Because I am deeply dedicated to exploring any and all pop culture phenomena for your benefit no matter the cost to my own sanity, (and because what else was I going to read poolside in California?) I spent part of my time away reading Fifty Shades of Grey*. The novel, a self-published best-seller that started as Twilight fan fiction and subsequently landed print publication and a major movie deal, is essentially a conventional romance about a broken man rescued by the love of a good woman. But Fifty Shades‘ embrace of BDSM isn’t tight enough to leave a bruise, or to open up a serious conversation about power in intimate relationships.
The potential submissive here is Anastasia Steele, possessed of one of the great stupid romance novel names of all time, a virginal college senior who hopes to go into publishing. Her roommate, the editor of the college newspaper, inexplicably asks Anastasia rather than another reporter to fill in for her at an interview with an elusive industrialist who is a major university benefactor. The interview is outwardly a disaster: Anastasia falls down, gets flustered, asks Christian Grey if he’s gay. But as in Twilight, her incompetence ignites a possessive urge and an erotic obsession in Grey. He asks her to sign a contract to become his submissive, divests her of her virginity, and gives her an education in erotic spanking, riding crops, and handcuffs, then begins breaking all his rules and forging an emotional relationship with her as well. While Fifty Shades of Grey has references to all sorts of toys in what Anastasia refers to as Christian’s “Red Room of Pain,” and some discussion of dominant-submissive power dynamics, overall the novel reads as if author E.L. James did what Christian encourages Anastasia to do after proposing that she become his sub: hit up Wikipedia.
The novel, told from Anastasia’s perspective, consistently insists that Christian, who was born to a drug-addicted mother and sexually initiated by a dominant friend of his mother’s at fifteen, is interested in BDSM because it’s a way of containing and channeling his psychological damage. And Anastasia constantly insists that Christian is an unreliable narrator of his own life. She describes him as “A young man deprived of his adolescence, sexually abused by some evil Mrs. Robinson figure.” When she thinks about his experiences with Elana, his first lover, it’s with distrust and disbelief: “I just can’t picture it. Christian being beaten by someone as old as my mother, it’s just so wrong. Again I wonder what damage she’s wrought.” Some of her jealousy is the result of a sense of inadequacy. Anastasia wonders “Did she have the best of him? Before he became so closed? Or did she bring him out of himself? He has such a fun, playful side.” But mostly, Anastasia firmly believes that Christian’s interest in dominance and submission is the result of profound self-loathing, something that Christian can grow beyond to heal rather than a source of what he needs: “He doesn’t even love himself. I recall his self-loathing, her love being the only form he found acceptable. Punished— whipped, beaten, whatever their relationship entailed— he feels undeserving of love. Why does he feel like that? How can he feel like that?”
It’s a weirdly condescending perspective for Anastasia to take towards Christian’s understanding of himself. She’s jealous and confused that Christian could consider Elana a friend, that he’s in business with her, that they have dinner together. “It wasn’t like that,” he tells Anastasia. “Okay, it didn’t feel like that to me…She was a force for good. What I needed…She’s not an animal, Anastasia. Of course she didn’t. I don’t understand why you feel you have to demonize her.” A more sophisticated novel might have delved into the question of what Christian believes that he needs. Anastasia is convinced that, for Christian, domination and submission are about associating love with pain. But the book never examines the idea that a dominant-submissive relationship might be about providing Christian with relationships that have an extreme clarity and predictability to them after the chaos of his childhood before he was adopted, about knowing exactly what he’s supposed to do or expected to do or allowed to do in one arena of his life, or about guaranteeing that he has someone who will be receptive to his offers of love and pleasure. Giving more respect to his perspective could have moved Fifty Shades of Grey beyond the romance novel conventions that form its skeleton, and into a more serious consideration of what people want from their relationships and the fact that pop culture ideals of love and sex are not sufficient to everyone’s needs.
