We all know the common fairy tale. There’s a man and a woman—rarely, if ever, do we see stories about a woman and a woman or a man and a man—who must overcome some obstacle to reach happily ever after. There is always a happily ever after.
I enjoy fairy tales because I need to believe, despite my cynicism, that there is a happy ending for everyone, for me. The older I get, though, the more I realize how fairy tales demand a great deal from the woman. The man in most fairy tales, Prince Charming in all his iterations, really isn’t that interesting. In most fairy tales, he is blandly attractive and rarely seems to demonstrate much personality, taste, or intelligence. We’re supposed to believe this is totally fine because he is Prince Charming. His charm is supposed to be enough.
The Disney versions of fairy tales, the ones with which we are probably most familiar, don’t offer much in the way of Prince Charming. In The Little Mermaid, Prince Eric has a great woman right in front of him but is so obsessed with this pretty voice he once heard he can’t appreciate what he has. In his ignorance, he nearly lets the right one go. In Snow White, the prince doesn’t even find Snow White until she is already dead; he is so lacking in imagination he simply falls in love with a corpse. In Rapunzel, the prince lacks the ambition to find a better way for Rapunzel to escape her tower like, I don’t know, building a ladder. Belle is given away by her father in Beauty and the Beast, to the Beast himself, and then must endure the attentions of a man who essentially views her as chattel. Only through sacrificing herself, and loving a beast of a man can she finally learn that he is, in fact, a handsome prince.
The thing about fairy tales is that the princess finds her prince, but there’s generally a price to pay. A compromise of some kind is required for happily ever after. The woman in the fairy tale is generally the one who pays the price, which is such a rotten deal. This seems to be the nature of sacrifice in most matters.
Look at Twilight. The four books of the series are about vampires and werewolves and the sweeping love story between Bella, a young girl and Edward, an old vampire. Really, though, the Twilight series is a new kind of fairy tale. Is there anything particularly compelling about Edward Cullen? He sparkles. He’s theoretically attractive but only seems to have one interest: loving Bella and controlling every decision she makes. We’re supposed to believe his obsessive control and devotion are somehow appealing. We’re supposed to believe he is Prince Charming, albeit flawed because he needs to drink blood to survive. Accepting Edward’s controlling obsession and vampirism is the compromise required of Bella. Eventually, becoming a vampire, becoming undead, is the price Bella must pay for her happily ever after. We’re supposed to believe she’s fine with that. We’re supposed to believe Edward is worth that sacrifice.
It really is insulting, what we are supposed to believe about love and happiness; but there’s no denying that there is something satisfying about fairy tales, about the fantasy of the perfect hero, the Prince Charming who offers a woman a perfect life no matter the price she must pay.
Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James, are a modern fairy tale with a dark, erotic twist. The trilogy began as fan fiction—fiction written by fans of an original series without actually being a part of it—inspired by Twilight. While grounded in the fairy tale tradition and rising out of fan fiction, Fifty Shades of Grey is also one of the few books that could be categorized as erotica and that has been embraced by the mainstream, if you forget, of course, Anne Rice’s The Sleeping Beauty trilogy.
Fan fiction and erotica are not new but there is something about Fifty Shades of Grey that has piqued the popular imagination. The books are erotic, amusing in their absurdity, and disturbing in their cultural implications about just how much trouble Prince Charming can be.
In Fifty Shades of Grey, a bright, young college student, Anastasia Steele, is forced to take the place of her student reporter best friend Kate who has fallen ill. Anastasia, or Ana, travels to Seattle to interview Christian Grey, a handsome, reclusive, and enigmatic billionaire, for the student paper. Of course. During their initial meeting, Ana stammers her way through an uncomfortable interview, distracted by Christian’s extraordinary good looks. Of course. He encourages her to come work for him. They banter. True love is born but there is a catch. There has to be a catch, an obstacle. This is the way of fairy tales.
