Fifty Shades of Grey has quickly become a cultural phenomenon, and has driven many to take sides. Some are enamored with the so-called ‘mommy porn’, while others are critical of the significance of its popularity, and what it teaches us about our society. Others are wary of the book’s graphic sexual content, while some trash the writing style.
All are legitimate opinions, of course, but I decided to read the book before taking other people’s opinions on the subject.
FSofG (Fifty Shades of Grey) began as a Twilight fanfiction aptly named, ‘Master of the Universe” by ‘Snowqueen’s Icedragon’, which was posted on fanfiction websites before being taken down, and reposted on ‘FiftyShades.com’ after concerns about its sexual nature. Later on, E.L James changed the names of the characters, and published it under the name ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. In 2012, FSofG had outsold the entire Harry Potter series on Amazon, and was #1 for 20 weeks on USA Today’s best selling books. The book was turned into a movie, the characters of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele played by Jamie Doman and Dakota Johnson, respectively. It was released on February 13th, and made $81.7 million in sales on the 3 day weekend.
The plot itself follows an insecure English major, Anastasia Steele (referred to as Ana for the majority of the novel), who steps in for her best friend to interview Christian Grey, the young, wealthy and beautiful CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. At first sight, Christian is intrigued by the clumsy, unsure-of-herself Ana, and he exhibits stalker-like tendencies through the beginning of the novel; turning up to her workplace and tracking her phone. Eventually Ana learns about Christian’s sexual tastes, BDSM, and is introduced to sex by Mr. Grey.
The writing features a lot of increasingly repetitive interjections (like “Holy Cow” or “Oh Gosh”), some oddly placed complicated words (especially in conversation), overuse of adjectives (used generally to describe the sexiness of Christian Grey), and very literal narration. I thought it would be hard to plod through the plot, but it was far more difficult to take the book seriously. The characters were worse. Anastasia Steele is a shy introvert, who seems to be innocent of everything at 21 years. (She did not know how to use a computer, in 2012.) Among other things, she loves to read romantic classics, she seems to be aware of what she lacks, and she’s naive. Christian Grey, the tortured ‘bajillionare’, is presented as a stuck up pretty-boy, who seems to be good at everything (rich, intelligent, plays piano, knows his wines, can fly a glider, need I go on). Christian Grey was abused as a child, and this seems to be the main reason for all his actions. His BDSM tastes are alright because he is a broken person, and he needs to be understood and fixed. His controlling, abusive and manipulative behaviour is excused by his past.
Many have called the book anti-feminist. At one point, Grey tells Ana that in BDSM, the submissive is really the one in control. Of course, this is while he is emotionally manipulating and trying to control her, which she may or may not be comfortable with. Taking this book at face value, without evaluating the morals, can lead us to believe that what Grey is talking about is true, but his resulting actions speak against what he preaches. At one point Anna says no to sex, but is forced into it; the lack of consent has some people calling it rape. The main idea of BDSM is consent, and the book warps the practice into something it is not. The book has gotten BDSM public attention, but presents it in such a way that it seems that one must have emotional problems, like Grey’s history of sexual abuse, in order to participate in any type of kink or fetish.
This sort of behavior affects the reading experience a lot. It’s almost easy to agree with the actions of the characters, and fall into the lull of things. It makes the popularity of the book understandable, but brings up some bigger questions. As a society, is it okay for us to make a book that exploits women so popular and so acceptable? Is it enough to dismiss it as ‘mommy porn’ without acknowledging the cultural significance and resulting assumptions about our culture?
This book has affected real people, and caused tragedy. There are already stories of people assuming this is what women want, and raping – even killing them in the name of FSoG’s BDSM. People are mistaking BDSM with violence and sex, and that non-consent can be ignored as inhibition. Under violence and pain, ‘no’ is normal, but in a sexual way, ‘no’ is just an involuntary reaction, and leads to pleasure. A Swedish man beat his girlfriend 123 times with a blackboard pointer before she asphyxiated due to something being shoved in her mouth. He said that she was a willing ‘sex slave’, but her journal stated that she was subservient, not a masochist. Another man was trying to recreate a FSoG scene, by whipping, punching and raping a college girl, even after she cried and begged him to stop.
This book has brought up so many issues that the positives may be hard to find. It shoves women into the submissive role, and men into the dominant role, supporting gender stereotypes under the guise of freedom of sexuality. It normalizes unhealthy behaviour, without realizing that the possessiveness and cruelty of its main character is not a sign of his love or in any way excusable.
The whirlwind that has been Fifty Shades of Grey can not be completely dismissed as a stain on literature and popular culture, because it has brought up problems in our society that need to be addressed. Consume the media with a grain of salt, and don’t take others opinions at first glance. Fifty Shades of Grey is easy to overlook because of its sexual content and bad prose, but its impact is more important that the novel itself.
To conclude this review, although the book was certainly enlightening, I do not think I will be returning to this series. I’m afraid Mr. Grey will not see me now.