(…some of which actually have to do with the fact that I had to rewrite this post from scratch because Chrome crashed and WordPress saved… my title.)
As you may have guessed from the title, this is a rage!post about the Fifty Shades trilogy and just… the entire phenomenon it has inspired. I’ve essentially been in a rage-induced blackout since Friday night, my entire weekend consumed by the horror of this all, and so I need to vent. Due to the nature of the books, this post is NSFW due to frank discussions of sexual content, including “kink” (namely E.L. James’ distorted version of it), and due to the fact that I am probably going to curse a metric fuckton in this post. Bear with me–this post is long as fuck, but I think it’s important… hence why I spent approximately four hours working on it, not counting the time I spent working on the draft that WordPress ate.
I will also do upon you as I wish someone had done for me: even reading discussions about this book may trigger those who have survived sexual assault, relationship violence, stalking, and/or eating disorders. I will be discussing those in terms of my own experience with them, and how they appear in the books, and I would rather be safe than sorry when it comes to triggers.
Moreover, this is not an attack on the people that enjoy Fifty Shades–I am the first person to say that “to enjoy is not to endorse.” I find many things enjoyable that I also find problematic. But, I suppose, it’s a bit of an attack on the people that do endorse and defend and promote the trilogy like it’s a magical cure for marriages or a great depiction of BDSM or even a sexy series… it is none of those things, and it’s downright dangerous to pretend otherwise.
One more caveat: this is not a post where I discuss how the series portrays abuse–many have done so before me, and they have been more articulate than I could hope to be. If you want some more information, the 50 Shades is Abuse blog ring is a good place to start. If you don’t want to read about it, you can always look at this nifty infographic–it covers the basics. And, for the record, I do believe not all the blame lies on James’ shoulders: the series she based her work on (the Twilight series, in case you’ve been living under a rock) has also been criticized for portraying an abusive relationship–I even wrote about it earlier this year. That said, the author is still responsible for the words she put out there, even if I do believe that someone should have caught on at some point before publication. Her
beta reader husband, her editor, a friend? Anyone, really.
Now that the disclaimers are out there, if you are still down, let’s go on again…
First, let’s talk about how we got to this point. Tired of seeing references to it all over my Facebook and Twitter timelines (which unfortunately I cannot use Tumblr Savior on), I figured–what the hell, I’ll give it a go.
Last Monday, I got the first two chapters as excerpts from my library’s version of the eBook. I laughed through most of them, cringing the whole while–I mean, for fuck’s sake, I wrote better fanfiction when I was fourteen years old. That was eleven years ago. And when I wrote my first piece that included an adult scene, when I was 16 or 17–I had a better concept of how relationships work. And this isn’t hyperbole, or an attempt to make myself sound like the best writer in the history of writing–I went back and reread my stuff and, awful as it sometimes was, it was certainly better. I even put Kat through the horror of listening to me read some of the stilted dialogue, and I wish I had a picture of her face. Although she made an even better face when I made her listen to Gina drunkenly and dramatically reading the first sex scene in the first book.
After those two, disastrous chapters, I wasn’t really feeling to reading the rest of the damn book, even if it was on loan from the library. (I was also kind of loath to have that on my library record, to be completely honest.) But, of course, then the trailer came out, and I got a hilarious text from my friend Megan, and I made my friend Molly watch it with me for moral support. I was pretty horrified about that awful
ly unnecessary version of “Crazy in Love”–why, Queen Bey, why–but the trailer itself wasn’t bad: Dakota Johnson is making the best out of an awful character and really selling it, Christian’s office looks exactly as I expected (and so does the evil hot blonde behind the desk), and man oh man Jamie Dornan is 1000% my type.
This doesn’t sound so bad, does it? It wasn’t–but of course everything went to hell right after that.
At this point, my curiosity was starting to override my horror at the writing–after all, the Twilight series wasn’t much better, and I read all of that. I posted something on Facebook about feeling better about my own writing after reading those two chapters, and people liked the status and agreed. But then I got two private messages from friends telling me I should not read the series, as many people had told me before… but not for the reasons you would expect.
Whenever anyone tried to dissuade me from diving into the books, they used some version of the following reasoning (all of which is accurate):
- It’s drivel–badly written, juvenile, has not plot.
- It’s not even sexy.
- Its depiction of BDSM is inaccurate.
- It plagiarizes Twilight so hard that I’m going to have Draco Trilogy flashbacks.
But, interestingly enough, none of those people, many of whom know my background, thought to tell me “there are plenty of opportunities for this book to trigger the fuck out of you.” Now, I’m not blaming my friends–they are not the book police, and I am an adult who consented to partaking in the contents of these books. However, reading synopses of the book did not prepare me for a lot of the more misogynistic, rape-culture fueled moments–and so I spent this weekend feeling victimized by a series that I did not actually read.