Over three books, Ana and Christian try to have a relationship but they are impeded by Christian’s abiding interest in BDSM, or at least E.L. James’s fantasy version of BDSM, his unwillingness to engage in a “normal” relationship, and Ana’s desire for a “normal” relationship. There is all kinds of drama, and with each book, that drama becomes increasingly absurd but strangely addictive. A crazy former submissive! An older former lover and mistress who earns the nickname Mrs. Robinson! A sexually harassing boss with a chip on his shoulder! Family drama! Helicopter crashes! Arson! Oh my!
Ana is, conveniently, a 21-year-old virgin who has never even masturbated when she meets Christian. Of course. He gets to show Ana the ropes, so to speak, in a very dramatic scene where he grabs her by the wrist, and leads her to his bedroom to properly deflower her. The kinkiness can wait but her vagina cannot. As he sweeps Ana off her feet, Christian says, “We’re going to rectify the situation right now,” which is surely what every woman wants to hear when she has sex for the first time. The virginity situation—it must be rectified. In a seemingly never-ending scene, Christian makes their first lovemaking encounter all about Ana. He makes her come by stimulating her nipples. They fool around some more and finally, Christian can no longer control himself. He takes off his boxers and tears open a condom wrapper while Ana stares at his enormous cock, bewildered because she is so innocent and pure. Of course. Christian says, “Don’t worry… You expand too.” You haven’t lived until you’ve read prose like this. Before long, Christian “rips through” Ana’s virginity, they both come, and her virginity situation is, indeed, rectified, pleasantly for all involved.
The books quickly devolve into passionate(ish) sex scenes interrupted by arguments about their different desires, Christian’s recalcitrance for normalcy, and the ridiculous drama, both within the relationship and beyond.
Fairy tales aren’t what they used to be.
Whenever women do something in significant numbers, the media immediately becomes frenzied as they try to understand this new mystery of womanhood. If that something involves female desire (as if female desire is universal), the frenzy takes on a sharper pitch. Women openly expressing their sexual desires is so damn heretical. Nearly every major publication has written at least one “think” piece about Fifty Shades of Grey. The books have been labeled with the condescending term “mommy porn,” because the trilogy has found a great deal of success with a certain demographic. Once that happens, we have to call it a trend and then we need to write trend pieces that exhaustively analyze something that probably isn’t very worthy of analysis. Is it really newsworthy that a number of women have finally found something that turns them on or is the response to Fifty Shades of Grey a depressing commentary on the state of modern desire?
A great deal of the conversation about these books focuses on the erotic elements—there is so much explicit, highly implausible sex to be found in Fifty Shades of Grey and it always ends in the most amazing orgasms ever. Ana and Christian have sex on an airplane and in an elevator and in a car. They have sex in several different beds and they have sex in Christian’s play room which Ana calls the Red Room of Pain—a dungeon so outlandishly equipped, when she first sees it, Ana thinks, “It feels like I’ve time-traveled back to the sixteenth century and the Spanish inquisition.” Inside, she finds deep burgundy walls, a large wooden cross, an iron grid hanging from the ceiling, lots of ropes and chains and paddles and whips and crops and other toys as if real BDSM is borne solely of the extravagant display of toys.
This analogy might help illustrate the difference between BDSM in the real world, and BDSM in the world of E.L. James—Fifty Shades of Grey : BDSM :: McDonalds : Food.
I understand why these books are so popular, beyond the underlying fairy tale. There are hot moments. Chances are you will be turned on by something in these books. The trilogy tries valiantly to make the reader believe female pleasure is the most important part of a sexual experience despite Christian Grey’s dominant proclivities. In nearly all of the sex scenes, Christian is meticulous about pleasuring Ana. He lavishes her body with all manner of sexual attention. The book is generous in detailing lady orgasms that make it clearly Christian Grey is the best lover ever. It’s a nice little fantasy.
When you look deeper, though, which is challenging in a trilogy with the depth of a murky wading pool, these books are really about Ana trying to change/save Christian from his demons— she is the virginal, good girl who can lead the dark bad boy to salvation as if, historically, trying to change a man has ever worked out well. At one point during their courtship, Ana thinks, “This man, whom I once thought of as a romantic hero, a brave shining white knight—or the dark knight as he said. He’s not a hero; he’s a man with serious, deep emotional flaws, and he’s dragging me into the dark. Can I not guide him into the light?” I wanted to take Ana aside and say, “Girl, you cannot lead this man into the light. Let that dream go.”
