“Fifty Shades of Grey”: saviour of relationships or abuser’s handbook?*
By Isabelle Kerr
On 14th February 2015, the much hyped film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey will be on general release in cinemas across the UK. For anyone who has missed this publishing phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey is part one of a trilogy of books which has sold almost 100 million copies worldwide and has given birth to the term ‘Mommy Porn’ (pun intended). It was widely reported to have ‘saved marriages’ and there were reports across the US of a baby boom in its wake.
The author of the books, E L James, began writing Twilight fan fiction. Her stories were centred around Twilight characters Edward Cullen and Bella Swan but with a sexually explicit element not shown in the films. The popularity of James’s fan fiction pages was picked up by publishers, names and some character/plot details changed, and the Fifty Shades trilogy was born.
The basic premise is this; Anastasia Steele is a beautiful college graduate who, by chance, meets handsome billionaire Christian Grey. He falls for her, pursues her and wins her. The stuff of Mills and Boon? Not quite. Anastasia, or Ana, is a complete stereotype and cliché of a character while Grey is drawn as the darkly handsome, rich, flawed, and dangerous ‘hero’. The ‘bad boy’ that all women desire, or that we are told we desire. Who wouldn’t want to be pursued by a rich, young, handsome, extremely accomplished man? But this is nothing more than stalking, sexual violence and intimate partner violence romanticized and eroticized.
Anastasia Steele could not be any more of a stereotype. She is an introvert, has low self-esteem, has abandonment issues from her father, apparently has only one close friend who bullies her and even though she is college educated and also has a job, she doesn't seem to possess any self-sufficiency aside from cooking for her roommate and herself. She is a virgin (naturally) and has no sexual identity until Christian Grey enters her life, sweeps her off her feet and requests that she become his Submissive in a BDSM sexual relationship.
SUSAN BROWNMILLER ON FEBRUARY 9, 2015, AT 13:35
Isabelle, your analysis is brilliant. I've not seen anything so complete as this.
(Yes! THE Susan Brownmiller)
The character of Christian Grey is yet another cliché. He is a rich, handsome, accomplished businessman who was abused as a child. He is young, yet he is a billionaire, he is an accomplished musician, an art expert and a connoisseur of all things fine and tasteful. And as if that wasn’t enough, he also sends aid ships to the people of war-torn and famine riven Darfur. But Christian also has a dark side; he is ‘flawed’.
In order to enter this relationship with Christian, Ana is expected to sign a lengthy and detailed contract that, amongst other requirements, requires that she exercise four days a week with a trainer that Christian provides (and who will report to Christian on her progress), eat only from a list of foods Christian supplies her with, get eight hours of sleep a night and use a form of birth control chosen by Christian so that he will not have to wear condoms. Anastasia negotiates a few terms of the contract with Christian (she only wants to work out three days a week, not four), but all of her negotiations exist only within his framework - none of the terms are hers independently. Nothing in their relationship is hers as an independent woman.
His ‘flawed’ character and need for pain and violence in his life is explained (though he never talks about it) by the fact that he was abused as a child. Early in the story he tells Ana how dangerous he is (the responsibility for everything that happens to her from that point becomes hers, because she has been ‘warned’ and has decided to enter into the relationship) and later he shows her his ‘Red Room of Pain’ where the sexual activities take place. It is also within the Red Room that punishment will be meted out by Christian if he decides that Ana has misbehaved in any way. Although Ana is wary and determined not to enter a relationship with him, she cannot resist as he pursues her relentlessly. Throughout book one she is continually beset by doubts but as his control strengthens, she is unable to separate herself from the relationship.
As Ana's relationship with Christian progresses, his controlling tendencies affect her life more and more. Some examples of these are:
- A friend takes portraits of Ana for his photography exhibition. Christian buys all of them, because he does not want anyone else looking at her. This was before their relationship even began.
- He buys her a new car, even though he knows she loves the old car she has. His reason? Because the old car isn’t safe and he wants to protect her.
- He buys her a new laptop so that he can be in touch with her when he needs to be.
- After graduating, Ana is hired as an assistant at a publishing company. Christian is furious when the owner of the company takes a fancy to Ana. So what does he do? He shows how powerful he is by buying out the company - to make sure she's "safe" working there.
- When she goes out to a bar with her one friend, against his express wishes, he flies from New York to Washington State that same night, just to express his anger - and exercise his control over her.
Throughout the story, Ana experiences reactions typical of women survivors of abuse, including constant perceived threat. (“My stomach churns from his threats”); altered identity (describes herself as a “pale, haunted ghost”), and stressful managing (engages in behaviours to “keep the peace,” such as withholding information about her social whereabouts to avoid Christian's anger). Ana becomes trapped in the relationship as her behaviours become mechanized in response to Christian's abuse.
Professor Evan Stark, in his 2009 book ‘Coercive Control: The Entrapment of Women in Personal Life’, says that coercive control encompasses a range of strategies employed to dominate individual women in their personal lives. The abuser often uses three equally important tactics, isolation, intimidation and control and we can see all of these writ large in the pages of Fifty Shades of Grey. Stark says that rather than ‘repeated incidents’ coercive control is ongoing, it’s routine and it’s cumulative in its effect on women’s physical and psychological health (evidence the ‘pale haunted ghost’ and the stomach churning from his threats).
