I’m getting tired of Fifty Shades of Grey. Not because of its unhealthy depiction of a BDSM relationship. Honestly, I’m tired of the franchise because I want to write a book someday and it’s disparaging to see how brilliantly bad writing sells.
E. L. James is making bank. Like millions of people, I paid fifteen bucks to read Fifty Shades, book one. The writing is full of clichés and hackneyed phrases: “I’m not sure Wanda, my old VW Beetle, would make the journey in time. Oh, the Merc is a fun drive, and the miles slip away as I hit the pedal to the metal.” Dear god.
There’s no problem with the fact that Ana is submissive and Mr. Grey is dominant. Feminist groups have been blasting the book and film for purveying antiquated concepts of male worship and female subservience, but that’s a little silly. In kink, there are many female submissives who enjoy male dominants, and vice versa. It’s more problematic that Grey is rich and powerful and Ana is poor, and their relationship calls to mind all the many real-life cases of powerful men exploiting and abusing young women with little to no penalty.
I started reading the series late in the game to gear up for the movie, after reading Buzzfeed articles and angry Facebook posts about how the franchise purportedly gives people the wrong idea about BDSM. I see why some people have made that complaint. There are, in fact, live-in submissives in our community who do sign contracts like the one Mr. Grey asks Ana to sign, but any contract of rules and terms regarding a BDSM relationship is not a binding legal document and cannot really protect anyone should someone decide to sue for damages. Many people do contracts for sexual theater, to make the agreement seem more official, more permanent. The bigger problem than the contract is the fact that Ana Steele is not a kinkster.
She is pushed, wooed, pressured, and at times coerced into this relationship by a much wealthier and more powerful man, and therein lies the problem. Submissives enter into sex willingly — many of us seek out our dominants. Ana is frightened by Grey for most of the book and movie. Some nervousness is good — but fear? Not OK. You should never pressure someone into anything, particularly when you have a clear social and economic advantage over them.
One criticism I’ve heard from kinksters is that the series romanticizes an abusive relationship under the guise of BDSM. I’m not certain this is true, and I would remind kinksters that BDSM encompasses countless scenes, practices, interpretations, and lifestyles. There some extreme BDSM relationships that I myself would consider bordering on abusive which some very hardcore kinksters enjoy and find to be very healthy. Forgive me for this, but it’s a shade of grey. Would I consider being caged and collared for six months and fed in a doggy bowl psychologically damaging? Maybe even abusive? Well, yes, I would. But some people spend years hunting for a master who will do just that.
In the real world, where people’s kink limits can be clearly listed on a website profile or discussed at some casual sit-downs, Ana and Christian would have realized quickly that they don’t want the same kind of relationship. Ana is a sexual beginner, Christian is very experienced, and Ana is not seeking this kind of setup. Christian Grey wants a weekend submissive into hard S&M, who likes being punished, controlled, and ordered around. Anastasia Steele doesn’t know what she wants, and as a virgin to sex, she has no business getting into kink before learning the basics. She truly knows nothing — and knowing nothing about sex makes you easy to coerce, mislead, and take advantage of. See the problem?
Another problem: The series has an ongoing “mystery” around the origin of Mr. Grey’s kinkiness. We get enough info that his current sex life is the result of some kind of earlier abuse or trauma. This suggests to audiences that people who enjoy this kind of sex are inherently sick, traumatized, or survivors of abuse. Sorry to burst everyone’s bubble, but kinky sex is just as healthy as vanilla sex. People just like what they like — period.
Many things we do, regardless if they come from bad experiences, are healthy. I don’t have a good history with my dad. I’m also really into older men, men who call themselves “daddies.” A psychotherapist would probably link the two, but who cares? Being attracted to daddies has not disrupted my life. Positive things in your life can be borne of bad things in your past. That doesn’t make them wrong.
I don’t know why E. L. James tries to pathologize Grey’s kinks, and by extension demand us, the readers and audience, to do so too. I don’t automatically look at a kinky person and think, “What’s wrong with you?” But many non-kinky people do, and even more people will now that the series has become popular.
In the end, Christian and Ana’s playtime onscreen ended up being what I call “vanilla kink,” the most basic stuff to make non-kinky audiences gasp. I rolled my eyes and lamented the whole thing for what it was — a titillating tale written by an outsider, someone who does not understand us and likely never will.