We don’t publish enough book reviews here on Trashwire—possibly because we don’t read enough books—but E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey is such a ginormous success that it warrants a bit of commentary. Let me start off by saying that I’m no English Lit major and I’m not a big time reader, but I have read my fair share of book-to-screen adaptations and, since this book will soon become a movie, I feel qualified to make a judgement call. This review will contain some spoilers, so consider yourself warned!
As most of you probably already know, Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of Anastasia Steele, an innocent, bookish virgin, who happens to fall in love with a sadistic, manipulative, handsome billionaire by the name of Christian Grey. Christian’s tastes are on the kinky side, and Anastasia is simultaneously frightened and turned on by all the ways he intends to “punish” her as his sex slave in their dominant/submissive BDSM relationship.
At first, things are interesting and even a bit tantalizing. Christian’s mysterious and charming, but we know he’s got a dark side, we just don’t know how very, very dark that side is. He’s rather inexplicably taken with Anastasia, much as Edward Cullen is captivated by the blasé, underdeveloped Bella Swan in Twilight, which inspired the Fifty Shades trilogy. We’re drawn along with her in her journey to find out more about this extremely wealthy, extremely handsome and, it turns out, extremely twisted individual. There’s a little bit of a power play between the two, but it’s the kind of flirtatious intimidation one expects in a relationship. He’s so staggeringly perfect, at least to her, and she struggles to match him in wit and confidence.
The graphic sex scenes are also much-discussed, though they get a bit boring since Anastasia and Christian are banging every few pages. Anastasia’s “inner goddess”, the devil on her shoulder, keeps rearing her ugly head and her little insights get a bit tiresome. Really, none of this stuff is anything you couldn’t read on the internet or in one of those $.99 eBooks on the Barnes & Noble Nook store, so it’s only riling people up because these books are actually popular. Still, Anastasia seems to be having fun exploring the world of crazy, wild, impulsive sex with her super hot beau.
Things get a bit weird when Christian reveals that he’s into spanking, whipping, caning, and tying up women to get his kicks. For some reason, Anastasia is down with this, mostly in an effort to make him happy as opposed to a genuine interest or desire to be someone’s submissive. Even then, it’s kind of amusing to hear the couple negotiate rules and “safe words” and all sorts of parameters for their relationship. Anastasia’s email exchanges with Christian are particularly sharp and quite funny.
And then it gets darker.
Christian wants Anastasia to sign a contract (specifically noted as being legally unenforceable, likely in an effort to make him seem less of a monster) that gives him control over most aspects of her life including her wardrobe, diet and the amount of sleep she must get each night. To her credit, she proves to not be a completely idiotic character and offers up some negotiations, though all her limits seem rather hollow as it’s clear in the first few pages that this girl will do absolutely anything her wealthy sadist wants.
Let the “punishments” begin! Christian is a fan of spanking, but not in that tee-hee playful kind of way. He likes hurting her, leaving her sore and crying. And, incomprehensibly, this girl keeps going back for more because she decides she can put up with the floggings since the sex is so good. I’m calling bullshit right here. Now, I’m sure there are girls who would dig this kind of thing, but the way Anastasia’s character is set up leaves no real explanations as to why she’s so willing to accept this kind of abusive relationship. Sure the innocent girl and the dangerous guy are common literary and cinematic traditions, but it seems like most of these romances are about the bad boy’s transition into a good boy, a loving boy, a boy who no longer wants to do any type of damage to his leading lady. Fifty Shades seems to be about a girl’s transition from interesting, intelligent, compelling character into obedient, brainless, easily manipulated servant. What’s up with that?
What disturbs me the most about this series is its popularity among women, particularly housewives and moms. Maybe it’s a need to indulge in a fantasy world that’s very different from their own, maybe it’s a curiosity for kink without actually having to go out an buy whips and chains, but I sincerely hope it’s not because of a desire to be physically and emotionally harmed in a relationship. Love isn’t about tearing the other person down and making them feel cheap, worthless, confused and sore, and our literary and cinematic objects of desire shouldn’t be about it either. In the time of birth control debates and GOP-fueled threats to women’s rights, what does it say about our gender if we want to be in a relationship where a man controls us and abuses us?
I know people in the BDSM community have had issues with the book as well, claiming that it doesn’t accurately depict the nature of that lifestyle. I don’t think those people would call what they’re doing dangerous abuse, not even the submissives in the relationship, but that’s what it all boils down to in Fifty Shades. Christian is abusive. Christian is manipulative. Christian physically injures Anastasia. Christian emotionally destroys her. But somehow that’s ok? And more than that, it’s sexy?
Maybe I’m just the kind of mouthy, headstrong, boss-lady type of woman who Christian Grey would love to break in his “Red Room of Pain”, but I just don’t think a relationship should be based on suffering. Simply put I don’t find anything particularly appealing about the relationship between the two characters. In fact, I find it troubling that a nation of women are digging this and are identifying with Anastasia. I’m on the fence about reading the remaining two books in the trilogy. Part of me is appalled, but part of me is intrigued at how bad this thing could actually get. While I may have a slight masochistic desire to finish the other books in this series, I’m not exactly going to let someone bend me over their knee and spank me with them.