No Shades of Grey
50 Shades of Grey is a novel (using the term loosely) that I had not only never read before, but that I actively tried to prevent others from reading. That is not usually the way I roll in the book department. After all, taste is a highly subjective and personal thing and I think people should read as much as they can of whatever they want – but there’s this rebellious streak in me that immediately hates it when a lot of people inexplicably find objectively bad things to be awesomesauce. It happened with The DaVinci Code, it happened with Wonder Woman, and it happened with 50 Shades of Grey.
People, particularly young female people, should not read 50 Shades of Grey. I’m taking a firm stance on that.
A few months ago my husband found a brand new set of all three 50 Shades books in the recycling bin at work, and knowing that I like books, kindly brought them to me. They’ve languished on the shelf ever since but as I’m writing about romance novels this month, it only seemed fitting that I bite the bullet and read at least the first one. So I did.
Anastasia Steele is – not unlike Isabella Swan from the Twilight series – a thoroughly average and exceedingly virginal young woman who, for reasons left unclear, is singled out by a superduperly good looking multimillionaire named Christian Grey for romantic attention. Ok. Pretty standard romance novel script so far. The totally average girl, the rich and perfect guy who sweeps her off her feet because he sees something special in her that no one else does (including we readers). But as it turns out, Christian Grey is into some highly kinky stuff, probably because he was abused as a child and molested as a teenager by an errant MILF. So he’s all sadistic and controlling, but it’s totally not his fault, of course.
He’s not bad. He’s just drawn that way.
In the past, Christian Grey hooked up with women who were “submissives” – they enjoyed being the recipient of his sadistic attentions. But that was no longer enough. Mr. Grey found it more titillating to take unremarkable and inexperienced Anastasia from gentle deflowering to full sexual awakening to “please whip me with a cat o’ nine tails, sir” within the span of a few weeks than to have consensual, if unusual, sex with a chick who’s already into it.
You can probably see the obvious problem here. But hey, it’s a romance novel. The sexually experienced man, the innocent novitiate – standard fare. So the sexual awakening goes a little further than it does in some other novels. Big whoop. It’s meant as a fantasy, not as a call to violence. Fifty Shades of Grey, if properly written, could have been a safe way for some women who are a little vi-curious to explore the concept in their heads without actually engaging in risky behavior. It may be problematic, but the obvious problem is not why it is problematic.
People complain about Fifty Shades because of the bondage stuff and the control stuff but IMO what they really should be complaining about is the unrealistic nature of the bondage stuff and the control stuff. Because Christian Grey is NOT at all representative of the kinds of men who are controllers, not at all.
Christian Grey wants Anastasia to sign a contract in which he gets to control basically every aspect of her life. He wants to pick out the clothes she wears and the food she eats and to be sure she works out enough and all this other stuff. BUT. And this is a BIG BUT. It is a BUT so big that Sir Mixalot would pull up quick to get with it. BUT. When Grey controls Anastasia, he only controls her into doing things that a) are for her health and general well-being and b) most women would find romantically appealing. That’s the fantasy part of it, you see. Christian is a sexually sadistic controller, but he’s a sexually sadistic controller that only asks his victim do to things she’s totally on board with anyway. Christian Grey is a sexually sadistic controller that only wants the very very best for his victim, because he cares.
We have left the realm of fantasy behind us and gone to the land of “that is frickin’ impossible, ladies”.
Because controllers don’t DO that. Controllers don’t only ask you to wear totally cute clothes and drive a perfectly safe car and eat yummy nummy foods and work out a couple times a week because the Surgeon General said exercise is good for you. Controllers don’t spoil you rotten and make you feel like the only girl in the whole wide world. And controllers for sure don’t joke when you don’t message them back right away and don’t find it at all appealing when you stand up to them and deny them. Controllers make you toe the line. They make you do whatever it is that amuses them even if it’s only a fleeting whim on their parts, and they don’t care one iota about your well-being. They don’t care if you’re tired or hungry or sick or horny or not horny. They don’t care if you’re driving a crappy and unsafe car, or in fact any car, since a lot of controllers prefer that their ladyloves are stranded at home and unable to go anywhere at all. Controllers don’t care if you’re lonely or sad or need to get something done for work. In fact, controllers often control their victims into situations where they ARE lonely and sad and unable to function at work. Controllers want to control elements of their victim’s life that are really none of their business – like what they say and who they say it to and even what they think. And if they don’t get things the way that they want them, there will not be a polite conversation regarding a difference of opinion. If they don’t get things the way that they want them, there will be hell to pay. The needs of a woman really don’t matter to a controller. And her wants certainly don’t matter. So for Christian Grey to want to control Ana all for her own benefit – nah. Not real. And for Christian Grey to love Ana for her individuality and her challenging mind and her being the only one who ever told him no…nah to a factor of a billion.
And toss sexual sadism onto controlling behavior and this little scenario of ours becomes even less believable. Sadists like inflicting pain. Not fantasy pain, real pain. They want to hurt. Beyond physical hurt, they like to inflict mental and emotional pain, too. They want their victims uncomfortable, in misery, plagued with doubt and fear and insecurity. Sexual sadists do not get their jollies off “forcing” women to go to expensive restaurants and eat delicious meals while wearing very fashionable and expensive clothing. Sexual sadists do not get their jollies on telling women how beautiful and extraordinary they are. Sexual sadists do not get their jollies off of tenderly deflowering young women and lovingly giving them lots of orgasms and a brand new car. They get their jollies off of forcing women to do a lot of other things, humiliating, painful, and demeaning things, most of which innocent Anastasia Steele would not find enjoyable at all whatsoever. Sexual sadists like the real world equivalent of Christian Grey do not care if a woman is safe and protected – they want her in danger and entirely within their hands and under their thumbs.
But it’s a fantasy!!!! Yes it is. Fun fact, there is something in women that finds controlling behavior sexually attractive. Maybe not you, wise fellow female person who’s reading this article, but I’ll cop to it. I like it sometimes. I like it in romance novels and I ~may~ even like it in real life. Sometimes. But the fatal flaw of Fifty Shades of Grey is that it packages female fantasy with a completely dishonest portrayal of controlling male behavior in such a blatantly and pathologically false way that I can see it easily setting a naive and inexperienced woman up for disaster.
