Trigger warning: This article makes references to sexual assault and other forms of abuse which may be triggering for survivors.
It’s time to make a few confessions.
When the first book in the Twilight series hit the stands in 2005, I was a young ‘un — ignorant, naïve about the idea of love and companionship, and eager to hop on another book-hype bandwagon. And boy, did I fall prey to pheromone induced bad reading choices.
With Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, I’ve refrained from criticising the lazy writing – this book is Twilight fanfiction, ‘nuff said. I’ve tried to ignore the lazy editing – this gem of a sentence on page 3 is a prime example: “the elevator whisks [her] at terminal velocity to the twentieth floor.” Terminal velocity is calculated when an object falls through the air, Ms. James and if the laws of physics were in consonance with your writing, your ingénue would be the victim of a fatal elevator malfunction. I have even shrugged off the head honcho of laziness – plagiarism.
But try as I might, I cannot look past the all-pervasive romanticised abuse masquerading as BDSM. BDSM is an abbreviation for bondage-discipline, dominance-submission and sadism-masochism. The lacklustre plot of this book involves Christian Grey, a 27-year old panty-melting millionaire CEO and college student Anastasia Steele being inexplicably drawn to each other by a bullshit concoction packaged and sold by lazy writers called Insta Love™. The only hitch in this sex fest of a fairytale? Christian is a devout follower of the BDSM lifestyle and Anastasia is quite averse to it.
What I know about BDSM is limited to the sites not blocked by Cyberoam and the subject is too vast and intricate for me to summarize in a few words. But the CliffNotes version is pretty commonsensical – the BDSM community firmly believes in safety, consent and trust. The partner who plays the role of the ‘dominant’ appreciates the control they’ve been given by the ‘submissive’ and in return, cares for the physical, mental and emotional well-being of the ‘submissive’. The behaviour of the dominant is driven by what their partner finds enjoyable and is carefully limited by their mutually crafted rules for BDSM engagement. The conclusion we therefore come to is that at the core of a BDSM relationship, while the dominant appears to be in control, it is the submissive who is actually in control.
This farce of a book is less an accurate representation of BDSM and more a glorification of Christian Grey’s abusive tendencies – which I will demonstrate chapter by chapter in brief. So bear with me.
As a disclaimer, I’d like to add that this is not the first time I’ve read this book. My journey with Fifty Shades did not begin with the sole intention of criticizing it; it was only as I made my way through the book that I realised how problematic it is.
CHAPTER 2: The One Where Grey is Irrationally Proprietary
Until this point, Anastasia (Ana) has interviewed Christian for the student newspaper as a favour to her roommate, his attractiveness has been mentioned 78569 times, Ana’s blushing and flustered clumsiness has increased in direct proportionality to her awareness of Christian as a sex God, they’ve generated enough electricity/sparks/currents through the hand-shaking and brief touches to power a small village, and at the end of a boring week, Ana bumps into him at the convenience store where she works. I’m reminded again that he is the “epitome of male beauty” and that “his voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel… or something.”
Whilst assisting Christian in navigating the store, she is spotted by a male friend, Paul. Christian’s response to a girl he’s met only ONCE before hugging said male friend is this:
“[H]e’s watching us like a hawk, his gray eyes hooded and speculative, his mouth a hard impassive line. He’s changed from the weirdly attentive customer to someone else – someone cold and distant.”
Even someone as unaware of her surroundings as Ana spots the “antagonism [she] sees in Grey’s eyes”, his “clipped and cool” tone and the radical shift in personality from amicable to pissed off.
Where, oh, where can I purchase your special brand of entitlement, Mr. Grey?
CHAPTER 3: The One Where Grey is High-Handed
Ana, her roommate Kate, her photographer friend Jacob José and “the richest, most elusive, most enigmatic bachelor in Washington State” – the one and only, Christian Grey, meet up for a photoshoot in furtherance of the article for the student newspaper. Kate arm-twists Ana into scheduling the shoot with Grey and the ensuing phone conversation is peppered with Ana quaking, flushing, blushing, forgetting how to breathe and almost succeeding in “hear[ing] his sphinx-like smile through the phone”, whatever that means.
