Edited by Rania Saeb, published in LoYACY magazine in September of 2012.
This summer’s hottest read, Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L.James, has literally gotten too hot to handle – it has sparked such controversy that a domestic violence organization in the UK is planning a mass Fifty Shades book-burning on November 5th. The organization believes that the book is “an instruction manual for an abusive individual to sexually torture a vulnerable young woman”, endorses misogyny, and eroticizes male dominance. According to Wearside Women in Need, readers should express their disapproval of these outrageous acts by burning their copies. The director, Clare Philipson, said she could not get through more than two thirds of the book before she gave up “in disgust”.
Philipson had hoped that a “feminist icon” would speak out against the book, but since “no one has”, she has decided to publicly condemn the book through the upcoming mass burning. In her opinion, women are not reading deeply enough into the story. She sees that Christian Grey is an older, more experienced man who takes advantage of a virginal young woman who is less powerful, less experienced, and hesitant about the field he is taking her into. Philipson believes that over time, Christian normalizes the violence against her, despite claiming that he’ll be tentative of her boundaries at the beginning. He hurts her until it doesn’t hurt anymore; until, at the end, it ‘hurts so good’.
The other aspect of this argument also focuses on the emotional ‘abuse’ that Anastasia is put through. The message is supposedly a classic narrative of domestic violence: “that you can heal this broken man, that if you just love him enough and take his sh*t enough, he will get better”. Christian’s psychiatrist believes that Anastasia really is healing him; he tells her that during the five weeks that Christian dated her, she has made more progress with him than his psychiatrist has in three years. Those opposing the relationship, nonetheless, still believe that women should not have to tolerate so much simply for the sake of ‘love’ – that their dignity, safety, and self-respect should come first. This is because they believe that not all of the Christian Greys in the world will magically heal; women will end up emotionally and physically traumatized or potentially dead, and that risk is not one worth taking. Fifty Shades suggests that all risks are worth taking in the name of love.
Several psychological experts on domestic abuse have also contributed their opinions on the matter. Jenna Geudreau focused on Christian’s need for control, and used rape as an example to illustrate that his sexual affairs are abnormal; she claims that since rape is more about control than sex, then Christian’s dominant tendencies fall into the same category – since he does not do these acts out of love or desire. She also notes that Grey is pressuring a naive young woman to submit to physical pain “to please [him]”, and that the leverage being used is his affection – ‘if you love me, you’ll let me hurt you’.
Startling recent statistics have proven that Fifty Shades seems to have revved up a monumental number of marriages; two in five women who’ve read the trilogy paid a visit to sex shops once they were done, feeling encouraged to be more adventurous. Yet, not all husbands have expressed enthusiasm over this shift in their wives’ style of intimacy. Some were taken aback by the sudden demand for them to act uncharacteristically aggressive, after years of gentle stroking and tender behavior; they feel that it is unrealistic for women to expect them to be dominant sexual hurricanes, simply because a non-existent character is.
Yet, numbers clearly state that women do not see all of these things – or at least, that they’re not offended enough to want to burn the books. The main audience for Fifty Shades of Grey consists of women between their late twenties and mid forties – mostly ‘mommies’, hence its genre has been aptly labeled ‘mommy porn’. The trilogy is also the first since J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series to break the record of the highest book sales in history, selling over 5.3 million copies in the UK alone. What started out as Twilight fan fiction soon began to circulate amongst mommies as a recommended erotica tale that seemed to have deeper elements to it than the typical porn on paper.
The resemblance between the two tales is undeniable; Anastasia Steele is essentially Bella Swan. For one, they both have an enticing name…and no game. Both meet their lovers and fall head over heels in love with them, and decide to marry their very first boyfriend. Anastasia meets Christian Grey by falling face-first into his office; Bella is also known to be characteristically clumsy. The two young women have boys falling at their feet, and yet none seem to interest them until they encounter older, more powerful men who prey on them. Based on how popular these two stories are, it is evident that female readers find these characters appealing, and not offensive, as Wearside Women in Need suggests. This may be because women can relate to these characters; more often than not, the readers are as inexperienced and insecure as Bella and Anastasia, and they do not feel so alone when they read about someone else who has the same thoughts, feelings, and concerns that they do. Not only that, but Bella and Anastasia both find their Prince Charming, which, in a way, gives these readers the idea that there is hope for even the clumsiest women out there.