There were so many red flags in Fifty Shades of Grey I was literally yelling at the book much of the time. Good men do NOT act like Christian. Period, end of story. If you’re dating a guy and he starts acting like Christian Grey, RUN. If he tells you what to wear and what to eat and how often to work out and he displays resentment and jealousy towards your friends, RUN even faster. If he shows up places you go uninvited and secretly watches you without you knowing he is there, RUN while you still can! Don’t give him chance after chance to change, don’t assume he controls you because he loves you and wants the best for you. He doesn’t. He only wants what is best for him.
Christian Grey is a stalker, a controller, a sadist, and a bad guy. He’s also a fictional character whose fictional behavior in no way reflects the mindset of real life men who stalk, control, and enjoy inflicting pain on women. Read the book if you must, but never lose sight of what is real.
Sometimes, a bad guy is a bad guy.
Photo by rachelkramerbussel.com
Be careful. I once wrote a post critical of Family Guy (a show I actually enjoy) and was accused of being a gatekeeper.
Now that’s out of the way, I realize that’s not what you’re doing here, and I appreciate your critique of Fifty Shades. I’ve never read the book and almost definitely won’t. That was before reading your post and your post only reinforced that.
Of course, you’re doing more than just critiquing a book or set of books. You’re also critiquing a portrayal of controlling men that is both unrealistic and in its own way dangerous, or at least very misleading. I appreciate that aspect of your post as well.Report
Hey, I liked that piece. I am not a fan of Family Guy (even though I am frequently forced to watch it against my will and do laugh at it quite often, it’s admittedly funny) and thought you gave it a very fair analysis.
I actually think I did get that accusation this morning on Twitter, someone who read the first paragraph and decided based on that what I was surely going to say, etc. and based on that assumption they didn’t finish the piece. I guess they thought they were punishing me for allegedly making a snap judgement by making a snap judgement. Interesting approach.
Thanks for reading!Report
Truth be told, I thought of the Family Guy portion of my comment when I read the title and excerpt for your post. It was only after reading the post that I realized it was more nuanced than what I took it to be.
And to be clear, even if it was “only” what I took it to be, I have no problem with people saying “others shouldn’t read/watch this.” Or rather, I have no problem with it i principle. It’s easy to slide into judging others for matters of taste, etc., and I’ve taken umbrage at more than a few instances of others doing that to advance what I perceive to be snobbery. But at any rate, you’re not committing that error in your post.Report
I honestly don’t even remember what I put in the description – I pretty much picked a line that sounded pithy if I recall. That’s good to know – I should probably take greater care in the blurb I pick to be sure it accurately represents the content of the piece. Thanks!Report
I think you are definitely in the minority. How can you disagree with “millions of women” who waited patiently or impatiently on each of the three books to come out?
Do you think it is just sex? Well, you are wrong.Women want to feel loved. They want to feel pursued. They want to be spoiled. They want flowers and feel pampered.
Christian Grey made Anastasia Steel feel all these things. Consequently, he made us all feel the same way.
And if they look like Jamie Dornan, well that’s icing on the perverbial cake.
You know the hot, paperback novels that women love? Kinda like that.Report
I’m glad you found something in them that you enjoyed!
Thanks for reading and commenting, Sue.Report
The movie is different but grown folks accepted roles and in real life things happen and to each his own
What’s done personally is personal for various reasons
Feelings and love is different in all kinds of people
Relationship s are afraid to explore their true feelings toward one another for fear of what the other will think of them
If it was me
I wouldn’t care what anyone thinks if it was for me
Love and Happiness comes in different Shades EverydayReport
Totally true, thanks so much for chiming in, Ramona!Report
I never read the book, but I read MANY dating profiles of women who did. A while back, if that book name wasn’t in their profile it was more surprising that not.
I’ve run into quite a few women that while they don’t want controlling guys controlling their every action, they do want guys “controlling” them in certain aspects and at certain times. Women can be strange 🙂Report
What? Us women?? No way.Report
I don’t think it’s only women (and perhaps you didn’t mean “only women,” but that’s how your comment came off, at least to me). There are times in my life when I like others to make some decisions for me or do things for me even if that means I have less control. Of course, power plays work in mysterious ways, and the supposedly non-controlling-person-who-doesn’t-mind-others-making-decisions is in their own way controlling or manipulative. Or can be.Report
A deconstruction of the young hot multimillionaire fantasy would be interesting to read. Most of the young hot multimillionaires seem to fall under the redeemable bad boy or chivalrous knight type because its a romance and you need to give the readers what they want. A deconstruction would be where our heroine learns what sort of ruthless person you need to become a self-made multimillionaire by your early twenties, unless you lucked out and won the lottery. Basically, Steve Jobs who was a thoroughly unpleasant and amoral person who would rather perjure himself and say he was impotent rather than admit paternity and had no problem cheating people to make money. Add in some kooky rightist beliefs like the John Birch Society and you got yourself a deconstruction.Report
The Lifetime Network runs movies like this 24/7. (And as an aside, #metoo and the stories of male feminist predators should have made it clear that this isn’t absent from the left. I mean, you brought up Steve Jobs.)Report
The villains in Lifetime movies are bit too suave for what I’m talking about. I’m thinking about Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, or Steve Jobs level of weird behavior.Report
I’m a little over the “Billionaires are always evil right wing whackos” trope, esp. with a substantial number of rich tech billionaires who are obviously and vocally liberal.
But it’s an intriguing idea, for sure.
