Fifty Shades of Grey
Fifty Shades of Grey and Sexual Fethishism
Throughout human history, sexual fetishism has been practiced on a scale that ranges from entire civilizations to single individuals. Some find themselves used as punch lines to oft-told jokes, while others are too taboo to be mentioned in polite company – whatever their nature, there is no doubt that sexual fetishism remains prevalent in the private lives of people around the world. In E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, an intense and extensive bondage, domination, and sadomasochism (BDSM) fetish is featured as an integral aspect of the love lives of Christian Grey and Anastasia (Ana) Steele. The immense popularity of the books and blockbuster box-office adaptation have catapulted this lifestyle into the public eye, bringing with it a strong debate – does the series empower women or merely glorify an abusive relationship?
Fifty Shades of Grey’s controversial content relies heavily on the continuous portrayal of a BDSM and potentially abusive relationship throughout the novel; however, by definition, the actions contained within the pages of this book are not abusive. Michelle Dempsey clearly defines an abusive relationship as one that features one member having total power over the other member, and she continues by defining power as “the ability to exercise control over another person” (Dempsey, 16). In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian is never given absolute control over Ana, as she is a willing participant in Christian’s sexual endeavors. Ana has maintained the ability to control the activities featured in the novel, which, by Dempsey’s definition, disproves any notion of the relationship containing domestic violence. Another crucial aspect of Ana and Christian’s relationship is the contract in which several sexual activities are listed. Throughout the book, Ana and Christian constantly debate which activities Ana would be comfortable performing, even going as far as to set up a mock business meeting to discuss the contract (E. L. James). Before many of the couple’s sexual encounters occur, Ana takes the contract as an opportunity to explicitly decide what will happen in the bedroom. Ana’s negotiations over the clauses of the contract provide further proof that the control Christian exercises over Ana during sex is only an act, in an effort to successfully satisfy Christian’s BDSM fetish. Ana’s ability to make decisions, and Christian’s adherence to these decisions ensure that the relationship is, in fact, not abusive.
Additionally, as found in many BDSM relationships, the sexual actions practiced in the novel lead to the sexual empowerment of Ana. Ana’s power within the relationship is often overlooked, but in actuality, she possesses more power than Christian on several occasions. This idea is also supported in Michelle Dempsey’s journal, as she mentions that, “power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group”, and, “when we say of somebody that he is ‘in power’, we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people” (Dempsey, 16). Based on this concept, Ana is more in power of what occurs in the relationship than Christian. Seeing as Christian adheres to the contract and does not ever attempt to force Ana into activities, Ana maintains the final say in what sexual occurrences happen in the relationship. Christian’s power is only bestowed upon him in a sexual context. Only by Ana agreeing to act as a submissive is Christian allowed to enact his fantasy of dominance. While many critics of the series are quick to regard the novel as featuring violence against a woman, a closer look can reveal that the BDSM portrayed in this novel actually empowers Ana and does not feature her being abused sexually. Many feel that Fifty Shades of Grey may impact young women in negative ways by promoting potentially harmful practices, but with both aspects of abuse in the book being disproven, it is difficult to state that the story promotes domestic violence and the degradation women.
Furthermore, when evaluating the extent to which Fifty Shades of Grey may promote the empowerment of women, it is crucial to consider the societal context in which the franchise has become so popular. In a society where women are often sexually objectified and oppressed, a story about a woman who controls and creates her own sexual identity holds a powerful message of individualism. The book series and the movie are marketed primarily to women, and a large population of this audience seems to be drawn to a strong female protagonist. The franchise has almost a cult following in this respect. In Fifty Shades of Grey, Ana is portrayed as an intelligent woman exploring her sexuality; she begins the series as a virgin, and willfully becomes involved in a consensual yet unconventional romance. Although her love interest is always a domineering presence during sex, it is important to note that Ana has consented to everything that is done.