It’s not as if this is impossible to do in mainstream entertainment. I wrote about this a while ago, but in the Season 2 finale of Homicide “A Many Splendored Thing,” Detectives Bayliss and Pembleton work the murder of a woman who worked on a phone-sex line and is found strangled by a belt from a jacket the pair trace to a fetish shop. In some of the more interesting character work in that shortened season, Bayliss recoils when a cuffed male suspect tries to kiss him, a moment that’s less about homophobia and more about Bayliss’s feeling that his control of the situation has been violated. Later, the murdered girl’s friend brings him a jacket from that same fetish shop, and when he demurs, shifts her voice into a new tone as she orders him to put it on. Bayliss complies, and we get a sense of what’s buried below his psychological waterline, a desire to surrender control rather than lose it.
Christian offers a chance to experience that to Anastasia, telling her “If you were my sub, you wouldn’t have to think about this. It would be easy. All those decisions— all the wearying thought processes behind them. The ‘is this the right thing to do? Should this happen here? Can it happen now?’ You wouldn’t have to worry about any of that detail.” It’s a fraught scenario, a fraught desire, and I think it’s worth exploring, especially at a time when women are supposed to claim power these days, not surrender it.
Though that’s not precisely what’s at stake in Fifty Shades of Grey—I don’t happen to believe that BDSM is a recreation of the patriarchy—I’d be interested in a quality artistic defense of really profound female submission to male authority. To take Twilight, from whence Fifty Shades of Grey springs, while I don’t particularly share the fantasy, I do understand why that series is intermittently appealing. When faced with the pressure to have it all, it would be a relief if a group of people showed up in a packaged set to make you over, provide a rewarding adult society that teaches you to socialize and makes you feel sophisticated, and marry you, eliminating the need to date or risk heartbreak. Choice and the possibility of error can be paralyzing, and while I’d argue that means we need to better prepare people to know their preferences and to choose in their best intersts rather than restricting their choices, I can see the appeal of a bright, shining path standing out from all the others, illuminated by people who have your best interests at heart.
By contrast, Fifty Shades of Grey could have made a clear, eroticized case for domination and submission as separate from surrender to the patriarchy. The clearest signal that the book has failed to do that is that many negative reviews I’ve read are turned off by the sense that Anastasia is blindly submitting to terrible treatment rather than engaging in a relationship whose terms she’s negotiated, and that she gets as much from being a sub as Christian does as her dominant. You have to be able to have power in the first place in order to give it up, and Anastasia’s decision to submit could have, in the hands of a better, more sophisticated writer than E.L. James, been a demonstration that she’s gone beyond a woman’s gateway power to say no to sex and is exploring what choices lie beyond it, and what options are available to her as the person who fulfills Christian.
We’ll never know, because Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t actually want to explore a formalized relationship between a dominant and a submissive. For all the discussion of the contract that Christian and Anastasia discuss endlessly and negotiate over as an early form of flirtation, Anastasia never signs it. The novel makes much of the idea that Anastasia doesn’t have a particularly submissive personality (which is not necessarily, given that domination and submission are about exploring power dynamics—a domineering person in public life may enjoy submission in private), something that draws Christian to her and is the foundation for a suggestion that Christian’s enjoyment of dominance may be a kind of delusion, the refuge of a scared and damaged little boy.
Christian’s “lifestyle” in Fifty Shades of Grey is the equivalent of a childhood loss of a parent or a broken engagement in another romance novel, a barrier to intimacy rather than something that can be conducive to it. And the toys that decorate what Anastasia calls the “Red Room of Pain” are just a substitute for corsets, a repurposing of Regency riding crops, accessories for spicing up a relationship rather than fundamentally reconsidering its dynamics. For all its naughtiness, the book would faint dead away at anything so racy as an actual challenge to gender roles and sexual politics. Fifty Shades of Grey is the literary equivalent of telling a woman to meet her husband at the door dressed in saran wrap.
*I’ve just read the first novel. I’ll probably read the others eventually.