I also think it could be fun if the rich billionaire wasn’t a controller at all and in fact was a decent sort, but tangled with a female narcissist who constructed a web of lies about his controlling nature, and due to his well-known eccentricity and everyone’s tendency to believe the worst about rich billionaires, completely destroys his life. Or maybe they fall in love in their mutual evilness, depending on what kind of story the author wanted to tell.Report
Lee and Dragon’s discussion about nationalities made me realize something – the Dragon Tattoo series is the deconstruction of the Shades of Grey type tropes.Report
Out of curiosity, what did you think of the writing? Clearly, the author tapped into something visceral, and you don’t need artistic merit to sell that, but I was curious it if was well-written.Report
no, no it was not
It was actually rather enragingly bad, to be honest. As in, couldn’t even keep verb tenses straight, kept writing British dialect coming from the lips of people who were supposed to be from Seattle and Georgia, that kind of thing.Report
It was actually rather enragingly bad, to be honest. As in, couldn’t even keep verb tenses straight…
50 Shades of Grey was originally Twilight fanfic, then self-published with the names changed. Then it was picked up by one of Random House’s imprints and pushed. No one seems to know if Random House just used it as-is, or if an editor worked on it. I’m hoping that Part II of Richard Hershberger’s recent post about the state of publishing, and self-publishing, talks about editing and other services that traditional publishers provide. Certainly my experiences reading self-published fiction is that much of it would be better if the author had hired an editor.Report
Oh yes I want to read that, just haven’t had time.
I often keep works of fiction going for years, even decades in a couple instances, and I’m surprised how many tiny little (IMO unforgivable) mistakes I’ll find have sneaked past, even after having read something dozens of times. Talented editors are precious commodities.Report
Sadly, I don’t go into that, though James does get a mention.
My impression from reading self-publishing blogs is that there is a lot of talk about the importance of having an editor, but the feel of this talk is like talk about the importance of diet and exercise.
As for the editing provided by traditional publishers, my experience with the copy editing of my manuscript did not impress. Going through the page proofs, I frequently came across some clunky construction and wondered “Did I write that?” Upon checking what I submitted, it usually turned out that no, I had not. I did a lot of changing back. In fairness, if I had a clunky construction or blown verb tense and the copy editor fixed it, I wouldn’t have noticed that in the page proofs. But comparing notes with other authors, one experienced author of many books commented that the quality of copy editors varies wildly. I drew a joker.Report
Sadly, quality of writing, including but not limited to stuff like verb tenses and keeping dialect straight, is demonstrably not a determining factor in what makes the best seller list. It does matter for what is still read fifty years later, but only eccentrics care about that.Report
Oh my. Glad I didn’t try to read it then; I’d have a dent in my wall from where I threw the book. Poor writing enrages me, especially (and this is not a very pretty fact about me) when the writer is raking in tons more money than I make, and seems to have quite a legion of fans. (Because while I’d probably hate being famous, and if I had much more money than I do now I’d probably give a lot of it away….I admit the fantasy of money and a legion of fans is deeply appealing to me.)Report
Yep I completely agree – admittedly there’s some envy on my part wrapped up in my dislike of the book. I’m like “I could have done this, only wayyy better”.Report
I saw the movie 50 Shades Darker first then 50 Shades, and 50 Shades Freed before I read the books. Ugh. I didn’t like the books at all. I read mostly historical romances. They are relatively better than anything in the 50 Shades series which is badly written fan fiction ripoff of the Twilight books. Christian and Ana come off better in the movies than in the books. But that’s just my opinion.Report
Interesting take, May, thanks!Report
Kristin gets at the heart of why most BDSM fantasy is written by and for women.
It allows them to eat their cake and have it too, where they relinquish agency yet get to indulge in wild sexytime. The Story of O and the Beauty trilogy, both follow the pattern where the female character has wild sexy escapes with many stunningly handsome and powerful men, yet ends up happily married to Prince Charming.
What is not commonly noted is that the men in these fantasies behave in bizarrely curious ways. They have incredible power and freedom and wealth, and exist in a world of unlimited sexual buffet, yet, for some reason, are almost always monogamous and fixated on one particular woman.
This dichotomy is illustrated by John Norman’s Gor series, where inevitably the male lead wanders through a landscape of utterly replaceable women, all of whom desperately yearn for him, only him, for no discernible reason.
But such is the stuff of our romantic and erotic fantasies. The flabby middle aged dad gets seduced by the impossibly hot babysitter because, well, I don’t know really.
The real reason I would strongly encourage anyone to avoid 50 Shades is that the writing is so awful. Its barely a step above Penthouse letters.
Fantasy is a delicate art form precisely because it is so ludicrous. Done well, the incoherent logic and unrealistic characters can become irrelevant if the writing is vivid and creates real tension and drama.Report
Yes, curious that, isn’t it.
Thanks for reading.Report
“But such is the stuff of our romantic and erotic fantasies. The flabby middle aged dad gets seduced by the impossibly hot babysitter because, well, I don’t know really.”
Really, this is so hard to understand? The young (likely virginal or maybe not) girl, in the peak of sexual maturity desires the old guy (who are biologically wired to desire her for reproduction reasons). Besides, what guy doesn’t want to bang a hot young woman.Report
I think Chip meant he didn’t understand why the impossibly hot babysitter will go for the flabby middle aged dad, not the other way around. Its the same same wonderment about why all these stunningly powerful and handsome men remained obsessively focused on one milquetoast young woman without any qualities besides cuteness and some vague level of human kindness.Report
I couldn’t see this when I selected the picture that goes with the article, but how mindboggling is it that there’s a display of BDSM books in the middle of candy and a collection of money being raised for a school charity organization.Report
I just figured the theme was nutrient-free sugary snacks.Report
Yes, yes, of course, that was my intent all along!Report
It’s very clever marketing. As our thirty or forty something housewife buys the candy to do her domestic good, she yearns for exciting escape. 50 Shades of Grey is right there, asking to be taken.Report
I bet it’s a picture of an airport shop.Report
KiYou’d was an interesting review – thanks for reading the book so I don’t have to!
One thing I’ll note really actual sexual sadists – they were among the people most loudly saying NO don’t read this book!
I am slightly aware of practices in the kink scene, and one of the biggest things there is clear, detailed, prior agreement on boundaries. Before anyone touches anyone, there will be a conversation where it’s agreed who will do what to whom, what body parts are alright to inflict with what discomforts, what limbs may be bound in what ways, whether demeaning language is to be used and if so of what the themes are, how and how often consent check-ins will be done, and of course safe words / signals.