A knowing and consensual sexual relationship, regardless of how unorthodox, is difficult to classify as abusive; in Fifty Shades of Grey, this is the case between Ana and Christian. One trademark of a sexual abuser, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline website, is the following: “Forcing or manipulating [the victim] into having sex or performing sexual acts.” (“Abuse Defined”) Keeping this definition in mind, examining the character’s interactions provides a valuable insight into the level of control Ana actually possesses. Christian is careful not to cross or blur the line; the entire purpose of the aforementioned contract is to resolve Christian of responsibility for any behavior that could have possibly been deemed abusive by his sexual partner. When Ana agrees to sign such a contract, she not only is accepting Christian’s terms and negotiating her own, she is also acknowledging that the following sexual acts are not being forced upon her.
The power that Ana is able to wield in her relationship contributes to a plotline that appeals to women, as men conventionally are portrayed as the gender with complete sexual control. Ana is celebrating her sexuality in new ways, which is a rare theme for women in popular culture. Too often, a woman expressing her sexuality ends in ‘slut- shaming’ which SorayaChemaly, a writer for the Huffington Post, defined as the following:
Embarrassing, insulting or otherwise denigrating a girl or woman for her real or extrapolated sexual behavior, including for dressing in a sexual way, having sexual feelings and/or exploring and exhibiting them. (Chemaly)
In contrast, a man who is exploring or exhibiting his sexual feelings is not given the same labels a woman might. Fifty Shades of Grey introduces a female protagonist who is presented in a positive light for the sexual experiences she decides to embrace. Although there is a lack of abusive qualities exhibited by Christian Grey, it is undeniable that the franchise overall has a polarizing effect when it comes to consumer opinions. Viewers tend to feel strongly about Fifty Shades of Grey whether or not the viewer believes there to be elements of domestic abuse. It is interesting to consider, however, that sexual and domestic abuse may not be the most compelling reason for people to dislike the franchise; although this has been the most recognized topic for debate, domestic abuse is portrayed in a variety of novels and films geared towards young adults. Perhaps the magnitude of the controversy has more to do with society’s underlying uncomfortable feelings with the bold expression of female sexuality than the fictional display of what could be perceived as domestic abuse.
While domestic abuse may be portrayed in a variety of today’s media, the Fifty Shades of Grey series has blown it up to an entirely new level in a way that glorifies a violent and unhealthy relationship. In the midst of the series growing popularity, it is important to take a deeper look into the abusive essence of the novel and the disturbing cultural implications that it has. The graphic sex scenes of this mainstream erotica are entertaining, the absurdity is amusing, and the popularity is undeniable. However in reality, the series is an extravagant Hollywood glorification of an abusive and unhealthy relationship. As Roxane Gay words perfectly in her critical essay, “the trilogy represents the darkest kind of fairy tale, one where controlling, obsessive, and borderline abusive tendencies are made to seem intensely desirable by offering the reader big heaping spoonfuls of sweet, sweet sex sugar to make the medicine go down” (Gay).
In the book, Christian’s pattern of abuse cannot be dismissed simply because the book is entertaining and the sex is hot. Christian exhibits dominance over Ana both inside and outside the bedroom to an extreme degree. Christian’s need to control translates into possessiveness over all aspects of Ana’s life, from her behavior and whom she can allow in her life to her eating and drinking habits. Christian conducts a background check on Ana before they begin dating and draws up a strict contract with a nondisclosure agreement. He goes so far as to track her movements through her cell. “‘Alaska is very cold and no place to run. I would find you. I can track your cell phone- remember?’” (E.L. James). Christian’s eerie words remind Ana who is in control, another means of trapping her in.
When practice consensually with the use of safe words, BDSM can be a healthy expression of sexuality. The book Fifty Shades of Grey, however, does not depict a healthy practice of BDSM. Christian Grey ignores Ana’s safety words, taking BDSM to a level of non-consensual violence. “’No,’ I protest, trying to kick him off. He stops. ‘If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet, too. If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you’” (E.L. James). The aggressiveness in Grey’s voice and actions is shockingly brutal. By portraying and glorifying these violent scenes, Fifty Shades of Grey sexualizes abuse.
