The following text may contain triggering material, rape in fiction, spoilers for Fifty Shades of Gray, Juliette, Eleven Minutes, and…no Persephone, actually.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a fiction novel written by E.L. James, originally published via digital vanity press, until 2012 when the publishing rights transferred to Vintage Books. It tells the story of a university graduate Anastasia and all the sex that she has with her wealthy older boyfriend, Christian Grey. (Or Gray. I can never remember.) The particulars of the sexual acts therein are depicted as unconventional and deviant, and let’s consider for now this element as the main attraction that had lead to this work’s phenomenal success and prominence in modern culture.
Sex is not (by my experience) a casual topic. Perhaps the allure of alluding to the matter does develop though generations, incrementally but enough that each generation whose members would hold to the standards of “acceptably perceived sexuality in public spaces” would consider the newer generations as unacceptable or at least uncomfortable, but—that’s also very individual.
So, that it comes out into public awareness at all tends to create a galvinating point of interest, exponentially intensified by the deviance of bondage, domination, and sadomasochism.
For whatever reason, many, many more individuals gained more of a familiarity with James’ Fifty Shades, rather than Paulo Coelho’s Eleven Minutes or many of the Marquis de Sade’s novels—I’ll name Juliette because that’s the only one of de Sade’s that I’ve read (one day, I’ll get around to reading Justine.) The latter two do contain sadomasochism, the author of latter even inspired the term (and the author of the former being a 90s book club darling because he wrote The Alchemist! What gives?); they contain introspection and extensive social commentary…and yet it’s Fifty Shades that’s the cultural phenomenon of today.
When it comes to categorical standards for what makes the quality of a book, Fifty Shades is no critical darling. The writing style is a word salad. The characters read as closer to concepts than people. The plot is static, more of a collection of events that set the scene for recurring and redundant conflicts…and, finally, it’s bad for society because of the power struggles portrayed as an integral part of the romance.
That last point, I’d actually want to examine further. In interviews, James often returns to this simple position: “It’s my fantasy.”
In the twelfth chapter of the novel, Anastasia jokingly breaks up with Christian over an e-mail. He then breaks into her home and punishes her for the joke with sex. The major problematic thing is that he has no idea that it was a joke, and considered an e-mail breakup as license to break into his ex-girlfriend’s home…and rape her. Anastasia, from whose point of view this novel takes, conveys no excitement or arousal, and cries in misery after the event.
That certainly doesn’t read like a fantasy. It wasn’t, “Oh, that minx Anastasia thought she would hate it and knows that she should hate it, but the domination is attractive and confusing her with all the inner goddess that it’s drawing out.” It wasn’t, “She was being a brat exactly so that he would ‘punish’ her, mrrowr!” No, Anastasia didn’t get raped and secretly enjoy it. She was raped and hated it. Fantasy? What fantasy?
At the same time, I think I get it. To remind the reader at every line that this is a fantasy, would take the reader out of the fantasy (that James is offering.) In considering what stories are Bad For Society, it could even be more problematic to say that Anastasia secretly enjoyed it all along and thus that made it okay, as this event in the story was set up so that neither character had diegetically agreed to this sort of play.
But I can and do still see it as play. It’s just that the play began at cracking the cover to open this book. The blurb, the reviews, the word of mouth…were already, I think, a negotiation between myself as a reader and this piece of work.
(Of course, negotiation is an active entity. I actually haven’t finished reading Juliette because eating somebody else’s vomit is not something I was able to even continue reading about, even though I know it’s a fiction…and why I could continue reading after a hog-tied, prepubescent girl is tortured to death with sexualized impalement in Juliette, or chapter twelve of 50 Shades, is something I’m going to ask my therapist about next time I have a session.)
So, beyond that threshold, yes, I can believe that it was a fantasy…just not one of sexual exploration, necessarily.
It’s one of grief, and the verisimilitude of the cause would therefore be a crucial part. In examining this body of work, I consider Anastasia and Christian as aspects of the same consciousness. Anastasia is the bearer of the ego, the voice of the novel and the spoke around which the story revolves; and thus cannot see herself from the outside in the same way the reader can, if the reader even does (because I can see it as the reader’s ego that is invited to incarnate itself in Anastasia.) Christian is the Animus-Shadow: the amalgation of all the qualities classified in this work as what a Real Man is, controlling, dominant, forceful, sexual, violent, the antithesis of Anastasia. Their relationship is a process of conjugation, of reconciling these aspects, and that transformation would bring about grief.
Rather than demonstrate these concept-characters as concepts, however, they’re written out as people. And real people act all this out…without acting, but as real people, as separate consciousnesses, as not aspects of a process, as not fictions, and grieving over violations of personal sovereignty within a socially constructed sphere of being forbidden to heal or escape from when it should have never happened.
All that said, I don’t believe that this novel necessarily has the power to promote, normalize, and even romanticize abusive relationships. Rather, it’s an expression of an already established, normalized, romanticized power struggle that is already present in the collective consciousness. I cannot conceive of how it’s possible to take anybody to task for what this has done. It’s a fiction. The events described might imitate a very real horror faced by many people under a veneer of romance, but what does that imitation then do? And how does it do that? For every answer given, it ultimately depends on the reader or viewer.
This isn’t to say that relativism can be brought up to invalidate all perspectives and shut down all discussion, nor that those who criticize 50 Shades only do so because they forget the difference between fiction and reality.
(The main reason that I read Juliette is because it made the list of this one authoress’ favorite books, where she described it as having raised awareness for the abuse of women and girls, even if the Marquis himself wrote it with every intention of it being a one-handed read.
I read it myself, and I couldn’t even see how anybody could have written it as a one-handed read. The eponymous Juliette carries the voice, bears the ego-identification, and she is the one subject to all the sexual violence and abuse. Wouldn’t an author who objectified characters and people of that gender and position, not put such a character front and center narratively, not spend all that time, effort, and consciousness essentially in her skin as he writes?
During the torture of the prepubescent girl in Juliette, my translation read: “Her screams were terrible.” Authored by a sexual sadist, wouldn’t that line have read, “Her screams were delicious”?)
50 Shades is still in many ways an irresponsible work, and that irresponsibility is very well worth discussing and critiquing extradiegetically. (As established, I completely missed out on if any of that critique were present dietetically.) Also, offering concrete alternative actions to affirming the popularity of a work that embodies such a terrible thing is great.
All I hope to offer, when I put out there that this is a fiction, is, hopefully, to break the thrall. True, 50 Shades doesn’t sound itself out in a vacuum any more than it came from a vacuum. It’s just that the fact that it’s a fiction means (to me) that there are so many ways to take it. The real question is, how to save the world or even just the victims of people who have taken this work in a very wrong way (for the established value of a wrong interpretation)?