Others argued that the book was the fantasy on which responsible BDSM is based, free of the constraints of practical implementation. Similar to the difference between a vampire novel and a game of vampires – you trust that kids reading a vampire novel are going to have the sense to refrain from actually biting one another’s jugulars open at recess.
I write all this from a place of very limited knowledge though – having neither read the book nor been meaningfully involved in kink. I can only directly report having read both flavours of opinion.Report
Thank you for pointing that out – I should have put in that disclaimer because I did read that as well. It’s been quite some time, though, and at the time the books came out, I wasn’t interested in reading them and didn’t pay enough attention for it to come to mind as I wrote the piece.
And if there is some OTHER word that means “people who hurt other people sexually and/or for sexual gratification” other than sadists I’m all ears (I’d happily edit the piece). There is clearly a schism between organized dominants who voluntarily follow a set of mutually agreed upon rules and amateurs who have agreed to nothing and just really enjoy hurting, demeaning, etc.Report
I see what you mean, it it’s a tricky distinction given the S In BDSM. I dunno what else to call the people you mean – sociopaths? Abusers? Neither really captures it.Report
Yeah it’s like there’s a word missing in my vocabulary that would fit here without causing hurt feelings for those who ID as “sadistic” in the official sense of the word.
But there are definitely at least some who actually do enjoy hurting others in the bedroom and I’m not sure that they’re even sociopaths necessarily. BDSM seems to some people like silly games…really?? follow rules? where’s the fun in that? and not the thing that they want to do, if that makes sense.Report
Romance novels seems really WASPy in their ethnic make up. Anastasia Steele, Christian Grey, and whoever in other novels. These are all very Anglo-Saxon names. The romance novel universe doesn’t seem to have much in the way of ethnic whites, let alone people of color.Report
I wonder, if you looked through the romance novel aisle of a bookstore in Nairobi, would you be stuck by how very East African everyone is – not a Nigerian or a Moroccan to be found in their pages…
And by the same token, is your view of what romance novels offer affected by what bookstores in what neighbourhoods you frequent?
If you mostly read the movie reviews in my local newspaper, you might never know that black cinema is a thing that exists, a whole film industry busily producing quality movies every year.Report
@dragonfrog You know I like to SJW with the best of them, but how is it in any way appropriate to criticize a Jewish person for noticing the *exact* same problem with diversity in romance that about 80 million romance readers of color in the US and Canada have (justifiably) complained about and are still working to change?
Pulling the “you’re too white-centered” card on someone who is excluded from the mainstream of something as it currently exists (there are very very few Jewish romances published by mainstream publishers, aside from the creepy Christian ones where they find God through the horrors of the holocaust which is a whole different rant about the appallingness of… well, anyway)….
That’s not cool, dude.
Like, seriously, you’re giving him moral-high-horse crap for noticing that people of his marked identity are not embraced by this corner of the publishing industry? Where the hell are you finding the standing for said crap-giving?
You’re better than that. And less embarrassing to those of us who care about this stuff than that. Usually.Report
btw, I have no idea what you wanted the rhetorical answer to your “I wonder” to be, but the factual answer is, of course
No, no you wouldn’t. Not even a little. Because bookstores in Nairobi are full of books about white people because empire. Not *only* books about white people, but the reach of the US publishing industry’s dominance (really the dominance of a handful of US and European multinational conglomerates) most certainly reaches to Nairobi.
I didn’t need to look up the inventories of a bunch of Nairobian bookstores to confirm that, but of course, being me, I did. If you were expecting some answer other than the one I gave, you may find the experience instructive. (It’s actually pretty interesting whether you have a chip on your shoulder like I did, or not – not for the usual suspects, but to see what else they have… like one store lumped romance & thrillers together, for example.)Report
I apologize to @leeesq if it came off as my criticizing him or you’re-too-whiting him.
When I said “I wonder” it was because I wonder.
I genuinely wondered out of curiosity whether e.g. represented black people in novels in different parts of Africa would show similar regionalism / ethnocentrism to the observed WASP centrism in “mainstream” romance writing or Hollywood movies. Because presumably there are minority groups within African cities, maybe similarly under represented in what they can find to read to Jewish people in North America. But i don’t know.
With the black cinema example, I didn’t mean Lee is too white / WASP centric, I meant North American media is largely thus. Like, there are movie theatres here in Edmonton that basically never play a movie that’s reviewed in an Edmonton paper. Unless there are local Indian expat community newspapers I’ve never even heard of because why would I?
So are there bookstores in town that sell plenty of romance novels with first nations protagonists, by first nations authors I’ve never heard of? By Jewish writers? Apparently not, you’re saying.
And it’s awesome that you looked up bookstore inventories in Nairobi. Because you’re you and I’d buy you a beer next time i saw you if we were physically proximate and acquainted enough for that to work.Report
I’ll say upfront that I have neither read the books, nor seen the movies but for two reasons: 1) I’ve heard they are terribly written and 2) they were almost universally panned as dangerous and unrealistic by the actual BDSM community, of which I am a proud member in good standing.
Which is why I found your article to be almost as confounding and misinformed as the books. Clearly, you have no experience with BDSM nor the perverts that play in that space because you choose to immediately jump into a discussion of “controlling men” and how they act while completely disregarding the reality of dominance and submission power play.
To be clear: I’m not disputing that there exist abusive, controlling men that do all that you say and more. There are, and they are dangerous and every bit as abusive as you described. But they are just that: abusers.They are not and will never be Kinksters, which is what the book is purportedly about. The problem with the essay is that you didn’t look at 50 Shades and compare it to the reality of BDSM relationships and play. A kinkster would read that book and conclude that Christian Grey is an immoral manipulative monster, the kind of person that would raise red flags and blaring sirens to anyone familiar with the motto of BDSM: Safe, Sane, Consensual. Your read on Christian is that he’s too sweet, not abusive or controlling enough in the ways that “controlling men” act in the real world.
The truth is that the BDSM community had some growing pains during the early years of the web, when more people discovered that they were not alone in having secret desires and were able to connect to and form communities of like minded people. Yes, submissives are pleasers, and susceptible to manipulation and abuse by manipulative sociopaths, but this was something that was recognized very early on by the leaders in the community. And because kinksters like doing their thing without unwanted negative attention from the vanilla world, the community collectively determined that education (Safe Sane Consensual) and active policing of those types of people was of paramount importance. And so it is.