While many may read this book as purely entertainment, the social repercussions that it has cannot be dismissed. Readers are supposed to believe that Christian’s possessiveness of Ana is fine because he has a troubled past and because he loves her. These reasons do not make his actions permissible, and this degrading relationship should not be one exemplified to women on a national scale. Ana’s violent beatings may be fiction, but domestic and sexual abuse is a reality for many women. Christian’s actions in the novel meet the Centers for Disease Control’s standards of emotional abuse and sexual violence, according the American Family Association (Jones). What does it say about our society if our mainstream culture idolizes this relationship and mocks the harsh reality of abuse on real women?
Clearly, Fifty Shades of Grey has undeniable repercussions in the real world. Manyperceive it as a trashy novel at best and an unhealthy work of literature that promotes abusive relationships at worst, inevitably causing controversies to stir up in the successful work’s wake. According to a study done by Michigan State University, “adult women who read Fifty Shades of Grey are more likely than non readers to exhibit signs of eating disorders and have a verbally abusive partner.” Causation, however, does not necessarily equal correlation – it could simply be that those women who are in abusive relationships and have self-esteem issues are also more attracted to the characters and content of Fifty Shades. However, the study’s lead investigator notes that logically “if women experienced adverse health behaviors first, reading Fifty Shades might reaffirm those experiences, or influence the onset of those behaviors.” It is a matter of concern that in the case of women who read all three books in the series, they were 65% more likely than non readers to binge drink. Although not everyone is sold on the idea that Fifty Shades causes troubling behavior, it’s clear that some correlation proved by science between the two exists, and the degradation of women is potentially related.
A professional dominatrix pulls on ethos, writing in to The Hollywood Reporter early this year to explain her view of how Fifty Shades practically libels S&M, creating a warped perspective of the practice in the public eye. Her self-assured claim that when it “comes to the world of S&M, Fifty Shades gets it almost all wrong” is substantiated by the fact that “Christian Grey isn’t a dominant. […] He’s a stalker. […] He is constantly crossing boundaries. And S&M is all about respecting boundaries.” The fact that S&M is so badly portrayed in the book means that those who practice sadomasochism find themselves misrepresented in a negative light – Christian is eventually ‘saved’ by Ana, who convinces him to give up the “darkness” which is their version of S&M. It could be argued that the author is no more culpable for the accuracy of S&M than she is for the accuracy of her world or characters’ exploits, but it shows a distinct lack of research and understanding that will inevitably alter the way actual people think and behave.
Some, however, believe that the book is fiction and thus remains solidly in the world of fiction, having little to no effect on reality. Laurie Penny of New Statesman shrugs it off as “easy to mock” and mere “porn”, claiming that since “pornography made for men is rarely judged on its artistic merits”, neither should Fifty Shades be. She has a valid point, but rarely is pornography elevated to the status of Fifty Shades, with its millions of readers and box office success. As such, a more critical eye can be turned towards it. The argument that a work of art is “merely” fiction or porn loses its effectiveness when one considers that many fictional works in the past have been deemed important. As for well-known, controversial pornography, one only has to consider Deep Throat to see real effects on the real world. If Fifty Shades has not had an effect on the degrading or promotion of women, at the very least it has spawned fervent discussions.
While the controversy that arose from the novels and film adaptation is full of vehemence on all sides, it seems that Fifty Shades of Grey has, at the very least, accomplished what few works of its ilk manage to do; it’s roused journalists and laypeople alike into action over perceived or contrived subtleties. Some believe that the series encourages women’s rights, others that it degrades them, and all are convinced of their correctness. The series is varyingly described as light erotica, a glamorization of an abusive relationship, and a celebration of women’s sexuality, the latter two coming into direct conflict. Regardless of opinion, a book that started out as fan fiction erotica has transformed into a multibillion dollar series with repercussions that have altered the public’s perspective, with the unexpected side effect of drawing the issue of women’s empowerment back into the spotlight.
How Manipulation and Obsession Play a Part in Fifty Shades of Grey
50 Shades of Sexual Abuse: Misinterpretation of romance and healthy BDSM
“I just finished reading the most AMAZING book…” a woman whispers, leaning secretively to her friend’s ear beside her. “Fifty Shades of Grey!” The friend gasps and blushes, turning towards her with wide eyes. “You mean the one about the bondage?” The woman nods, grinning mischievously. Her friend begins to frown. “But isn’t that also the one where he stalks her and controls her and lashes out on her?” The woman hesitates but continues to smile. “Yes, but it’s so sexy and romantic!”
