Laura Briody questions the obsession over E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey…

Last year, the craze sweeping the female rights movement was that of The SlutWalk. Women throughout the world paraded through their city, dressed in short shorts, short skirts, short dresses – in short, whatever they liked. They carried signs proclaiming to be ‘sluts’, just to make sure we were pretty damn sure of it. The message? That women wearing provocative (a.k.a. ‘slutty’) clothing do not equate to an invitation for sex – or, indeed, rape. The intention? To reclaim a word that has been used both to portray women negatively, and to give the opposite gender an excuse to behave in a manner that goes way beyond failing to hold a door open.

Some people – mostly women – are claiming that this year’s craze: the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey and its greying counterparts, does the same. It is women reclaiming their right to be bound up, beaten, spanked and generally enjoy being submissive.

On the face of it, nothing about Fifty Shades of Grey is immediately objectionable. It is a story inspired by tween-sensation Twilight: it first appeared on Twi-hard fan fiction sites with the names Bella and Edward instead of Ana and Christian. Christian is the epitome of the male character in chick-lit: cold, distant, brooding, but devastatingly handsome. He convinces the virgin Ana to sign a sex-contract with him and before you know it they are galloping off into the sunset, him spanking Ana’s bottom to make her move faster.

At best, Fifty Shades is an erotic novel that is, well, crap. In fact, most erotic novels leave something to be desired in the writing department and the fact that the Fifty Shades characters are based on the leads from Twilight has done it absolutely no favours. Bella and Edward were hardly three-dimensional to begin with. Christian may be remarkably handsome and persuasive, but he is also remarkably boring. His persona leaves me wondering why anyone would want to share a lift with him, let alone a relationship.

But it is the female lead of Ana that truly takes the biscuit. There is nothing interesting or particularly remarkable about her. She traipses a similar route to many women in both literature and film: the heroine who is simply there to fill a void needed for a female lead. They are always thin and always beautiful – but not perfect. Oh no, they can’t be perfect or we would hate them and not enjoy the flimsy excuse for a story we have accidently come across. So the character is usually given a flaw to make her more ‘human’ (read: annoying).  Male characters in literature carry great flaws that ultimately lead to their death but provide some great entertainment on the way, such as ambition (Macbeth), indecision (Hamlet) or a need to play the hero (Harry Potter). The females are not so lucky; their terrible flaw is usually the inability to perceive objects and not trip over them. Along with the clumsiness, ditzy behaviour and failing to cook well, they are the most popular methods for supposedly ‘fleshing out’ the female lead.

Books of course are not real and are not expected to be real. The problem is that the author E.L. James has already asked me to suspend an awful lot of beliefs already, mainly spawning from Christian’s in house sex chamber (do they have those sections at B&Q?). She has also asked me to believe that after Ana’s male friend tries to rape her, Ana then worries about him and goes around to see him… alone. Now, many women on the receiving end of sexual assault blame themselves and worry they have brought it on themselves. But Ana pushes this further, seemingly too stupid to realise what happened, and places herself in the exact same position again. In real life, it just wouldn’t happen. If she even wanted to see him again she would bring a friend, or arrange to meet in public. Yet instead of making her the level-headed, assertive heroine some are claiming she is; James portrays her as a wet blanket, making a mess on the floor.

So I suspended my belief as much as humanly possible, but eventually it broke. All I ask of an author is to write something at least mildly convincing and Fifty Shades isn’t. I fail to be convinced that this doe-eyed, drippy bint is enough to change a sadistic bastard like Christian who clearly needs a trained psychiatrist.

Christian and Ana’s dominant/submissive relationship may initially be sexual, but it plays out into their entire relationship: as it often does. Many women are insisting that the book has let women reclaim their own sexuality, to claim the title of submissive for their own; and if the book was better written, with better characters, themes and plots, I would happily agree. I have absolutely no problem with that.

BDSM is fine. The problem with the submission and dominance in the novel is that it mirrors the roles played out by those involved in domestic violence. Roles played out by real people, real women, who have to live with the brutal consequences. Domestic violence is physical, emotional, psychological and above all, completely unacceptable. However, Shades of Grey portrays this dominant/submissive relationship to be a romantic one, with Ana given gifts and promises – so similar to the gifts and promises given to a wife or girlfriend after their partner has assaulted them. Speaking out against James’ portrayal, a victim of domestic abuse is said to have asked her counsellor why it didn’t feel romantic or loving when it was happening to her.

Fifty Shades of Grey sends a message. One so subtle it cannot have been deliberate – but it is there none the less. It says that domestic violence is a women’s problem, it is only her perception that makes it wrong. This makes as much sense as the assertion that if a woman receives flowers afterward, it is sex; but if they fail to arrive, it is rape. The book also sends a message to men that women want to be dominated, and that when they say ‘no’, what they mean is ‘yes’. It is reinforcing decades of the misguided misogynistic assertion that women are submissive and should kow-tow to a man’s every wish. If they don’t – “Well, haven’t you read Fifty Shades of Grey? Everyone else does! Why are you such a freak?” As if self-respect is an anomaly. . .

The “heroine” Ana somehow manages to change the emotionally challenged Christian into a wonderful man – such a sentence has some women clutching at their hearts and loins. Such a sentiment appeals to their egos. How many women have stayed with a ‘bad boy’, a cheater or a general bastard, because they genuinely believed they would be the one to change them? How many believed that it would be different for them? Because it fulfils such a fantasy, Fifty Shades of Grey is a woman’s narcissistic wet dream.

Fifty Shades of Grey is crap. The thing is: I can live with crap. The writing is appalling, and the sex scenes had me screaming in laughter instead of ecstasy. But if it was simply a bad book, I wouldn’t have heard of it and could have gone about my life without wanting to hurl it at people in book shops. It is the impact and popularity of the book that irritates me. Although, popular things are rarely actually any good and I am gradually coming to accept that the public hardly ever knows what is good for it. Examples include McDonalds, Starbucks, The X Factor and the Conservative Party in government.

I understand how some may think I am reading too much into a book that is, by my own admission, awful: but I should stress that it is the significance and popularity of this book that has put it in prime position for discussion. At the base of it, it is an erotic novel that isn’t very erotic or interesting – but millions of copies later and we have to consider the impact and significance. Especially when Fifty Shades is sending the dangerous message that controlling relationships are acceptable; as long as your guy buys you gifts and are really hot.

Ok, maybe I take it too far. Maybe I shouldn’t be tempted to go through all the copies in Waterstones, enclosing the number of a therapist. We are all looking to be satisfied – the question we must ask ourselves is: what are we indulging in, in order to find it?

And for all you looking for a Christian Grey? Remember that in S&M, it is the submissive who has the power: they have the safe-word to control how far it goes. In reality, the submissive does not have the power to block cruel taunts or painful blows. In reality, it is a hell of a lot harder to say stop.


Laura Briody

Photo credit E. L. James