I know that it may be hard for vanilla people to understand this, but kinksters are sexual intellectuals. We’re very used to talking openly and honestly about what we like and don’t like to our partners. BDSM is a fantasy of sexual power imbalance, but the lines of that imbalance are negotiated very clearly before play. And as any Dominant player will tell you, it’s the submissives that really control the show. They set the boundaries, and have the final say as to when and how play proceeds.
Today, BDSM folk have their own facebook, called Fetlife, and everyone belongs. We meet at munches, play parties, kink demos, bondage workshops. We are very serious about keeping our friends safe and we encourage new people to have (non sexual) mentors to help them learn about safety and partner awareness. It’s a pretty small community really, especially outside of big cities, and word of bad behavior and abusive persons gets around fast. Is it perfect? Probably not. But the reason the community is so intent on policing itself, besides care for our friends and partners, that that we are acutely aware that we are a hated, misunderstood minority community and that headlines like “Local Girl Raped at BDSM Club” would doom us. For the community, policing bad behavior is necessary and taken very seriously. The safety of one another is literally taken as the most important thing above all others.
In your world, 50 Shades is a bad book because Christian Grey doesn’t comport with your experience of what a “controlling man” is really like. In our world, 50 Shades is a bad book because Christian Grey’s version of BDSM would get him banned from every play party within 100 miles, and blacklisted by every submissive for 1000. He is the exact antithesis of who we are.Report
Thank you for writing this from a place of actual knowledge – this is category one of the takes on 50 shades by real world sexual sadists and masochists I was referring to above.Report
@r-c She’s not talking about your (actually, at least in part, our) community, she’s talking about the kind of men who will show signs of being a Christian-Grey type while actually being controlling and dominant. Abusers. It’s confounding if you think she’s lumping this book together with legit BDSM because *that’s not who she is talking about*. And if you think the fact that the community has mostly done a good job of policing that kind of behavior (MOSTLY, not 100 percent as you seem to think) means there aren’t dudes out there messing with the naive under the cloak of being legit, when they aren’t…. I mean, you know this! I don’t have to explain it to you. So why does Kristin have to pretend not to know that, or put in some kind of long disclaimer about what is and isn’t real BDSM if that’s not her interest in critiquing the book?
Try reading the piece again without assuming she’s against you or BDSM in general.
It’s entirely possible to look at this book, say “okay, but this isn’t about the actual BDSM community so I’m going to set that to one side” and then write a valid critique from there.Report
Thank you, Maribou.
This has nothing to do with BDSM or anything two consenting adults would care to explore in together. This is about packaging controlling behavior – dysfunctional and abusive controlling behavior in which one person has literal, actual, abusive leves of control – as romantic and pretending it is BDSM when it is anything but that.
(and in fact, in the book much of what Grey does with Anastasia is against the rules of BDSM – as your own comment points out.)
Look at Fifty Shades as a wolf donning sheep’s clothing – not just any sheep’s clothing, but the clothing of your particular ingroup – to hide abusive behavior.
And BTW I find it extremely offensive to be told that things are too difficult for me to understand with an implication made that I’m not a “sexual intellectual”. I’m a survivor of a highly controlling relationship and as such, it is possible that I may have some insight into that state of existence that you perhaps lack, just as I will grant you that you likely know more about the inner workings of the BDSM movement than I do.
Thanks for reading and commenting, and apologies for any miscommunication on my part in the piece.Report
And also, just a heads up for general reference purposes, there are a LOT of people out there who are controlling and sexually sadistic that actually never got the flyer to join the official BDSM movement. There are a great number of people who engage in controlling and sadistic behavior and break the rules by choice, and others who don’t even know the rules exist. So the BDSM movement can police itself however it would like, and there are still many, many numbers of people out there in pretty messed up situations who are in no way honoring the rules of the BDSM movement. That’s who I’m talking about in this piece.Report
Nothing I wrote was meant to criticize Ms Devine’s point about abusive relationships, and I really took no point as to the specific’s of the article.
And I can understand that my approach could have been off the mark. Clearly she intentionally stayed away from the topic, so I was perhaps over-defending my point. However, since the novel is specifically about and spurned an interest in BDSM at the time of it’s publication, it seemed to me like SOMETHING needed to be said in defense of the community.
We all agree: Christian Grey is a monster, and the books suck.Report
My take on 50 Shades has always been, “Closing the book is your safe word.” What I mean is, of course it shows kink in an unrealistic and uninhibited way. That’s why why people like it, the same as they like to read murder mysteries where the murder-in-the-story is “real”, instead of a story about a safe, simulated murder where no fictional people die.
A story about the real life kink scene would be mostly about petty social drama.
Anyway, I wanna push back on this:
The problem is, that’s complete bullshit. Sure, we want it to be true, but it isn’t. Too many kink spaces are full of too many “missing staircases.” Getting rid of them is darn impossible.
And in real life, I’ve sat in munches listen to the hot “new girl” prattle on about how she just read 50 Shades and how she wants to meet her own Christian Grey — and this sounds like a cliche, but I swear I’ve seen it.
The point is, there are abusers in kink, and if a woman wanders in, fresh off reading 50 Shades, there are men who will happily abuse her.
There are also people who will warn her away from such men.Report
Hi Veronica! Long time no read!Report
Good to see you back commenting, VeronicaReport
Thanks so much for chiming in – because given my personal experience I found that really very hard to believe.
And nice to see you!Report
Probably the best book in the genre is The Iliad by Homer, which and omits all the sex/romance/bondage bits but is, happily, in the form of an epic poem.
Rage, goddess sing the rage of of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.”
(Side note: I once memorized the first forty five minutes of the Fagles translation just to see if I could do it. Interestingly, I had no idea what it said, in terms of answering some particular question, but to find out about an event I could just recite the relevant passage and listen to what I was saying.)