Despite what fans of the popular erotica novel claim, there is nothing sexy or romantic about manipulation and obsession, a common theme in E.L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. The series is extremely problematic due to its normalization of abuse, antifeminist messages, and demonstration of unhealthy sexual practices including an improper portrayal of BDSM.
Anyone who has read the series is aware that Fifty Shades has a habit of romanticizing stalking and controlling behavior. In the novel, Christian Grey keeps a GPS on main character Anastasia Steele to track her at all times, making her more of a pet than a partner. Grey further demonstrates his boundary issues and clinginess by showing up when repeatedly asked not to, literally following her, and often not allowing her to drive or see friends. He is obsessive in nature and not only dictates where she can go and when, but what she eats and wears, policing her body as though he owns it and restricting her food intake like a prisoner. Christian uses emotional manipulation and physical intimidation to force Anastasia into sex, beats her with a belt when angered with her, and has said horrifying lines such as “I may have to torture it out of you.” And “I’m going to hit you six times, and you will count with me.” These are all alarming signs of an abusive relationship.
Anastasia consistently expresses her fear throughout the novel of upsetting Christian, in fear of seeing his anger and getting beaten, just as any victim of domestic violence would. In fact, according to House Of Ruth, many signs of an abusive relationship include being scared of your partner’s temper, being hit or shoved by your partner, being disallowed to see family or friends due to your partner’s jealousy, being forced into having sex, being required to describe everything you do and everywhere you go to avoid your partner’s rage, and believing you cannot live without your partner. Anastasia says herself after being forced into sex, “But now I feel like a receptacle – an empty vessel to be filled at his whim.” All of these symptoms are definite signs of abuse.
To make matters worse, the author asks the audience to forgive Grey for his irrational behavior due to his terrible childhood, which involved cases of physical and emotional abuse. His backstory is meant to justify Grey’s actions, and the main character is meant to pity him rather than realize she is in danger. This is not only detrimental to the mindset of the readers, as it implies these dangerous and abusive traits are not only desirable, but they are standard in a romantic relationship and can be looked over (especially if your abuser has a lot of money and abs). An abuser in a relationship will also manipulate their partner into believing that their actions are excusable and that their partner deserves the punishment.
Not only does Fifty Shades normalize abusive relationships and habits, it also strongly conveys an antifeminist message to the predominately female audience. The characters themselves reinforce gender stereotypes through Christian’s hyper-masculine, overly aggressive and dominant character versus Anastasia’s devastatingly weak and subordinate one. Christian often verbally abuses her, calling her a slut and insulting her. In one line, he says to Anastasia, “How could you be so stupid?” Anastasia is often left hurt by both his actions and words, and expresses herself by saying, “I have an overwhelming urge to cry, a sad and lonely melancholy grips and tightens round my heart.” After being intimate with Christian, she was left feeling devastated, cried for days, and even starved herself.
Fifty Shades also illustrates an improper portrayal of BDSM (bondage, dominance and submission, sadomasochism). This fact is important because its false image further leads to society’s distorted view on sex and the BDSM community in general. What makes this portrayal improper to BDSM, most importantly, is the lack of consent given. This is extremely alarming, for it implies rape and twists the audience’s views on the subject, leading to the justification of sexual abuse and encourages readers to fetishize rape. In fact, one part of the book reads “’No,’ I protest, trying to kick him off. He stops. ‘If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet too. If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you.’” This quote sounds like something straight out a horror novel rather than a romantic erotica.
To further make the situation more terrifying and dangerous, Christian completely ignores any safe words used between them, which again goes against proper BDSM. The purpose of a safe word is to let your other partner know what feels good and what hurts, and it yelled out when you want your partner to stop. Ignoring your partner’s safe word violates your partner’s consent and is not only endangering the two of them physically, but also emotionally, as it demonstrates a lack of trust and again ties back to the emotional abuse mentioned earlier.
