Fifty Shades of Outrage

50 shades of sand

I bought 50 Shades of Grey because I really need to read it.

We get fairly frequent plagiarism reports to an online fic archive I do voluntary work for. Fortunately, as yet, no formal breach of copyright claims. I was beginning to feel guilty at having to go to colleagues who had read it to get their judgement on whether the reported work was plagiarised or not so when I saw it for sale in a second hand book shop for £1 I knew it was telling me it was time I read it. So I wrote ongoing reveiws for my personal blog and have put them together here for you.

In deference to family wishes, I re-covered the book and the result is the picture at the start of this post.

Initial reaction:

OMG. Stereotypes. Characters, even the main ones, with no reality whatsoever. And yet – weird stereotypes – they sound and act alternately older and younger than their ascribed ages. The heroine is a complete airhead and I can’t imagine how she got accepted to read English literature or how she reached her finals, let alone passing them. Then there’s the over-description of clothes and furniture until you’re expecting a product placement slipped in any minute.

Plus, it’s a long book – even a trilogy – all in present tense and first person. So no, it isn’t an ‘easy read’.

My views by p509:

I happily read BDSM fics. Let me get that quite clear from the start. I am not personally attracted to any BDSM kinks but when they’re part of an adult consensual relationship they can be hot or even romantic to read about. However, I do not happily read dubious consent. And this, to me, falls into that category.

Anastasia is 21. She has never had a boyfriend. She is a virgin. She has never masturbated. So obviously she has never had an orgasm.

Christian is late 20s – about 26 or 27, I think. He is an entrepreneur who is now a multi-millionaire, he was seduced as a young teenager by a friend of his mother’s and was a sub for years. He is now only able to relate to women as a dom. I can see that people do switch but this seems extreme and is not explained.

Anastasia falls in love with Christian at first sight. Christian falls in lust with Anastasia at first sight. (Tired plot device and pretty unrealistic.) He is very suave and glamorous. He seduces her (vanilla sex) and his mother, who almost walks in on them, is delighted because she thought he was gay because he is never seen with women. This first sexual experience results in multiple orgasms for Anastasia.

Christian presents Anastasia with a detailed contract to persuade her to become his sub. He has shown her his ‘red room of pain’. He has rather vaguely promised never to hang her from the ceiling because he once hurt someone (the ropes were too tight).

Anastasia has to look up some of the things in the contract on wikipedia. Her deal breaker is that she won’t agree to eat prescribed food all the time even when she isn’t actually with him. The only way she will accept the computer he gives her is as an ‘indefinite loan’. She refuses a new car because her old one was a gift from her father – this annoys Christian who has her old car sold and leaves her with the new one.

She also realises that he is threatening to end the relationship (what relationship?) if she won’t submit. He says he will teach her to explore her inner needs. She is very dubious but doesn’t want to lose him.

Anastasia’s room mate Kate is dating Christian’s adopted brother Elliot. Kate is fairly experienced and could probably give Anastasia some impartial advice but Anastasia has already signed a contract not to talk about Christian and his kinks to anyone. Presumably because of the multi millionaire business angle.

I don’t see this relationship heading for consensual BDSM – I see it as coercive and creepy manipulation by a very disturbed man. I see Anastasia as stupid or at least extremely naive.

My views by p 609:

I’m about three quarters of the way through.

I can’t read it in long doses – I get too bored and too angry. Read on at your peril.

This guy Christian is seriously fucked up. He was abused by a drug fuelled prostitute, his birth mother, rescued by a posh intellectual family where he never felt fully accepted, was seduced into a BDSM relationship at 15 by a friend of his adoptive mother and has come out the other side accidentally earning millions with his business idea. Now he is pulling our heroine into his world with all the manipulative tools at his disposal. He is impossibly handsome and charming, too, his only physical flaw being the cigarette burn scars on his manly chest.

Meanwhile, she still hates almost every aspect of BDSM but is ready to sign a contract setting out their hard and soft limits, because she loves him so much (love at first sight, you understand). She keeps, for some reason, wearning her room mate’s clothes so we have little idea what her own tastes are, apart from wearing ‘sandles’ and yes, I know I shouldn’t sneer at typos but it’s hard not to in this case. All we know about her literary tastes is that she loves Thomas Hardy and keeps re-reading Tess. Christian bought her a first edition but she’s selling that and giving the money to children in Darfur because she knows he’s into charity work there. Literature is important because she wants a career in publishing.

They keep almost having email sex which is irritating rather than hot.

Her mother and her ex-stepfather adore him. He manipulates them too. But then his parents and his sister adore Anastasia. His brother and her room mate, Kate are now together (hello, clunky plot device) and I think are a bit more dubious about Ana and Christian and their relationship. Maybe.

I am struggling at the moment with three questions, two rather explicit, so skim if you’re easily offended.

How did he manage to flick her clitoris with his riding crop while she was standing? I have often had problems with what I call the choreography in fics, including my own. This one is defeating me.

Is it just me, or is an explicit account of how he removes her tampon squickish rather than hot?

Who let him take her up in his glider for the first time, and strap on a parachute backpack, without any kind of safety demo? I know we all get bored with these on airlines, but really…

My final reactions:

OK. I finished it, and I have to write this while I’m still feeling a lot of righteous indignation and the entire thing doesn’t get overlaid and buried by other reading.

The ending was not quite what I expected. Anastasia realises that Christian is a ‘fucked-up son of a bitch’, tells him so, and they part. Which is not the way most romance novels end (and yes, this is supposed, according to the blurb, to be a romance) but of course there had to be a cliff hanger because we now know that like Twilight, the vampire series that spawned this writing, there are two more volumes in the trilogy.