Arrow, the Fifty Shades publisher, retaliated against the claims that the trilogy is one that promotes misogyny and domestic abuse, and stated that it “explores a consensual relationship between two willing adult participants”. A key part of this statement had been “adult”; most people agreed with this, saying that adults are capable of differentiating right from wrong, and reality from fiction. Bookstores always have the option of suggesting age restrictions and warnings, in case teenagers reading Fifty Shades are a concern. “Consensual” was also a major point; the only thing in common between BDSM and abuse, according to Arrow, is pain, “and one is by mutual consent and the other an abhorrent and wholly reprehensible violent form of abuse against an innocent victim”.
Yet, despite all the claims that this fictional Adonis is psychotic, women have fallen in love with Christian Grey. Once you look past the sadist who has a fetish for brown-haired girls and an obsession with control to compensate for the lack of control he had in his childhood, you’ll find a man who’s in a constant battle with his own inner demons, and decides to finally conquer them for the sake of the woman he loves – an ultimate sacrifice. There is also the argument that his sadistic tendencies aren’t his fault; he latched onto BDSM as a way to channel his confusion and anger, and used it as therapy. As a Sub teenage boy, he used it to give him confidence and control, and redirected his destructive urges. It fulfilled his need for closeness and physical touch. Later, he seemed to lose much of his BDSM interest as a Dom once he was in a satisfying relationship with Anastasia; he used it as a source of recreation rather than therapy. Despite his past, he was still capable of being in a monogamous relationship based on mutual respect.
The BDSM community falls in between the claims of abuse against Fifty Shades, and those who are fainting at how dreamy Christian Grey is. They find it misleading and offensive for the story to imply that Christian enjoys the BDSM lifestyle because he was abused as a child, and think that such an implication is parallel to the belief that homosexuals are attracted to people of the same gender due to negative childhood experiences with an adult family member of the opposite sex. They also pointed out that ‘enjoying’ and ‘enduring’ these activities are two very different things; and since Anastasia is enduring them, then the relationship is not actually a BDSM relationship. Since BDSM has recently grown to be quite mainstream – Rihanna, Madonna, and Lady Gaga glamorizing it through their music videos – its loyal practitioners insist that the media, and now literature, do not defile it.
However, it is safe to say that Fifty Shades of Grey does not in any way portray reality. As Wearside Women in Need pointed out, not all men who were abused as children later blossom into handsome, well-mannered gentlemen. In the story, Grey is saved by the love of a good woman, and Anastasia is rewarded for holding her ground and not cowering back when the lion roared and gritted his teeth with a life of luxury with the reformed man of her dreams. It is the classic fairy tale of the pretty, poor Cinderella who meets, falls in love with, and marries the wealthy, handsome Prince Charming – only the author prefers to refer to him as a “dark knight”. This dark knight’s wealth is also unrealistic; most men who are that wealthy can’t afford to invest so much of their time and attention into their romantic relationships. Christian Grey is a CEO who is constantly emailing Anastasia back and forth in a tone that lovestruck teenagers use, and somehow always manages to utter words that women only fantasize of in their heads; “I could watch you sleep for hours, Anastasia.”
They were married within five weeks, and only so Anastasia could prove her love to Christian. Most women will agree that they won’t rush into marrying their first boyfriend after only five weeks of dating. Many have also argued that Anastasia, as a virgin, unrealistically skipped the preliminary vanilla-sex stages of intimacy and jumped right to kink-fests – with someone who relishes these sessions. She is the 13-year-old girl who decided make-out sessions with her much-older-and-more-experienced-boyfriend were too childish, and stepped up her game by giving him her virginity. She is then portrayed to be a nymphomaniac who is so awestruck by Christian Grey’s world of sadism and masochism that she never gets tired of it – quite literally.
Regardless of the many differing perceptions of Fifty Shades of Grey, women – and men – all over the world should still have the right to read whatever they please. As Heinrich Heine once said, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn people.” In the meantime, let us mark our calendars for November 5th, and hope that the poor environment doesn’t have to pay the price for badly written literature falling into the hands of a bitter woman using Ray Bradbury’s dystopian laws to censor books.