Fifty Shades manipulates readers into thinking the same way Christian influences Anastasia. The series encourages romanticizing mistreatment and refusing to see the danger of such situations, changing yourself to please your partner, and allowing yourself only to exist as a reciprocal for sexual frustration. In essence, if society wants to read something sexy, it is best to find another, better written novel that doesn’t include disturbing abusive relationships, unrealistic expectations, and blatant sexism. There are plenty of other novels that focus on consensual sex and safe practices, as well as romances not based off of a poorly written teen vampire series.
Patriarchy and Representation of BDSM Culture: ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and Critical Commentary
The popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy has positioned it under analysis on whether it fosters the feminist discourse and BDSM culture, or not. In E.L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, the developing relationship between Ana Steele, a university graduate, and Grey a business mogul is explored in the realm of BDSM. Ana is depicted as a juvenile and timid female who is sexually awoken to the sexual universe of dominance and submission by the sexually experienced Grey (James). Though sexually prude, Ana dives impetuously into the dominance relationship, gradually uncovering Christian sexual tendencies that push the limits of pleasure and pain. The subsequent books also progressively explore the complexity of the relationship while exposing the motivations and the pasts of the characters, especially Grey. The book is inclined towards exploring the sexual identities of both genders paving way for postfeminist themes and discourse of equality between the sexes. However, deep analysis showcase inclination towards conservative constructs and stigmatization of the BDSM culture sparking discourses on feminism, patriarchal ideologies, and rape culture. I will demonstrate analysis of scholarly articles that emphasize that despite being admired as empowering women and representing the BDSM culture, Fifty Shades of Grey in actuality restates the patriarchal and traditional concepts while misrepresenting the BDSM communities.
Sara Upstone’s Beyond the Bedroom asserts that Fifty Shades’ representation of women’s roles alters the writing from a potentially progressive feminist discourse into an extension of conservative constructs. Upstone highlights motherhood as a central theme in the novels in regards to how the construct is used to portray female identities. “The novels presents…an ideal mother positioned as self- sacrificing and loving unconditionally, and a failed mother who is associated with neglect and selfishness” (Upstone 140). She argues that the novels are inclined to view every female character in the terms of motherhood, which offers for a contradictory discourse in terms of its claim on ambivalence and openness. Upstone illustrates how motherhood is represented as an ideology that requires sacrificing self-identity and renouncing one’s womanhood or female sexuality. “Ana…must give herself up both physically and psychologically for Christian, the son, replicating only the limiting ideologies of motherhood…” (Upstone 148). She claims Ana is also portrayed as a replacement for Christian’s birth mother catering to his ‘Oedipal impulses’. Upstone further argues that despite the texts pushing for feminist discourse through Ana eventual independent choices, its ideology of motherhood negates this effort. “It is motherhood that returns Ana from a place of ambivalent female fantasy…to an absolute patriarchal discourse” (Upstone 158). She concludes that the real violence in the texts occurs beyond the bedroom where female identities are yet viewed under the conservative social role of motherhood.
In Fifty Shades of Consent? Francesca Tripodi argues that the Fifty Shades books stigmatize the BDSM culture by failing to explore the subjects of clear consent, and a woman’s authority in a sexual relationship, which are basics in the BDSM community. Tripodi emphasizes that this is a problem because “…readers are using Fifty Shades as a way of guiding them through the post-feminist milieu…” (Tripodi 94). She argues because women use them to steer through sexual relationships and misogyny in this patriarchal culture, Fifty Shades falls short at depicting the construct of confirmatory consent in the BDSM culture. She states “…her novel also fails to educate “vanilla” readers on the most important aspect…affirmative consent” (Tripodi 104). Tripodi claims that BDSM respondents attribute the wrong representation to plot points such as “…the connection between Christian’s being abused by his mother as a child and his involvement with BDSM” (Tripodi 101). She further argues that the book series actually does a disservice to the female audience attempting to articulate their sexual yearnings and expressing their sexual perimeters. She encompasses her argument by asserting that the misrepresentation of BDSM only contributes to further stigmatization of the culture as ‘not normal’. Tripodi concludes that other than stigmatizing the culture, it furthers the misconception that silence translates to yes in agreeing to engage in sexual activities.