Looking at the book as a whole, I can say in its favour that it’s grammatical, well-structured and clever in the way it references Twilight but is totally transformative. I ought to say here that I got part way through the first Twilight novel and gave up, but then I wasn’t reviewing it and it didn’t make me particularly angry, just bored.

Fifty Shades is also full of stereotypical characters who meet, interact and part according to stereotypical events which are either tired tropes or examples of deus ex machina gone wild.

Also, unlike Twilight, which is essentially a fantasy set in a world of vampires and werewolves where it is legitimate to explore different relationship issues and even tolerate things that go against ‘our’ norm, Fifty Shades is set in the real modern world with real modern protagonists – stereotypes, yes, but stereotypes because they are based on real modern people. It’s heavily sold and hyped as ‘romantic’ which means at least some readers will think it is something to emulate.

Now we come to the overall plot and why I feel so angry.

The book sells itself as a romance. It is marketed, quite heavily, to young women with very limited experience of the world, women who are looking for romance of one kind or another, with men, with other women, with either or both, and with some kind of happy-ever-after (or at least for the next six months) ending in mind. This book is not what they need.

They may even be looking, after a little experience, for a glimpse of the world of BDSM. Again, this book is not what they need.

This is a book that sells within its pages the idea that manipulation is glamorous and ‘cool’, that in order to keep your significant other you should agree to anything they ask, however much you dislike it, that people who have been abused as children are entitled to abuse others (especially if they are handsome and rich) and that it is somehow less than romantic to realise that someone is a ‘fucked-up son of a bitch’ and walk away – you will then inevitably and rightly cry yourself to sleep over what you have lost.

This is not romance, which might not last but is at least all hearts and kittens for the duration, and nor is it BDSM, which is consensual and caring, practised by people who know what they are doing and why they are doing it from the beginning or at least are exploring it together. It isn’t even porn, as some reviewers have called it. The explicit bits are too tame – or maybe those of us who read fanfiction are inured to explicit sexual description?

What it is, is a very ugly view of relationships. I can only begin to imagine its effect on readers who read very little and who are quite likely to model their desires on what they see as glamorous. And then there’s the effect on the people they in turn meet – the boys and girls who want a genuine relationship and can’t provide the twisted variety portrayed by Christian and yearned for by Anastasia.

I have always condemned censorship. I grew up in the climate of debate about censorship, fuelled by the case of Lady Chatterley’s lover. As a law student, I was involved in many debates on the subject and read widely around it ranging from novels like Fahrenheit 451 to academic papers. I would not deny EL James her right to imagine this story, to write it, and to share it with others. That would be censorship and I might disapprove of the book but would defend, fiercely, her right to write it.

What I most certainly would take issue with is the cynical way in which the publishers have taken up this book that should, I would suggest, have had a limited audience, and sold it to all and sundry, making it quite clear that they are telling the world it is romantic and titillating in equal amounts. And then the film makers take it and make it accessible to even more people. They have made the author very rich, but only as a side effect of making themselves even richer.

If this had been a self-published or indie-published e-book it would have had to take its place on the adults-only shelves or sites as erotica, and whilst we all know that it’s easy to click to say you are over 18, at least the shelving provides a warning that this is not standard teenage fare. As a print book it can be advertised to everyone with impunity and even showcased in shop windows. This is one result of the Lady Chatterley decision but that was intended to address explicit sexual material, not abuse.

Something else, perhaps trivial, about the film, makes me even more annoyed. I recently came across the music Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis. I heard it on Classic fm and gathered that it was requested by Terry Pratchett for his funeral. I loved the music and went looking for it online. I then discovered that it featured in the film Fifty Shades of Grey. The following day I read the passage in the book where Christian abuses Anastasia to the strains of the piece. In print, it didn’t affect my feelings for the music, but knowing it is part of the film makes me feel something lovely has been hijacked to accompany something distasteful.

I did begin to wonder, at one point, whether EL James was playing games with the reader, whether she was actually trying to portray Christian as someone to avoid, section under the mental health acts or report to the police as a possible psychopath. But her treatment of Anastasia and the way the ‘heroine’ regrets her rejection of Christian at the end disabused me of that notion. And of course there are two more volumes to come. (And no, I won’t be reading them.)

Almost everyone I have spoken to has claimed not to have read the book. I do know someone who has – the daughter of one of my neighbours. She is young, not particularly well educated or intelligent and lurches from one failed relationship to another for a variety of reasons. I just hope looking for a clone of Christian Grey is not going to be added to the list.

A major problem with the fact that more widely-read readers are avoiding the book is that it does not get properly reviewed or addressed. There are sniggers from those who have heard about the porn angle, attempts to be tolerant from those who know it purports to describe BDSM (with no apparent realisation that people who practise BDSM are horrified by the book) and a general ‘sniffiness’ from those who assume it’s just another blockbuster romance.

In fact, I think people should be reading this book and reviewing it – in newspapers, magazines, TV programmes, schools, and anywhere else they can think of. They should be shouting about how it devalues romance, glorifies dysfunctional relationships and is dangerously bad for the mental health of younger readers. Even that it gives BDSM an unnecessarily and unwarranted bad press. (BDSM people presumably feel that to make any kind of public issue of it would sound too defensive and could be counterproductive.)

We would not give teenagers a book such as Mein Kampf without at least some warnings and debate. We should not be letting Fifty Shades of Grey slide under the radar of informed discussion and peddle its nastiness to our young people.

And now I’m off to read some other reviews one or two people on my personal blog have linked for me. I carefully didn’t read them until I’d finished both book and review because I wanted my reactions to be completely my own.

3 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Outrage

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