After all the trials this couple faces, and after all the hot sex, we’re supposed to think this trilogy is about a young woman and her happily ever after. It’s not. Ana’s sexual awakening is a convenient vehicle for the awakening of Christian’s humanity. Fifty Shades of Grey is about a man finding peace and happiness because he finally finds a woman willing to tolerate his bullshit for long enough.
Fifty Shades of Grey is engaging in that simplistic, formulaic manner of romance novels or fairy tales but the books are terribly written in really delightful ways. I embraced the absurdity with open arms and laughed and laughed and laughed.
Ana has no gag reflex, which is so very convenient. On those rare occasions she goes down on Christian, Ana has no problem orally accommodating Christian’s girth. She even swallows, so she’s obviously a keeper.
Christian is one of those chatty lovers who, throughout all three books, spends a great deal of time narrating what he is doing, wants to do, and/or will do to Ana, adding at least an extra ten thousand words to each book.
In one of the books, Ana asks for a glass of “white Pinot Grigio.” Whenever I reconsider that phrase, I die laughing because it is the laziest mistake possible. There is product placement by Audi—Christian drives an Audi, gives his favorite submissives Audis and gives Ana, over the course of their relationship, two Audis. His generosity truly knows no bounds. Christian gives Ana expensive clothes, La Perla underwear, a MacBook, an iPad, a Blackberry, expensive rare books, a honeymoon on a yacht, and on and on. If you have a materialistic fantasy, this book will curb that edge.
Swaths of the story are told via reproduced e-mail exchanges. That is, we literally see the e-mails Ana and Christian exchange with all the annoying banter you might expect from a couple falling in love and much more. These e-mails, alone, are worth the price of admission.
In the first book, when Christian is trying to introduce Ana to his lifestyle, James reproduces Christian’s Dominant/Submissive contract three or four times, as if we couldn’t get the gist the first time. The contract is clearly something James found hanging around the Internet. It dictates all manner of supposedly submissive behaviors including personal grooming, sleep hygiene, wardrobe, diet, comportment, and sexual activity. An exhaustive amount of the first book is given over to Ana and Christian negotiating this contract, what they each will or won’t do, only Ana never signs the contract so mostly this is a device to show us how different the lovers are, over and over.
Ana says or thinks, “Jeez,” more times than I can count. There are so many repetitive tics, this trilogy would be ideal for a drinking game where the aim is to destroy someone’s liver. Drink every time Ana thinks, “Jeez.” Drink every time Ana bites her lower lip, which, by the way, makes Christian want to ravish her. Drink every time the palm of Christian’s hand twitches because he wants to spank Ana. Drink every time Ana thinks of Christian as enigmatic or mercurial. Drink every time Ana reflects on his extraordinary good looks. Drink every time Ana gets possessive of Christian because every single human woman in the world eyes him lustily and becomes instantly tongue-tied. Drink every time the narrative continuity goes wildly off track. The game goes on and on.
To hold all this nonsense together, Ana has two little friends throughout the books—her subconscious and her inner goddess, both personified. These ladies glare at Ana. They peer at her over their glasses. They twirl and swoon and sigh and grin and nod and otherwise reflect Ana’s state of mind. For example, toward the end of the first book, Christian and Ana are about to get freaky and there’s this gift: “My subconscious is frantically fanning herself, and my inner goddess is swaying and writing to some primal carnal rhythm. She’s so ready.”
I live for this kind of terrible. Like Ana’s inner goddess, I was so ready for these books.
There are times when Fifty Shades of Grey is amusing because the writing is terrible and fun and then there are times when the book is terrible and infuriating in its irresponsibility and wrongness.