In my argument, Fifty Shades of Grey does a disservice to the feminist discourse by reiterating conservative and patriarchal constructs, contrary to claim that it furthers the discourse. The book shows its conservativeness through its depiction of disparity in sexuality between the genders: that respectable women are sexually innocent while men are portrayed as decent irrespective of their sexual experience. In the novel, Ana asserts “I’m just too naïve and inexperienced” (James 152). Furthermore, the man, Christian, is depicted as powerful, rich and controlling and irresistible to the woman, Ana, who timid, innocent, and naive. Upstone’s Beyond the Bedroom makes potent arguments regarding the prominent patriarchy in Fifty Shades. She claims Ana’s sexuality is held in the limits of male patriarch and Christian, extending past the role-playing and the bedroom (Upstone 147). The erotic romance book has been attributed to contributing to the feminist discourse on sexual liberation however the underlying themes betray the effort. On the issue, Upstone argues that the text attempts to empower and liberate women sexually but ends up reasserting the same traditional female role of motherhood it tries to outstrip (Upstone 139). In general, the arguments embrace the attitude that the novel fosters conservative ideologies it tries to avert, furthermore it also fails at the effort to factually portray the BDSM culture.
Tripodi’s Fifty Shades of Consent asserts strong arguments that support the stance that Fifty Shades trilogy fails at representing the BDSM culture and further stigmatizes the sexual practices. In the book, Ana seeks to embrace Christian sexual kinks but in the long run wishes for a ‘normal’ relationship. She states “…wishing he was – normal – wanting a normal relationship that doesn’t need a…a flogger, and karabiners in his playroom ceiling” (James 136). In my analysis and interpretation, the author seeks to shed light on the subculture but gradually ends up stigmatizing it. Tripodi’s article offers arguments that further a similar interpretation. Her research claim that submissives from the BDSM communities did not identify with the character which proves the book’s misinterpretation of the culture (Tripodi 98). She also claims that the readers naively use the fiction as an instructive resource to understand the subculture hence being inconvenient to the audience (Tripodi 94). Similarly to Tripodi’s arguments, my interpretation seeks to argue that in its attempt to focus on a BDSM-based relationship, Fifty Shades of Grey fails at accurately depicting the constructs of the subculture. However, there are few distinctions between Tripodi’s arguments with my interpretation of the Fifty Shades text.
The underlying constructs in Fifty Shades of Grey restate the patriarchal and traditional ideologies that the text has been attributed to elude while offering a fallacious representation of the BDSM culture. Arguments from Upstone’s Beyond the Bedroom and Tripodi’s Fifty Shades of Consent offer support for the thesis and also give further insight into other issues regarding the text. Upstone’s opinions support the ideology by arguing that the book fosters an outdated construct of motherhood in the female characters, as a result, undermining feminist inclinations. These arguments offer substantial support to the claim that Fifty Shades of Grey fosters conservative ideologies with patriarchal proclivities that undermine the furtherance of a feminist discourse. Tripodi asserts that the misinterpretation of the BDSM culture in the book has a negative effect on the image of the subculture. Subsequently, the readers engross the depiction of the subculture and its constructs as factual hence negatively impacting their sexual relationships. The perception that the novel can act as a source of reference into the concepts of a BDSM culture is a damaging one. Additionally, Tripodi offers a nuanced argument on the current sexual dynamic and affirmative consent highlighting further insight on the influences of popular fictions. This offers a platform for further analysis of the text and interpretations of the underlying ideas.
James, E. L. Fifty Shades of Grey. The Writer’s Coffee Shop, 2011. Web. 24 February 2018.
Tripodi, Francesca. “Fifty shades of consent?” Feminist Media Studies 17.1 (2017): 93-107. Web. 24 February 2018.
Upstone, Sara. “Beyond the Bedroom.” Frontiers 37.2 (2016): 138-158. Web. 24 February 2018.