For those of you who are going to watch the bondage-for-amateurs movie coming out this weekend, including those cultural commentators like D.C. McAllister and myself who slogged though the prose and now must sit in the audience to discern the popular appeal of this monochrome franchise, here’s some pre-game analysis of what to look for. Not the sex—rumors say it sounds boring and short given the hype around the movie—but the themes. What is it that appeals to this story? It can’t just be the erotica, because as erotica goes, 50SOG is dreadful, even for fan-fiction erotica. Back during the original frenzy, Katie Roiphe wrote in Newsweek:
[I]f I were a member of the Christian right, sitting on my front porch decrying the decadent morals of working American women, what would be most alarming about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomena, what gives it its true edge of desperation, and end-of-the-world ambience, is that millions of otherwise intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this level. If you are willing to slog through sentences like ‘In spite of my poignant sadness, I laugh,’ or ‘My world is crumbling around me into a sterile pile of ashes, all my hopes and dreams cruelly dashed,’ you must really, really, want to get to the submissive sex scene.
As a member of the Christian right, I can vouch, Rophie is not wrong.
So Why Is This Story Popular Now?
Sexual boredom. See Camille Paglia on Romanticism leading to decadence. She called this about 20 years ago. From “Sexual Personae,” her breakout book and probably the most quoted assertion:
Society is the not the criminal but the force which keeps crime in check. When social controls weaken, man’s innate cruelty bursts forth. The rapist is created not by bad social influences but by a failure of social conditioning. Feminists, seeking to drive power relations out of sex, have set themselves against nature. Sex is power. Identity is power . . . My theory is that whenever sexual freedom is sought or achieved, sadomasochism will not be far behind. Romanticism always turns into decadence.
We are just watching it play out in “Shades of Grey.” Feminist notions of affirmative consent, i.e. only an explicitly stated yes means yes, have seeped into every book, every movie. And when every foreplay move is about asking, it’s dull.
For both men and women, sex is a surrender. He invades us. We consume him. It is a ridiculous process, gross and messy. Yet we still want it, sometimes against our better judgment. Some of the power of sex comes from the magnitude of the surrender. The only. The bad boy. The affair. The long seduction. The danger. With the notions of hook up and casual sex ruling pop culture, “the only” and “the long seduction” are off the table, leaving bad boys and danger to give sex power. (Since this is a pop culture discussion, the power of committed marital sex does not come into play, as its power is something learned over years and is ridiculed more than encouraged.)
But bad boys cause problems. So culture requires that every encounter has a feel of that annoying “Can you hear me now?” cell phone commercial. “Can I touch you here? What about here?” These express consent mandates are why that ridiculous contract in 50SOG is so long. It’s not for legality as it isn’t enforceable and any dom or sub will tell you it is a piece of crap. It serves as a literary device (such that it is) to highlight her consent for the reader. Affirmative verbal consent examples are everywhere in stories, most recently in “Exodus” (the movie, not the book of the Bible). “May I proceed?” Moses asked, the two times we saw him with his wife. In our effort to control bad boys in art, they have lost their erotic force.
By process of elimination, danger is the only erotic meme left standing. It is the new challenge for romance writers: come up with new ways for the woman to say yes to risky behavior. So they start with blindfolds. When that doesn’t work anymore, then one can move to handcuffs, then spankings, then sex acts in public, other people… The orgasm is easy. It is the thrill of conquest and surrender people seek. And E.L. James delivered that.
So if that’s why now, then why this story?
The second trailer for the “Fifty Shades of Grey” film helpfully highlights the most troubling flaw in the story, which I think is its biggest draw. It is not the sex, or even the kink. Those are sideshows which distract from the more worrisome aspect of the series. The essential problem in “Fifty Shades” is summed up in the voiceover dialogue about three-fourths of the way though the second trailer.
Anastasia: Why are you trying to change me?
Christian: I’m not. It is you who is changing me.