Anyway, Achilles raged at King Agamemnon because Agamemnon claimed Achilles’ own prize, Brisies, a hot young girl of high status and breeding that Achilles had taken when he sacked the city of Lyrnessus, where her family was killed. Achilles was violent, hot-headed, and rather childish, but a super-fit warrior king who was extremely wealthy and who was a favorite of the gods. Great breeding material, great marriage material; Prince William’s status in Chris Hemsworth’s body.
Well, like many young women for the past half-million years or so, Brisies found herself in the unfortunate situation of being booty for a violent band of warriors who had just sacked her village, destroying the previous social hierarchy and pretty much everything in the world she had known. She was probably going to end up dead in a ditch, or knocked up by some smelly random low-status spear carrier, or passed around camp and abandoned. Her prospects of staying in the gene pool were bleak.
Now, Homer omits all the details, and really any much of a mention, but when captured, Brisies must have behaved in some way that landed her in Achilles tent, and then she must have wrapped the rich violent warrior king around her young and naive little finger, because Achilles ended up totally nuts for her. The same thing happened to Agamemnon, because he was so enraged by Apollo forcing him to give up his own prize girl that he stole Brisies from Achilles, setting the two at odds and causing a rage in Achilles that has echoed for thousands of years.
How is it that young women, who didn’t have a PhD in psychology or any Oscar wins, consistently knew which strategy to pursue, how to pursue it, and how to manipulate their captors without their captor figuring out that he was being manipulated and mentally dominated, if not actually toyed with?
Unfortunately, no period female poet wrote about the siege of Troy from Brisies’ perspective, which would have undoubtedly been hotter and a lot more psychologically authentic than 50 Shades. It would also have the advantage of being set in a period when society allowed high-status males to behave in the way the genre requires, and in which that behavior was so common that having young naive women equipped with emergency survival/mating behaviors was important enough to stick it right into human DNA as a bunch of bizarre reward circuits that are otherwise completely useless, but which might have played a role in the evolution of other human behaviors, traits, and abilities, such as religious ecstasy or extreme focus.
On the down side, the amount of chemical rewards the brain would have to pump out to create such a specific set of otherwise inexplicable set of overriding desires and behaviors might cause all kinds of addiction problems leading some women into potentially self-destructive actions as they look for a particular type of high-status man in a particular set of extreme circumstances that really don’t happen that often anymore.Report
Achilles was mad for a minute because of Briseis (and at least as much because of the hypocrisy of the situation, and what that said about his honor, as anything *actually to do with her*). The rage echoing through generations arose only when they killed Patroclus.
And that’s just the start of what’s missing here.
If you’re going to do such a bad and deliberately trying to stir people up take on the Iliad, at least spell Briseis’ name right.
If anyone’s interested in modern takes on the experiences of the Trojan women, they abound, most recently Pat Barker’s novel _The Silence of the Girls_.Report
I’m not trying to stir people up, I’m using the Iliad to illustrate how taking female prizes was once so commonplace that it didn’t even merit commenting on. That was probably a significant part of our evolutionary environment for an extremely long time, and probably created some very interesting counter responses that are otherwise irrational, if not inexplicable.
Two married PhD psychologists from Berkeley, who are part of the BDSM scene there, wrote a book on the practice, and both said they had no idea why “the magic” works or why it exists, and were frankly afraid to find out because it might quit working. In my view, they were correct about that.
My essay on the possible evolutionary biology of such behaviors circulated on some of the “bad” blogs for a while, and I used the Iliad as an example. At the time I wrote it I was bouncing ideas back and forth for over a year with a woman who kept arranging to rendezvous for, let’s say, “violent encounters.” It was a strong addiction to a very unusual type of situation.Report
There is a greater point buried in here, which I actually largely agree with.
The problem is I do think Maribou is correct in that you’re maybe trying to get people wound up by posting this.
The second problem, Katharine Hepburn’s character in The African Queen put best:
“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put on earth to rise above.”Report
I know a lot of women who really really enjoyed these books and all of them had one thing in common:
Happily married to very good men for a very long time, and excited to see unabashed erotica so prominently displayed in the mainstream. They didn’t have much else in common and some of them *had* wisely steered clear of controlling relationships after having a parent who was terrible in that way.
Everyone else I know of who tried them bounced off them but hard.
I can definitely understand why you would anti-recommend them…
I read about three pages at someone’s insistence and then said “No, I don’t want to read this, and it won’t be sexy for me.” and had to bite back the “and also it’s super triggering because no one is really like this and some people force you to *pretend* they’re like this and also what the hell is wrong with you and can i please provide you with a reading list of erotica along the same lines that isn’t so badly written…” Something that I very very rarely react to anyone loving any book with – in general I am happy people are happy about books, period. (This also means you know the book better than I do, so I’m kinda talking out my butt – but I have read *a lot* of reaction pieces all over the spectrum, professional interest and all.)
But I don’t think books like this are any more or any less likely to sway people to fall under the grasp of controllers than your standard controlling-male Harlequin from the 60s.
I mean, you absolutely have the right to feel differently and I really enjoyed this piece. Just, my experience is that books – even these ones – are as likely to be inoculatory (or a substitute so they can avoid the real thing) as they are to be dangerous and paper over stuff. I know books very much like this one, and even the really even more fucked up stuff like VC Andrews, were an important part of me figuring out what was wrong about my dad, and getting the f out of Dodge. They wouldn’t have been enough *alone* – I needed the stuff like The Color Purple that gave me hope – but having really bad books *and* really good books that talked about power and abuse was what let me figure out what is and isn’t abuse – by triangulating in a way that I couldn’t have from good books alone.
Young me, on reading this book, would have come to the exact conclusions you say above about what controllers ARE in real life and AREN’T in this fantasy – but those conclusions would have helped her reject the real life controllers – particularly the one who already ran her life – not be more vulnerable to them. I know you know books can do this and I appreciated you mentioning it about Twilight – but sometimes worse things than Twilight are needed for worse situations.
I think often when we look at literature (or whatever this is, I shudder to call it literature) about harsh topics, we think about how it might harm the innocent, and not how it might help the already suffering.
