50 shades of messed up
What does Fifty Shades of Grey say about women exactly? Given that over 125 million copies of the books were sold worldwide and with the movie’s sequel raking in over $43.7 million in over 59 countries across the globe, one would assume this is valuable insight into the psyche of women. However, the seemingly phenomenal success of the franchise is proving difficult to explain with many finding the subject matter unfathomable and men scratching their heads, wondering “What is the appeal?”
In an ideal world Christian Grey would be labelled an emotionally scarred man with deep-rooted abusive vulnerabilities and a disturbing inability to communicate effectively in his personal life. However in the fictional realm of women’s romance novels he is painted as every woman’s “dream-catch!” Wealthy, single, a serial entrepreneur, charitable, good-looking, living in the lap of luxury…he is the ideal paint-by-numbers bachelor. Yet, something about him doesn’t sit quite right! (Queue female intrigue). He seems perfect. And so we’re wrapped in the messy subplot of his pursuit of a young English student – Anastasia Steele, who’s chance meeting with the businessman marks her as his next subject.
It’s all extremely stereotypical until Ana learns that Grey is not “relationship material” and he warns her to stay away from him. It’s this endless back and forth that makes one sick to the tummy with boredom. Ana we learn is the epitome of the clean-cut, girl-next-door…she is naive, innocent (a virgin), is annoyingly straight-laced and childish in her outlook on relationships. In the modernized construct of the emotional world and women’s liberation & equality, Anastasia is borderline bland. She has no relationship history, has not dated anyone….EVER and yet seems to have a moral definition of relationships. She’s looking for Mr. Right to sweep her off her feet and treat her like a fragile, porcelain doll. Grey on the other hand reveals his dark and sordid past and preference for BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism). His abusive childhood and submissive past is the reason he can’t bring himself to committing to someone in a serious and exclusive relationship.
That in a nutshell is the premise of Fifty Shades, so back to the question above…What exactly is the appeal? Probably the bulk of it lies in the curiosity of BDSM & women revealing their deep-rooted intrigue at a more exciting sex life. The author E.L James claims to have an understanding of the female psyche and yet her writing fails to deliver this knowledge as she continues to berate the intelligence of the protagonist Anastasia Steele – Christian Grey’s submissive collectible. The inspiration behind the Fifty Shades franchise is another disappointing fan fictional failure – The Twilight series. The patronizing and emotionally abusive relationships of Bella, Edward & Jacob did not rate high; with the exception of teens the world-over who were given an unreal adaption of a “love triangle”. That and the fact that vampires now sparkled in the sunshine is enough to make any respectable and mature human being gag, though not in the way Christian Grey prefers.
Perhaps much of the contention lies in Christian’s possessive manner with Ana above and beyond his failure to illicit a romantic relationship – he monitors her every move, controls every aspect of her life from what & when she eats, wears, does & his lack of understanding when she visits her mother across the country leaves a nasty after-taste. Why is this type of control attractive in a fictional relationship when women would never allow this from a man in reality? More and more women are speaking out against domestic violence and leaving abusive relationships and yet the plausible success of the Fifty Shades franchise.
The author who claims to understand a woman’s psyche and yet does little to consider this as a submissive relationship is thrust down our throats (pun not intended) and is romanticized as the ideal relationship. In one scene Ana asks Christian “Why do you want to hurt me? Do you want to hurt me now?”….”YES!” Ana then asks him to show her what he means and after little trepidation he proceeds to hit her on the bottom with a belt a few times with her counting each time. BDSM practitioners berate the violence that Fifty Shades associates with the sexual fantasy that is BDSM as there are ethical ways to include consensual sex and pain. The problem is that Fifty Shades casually associates hot sex with violence, alluding to Christian’s past but never actually unpacking his story or him validating his actions because e.g. therapy failed. Sometimes, Ana says yes to sex she’s uncomfortable with because she’s too shy to speak her mind, or because she’s afraid of losing Christian; she gives consent when he wants to inflict pain, yet that doesn’t prevent her from being harmed.
It’s this disregard that makes one question whether E.L James gave this any thought! The troubling fantasy in American culture for example is disturbing, where 1 in 5 women are raped in their lifetime. Statistics from the CDC where nearly 40 percent of those rapes will happen to women aged 18 to 24 is devastating, so when images of Ana being beaten by Christian become the new normal for what’s considered erotic, they raise questions about what it means to “consent” to sex. Anastasia’s will to please Christian includes subjecting herself to verbal and emotional abuse because when she does try to stand up to him — which isn’t often — he berates her, guilt trips her and beats her down verbally until she apologizes and submits to him. Clearly, consent is necessary; but is it sufficient?
The debate is not insular in that one is questioning whether or not to experiment in our vanilla sex lives but rather to question the depiction of an abusive relationship and what is being romanticized. Dismissing Fifty Shades simply because it appeals to a largely female audience is extremely sexist but on the flip side of the coin, do we really want more men like Christian Grey out there? Undeniably movies, books & any other creative content is a form of escapism yes, however as human beings we gain inspiration from many of the characters we idolize, it’s what drives the success or failure in the entertainment industry.
“Why does Anastasia stay with Christian? Why does she want him back? Why is she willing to try so hard to be with a man who treats her this way?” Could it be that she has absolutely no sense of self-worth? She only feels sexy when he says she is, and when he insults or patronizes her, she accepts what he says as the truth. To the author, we have come too far to take these Fifty steps backwards, as a country, global society and gender. South Africa still battles to curb gender-based violence. The 16 days of activism campaign for no violence against women and children is minimal in raising awareness and changing mind-sets. We as women who have fought for equality and for sexism to fall do not find a man’s wealth as a contributing factor in a relationship and if this is what factors into the equation for Ana’s “love” for Christian Grey then we have to say your depiction of women is Fifty Shades of messed up!