The photoshoot takes place, we’re gently reminded twice of the “freaking hot” way his pants “hang from his hips” and under the hypnosis of his “burning gray gaze”, Christian asks Ana out to coffee. Here is where it gets interesting – when Ana apologetically informs him that she can’t accompany him because she has to drive her friends home, Grey immediately summons his driver/bodyguard to fulfil that task and “smiles as if it’s a done deal”. All of this without consulting Ana. May I remind you, Mr. Grey, that this is literally the third time you’ve met this girl? Ana frowns at him and declines the offer – clearly uncomfortable with his high-handedness, bless her heart – but then proceeds to rearrange her plans for his benefit. She even calls him out on his behaviour at some point post their date (post her mini orgasm about Christian holding her hand) to which his response is:
“I’m used to getting my own way, Anastasia…..In all things.”
Oh, how the death knell tolls.
CHAPTER 4: The One Where Grey is an Expert at Stalking 101
The sexual tension is strong with this chapter as Grey pulls Ana out of the way of an oncoming cyclist and resists the urge to suck her blood kiss her while she sends him subliminal messages such as “Oh my” and “I’m in your arms. Kiss me, please.” But of course, sensing a dip in the angst level of her novel, Ms. E.L. James forces Christian to announce that Ana should steer clear of him, thus creating the need for Ana to engage in a session of self-loathing, crying in the foetal position, mourning her “dashed hopes, dashed dreams”, yada yada. Kate comforts her by calling her a “total babe” and then we – not the novel, but me because I cannot be bothered to summarize further – cut to the scene where Ana receives first editions of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of D’Urbervilles with a note saying:
“Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks…”
Obviously, this gift is from our darling Christian Grey, but what gets me every time is that the quote he used oh-so-romantically is from chapter 12 of Tess of D’Urbervilles – when Tess informs her mother that she’s been raped by her supposed cousin.
Ana – an English major, might I add – recognises the quote (“Tess says it to her mother after Alec D’Urberville has had his wicked way with her”), deduces that it’s Christian trying to warn her off and thinks no more of it.
We cut to the next scene where Ana, Kate and Co. head to a bar to get shitfaced and at some point in the night, she drunk-dials Grey. He asks her where she is, she provides him with a vague answer and cuts the call. Only to have him call her back and inform her that he’s coming to get her. The book sneakily tries to get me to forget that Grey is a virtual stranger unreasonably invested in this college girl’s life, and fails miserably every time.
Eventually, José – her good friend – comes outside to join her, tries to kiss her, absolutely ignores the fact that she’s pushing at him and telling him to stop and proceeds to blow her personal boundaries to smithereens. Fortunately for Ana, our hero appears in the nick of time. The reason I call it fortunate is because now Ana can completely forget about how she was sexually molested and instead focus on whether she’ll be able to live down becoming violently ill at Grey’s feet, whether it would be “ladylike” of her to hurl abuses at José in front of handsomeAdonismegasuperhero Grey and the fact that Grey had to rescue her from her “over amorous friend”.
Over amorous. Yes, that’s my preferred synonym for molester too.
Grey – sensing Ana’s weak knees – hoists her into his arms and casually announces that he tracked her cell phone. Our darling Ana, even though her “subconscious whispers Stalker” through the haze of tequila induced vomit, convinces herself that “because it’s him, [she doesn’t] mind.”
Come, Ms. E.L. James, let us hold hands and prance into the meadows where sexual assault should be trivialized and stalking can be brushed off if it’s by the object of your lust. Ah, what a wonderful world.
CHAPTER 5: The One Where Grey is a Grade One Asshole
Ana, having passed out in the bar, wakes up the next morning sans pants in Christian Grey’s hotel room. In the midst of mini-orgasming (again) over Grey’s cologne, Ana inquires why she’s in his bed. His bullshit excuse is:
“After you passed out, I didn’t want to risk the leather upholstery in my car taking you all the way to your apartment. So I brought you here.”
May I take this opportunity to remind everyone that including the two phone conversations, this is the 7th time they’ve spoken and the 5th time they’ve met in person? Why Mr. VirtualStranger Grey thought it would be a good idea to bring this comatose girl to his hotel room and undress her is beyond me. But then again, he also justifies his stalking with “if I hadn’t come to get you, you’d probably be waking up in the photographer’s bed”. Yes, gentle reader; stalking was, indeed, justified with the danger of rape.
