Recently I read the first book in the Fifty Shades trilogy, along with part of the second book. I was borrowing it from a friend; I don’t have the book with me to copy out quotes word for word.
I found it kind of funny that I knew all the obscure BDSM stuff already from reading radfem blogs, lol.
As an aside I will say that while bits of the sex writing were in my opinion quite erotic (albeit not in a revolutionary way, haha), overall the plot and writing was incredibly dull, boring, and frustrating to read. Other than this I’m not going to bash E L James too much for writing with what is an appropriate level of subtlety for her genre.
I don’t want to focus on the obvious criticisms of the series because these have been done to death by feminist blogs and to be honest, it’s just too easy. What I will say is, whether feminists like it or not, huge numbers of women are reading these books, enjoying them, and recommending them to friends. The books are a cultural phenomenon. Therefore, worth examining.
Also I have no wish to criticise women for enjoying these books.
I think there are two reasons for their popularity. One, het women are rarely exposed to erotica by and for het women. So even shoddy erotica has a huge novelty value, due to its rareness. Two, I think the books do express some sort of truth about women’s experience of sex and het love affairs. I am not claiming it’s a palatable truth or a revolutionary truth or a positive truth. But I think it is a truth.
In my head the book read like something Dworkin would quote in Intercourse. I could almost see her annotations. (Andrea, I will always be thankful to you because you have helped to free my mind.) I think Andrea Dworkin would have had a lot to say about the symbolic use of a cross that Ana is tied to at one point during a sex scene, too.
The very first paragraph of the first book leapt out at me and smacked me round the face. I have found the first chapter online for free here http://www.scribd.com/doc/87912214/April-Free-Chapter-Fifty-Shades-of-Grey-by-E-L-James so this is an accurate quote:
‘I should be studying for my final exams… yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush… My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail.’
so the very first paragraph describes routine grooming practices (ie what women do to themselves in order to be male-pleasing) in BDSM terms. submission… reciting a rule… bring it under control… restrain.
this continues at other points in the book. I can’t remember all the examples, but during a sex scene the narrator, Ana, describes herself as ‘trussed up by my own bra’. Her flatmate, Kate, also supervises a ‘humiliating and painful’ exercise in depilation, in readiness for Ana’s first sexual encounter with Mr Grey. There is also an interesting appointment with Mr Grey’s on-call gynaecologist so that Ana can start taking the Pill- because Mr Grey doesn’t like condoms. Ana isn’t even consulted about how she feels about raising her risk of heart disease/stroke and fucking with her natural hormone levels. She’s just examined and given the Pill.
The baseline, in the book, seems to be that women are already doing this shit for men, in pursuit of love. When Mr Grey wants to be able to hurt, restrain, and punish Ana she sees it as her role to try and fulfill this, and try and want it too- or risk losing him. She believes she’s in love with him, so she decides to try to submit because the idea of losing him is unbearable.
(it’s an easy point to make, but Mr Grey is gorgeous and a multimillionaire, and makes her come, a lot. Ater a few days, a lot of sex, and pretty much no meaningful conversation, Ana is irrevocably ‘in love’ with him. I do think if he was just some kinky bloke renting a single room in Peckham, say, he’d be a lot less attractive.)
Whether I like it or not, whether we like it or not, women submit to unbelievable shit from men, both on an individual and broader social basis. A lot of the time we do it for love. That’s one thing.
Also, Mr Grey is fucking scary. He’s a frightening character and Ana seems scared of him and his reactions a lot of the time. Also, he makes sure early on that he has economic control over her life, and can take away her resources at any time should she displease him. I think this also highlights some good motivators for why women submit.
One way that Ana rebels- one of the only ways that Ana rebels- is by not eating. Any discussion of anorexia is a whole ‘nother post in itself, but there is clearly an element of subversion in her refusal to eat food, as well as of desperation.
The female characters in this book are rather weak. Ana’s mother is on her fourth husband (Ana decides that ‘maybe she does know a thing or two about men’ based on this. Yeah. Or she just refuses to learn from her mistakes). The author is clearly so bored by the mother-daughter bond that she concludes any conversations between Ana and her mum before they’ve even begun- usually by interrupting them with Mr Grey.
Ana’s mum is desperate for Ana to ‘find a man’. Ana feels her mum needs looking after because she is whimsical and impulsive (women are infantilised throughout), and Ana hopes that her mum’s latest husband will be the one to look after her mum. Ana’s mother misses Ana’s graduation because her husband has hurt his ankle and she needs to stay with him and wait on him hand and foot. Ana is fine about this, thinks it’s perfectly reasonable.
Ana’s flatmate Kate manipulates her and bosses her around; this relationship is often presented as a precursor to Ana’s sub/Dom relationship with Mr Grey. The ways in which this is a misleading comparison are numerous- Kate doesn’t want to physically hurt Ana, nor is Ana scared of Kate, nor does Kate stalk Ana. Nor is Ana trusting Kate with her entire body including the risk of pregnancy. Kate doesn’t constantly torment Ana with the threat of physical violence if she fails to comply.
Other than that the comparison is an appropriate one.
There’s another thing that immediately struck me about this book, and it’s the eroticisation of child abuse. Mr Grey was abused as a child, which is the reason why he hates to be touched on his torso, and why he’s a sexual predator. And partly why Ana falls for him. Yes, Fifty Shades is one of those works of fiction in which there’s nothing more intriguing or tragic or attractive than a lover who is damaged because they were abused as a child.
Obviously it’s attractive that someone has been irrevocably damaged because they were hurt by someone in a position of trust when they were incredibly vulnerable. It’s never been the sort of thing I fantasise about in my ideal lover, but what can I say? Fifty Shades has opened my eyes. (sarcasm, btw.)
Most of the sex in the first book was so-called ‘vanilla’. This was still based on roles of dominance (for the man, Mr Grey) and submission (for the woman, Ana). There was nothing un-D/s about it, but because they didn’t actually leave bruises or use instruments of torture it was described as ‘vanilla’. It was like sex except Ana got a lot out of it and came about three times every time they got it on. That stuff was the actual erotic writing. The spanking scenes where she was being hurt weren’t actually even written in such an erotic style. Most of my friends found the ‘BDSM’ stuff ‘weird’ and ‘doesn’t do it for them’. They read it out of fascination more than anything.
Of the women I discussed the book with, no one expected Ana to gain much pleasure from submitting to Mr Grey’s BDSM fantasies, but they were of the opinion that ‘she’s in love. And you put up with all sorts of shit when you love a bloke.’
There were just a couple more things that stayed with me, that I want to write down.
When Ana sees the ‘Red Room of Pain’ she says to Mr Grey ‘you like to hurt people?’
And he goes ‘People? I like to hurt women.’
Later, the morning after they first have sex (her first sexual encounter) she does her hair in pigtails- because, she says, ‘it might keep her safer from him’. Looking like a kid, that is. (It doesn’t. He plays with her pigtails when he next fucks her.)