Consistent with the clunky storytelling of the book, this is not-so-subtle foreshadowing. E.L. James did write a Hollywood happy ending to this tale of bondage discipline sadism masochism (BDSM). At the end of the third book, Christian becomes a better man, a family man, in the light of Anastasia’s love. And just like that trope about men reading Playboy for the articles, many women claim to love “Fifty Shades” for this redemptive theme. Christian is redeemed, and so are the books, with this little addition of morality.
From Adaptation to Power Struggle
But it is nonsense. This isn’t a moral redemption, for the books or any of the characters. To understand why, one only has to compare it to its inspiration: “Twilight.”
In case it is not common knowledge, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is “Twilight” fan fiction. James took Stephanie Meyer’s story and wrote in sex where “Twilight” had sexual tension. The only sex in Mormon Meyer’s work is marital sex, which only starts well into the fourth book and to which she alludes but never narrates. In our modern obsession of normalizing sexuality with realism and exposure, fadeouts aren’t enough. Therefore, modern fan fiction often sexes up stories that left carnal passion to the imagination. James’s story was originally called “Master of the Universe” and had main characters named Bella and Edward. (To avoid copyright claims, James changed the character names so Meyer wouldn’t sue and the title probably so the holders of the He-Man rights wouldn’t sue. Otherwise, she changed little else. There are text comparisons, if you are curious.)
To maintain tension in her story of quick submission, James had to flip the conflict. Where “Twilight” was a story about two lovers adapting to events, “Fifty Shades” is a story about two lovers battling it out for control of the other.
Fifty Shades of Control
In “Twilight,” Edward resisted changing Bella, to the point of abandoning her. Likewise, Bella accepted Edward as he was. She decides early in the story that the fact he is a vampire doesn’t matter. The story moves forward as they adapt themselves to the events that buffer them. Contrast “Fifty Shades,” in which Christian quickly corrupts Ana and Ana submits in the hope of changing Christian. The tension isn’t external, nor is it sexual, as they get it on throughout all three books. The tension is over which of them wins, which controls the other. The sex is a metaphor for that control.
I’ve only seen one review that catches this. Most popular reviewers don’t challenge the whole Bella is “too stupid to live” meme and so never see the strengths of the character. So credit to Dear Author for this in a “Fifty Shades of Grey” review:
[A]s it turns out—and believe me I’m as surprised to be saying this as you are to hear it—Twilight turns out to be the more sophisticated version. If we were to characterize Edward and Bella’s relationship as BDSM, then unlike Anastasia, Bella eagerly and unconditionally accepts Edward and his darkness. She embraces him and his baggage wholeheartedly. She is happy to go into his world. She never thinks of saving him from his darkness. She never thinks of him as a monster. Edward is the one in the closet, so to speak. Edward is the one who fears his desires. [Fifty Shades] has completely missed that aspect of its source material.
For all that Twilight normalizes the Gothic, the monstrous, and the kinky, it never ‘cures’ it. It never tries to “drag it into the light” and reform it from its bad, bad ways. Instead, and I’m quite startled to realize this, Twilight posits a world in which the ‘monstrous’, too, can be happy. …Fifty Shades, on the other hand, persistently characterizes kink as abnormal except when it uses it to excuse bad behavior or to titillate its readers. It is exploitive and appropriative in the worst sort of way.
…Whether James realizes it or not, intended it or not, she has written a book whose ultimate message is this: the only people who deserve love are those who are perfect and normal.
And whether we realize it or not, it was a Mormon who wrote the tolerant romance.
It is a funny thing about the supposedly harsh rules of Christian morality. Since perfection is impossible to achieve, it has an equality to it. Everyone is broken. Everyone has flaws. Love and happiness can’t be reserved only for the perfect and normal because there is no perfect. It allows us to love the broken. Actually, it requires it. And it spares us from the need to debase ourselves to reach another, which, as Denise McAllister will point out, is a mercy because in the real world these stories rarely end happily ever after.