Then there is this:
“You’re lucky I’m just scolding you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if you were mine, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week after the stunt you pulled yesterday. You didn’t eat, you got drunk, you put yourself at risk. He closes his eyes, dread etched on his lovely face, and he shudders slightly. When he opens his eyes, he glares at me. “I hate to think what could have happened to you.”
Firstly, ding ding for another sighting of proprietary possessive Grey. And secondly, is Grey insinuating that by getting drunk, it was his property’s Ana’s fault she was sexually assaulted? Well, hell.
Of course, Ana, who is insanely attracted to Christian Douchebag Grey and desperate to go to bed with him, wonders why he hasn’t “made a pass at [her], unlike Paul or José?” and “You’ve slept in his bed all night, and he’s not touched you Ana. You do the math.” I just want to briefly interject – JOSÉ MOLESTED YOU, THAT WAS NOT A PASS. And now you’re upset you weren’t further assaulted when you were comatose? coughs Sorry, back to trivializing assault.
During their banal conversation over breakfast where Ana is basically a quivering blob of lust after Hannibal Christian confesses he wants to bite her lip, just to add to his overbearing domineering and sickeningly high-handed (read: charming) personality, he orders her to finish what’s on her plate and refuses to take her home until she dries her hair, lest she fall ill.
There’s a brief mention of Darfur somewhere in that chapter to hint at Grey’s altruistic nature (because you can’t pass up genocide on the road to character development). Lustful thoughts overcome Ana. And then Stalker Greek God Extraordinaire is making out with Ana’s face in the most erotic kiss in literary history – which, in fact, is quite assault-y:
“He lunges at me, pushing me against the wall of the elevator. Before I know it, he’s got both of my hands in one of his in a vice-like grip above my head, and he’s pinning me to the wall using his hips. Holy shit. His other hand grabs my ponytail and yanks down, bringing my face up, and his lips are on mine.”
Yes, I see all the permission/consent business you got out of the way there, Grey. Great job taking into consideration the fact that she was assaulted the previous night. It doesn’t help that his behaviour is excused by Ana who is mind-numbingly glad they’re on their way to boning.
Thank God this chapter is over.
CHAPTER 6: The One Where Grey Ana Channels Her Inner Ms. Dimwit
The chapter begins with a filler car ride which is just that – a filler. And then:
“He pulls up outside my duplex. I belatedly realize he’s not asked me where I live – yet he knows. But then he sent the books, of course he knows where I live. What able, cell-phone-tracking, helicopter owning, stalker wouldn’t.
Why won’t he kiss me again?”
Not only do I hold Ana’s inability to prioritize in very high regard, but also the tenacity with which she lusts after Grey, all the signs indicative of his psychopathic tendencies be damned.
The day is spent prettying Ana up for her upcoming date with Grey and even though Ana finds the experience most unpleasant, Roommate Kate assures her that “this is what men expect these days.” For their date, Grey flies them to Seattle in his magic carpet helicopter, Ana wonders if its misuse of company property, and then just when I’m getting used to the banal small-talk, this happens:
The memory of José’s attempted kiss haunts me. I’m beginning to feel a bit cruel not calling him back. He can wait until tomorrow… surely.
Previously, we were told that José had been repeatedly trying to reach Ana and now in the midst of one of the few positive experiences in her life, she feels cruel for not calling her molester back – the man who didn’t back off after eight physical and verbal refusals.
At some point in the chapter, Ms. E.L. James, in her last ditch effort to redeem the hero, makes Grey say:
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. You know that don’t you?” His tone is so earnest, desperate even, his gray eyes impassioned. He takes me by surprise.
“I’d never do anything I didn’t want to do, Christian.”
The irony of this will become evident soon.
They’re at Grey’s brilliantly fancy apartment/penthouse when their small talk veers into dangerous territory. Dangerous by my standards, not Ana’s – never Ana’s. She asks him about the expensive books he sent her and the Tess of D’Urbervilles quote. His response is:
“It seemed appropriate. I could hold you to some impossibly high ideal like Angel Clare or debase you completely like Alec D’Urberville.”
