no good reason. Then it’s back to scenes from a really bad marriage, as Ana feebly struggles against Christian’s controlling regime.

There’s no character arc either either. Despite all the sex, stalkings, car chases and kidnap and ransom schemes, Christian’s attitude towards Ana is basically unchanged by the end of the story. From one of their earliest meetings, the moment when Christian saves Ana from being hit by a bicycle, it’s clear that Christian sees it as his responsibility to look after Ana, with the implicit assumption that she can’t take care of her self. That continues right through to the end, when Ana, near comatose, hears her husband and her step-father both talking about her as if she was a little girl in need of a spanking. Ana, for her part, is so immature that it’s apropos. So, one-percenter Bluebeard meets dim-witted girl-woman and they live happily ever after.

For the purposes of this discussion, the most frustrating thing about Fifty Shades is that it it so difficult to pin down EL James’ view of BDSM. It is difficult because, despite all the promotional material and popular buzz that this is the book that brings BDSM to the mainstream, BDSM becomes less and less important to the story, until by the third book there are long passages with little or no kink content at all.

The author’s position appears to be that kink is pathological unless it is contained within a heterosexual, monogamous relationship (preferably marriage), and that acts outside a certain arbitrary perimeter are unacceptable. So, flogging is okay, caning is not. There’s a difference between Ana saying she wants to be flogged but can’t handle being caned, and saying that nobody in their right mind would want to be caned. Given Ana’s solipsism, there’s no way of telling if she understands that. There’s no way to tell if EL James understands that, either.

Based on advance reviews and other critiques, I had feared that, over the course of the book, Ana would somehow cure Christian of his kinkiness and guide him to the one true way of vanilla monogamy. Christian has some kind of epiphany about his kink, realizing that he has been punishing women who look like his mother, but after that he is just as domineering as before, if not more so. He is no longer content with weekend slaves under contract, but wants to control every single aspect of Ana’s life around the clock.

The story ends with Ana thinking of  Christian as her dominant and enjoying BDSM play with her, but does not show how she arrived at this position, what are the terms of their relationship, whether Ana ever learns to articulate her desires, whether a heavy player like Christian will be content with the light play Ana prefers, whether they will be able to settle on a compromise or this will suffer through endless fights. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a contract that the writer makes with the reader, which in this case was not fulfilled. EL James would rather indulge her taste for class porn or wander through various subplots than explore a BDSM relationship.

I recently listed to an episode of BloggingHeads.tv, in which two African-American academics talked about Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained, in light of ideas about slavery in modern America. One of them wondered if they would have to “unteach” this film for the next five years when talking to students about slavery. I think that we, as kinky educators and intellectuals, will be forced for the next few years to “unteach” this book to the people who will enter the scene because of it.

If Fifty Shades is only tangentially about BDSM, what is it primarily about? In one word, money. I’m not just talking about the class porn of ostentatious displays of luxury lifestyle and consumer goods. The obstacle to Christian and Ana’s happily-ever-after, the equivalent to Edward Cullen’s vampirism, isn’t Christian’s kinkiness, or even his borderline-craziness. It’s the fact that Christian has buckets of money and all the power and entitlement that implies. That is his Gothic hero flaw, not his kinkiness or even his tragic upbringing.  Money is what powers Christian’s Steve Jobs-esque reality distortion field. Money is what enables Christian to co-opt Ana’s life into his own, literally buying everything and everyone around her. Money is what makes Christian above the law, the ruler of a pocket absolute dictatorship with his own police force and servants. Money is what attracts his enemies. Money is what allows his tendencies to escalate out of control. Money is what makes him attractive to nearly every woman in the story, not his looks or charisma.

There’s a curious, tangled confluence of sexuality, money, vampirism and class in both Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. Karl Marx wrote in Das Kapital:

Capital is dead labor, that vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.

Robert Pattinson, best known as playing Edward Cullen in the Twilight film franchise and therefore the visual model for the version of Edward in Master of the Universe, was also cast as Eric Packer, the main character of David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis. Packer is an incredibly wealthy capitalist who more or less lives inside an armoured luxury limousine, making him a kind of proto-post-human, as different from most people as Dracula. A writer less enamoured of capitalism than EL James would see Christian for the monster he is, and pity Ana for being drawn into his influence. It’s money that has made Christian into the Beast to Ana’s Beauty, because money needs ruthless, boundaryless monsters to serve it.