As Prince Charming, Christian fits the bill. He is ridiculously wealthy and handsome but utterly lacking in imagination. E.L. James decides to complicate her Prince Charming. She gives the reader a little something more than the average dullard we generally have to yearn for in fairy tales—Christian has a tormented past. His mother is a crackhead, you see, which he casually discloses after a night of kinky passion. Ana is falling asleep next to him and he says, “The woman who brought me into this world was a crack whore, Anastasia. Go to sleep.” He seems to expect his confession will satisfy Ana’s curiosity but eventually he begins to disclose his dark past—abuse by his mothers’ boyfriends, neglect, hunger. There’s a lot of trauma there and he wears it openly. As you might expect, Christian’s past shapes his present in significant ways and provides a great deal of the incessant drama throughout the books. Forgive my indelicacy, but Christian Grey is a man who loves to run the fuck and he’s not afraid to show it. His need to be a Dominant rises out of his need for control.
In the second book we learn Christian Grey enjoys dominating women, always beautiful brunettes, because they remind him of his mother. He’s working on it with his therapist, Dr. Flynn, who makes the occasional appearance in the book in ways that contradict the tenets of modern psychotherapy. There are any number of reasons why people engage in BDSM but for James to so flagrantly pathologize the BDSM lifestyle as strictly a way for fucked up people to work out their emotional issues, is beyond the pale. It is not an accurate portrayal of the community. It sends a wrong and unfair message about kink.
The Fifty Shades of Grey books have also opened the door for pundits, including Ellen Degeneres, to treat the BDSM lifestyle with derision, mockery, and outright ignorance. Whips and chains are so very funny, or they are freaky and weird. For those who don’t understand different expressions of sexuality, humor seems to be the easiest coping mechanism unless, of course, you are critic Katie Roiphe who concludes that the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey merely proves that independent women today secretly yearn to be dominated by men but are afraid to admit their submissive desires. Roiphe takes her typical anti-feminist stance by supporting her argument with an odd range of vaguely related texts. Take Secretary and The Story of O and a few other texts et voila: irrefutable proof that women want to surrender sexually. At no time does Roiphe actually speak to submissive women about their desires. At no time does she try to understand the complexity of submissive sexual desire, instead making a tenuous connection between a popular, highly fictional series of books and the state of modern female sexuality.
Very little of the conversation about Fifty Shades of Grey has included people who actually participate in the BDSM lifestyle and can speak intelligently and ethically on the subject even though these people exist and are easy to find. Instead, people who know not of what they speak have made wild, lazy, insulting, or inaccurate conjectures about BDSM all because a writer, who is not terribly familiar with the lifestyle (she did a lot of online research, don’t you know), thought kink would be a nice hook to hang her Twilight fan fiction on.
My amusement with Fifty Shades of Grey only goes so far. The books are, essentially, a detailed primer for how to successfully engage in a controlling, abusive relationship. The trilogy represents the darkest kind of fairy tale, one where controlling, obsessive, and borderline abusive tendencies are made to seem intensely desirable by offering the reader big heaping spoonfuls of sweet, sweet sex sugar to make the medicine go down.
We can certainly credit the source material. Twilight offers similar instruction. Edward goes to absurd lengths to control Bella, all in the name of love. In Fifty Shades of Grey, there are no limits to Christian’s need to control Ana’s life, her decisions, and their relationship. Even before they date he conducts a background check. He tracks her movements via her cell phone in a way that is never quite explained but that we’re supposed to go along with because he is wealthy and stalking people electronically is simply what wealthy people do. He tries to control when and how much Ana eats, the kind of alcohol she drinks, how she behaves around him, who she allows in her life, how she travels and we’re supposed to believe this is all fine because he has issues, because he loves her.
In addition to the highly restrictive contract Christian wants Ana to sign, he also makes all his submissives sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement limiting what Ana is even legally allowed to share with her friends and loved ones about her life with Christian. Ana inexplicably signs this agreement because, as she tells Christian, she wouldn’t have said anything anyway. She’s a good girl. That’s a common tactic of abusers—isolating their victims, but we’re supposed to think the way Christian isolates Ana in luxury is romantic. A prison is still a prison when the sheets are 1200 thread count.