- Debasement? That’s what we’re going to call it? May I remind the author that Tess’ supposed cousin, Alec D’Urberville, raped her?
- Angel Clare, Tess’ husband, on finding out that Tess had borne a child as a result of her rape, condemned her for sex before marriage and for not conforming with his idea of an ethereal woman.
Darling Ana informs Grey that she chooses debasement. As if she is a currency with value that can be lowered. One small step for Ana, one giant leap into a ditch for womankind.
She also refuses to read the non-disclosure agreement Grey asks her to sign. Because:
“Christian, what you fail to understand is that I wouldn’t talk about us to anyone, anyway. Even Kate. So it’s immaterial whether I sign an agreement or not. If it means so much to you, or your lawyer… whom you obviously talk to, then fine. I’ll sign.”
This is the logic that wins moots.
Grey proceeds to tell her he wants to have sex and casually mentions his playroom. Ana is mystified about his sudden urge to play on his Xbox. The door to the playroom opens and Ana feels like she’s “time-travelled back to the sixteenth century and the Spanish Inquisition.” Nothing screams sexytimes like religious persecutors and torturers.
CHAPTER 7: The One Where Grey Refuses to Use Fire, Piss, Shit, Needles, Knives, Gynaecological Medical Instruments, Paedophilia, Bestiality, etc in their Sex Life.
The playroom and sex toys are described in great detail: there’s a large wooden St. Andrew’s cross, an iron grid suspended from the ceiling, a caning station, poles, an assortment of paddles, whips, riding crops, floggers and other interesting suede/leather/satin paraphernalia.
Ana’s reaction is interesting, to say the least:
“What is the appropriate response to finding out a potential lover is a complete freaky sadist or masochist? Fear… yes… that seems to be the over-riding feeling. I recognize it now. But weirdly not of him – I don’t think he’d hurt me, well, not without my consent.”
The death knell hasn’t stopped tolling.
Once she gets over her shock, Ana has questions for Christian. He explains the reward and punishment system and how his pleasure and joy will be derived from her submission. When asked what she will receive in return, he says, “Me.”
Now I’m still a noob about the workings of BDSM but I’m pretty sure the list of incentives is much bigger. Not as big as Grey’s ego, clearly.
Ana is painfully confusing throughout the chapter:
He’s dangerous to my health, because I know I’m going to say yes. And part of me doesn’t want to. Part of me wants to run screaming from this room and all it represents. I am so out of my depth here.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Anastasia.” His gray eyes implore, and I know he speaks the truth.
That part of you is called self-preservation, Ana. And unless you hear the word of God every time he speaks, no, you do not know whether he speaks the truth.
The rest of the chapter is spent reading Grey’s BDSM rules. The headings are obedience, sleep, food, clothes, exercise, personal hygiene, personal safety, other sexual relations, and of course, hard limits.
Personally, I don’t think Ana has the ability to consent to any kind of BDSM. Her inexperience and lack of knowledge about the subject has been clubbing the reader in the head every five minutes. She thinks enjoying BDSM is indicative of a mental problem. I mean, come on. Furthermore, I understand that Grey is a fictional character controlled by the brainless whims of his author, but if he thinks he can get away with pretending to be unaware of the complexities surrounding consent, and more so consent in BDSM relationships, he has another thing coming.
At this point, I’m not even sure if Ana knows that a BDSM contract isn’t legally binding.
The chapter ends with us finding out that Ana is a virgin. And Grey being spitting mad at her for not telling him.
CHAPTER 8: The One Where Nothing Interesting Happens
There are sentences such as this:
“And a nice young man hasn’t swept you off your feet? I just don’t understand. You’re twenty-one, nearly twenty-two. You’re beautiful.”
“How have you avoided sex? Tell me, please.”
“We’re going to rectify the situation right now.”
And then they have sex. The end (I wish).
CHAPTER 9: The One Where the Two Have More Sex
Ana wakes up to Sex God Adonis sleeping beside her. Her admiring inspection of him is interrupted by “bathroom needs”. There’s some early morning cooking, solo dancing, wandering around and marvelling at the apartment — fun stuff. Until the point Christian Grey wakes up from his sex-induced slumber. He flirts with her, snaps at her to finish her breakfast, and back to sex we go (Ana does not have a gag reflex, in case the male gaze wants to know.)
