With the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey out in theaters now, and the conversation around both the film and the books reaching a fever pitch, I want to weigh in on it as a cultural text. And in case you’re wondering—although I have not yet seen the film (my hope is to see a Mystery Science Theater-style screening with a hundred of my closest kinky friends), yes, I have read the books. Or, at least, I took one or two of the books down from a public library shelf while my children played nearby, and I speed-read through it in horror, taking pictures of particularly appalling passages with my phone, because, after years of making assumptions about this piece of self-published fan fiction turned cultural “mommy porn” phenomenon, it turned out to be even worse than I’d imagined.
How is it worse? What are my issues with it? Well, for starters, I feel that the prose is so bad, you guys. SO. BAD. It is trite and clumsy and repetitive and dull. It’s not even worth it for me to bother quoting it here: you can find plenty of excerpted examples online, or you can do what I did, and pull a copy off your local library shelf and flip to any page at random. But trust me: I’ve been teaching and editing creative writing for many years: I know what I’m talking about here. E.L. James writes shoddy, sorry-ass prose.
Secondly, far from being a happy gateway for vanilla readers into a world of handcuffs and chains, I think that Fifty Shades is a damaging misrepresentation of BDSM, and only further exacerbates the many ignorant misconceptions that exist about this kind of sexuality in the mainstream culture. Healthy, engaged BDSM is about navigating toward your own particular pleasures with your partners, voicing your desires, being intentional and in tune with yourself, doing only what you enthusiastically want to do. The widely-adopted anagrams for this ethos in the community are SSC and RACK: safe, sane and consensual/risk-aware consensual kink.
Specifically, in terms of Dominance and submission, erotic servitude is about choosing a temporary performance of giving over your own power and responsibility, not about never having any in the first place. There is no chance at true, enthusiastic consent on the part of either the Dominant or the submissive if one person holds all the real-world power—including economic power—and one person holds none. (And, by the way, either the D-type or the s-type can be overly forceful, unclear, or otherwise in violation of good communication.) Erotic power exchange is predicated on the notion that both ends of the relationship hold power that they are able and willing to exchange. And as a kind of role-playing (because no matter how extensive or intense, all D/s is role-play, because all D- and s-types have to function in capacities other than their sexual ones to get along in the world), erotic power exchange is an entirely different thing than the standard-issue, sometimes stultifying, sometimes demoralizing dance of subservience and authority we all participate in every day through our jobs and other non-erotic relationships and encounters.
Third, as Oscar Wilde said, ““Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” And in this book, as is so often the case in capitalist hetero-normative erotica, power is about money. The book may indeed be pornography—and, to be clear, I have no issues with porn, the definition of which is “that which overtly seeks to sexually arouse.” I think arousal is normal and healthy, so I also believe that material which tries to cause arousal can be normal and healthy. What troubles me is not that Fifty Shades is porn, but that all the fondling and spankings are a distant second to the arousal brought about by cold hard cash. Let’s admit that the showering of material goods upon the female protagonist is just as aimed to titillate and delight as the sex scenes or the impact play scenes. This is porn about brand names, social status, and class. Which means that Fifty Shades is, at its center, a fantasy about being a woman being financially supported by a man in exchange for her physical attributes. Which is also Cinderella. And Pretty Woman. And Sex and the City. And while I believe there is nothing inherently wrong or negative about the arrangements depicted in these fairy tales—nor those dynamics as they play out in real life, as long as they are consensual and negotiated (via paid sex work or a traditionally gendered romantic relationship or a kinky queer 1950s household scene or otherwise)—there is nothing remotely subversive, new or particularly exciting about them, either. So let’s call the Grey-Steele union what it is: an economic arrangement in which the woman’s appearance and availability (sexual or otherwise) are being traded for access to the man’s money and clout.
Fourthly, I want to say that I have enormous empathy for the people who read Fifty Shades as an escape from their own dull, repressed, pleasureless or otherwise burdensome lives, and think that what they want is a Christian Grey to walk through the door. But I fear that many of these people then wrongly imagine that what they find exciting from the book or the movie is a pair of handcuffs and a secret dungeon room, when what they really find appealing in this narrative is the experience of feeling desired. Of feeling attractive and alluring and desperately wanted. Of being on the receiving end of some grand romantic gesture. In this version, that gesture is wrapped up in a fancy blindfold, but it could be a piece of expensive jewelry, a bouquet of wildflowers, a homemade batch of brownies: what I think most Fifty Shades fanatics hunger for is any marker that conveys value, thought, attention… and that most hard-to-come-by of resources, TIME. A lover who spends a few hours attending to you carefully with flogger or some baby oil means a lover who wants to spend time making you feel like the center of their world.
The flip side of this, of course, which Fifty Shades also depicts, is a jealous, controlling, manipulative lover who is himself desperate for love and attention and mired in dysfunctional relationship patterns. The ways in which the Fifty Shades relationship parallels domestic violence and other abusive situations is well-documented elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here, but I promise you: in real life, partners like those are really not very much fun at all, and are sometimes downright dangerous.
One final issue I have with this text is that it’s a rather rote, simple narrative about masculine sexuality. Christian’s phallus itself, the piss-poor renditions of kink, and, even more so, the celebration of privilege and wealth—all of these are a shorthand for masculinity. And I’ll be the first to admit that many people are aroused by shows of masculine power and force (regardless of gender: see, for example, fans of the NFL, or Republicans). It is OKAY—even for feminists!—to find masculinity arousing. Hey, some of us are just born that way. But what we need in this culture are non-pathologized representations of masculinity, and healthy, non-misogynist depictions of masculine desire in action. Which are really hard to come by, because the whole category of masculine power is so vexed and complicated, and we are all taught to fear it, loathe it, criminalize it, mistrust it—and also worship it, fawn over it and subjugate ourselves to it, in ways that make most of us pretty miserable, cis-men included. But not only do I believe it’s possible to have a more well-rounded, well-adjusted, productive and joyful representation of masculine desire in our culture, I believe it is VITAL and NECESSARY: vital and necessary for those among us who identify as masculine, vital and necessary for those of us who are attracted to the masculine, and vital and necessary for those of us who fear the masculine. Because masculinity is part of the beautiful spectrum of our sexuality as a species, and we need to learn to make a safe space for its expression. But Fifty Shades doesn’t offer us that. Not in the least. If anything, it’s a step backward, reifying the patriarchal rape culture in a way that benefits absolutely no one.
Oh, and by the way: for those readers who, after all this, are saying, “Well, okay, yeah, but I’m still pretty interested in being tied up and beaten hard”? Psst: I can hook you up. Get in touch.