In Twilight, the question is, will Edward’s vampirism destroy Bela or will it transform her? As it turns out, the latter. Bela becomes a vampire, and therefore Edward’s equal. In Fifty Shades, Ana marries Christian and, at least theoretically, becomes a member of the same social class. She doesn’t even have a pre-nuptial agreement. (Washington State marriage law says that property acquired before marriage remains separate.)

Instead, Ana becomes less powerful, less autonomous, drained. She exists as a tiny adjunct to Christian, with nearly every facet of her life totally controlled by him. She drives the car he bought (equipped with a tracking device), works at the company he owns, wears the clothes he bought, lives in the apartment and later the house he owns, gets medical care from the doctor he chose, uses the phone and computer he bought and has proved he can tap, is escorted by security guards he hired and commands, and only communicates with people who aren’t on a proscribed list known to him. Good luck if she wants to bare her breasts at a topless beach, or keep her own surname at work, or even go for a walk by herself.

There’s also the matter that Ana is frightened of Christian. This is not subtext. It is quite explicit that Ana lives in terror of Christian, and keeping him placated is a constant factor in her thoughts. No wonder Ana drinks so much. The only way she can escape the Christian Grey Zone is by retreating into her own head and suppressing the anxiety with booze.

While she gains a measure of Christian’s attitude towards her social subordinates (as when she bullies the architect), it isn’t backed up by any real power of her own. Christian can pick up the phone, bark orders into it and make things happen: buy cars, liquidate companies, have people investigated. Ana can’t leave her own house without the security team escorting her, and it’s quite clear who they take orders from. Even when Ana tries to acquire the money to pay Mia’s ransom, EL James adds an appendix explaining how it was actually Christian who told the bank to give her the cash. Instead of his equal, Ana is Christian’s slave, his property, her life narrative surrendered to his, existing at his sufferance, far more so than if she had signed that contract back in book one. She is, in a very real sense, owned by him. Orlando Patterson described the state of slavery as being “socially dead”, and that applies here.

Ana is transformed by her relationship with Christian but she does not become the vampire/capitalist queen of Seattle. Instead, she becomes like Renfield in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a human trying very hard to be a vampire lord, but only managing to be a bug-eating lunatic.

“I am here to do your bidding, Master. I am your slave, and you will reward me, for I shall be faithful. I have worshipped you long and afar off. Now that you are near, I await your commands, and you will not pass me by, will you, dear Master, in your distribution of good things?”

Christian may have a plan to feed the world, but that is just a secondary occupation to his real work: acquiring capital. In that regard, his aggression, his refusal to take “no” for an answer, his relentless need to control every aspect of his environment, his disregard for the law or the integrity of other people, and his intimidation and seduction, have all served him well. It has also left him incapable of relating to other people in any other way. He is a man without friends or lovers, only employees. (His former submissives weren’t paid in cash, but given the high price “gifts” Christian bestowed upon them, they were definitely sugar-daddy/baby transactions.)

In Ana’s flash-forward of life with Christian and her children, there’s no mention of José, Kate, her parents or anybody else from Ana’s life, or even any of Christian’s adoptive family. The only other people mentioned are Taylor and his daughter. Ana is married to a man whose closest friend is his bodyguard, a paid employee, just like his wife.

Have a nice life, Mrs. Christian Grey.

  One Response to “The Curious Kinky Person’s Guide to Fifty Shades Freed: conclusion”

  1. […] (5) The Audis and apartments There is a strong case that says 50 Shades is more about money than it is about sex. Haven’t had a chance to delve this line of thinking too much just yet, but there’s a “final thoughts” piece on the whole Fifty Shades trilogy that makes this point well. The post is primarily about the BDSM angle (that being the author’s primary interest when he did his chapter-by-chapter commentary of the entire trilogy) but towards the end he makes the money point. No content note for this post other than major plot spoilers – you can find it here. […]

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