Their bedroom shenanigans are many. Only to be interrupted by the arrival of his mother.
CHAPTER 10: The One Where Grey has Stockholm’s Syndrome
I’m pretty certain E.L. James has more of a love-hate relationship with Grey than Ana does. On the one hand, she’s determined to outdo Stephanie Meyer’s wet dream description of Edward Cullen and then on the other, she writes sentences such as: “His beauty is “derailing”. Not many positive things come to mind on hearing that word. Unless you’re the sort that enjoys trainwrecks.
Grey unties Ana’s wrists (not sure when that happened; I could not skim past the unbelievably boring purple prose fast enough) and commands her to meet his mother:
“I will expect you in that room in five minutes, otherwise I’ll come and drag you out of here myself in whatever you’re wearing.”
Christian Non-Threatening Grey. What a guy.
José calls her in the middle of her conversation with Grey’s mother. This brings to life cold detached passive-aggressive Christian Grey. In the blink of an eye we go from mama’s boy to clipped tones, glaring, narrowing of eyes – the usual. “The warmth in his eyes has disappeared. He looks forbidding….”
Grey hands Ana a manila envelope with the sex contract and encourages her to do some research before signing it. And then:
“I’ll just make a call,” I murmur. I just want to hear Kate’s voice. He frowns.
“The photographer?” His jaw clenches, and his eyes burn. I blink at him. “I don’t like to share, Miss Steele. Remember that.” His quiet, chilling tone is a warning, and with one long, cold look at me, he heads back to the bedroom.
Gentle readers, give me a moment to pick my jaw off the floor.
This is a classic instance of an emotionally abusive and controlling relationship. Where is this irrational anger coming from? Could Ana have somehow stopped José from calling her? Grey immediately shuts down and withdraws emotional intimacy from his partner as soon as there’s a hint of suspicion – absolutely unreasonable suspicion – that another dog is trying to move in on the turf he has oh-so-carefully peed across. Why does he need to know who she’s speaking to over the phone? What drives him to speak to Ana in such a way that even someone as starry-eyed as her perceives his tone to be a warning? E.L. James does not hesitate to mask his manipulative and abusive tendencies with the veil of BDSM. Unfortunately, considering that this series has a dedicated fan following, clearly it’s working.
Grey sets off to drive Ana home, but midway decides that she must eat even though she tells him she’s not particularly hungry. He orders wine for her even though she specifically asks for a Diet Coke. When she says she doesn’t have the appetite for the venison, “his expression hardens”. She perceives his tone to be threatening when he orders her to eat. And finally when she’s more assertive in her refusal, what she experiences is a sense of relief because other than scowling at her, Grey doesn’t say or do anything. I don’t know about you, Ana, but this relationship screams ‘abusive’ to me.
E.L. James takes this opportunity to throw two more curveballs:
- In the middle of a discussion on vanilla sex, Grey tells Ana,
“One of my mother’s friends seduced me when I was fifteen.” And qualifies that with “She had very particular tastes. I was her submissive for six years.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but fifteen is not an age at which one can give legal consent. Christian Grey was not “seduced”; he was raped by his mother’s friend.
When asked by Ana whether he dated in college, he says:
“She was all I wanted, needed. And besides, she’d have beaten the shit out of me.” He smiles fondly at the memory.
I proudly declare that the author is the Queen of Trivializing. Not only does Grey have Stockholm’s Syndrome, but even though his mental faculties have developed enough for him to fully understand the exploitative nature of that relationship, this child molester remains “a very good friend”.
As for number 2: on reaching home, José finally manages to get through to Ana over the phone, and Ana – falling prey to José’s apologetic tone – forgives him, tells him she loves him dearly and on being accused of cosying up to Grey for his money, to pacify José’s petty jealousy, makes plans to have coffee with her molester.
The chapter ends with Ana taking a peek at the contract inside the manila envelope, and you – dear reader – taking a peek at the rest of your corporate-slave-life: due diligence.