That’s right–I will admit that I did not read the books page by page. Instead, I read some amazing chapter-by-chapter recaps of the series by the lovely Jenny Trout, who captured the humor and the rage quite perfectly. But the truth is, I did not need to read every page–the excerpts that Jenny focused on were quite enough to ruin my weekend. But, with all the comments I read saying, “Christian gets so much better in the third book!”, I gave the entire damn thing a try, hoping that it would be true–hoping that I would find some sort of character development that would address how problematic his behavior was. No dice, unfortunately, and E.L. James has gone so far as to say that “Bringing up [her] book in [the context of domestic violence] trivializes the issues, doing women who actually go through it a huge disservice.” And, in age when Veronica Roth has addressed the issues presented by the implication that a scene in Divergent could have gone in the direction of sexual assault if a character had not interrupted the proceedings… in a time like this, where people denouncing rape culture are louder than ever because it is rearing its ugly head everywhere… E.L. James has no fucking excuse to continue pretending that her book does not romanticize an abusive relationship. (And neither does Stephenie Meyer, but that is neither here nor there, and her portrayal is not as awful and destructive as E.L. James’.)
To call the effect of this portrayal “destructive” might sound overdramatic–but the truth is that it is an accurate description of my experience. Many people who criticize this book, and many more who defend it, do not seem to be thinking about how damaging this book can be. It’s not just that it’s awful, although it is–it’s that it’s hurtful, in an immediate, visceral way. And I know I keep alluding to triggers, so let me explain… ahead be spoilers, of course.
The first is, obviously, the abusive relationship itself. For the longest four months of my life, but especially that last one, I was in such a relationship. I was not beaten, but I was shoved once, and had my arm grabbed and twisted. I was told that the problems I saw in the relationship were all in my head. I was criticized for my choices and told that he was just trying to care of me. I was constantly belittled, so that the only value I had was in our relationship. I was told that our relationship failed because of my depression. I was yelled at in public for talking to other guys, and on multiple occasions other people had to intervene (including two very nice hockey players who did not even know me). I was expected to entertain him when he was over at my apartment, and that was usually for the entire weekend. I was constantly told that my feelings were wrong. And I cannot count the times that he tried to cut off an argument by attempting to initiate sex, unwanted groping and all. I was so scared to break up with him that I did it via phone, crying the entire time, and I cried for hours after. And this relationship also contained two more of my triggers: sexual assault, as mentioned above, and stalking.
Let’s tackle stalking first, because that one is shorter. My breakup with the aforementioned guy lasted longer than the relationship, even if you count it starting from before we were official, which brings the total to six months. That means that I spent over a year with my life being affected by this guy. I moved at the end of the month I broke up with him, and I did that on purpose, so he would not know where I moved. I thought about changing my phone number. I started using Twitter less and less, and almost erased my accounts. I blocked his email, and got a new Gmail. I asked my friends to not tag me in anything and to never mention when I was somewhere with them, afraid he would see. I did not step foot in his town for over a year, terrified that he would know I was there and come find me. And, after he’d trashed me all over the Internet, when he went after my best friend–I had to write a post where I set the record straight on just how awful the relationship was, hoping that the exposure would get him to do his usual “I’m the worst person in the world, I’m so sorry” thing, so I could get a reprieve until he started the whole damn thing again. Even now, twenty six months after that, thinking about this dude scares me a little… mostly because I know that I was extremely lucky to get out when I did… and that, thanks to the fact that we had a long-distance relationship, he could not isolate me from my friends and they were able to step in, along with my therapist.
If you’ve read Fifty Shades, or even the criticism about it, I hope the connection between the two previous paragraphs and the work is immediate–I mean, Anastasia herself calls Christian a stalker more than once, and the dude controls every aspect of her life. He bought the company she started working for, tracked her cell phone and her car more than once, and she had a list of proscribed visitors that he conveniently did not tell her about. Did I mention that he has really intense files on everyone he’s been involved with, and that he ran background checks on her before they were even involved? Yeah, that was a thing. Also, they’d been together for maybe three months before they got married. I’ve written that trope, I will admit–but they got married quickly so they could make things easier, as they were expecting, and they ended up having a legitimately healthy relationship. I am not saying it can’t be done–I am saying she did not do it. Just like you can have the controlling dude grow and recognize his mistakes and end up with the girl anyway, but you have to address that shit. And not by having characters mention that they are concerned for Anastasia, or for Anastasia herself to say she’s scared of him, or for him to say that he’s “dark” and “dangerous”–not if all of those comments are throwaway comments that your heroine rationalizes and thus ignores.