In the first book, Ana decides to visit her mother in Georgia. Christian offers to travel with Ana but she refuses because she, understandably, needs a little time and space to clear her head so she can decide if the BDSM lifestyle is one she can handle. Christian has to have some control over the situation so he upgrades her to first class. We’re supposed to think this is romantic but mostly it’s creepy because he has gone to the trouble of figuring out her itinerary and changing it without consulting her. Then he simply flies down to Georgia to join Ana because he cannot bear to be apart from her. He’s a man who knows what he wants; his needs are the only needs that matter.
As the story proceeds, Christian is jealous when Ana is merely in the presence of another man. He gets angry or pouts when she won’t pay enough attention to him. During a visit to his family’s home, Ana defies Christian in some obscure way so he drags Ana off to the boathouse to punish her. Her first instinct is to whisper, “Please don’t hit me.” This fear of being hit will come up more than once throughout the trilogy. He hires a security detail for her after one of his “crazy” (read: heartbroken) former submissives has a mental breakdown after her boyfriend dies, but mostly it’s an opportunity for him to control the boundaries of Ana’s world in every possible way. When Ana gets a job, Christian buys the company where she works to “protect” her. In the third book, on their honeymoon, Ana decides to sunbathe topless at a nude beach. Christian, of course, does not appreciate his woman revealing herself to the world. She’s not his submissive, but by God, she is his wife. He makes a scene. Later, they are making love in their hotel room and he leaves hickeys all over her breasts so she cannot wear a bikini top for the duration of their honeymoon. He literally marks his territory like a sixteen-year-old boy.
Christian Grey uses sex as a weapon. He is more than willing to throw a punishment fuck at Ana and he takes real pleasure in fucking her into submission when he cannot otherwise will her into submission. Nearly every sexual encounter between the young couple ends with Ana drowsy and unable to move, her limbs heavy and satiated with pleasure. In a consensual BDSM relationship this dynamic would be fine, welcome even, but the overarching premise of the trilogy is that Ana doesn’t want a BDSM relationship, at least not the kind Christian wants. She certainly enjoys their kinky sexual relationship but she consistently clarifies her overall disinterest in serving as Christian’s submissive. Their relationship is beyond refractory; Ana is, like Bella in Twilight, the vanquished, the undead, and Christian Grey is the proud vanquisher.
After each instance of abusive, controlling behavior, Ana gets righteously indignant but never for long. Time and again, she chooses to sacrifice what she really wants for the opportunity to be loved by her half-assed Prince Charming. We’re supposed to believe Ana is independent because she “defies” Christian by having very reasonable expectations and boundaries. He willfully ignores these boundaries, though, and she allows him to. She forgives all his trespasses.
The trilogy also relies heavily on the trope of the imperiled woman—in each book, Ana faces some kind of danger, either innocuous or quite serious, that allows us to remember she is a woman, and therefore in need of rescue by her Prince Charming. After each crisis, Christian clutches Ana desperately and says he doesn’t know what he would do if anything happened to her. If you look up the word codependent in the dictionary, this couple’s picture will be featured prominently.
I’m all for reading for pleasure. I’m a fan of dirty books and kink. I am down with female submission. By the end of Fifty Shades Freed, however, where Ana acknowledges that Christian is as controlling as ever even though they have found a happily ever after, his pattern of abusive, petty, and at times childish behavior is exhausting and far too familiar. This Prince Charming has lost all his charm.
When considering the overwhelming popularity of this trilogy, we cannot simply dismiss the flaws because the books are fun and the sex is hot. The damaging tone has too broad a reach. That tone reinforces pervasive cultural messages women are already swallowing about what they should tolerate in romantic relationships, about what they should tolerate to be loved by their Prince Charming (see: Chris Brown).
Fifty Shades of Grey is a fairy tale. There’s a man and a woman, and an obstacle that eventually they are able to overcome. There is a happily ever after, but the price exacted is terribly high. It is frightening to consider how many women might be willing to pay that price.