Because of my own experiences and the statistics I know, its’ hard for me to not prioritize the already suffering over the potentially vulnerable, even though both are actually important. Just, the potentially vulnerable have so many other possible supports…
Sorry these thoughts are pretty fragmented, it’s a hard topic for me to say anything about.Report
Agreed, that’s actually everyone I also know who liked them. Women in committed and healthy relationships.
I really appreciate you taking the time to discuss this as I know it’s a tough issue.
Under virtually any other circumstances I agree with every word you say, 110%. Right up to VC Andrews. “Don’t read a book” is not the type of post I’d normally ever write under just about any circumstances. I think that people have all sorts of interpersonal relationships with literature that speaks to them and it can be a comic book or pornography or even Taylor Swifts’ autobiography.
That having been said this book is fundamentally dishonest in a way that was disturbing to me. And even though I read a lot of crap growing up (wayyyy worse than Fifty Shades and when I was much more impressionable) I really think there’s something off about it, like in a gaslighty way. People can hate on VC Andrews but there was something true in VC Andrews even though it was disturbing subject matter.
There is nothing true in Fifty Shades of Grey. They pulled some kind of sinister switcheroo in this book. I read several romances this month and I did not have this visceral reaction to any of the other ones. It was as if someone took a Harlequin, sucked out its guts, and replaced it with something darker and more insidious.
By the end of the book, Ana is almost, almost the bad guy. She has her doubts all along, and then breaks up with Christian at the end. Along the way, Christian is 99% absolved of all responsibility. He can’t help the way he is. He’s a passive victim. Things happened to him as a child and it affected him, and he simply can’t control his desire. It’s not his fault, and yet Ana breaks up with him anyway even though he loves her soooo much. I could feel the “oh poor Christian” reaction whispering in the back of my mind and if I hadn’t been completely open eyed about control issues in relationships I KNOW I would have thought Ana was terrible for breaking it off with him.
After all Christian was honest with her from the start. He never lied. It wasn’t his fault he wanted the things he wanted, he tried to change, he bent and accommodated Ana’s needs and wants, and then even after all he did, she couldn’t even give him this one little thing he needed – and it wasn’t even his fault for wanting it! She was SO unforgiving, so selfish, such a bitch. After all, the more stuff a guy gives you and does for you, the more obligation there is to perform to specifications. There’s no love, there’s just an exchange of goods and services.
It may as well have been an MRA script – the spoiled and self-absorbed woman who doesn’t want to give a man anything beyond what she wants to give him even though she owes him. She was just using him for food and clothes and sex. She didn’t want to give up anything that was outside her comfort zone.
And it didn’t have to be BDSM, that’s the thing. They could have taken that part out totally and left everything else and it still would felt wrong to me. Because it was basically an apology for ‘boys will be boys’, it was basically an apology for men who cannot control their hands and their dicks and their mouths and their desires and every other part of them.
They can’t help it, it was toxic masculinity, it’s testosterone, it’s pornography, it was because they saw Han kiss Leia, they have needs, when you’re a star they let you do it, etc etc etc and what it all boils down to is, some men think they are entitled immediate and repeated gratification of any urge or whim they experience. Women can maybe hem and haw about it for a little while but in the end they should just give it up. Even if it hurts. Even if it makes your skin crawl.
I don’t know. I just this this book has more going on under the surface, and between the people in a rush to make excuses for it, and the people in a rush to damn it for all the wrong reasons, I think it’s kind of been overlooked.Report
omg Kathy Shaidle was rightReport
care to elaborate?Report
Old timer reference. Many years ago, back when no one from this place was famous even a little bit, a far-right wing D-list celebrity from from Canada developed a weird, brief obsession with us. (Cannot for the life of me tell you why she did, or how she even knew we existed.)
One day she wrote a blog post imaging that all the writers here were “p**sies,” because didn’t have the “balls” to read 50 Shades and learn to smack our wives around like they wanted us to smack them around.Report
Thanks for clarifying. I did a quick Google and spotted the word “Taki” and thought “oh no what have I unintentionally stepped into here”
How very, very peculiar.Report
@kristin-devine It very much was.Report
I don’t remember that at all! Wow!Report
Before my divorce I confess I might have shined on an essay like this, saying to myself “This book wasn’t about you.” During the deep pain immediately after my ex and I split up I would have found a way to make it about my own situation. I hope I’ve grown into a clearer space in which I can see that other folks have had other experiences and are reacting to art* in their own ways and to humble myself enough to listen to what is going on with them on their terms.
That, I think, might be particularly hard on the artist, who surely had something in mind. To see someone else located something not only painful but downright dangerous and malicious in that art — unless portraying that malice was truly the intent, and I think the intent of 50 Shades was surely titillation, akin to the intent behind pornography — would be a wrenching exercise. Our own @david-ryan has produced several artistic pieces dealing directly and graphically with sexual intimacy of what is quite clearly a more healthy variety, and my big takeaway from seeing some of it is that it is really uncomfortable to see actual human intimacy in action while not participating in it.
Anyway, this is all to say that having read the essay, I hear the message and nod my head in comprehension. “Comprehension” is not the same thing as “understanding.” This was also, by the way, my reaction to the really great comment by @r-c about actual BDSM experiences.
Finally, speaking of my ex-wife, she was encouraged to read the 50 Shades books by her co-worker who found them thrilling like nothing else she’d ever experienced. My ex complained bitterly about the poor quality and poor plotting of the books, even as she read every damn page.
* “Art” is something that sounds elevated and cultured and wonderful, but in fact also includes things like 50 Shades. Not all art is good art.Report
I wonder though, in a world where everyday people are held responsible for knowing and avoiding every obscure dog whistle, if no one along the way saw anything problematic. It was so obviously problematic to me that it was off putting (and I like Quentin Tarantino movies) It wasn’t just a little here and there, it was pervasive. I’ve read dozens if not hundreds of racy books and it was problematic in some other class outside all the rest..
I find it very difficult to believe that no one in the strange publishing process this book went through, had any qualms about running with this book in 2011. Somebody chose to look the other way and to ignore things that IMO were sending a dangerous message. Not in 2001, not in 1991 but in 2011. Someone should have known better. It’s possible the author didn’t realize the logical implications of what they’d written, but that’s what editors and publishers are for. To ignore the problems not only with the book itself but also the larger message of the book in a time in which we’re hopefully growing more aware of issues of consent, really does feel somewhat malicious to me.