Then, there’s the sexual assault triggers. Most of them are actually related to the point that I referenced about my latest relationship–Christian uses sex to end just about every serious argument, and Anastasia herself mentions it multiple times, and then just lets it happen. And, after a while? She starts distracting herself from being mad at him because he is so perfect, irresistible, gorgeous, etc. But the other trigger is actually worse–it’s the one where he normalizes and denies the fact that he was sexually abused for six years, starting when he was 15. Never mind that, where the book is set–Washington and Oregon–the ages of consent are 16 and 18, respectively. Have I mentioned that woman who abused him was married and also friends with his mother so she was at least ten years older than he was, if I am being generous? Yeah. And Anastasia constantly points out how awful this is, even calling her “Mrs. Robinson” (so that’s one thing James got right), but Christian denies it literally every time, and scolds Anastasia for talking like that.
This was horrifying to read on two levels: first, I am a high school teacher and most of my students are sophomores. They are THAT age. Thinking of someone in a position of authority–hell, thinking about any adult–doing that to one of my students was devastating. Second, I remember being fifteen years old and being groped by someone a couple of years older, someone I thought I was friends with.. and, judging from his criminal record later, I know that if I had not pretended to stop struggling long enough for him to lower his guard so I could hit him and run away, he would have completed the rape. But what gets me to this day is not that it happened to me… is that people have told me I was making a mountain out of a molehill. The first person I told, and indeed the only person I told for YEARS, told me she could not believe that, and asked me if I was sure I had not “misunderstood.” She was an adult I trusted, and she made me feel like there was no reason for me to feel that way. Even as a twenty-two-year old, when I was groped by a student, I was told by multiple coworkers that they could not believe something like that, that I must have been mistaken or exaggerating. Someone even asked me what I was wearing, and another coworker asked me if I had initiated it and then “punked out.” (And every single one of these people was a woman, which makes it more gross–every dude I have ever told about any of these incidents has reacted with anger and concern for me. But that’s a story for another day.) So when consent is trivialized in this series, where in multiple moments the ability for a participant to consent is dubious at best? Yeah, I’m not having that.
Finally, there’s the eating disorder bit. Christian’s wife Anastasia goes by Ana most of the time–but interestingly enough, her father calls her “Annie.” Christian’s sister’s name is Mia. For those who don’t know, Ana and Mia are names used in the pro-eating disorder movement to refer to anorexia and bulimia. When I first noticed this, I–like Jenny in her recaps–thought it might just be a coincidence. But a constant theme here is that Christian is trying to force Anastasia to eat. She is constantly described as skinnier and skinnier, and Christian seems completely obsessed with her weight. In the later books, Anastasia is just as obsessed with the way her body looks, and she comments that she cannot understand how to keep her weight at a level that Christian is okay with because he’s complaining about her being fat one minute–and she calls herself that–and being too skinny the next. But the really telling part, for me, was how she refused to eat when things were out of control in her life, especially when she was upset with Christian. She even goes so far as to reference that fact herself. So for someone like me, who has major body image issues, and who spent several months in middle school lying to everyone about eating while eating as little as possible? It is extremely problematic that we are supposed to want to be like Anastasia while she glamorizes an unhealthy relationship with food.
TL;DR: I am so done with this series and, more importantly, with the culture that permits these books to be successful. Because that is really the problem here, isn’t it? It’s not that E.L. James has really fucked up ideas of how relationships work–not to mention zero understanding of what a BDSM relationship should be like–but that there are people who do not see the issue because this kind of relationship is so normalized, both by the apologia in the books and that of our culture. I mean, our culture teaches that consent means that a person “did not say no,” and that it is women’s responsibility to protect themselves, both from assault and from pregnancy. (You know, because Christian freaks the fuck out at his wife and calls her “stupid” for getting pregnant when he chose her birth control method for her and switched it three times in as many fucking months.)
You might be thinking, “Why exert so much effort and time into writing a post full of vitriol for a series that you admit you did not even read entirely? Surely, if you are so against Fifty Shades, you could just shut the fuck up and avoid it?”
No, dear reader. I can’t. That’s what started this fucked-up journey in the first place–I can’t seem to avoid it. It’s everywhere. I’ve seen people reading it on the train, and people walking around with the covers on t-shirts and other merchandise, and people quoting it at each other in public. (No, seriously. If I hear one more “Laters, baby” I’m going to punch someone.) I have been drawn into multiple conversations where independent, educated women rave about this drivel. And because it’s everywhere, and people are lauding it, I had to say something… even if it might seem like no one’s
listening reading. I could not have continued to live with myself otherwise.
And, well. I might end up finishing that story I once started where a “normal” couple has a healthy, respectful relationship that is also adventurous in the bedroom. A unicorn of a story, if you will.
ETA: If you want an alternative, I’ve got you covered: go get Abigail Barnette’s The Boss. It’s everything Fifty Shades could have been but never was… and it’s addictive reading! I spent pretty much an entire day reading it and its sequels, The Girlfriend and The Bride, in one sitting. The next one comes out in November and it is entirely too far away!