Fifty Shades of Grey: a glamarous take on abuse?

When people find out I’m a former student of literary pornography (yes, really), the natural response appears to be: ‘so what did you think of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey?’ I’ve been asked this question so many times I’m beginning to stutter on my ‘official response’ making me sound a bit like a politician who has been called out in front of the opposition’s Cabinet and, in fact, the entire rest of the world. The ‘Fifty Shades debate’ does feel a bit dated but there’s certainly something to be said about its influence on modern culture.

So, I’ve never read the book. However, I've read many an extract including the ‘ten most risqué passages’ from the novel and quite frankly, found them a great embarrassment to literature. I did sit through the entirety of the 90-minute film so this is largely going on that.

Firstly, a credit to the ‘Fifty Shades’ author E L James who has succeeded in the battle to encourage grown adults (mainly women) to talk about sex. A battle that I’ve never really understood. It seems the British way to think you’re the only person doing it and therefore, saying it aloud is affirming your status as a bit of a whore. Britain, you confuse me.

So, apparently ‘Fifty Shades’ was written as a response to Twilight fan fiction, which would make a lot of sense. The author’s style is clumsy and there’s a fair amount of loaded language shoved into strangely constructed sentences. Perhaps the overall objective of this style is to emphasis how risqué the text is but I can’t be sure on that one. The portrayal of the BDSM scene is very strange.  What jumps out to the reader/viewer is the commoditisation of sex as an exchange of goods. If you haven’t seen the film/read the book the man is dominant, the girl is a submissive (read: terrified) virgin and he basically demands an exchange of rough sex for material goods. It pretty much summarises everything that is wrong with modern culture and materialism.  As Caitlin Moran put it ‘he basically hits her on the clitoris with a hairbrush in exchange for an iPad,’ a summary that is pretty damn accurate. The plot focuses on male dominance to the point of abuse with little to no consideration to how the girl may be feeling beyond ‘how expensive a gift does this justify.’ It’s a warped perspective of anything going on in the BDSM scene and anything that should be allowed to go on in real life. Perhaps the most annoying part of the entire plot is why E L James decided to make her a virgin. This aspect of the storyline is not only highly damaging the impressionable consumer base but largely irrelevant to any form of BDSM at all. James would have been better focusing on the integration of BDSM into a stable relationship, one where we’re not trying to glorify abuse with expensive gifts. Life doesn’t work like that; it’s what we label ‘domestic abuse’. James’ hook with the plot was the inclusion of risqué themes, language and sexual references, that is what has catapulted the story into the phenomenon it has become, not the inclusion of abuse.

Most of the women watching/reading will not be familiar with the themes within the book (BDSM, not abuse) and that would have been enough to pique intrigue and get some decent traction. My mother watched the film and her round up of the experience was: ‘but I think he did love her.’ This is exactly what the author wanted us to think so you fell into the trap there, mother. If Christian Grey was unattractive, I believe the viewer would have an alternate view towards his 'feelings'. The guy got his (virgin) love interest to sign a contract surrendering her rights, that is not normal and that is not a sign of love. Imagine if women were asked by anyone else to surrender their freedom - it would be considered outrageous. So, why are we making excuses on account of it being a love interest? Why is that ok and why are we masquerading that abuse as BDSM?

So in summary, what is my reaction? I think it’s great that we’re awakening to the possibility of discussing former ‘taboos’ and opening our outlook to what is going on outside of our own lives; however, this franchise is treading a very fine line between insightful and damaging. James’ representation of her ‘pure’ female protagonist could easily be taken the wrong way, with readers misinterpreting BDSM and it’s purpose. The plot does little to dispel patriarchy and instead, intensifies the remit of a ‘powerful man’ to extend beyond dominance and towards abuse. But, as the film would suggest: ‘it’s ok everyone, he bought her a car.’

Get ready everyone, a second instalment is due to hit in 2017.