Maybe it’s not literally dumping toxic waste, but figuratively…Report
What is kind of interesting/fascinating about Shades of Gray is that it started off as Twilight fanction and then morphed into its own mega huge best-seller. The primary audience of for the 50 shades series seems to be a non-reader in general. The books were generally panned by readers as being awful, the movies were panned by reviewers as awful (though Christopher Orr’s snarky reviews of the movie are absolutely divine.)
I’m not a kinkster but I know some who are and they hate it for reasons mentioned above.
I mentioned before that the number of books needed to be considered a best-seller is small. So these mega-selling phenomena are interesting because the primary audience seems to be people who are generally not-readers. Sometimes the books that do this are good (Harry Potter). More often, they seem awful.Report
Where to begin with this terrible, terrible, horribly written shameful garbage of a book series?
The series is what would result if two precocious 13yo girls were writing their dream man: billionaire, impossibly attractive, muscle-bound, concert-level pianist, versed in all things high culture, brave, owns helicopter… and then some pervy barely literate adult imagines a BDSM story around him, which she/he then dictates to a hunt-and-peck typist, which is then edited by the best student in a college remedial writing course.
How many times could the word “mercurial” be used?
Cringed, absolutely cringed with embarrassment every time her “inner goddess did a backflip”.
Trash. Absolute trash.
Nevertheless I read them all because my personality type won’t allow me not to.
I’m angry with the author for making me do that.Report
OMgosh totally. Everything you say. The inner goddess.
A lightbulb just came on for me reading your comment. I wonder if that’s where I’m getting hung up on this book.
There’s some sort of juxtaposition between something that is for me, while maybe pure isn’t the right word, uncorrupted – the type of love one finds romance novels, which I’d def. call a 13 year old girl romanticized vision of love – with this seedy, seamy Hustler magazine story where men do not seduce, they make demands. Worse, they withhold their affection when a woman doesn’t toe the line (because he’s going to break up with her if she doesn’t agree to it, just for those who haven’t read the book – she is coerced into going further than she wanted to because he’ll end their relationship if she doesn’t)
It’s not that the trappings of the story are the issue here. It’s not the BDSM stuff, lift it right out and make it about a guy pressuring a girl to give up her virginity, or go to the prom, or to marry him, and telling her that if she doesn’t agree to his terms he’s going to break up with her and it’s obviously right from the playbook of a controller. Not a dominant, a controller.
The BDSM is like a smokescreen in Fifty Shades for really disturbing and abusive behavior.
And it would be bad in any scenario, but then having it coupled so thoroughly with something that represents a part of my girlhood – this innocent romance stuff – it’s just icky.Report
I’ve never read the books – part of it is, most of what qualifies as “romance” is just not my bag (though I might attempt again one of the older Regencies – like some Georgette Heyer – because I need something pleasant and “fluffy” given the geopolitical horrors we see every day).
But yeah. I also have not read them because I have a personal rule, because I am easily embarrassed: I open a book by an unfamiliar author to three random pages, and read the page. If there’s a graphic sex description, I choose not to buy the book. From what I’ve read about this series, I think it would fail my personal test. (The Outlander series did, as it turns out).
I will say as someone whose parents pretty much gate-kept her reading when she was below the age of 15 or so….I was surprised at some of the very young girls I saw reading this when it first came out and really wondered what they think. Maybe kids now are older than the kid I was then, but I remember my first inadvertent experience with an ‘adult themed” novel at 15 or so…I was not ready for it and it embarrassed me.
All that said, I also want to note that I very much liked: “It is a BUT so big that Sir Mixalot would pull up quick to get with it. ” Golf clap for that one.Report
That is a good rule. I should probably follow it because I honestly don’t enjoy that aspect of romance novels at all. Much more of a PG-13 entertainment kind of gal.
I have another piece in this series about Outlander. I read the first one and then could never finish the second. There are some clever touches in that series but they’re not enough to counter all the stuff I didn’t care for in there.
Your parents were smart. I think it’s really good for kids to have as much of childhood as parents can give them.
Thanks for reading and commenting!Report
I’m looking forward to Outlander post. My wife has/had been reading the books and then turned me on to the TV series. I’ve been enjoying it but there’s an aspect to the storyline that came out in Season 2 (no idea where that would be in the book series) that really bothered me. I’m interested to hear your take on it.Report
I didn’t do much in the way of specifics in the piece to be honest- there is definitely some disturbing stuff in that series. I used it more as a jumping off point for talking about other elements of romance and real life.
I started to watch the show and it was one of those rare things where I preferred the show to the book. I never finished it since I was watching it with my mother in law and I wanted to stop before it got too racy.Report
First of all Kristen Devine I know that you have the right to your opinions about Fifty Shades of Grey. We all do but what you fail to realize is that the first book was told by Ana and yes Christian is a sadist but he started to change because of Ana. Yes Christian isn’t your average guy but when Ana comes into his life he does a complete 180 because he is starting to fall in love with her and he is breaking all the rules that a real sadist doesn’t. And then you have Fifty Shades Darker in which in Grey Ana leaves because he’s incapable of love and for what he did to her as the movie/book ends. And so Christian can’t see himself without Ana in his life so he does some soul searching and changes for the better because he loves Ana and they rekindle there love and they both change for each other all the way to the end when Christian asks Ana to marry him and she says yes. And then comes the last one Freed and you see them get married and have a lot of people try and not succeed in ruining there lives as a married couple. And then by the end of the movie/book Ana and Christian become parents to a son and a daughter. And they live happily ever after and love conquers all. So don’t be negative if you don’t see what happens in the end. Plus there are couples that live a BDSM life style and that is not a bad thing it’s how they want to live. I don’t think you would want anyone judging your life style?Report
Hey Holly, thanks so much for reading and commenting.
It may be that I’ve judged the books too harshly and missed something in there. They were triggering to me for other reasons, perhaps. If you’ve found something to like in the books that’s great. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!Report