We can see Christian’s abuse of Ana mirrored in Stark’s description of that controlling behaviour as “the violation of physical integrity with an emphasis on violations of “liberty” that entail the deprivation of rights and resources essential to personhood and citizenship. In this view, the psychological language of victimization and dependence is replaced by the political language of domination, resistance, and subordination.”
Christian Grey was an experienced abuser and in book one, we do see a previous partner try to warn Ana about him. She took no notice, though.
Reader, she married him.
After they exchange their wedding vows, the first words he says to Ana are, "Finally, you're mine." The control he exercises over her does not reflect his love for her; it reflects his objectification of her. Christian never views Ana as a person, let alone an independent woman. He wants her to obey him, and even though she refuses to include that in her wedding vows, it is exactly what she does.
In the book, Grey is in total control, he is coercive and manipulating. Although there is agreement between Ana and Christian that a ‘safe word’ will be used to stop any sexual activity that is too frightening or painful for her, when Ana uses this later in the books, she is berated by Christian for it.
Occasionally we see Ana trying to establish some autonomy. For example, after she marries Christian, she does not change her name. She wants to maintain some professionalism at work since he already owns the company where she works. In response to this, he turns up at her workplace unannounced and begins to argue with her because of her determination to retain this one shred of personal agency. When she asks why this is so important to him, he tells her that he wants everybody to know that she belongs to him.
E L James uses BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism) in the book as Christian’s ‘weapon’ in the controlling of not only Ana, but of other women in his past, but according to the BDSM community, involvement relies on informed consent, and this is not the case in Fifty Shades of Grey. In the book, Grey is in total control, he is coercive and manipulating. Although there is agreement between Ana and Christian that a ‘safe word’ will be used to stop any sexual activity that is too frightening or painful for her, when Ana uses this later in the books, she is berated by Christian for it.
After an incident in the ‘Red Room of Pain’ where she uses the "safe word", he bemoans his sad state of mind later, mentioning that "my wife fucking safe worded me." He is not concerned with why she was afraid, whether she was in pain, concerned about her well-being or indeed why she felt the need to use the safe word. He only cares about how it affects him.
Wanting to please Christian apparently includes subjecting herself to verbal and emotional abuse from him because any time she tries to assert herself in any way - which isn't often - he berates her, guilt trips her and beats her down verbally until she apologizes and submits to him.
So, is it love or is it Traumatic Bonding?
A look at the International Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences (2008) tells us what Traumatic Bonding is:
“The necessary conditions for traumatic bonding are that one person must dominate the other and that the level of abuse chronically spikes then subsides. The relationship is characterised by periods of permissive, compassionate and even affectionate behaviour from the dominant person, punctuated by intermittent episodes of intense abuse. To maintain the upper hand, the victimiser manipulates the behaviour of the victim and limits the victim’s options so as to perpetuate the power imbalance.”
Ana has absolutely no sense of self worth. She only feels sexy when Christian says she is, and when he insults or patronises her, she accepts what he says as the truth. When Ana breaks up with Christian at the end of the first book, the second book finds her starving herself and wasting away to nothing until he contacts her again. When she thinks his helicopter has crashed in book two, she thinks to herself that she can't live without him. Their marriage only comes about because he is scared she will leave him, and when she asks what she can do to prove to him she isn't going anywhere, he tells her that she can marry him.
“The traumatic effects …. may include the impairment of the victim’s capacity for accurate self-appraisal leading to a sense of personal inadequacy and a subordinate sense of dependence upon the dominating person.”
Throughout the books, sexual violence and intimidation are pervasive including using alcohol to compromise Ana's consent. Christian initiates sexual encounters when he is genuinely angry, dismisses Anastasia's requests for boundaries, and threatens her.
The theme of the novel, that love alone can make someone change, is irrational, unbelievable and dangerous.
It is very worrying that we are witnessing a significant shift of ideals, moving backwards to traditional gender roles at a time when we should be confident of securing the opposite. Fifty Shades of Grey is a shining example of this. Early marriage to one's first sexual partner, having a baby even while saying neither partner is ready to be a parent, and submission to one's husband as the head of the household are all aspects of life that feminists and progressive thinkers have worked to move beyond.
So why are we wooed by this romanticised notion of domination, submission and dependence? Why are so many of us willing to sacrifice our independence on the altars of cliché and stereotype?
Anastasia and Christian's relationship is not romantic. Christian is an abuser. The tactics he uses to "keep her safe" are not masculine or sexy; they are stalking. “Keeping her safe” is nothing more than a euphemism for “keeping her under control”. Using the excuse that his childhood abuse is the reason that he, in turn, abuses is nothing but smoke and mirrors to justify his own behaviour. Throughout the books Christian is calculating, controlling, manipulative and demanding in every aspect of Ana’s life.
Dressing up abuse as erotica doesn’t make it sexy, it makes it dangerous.
* First posted on 9th February 2015 on www.glasgowclyderapecrisis.org.uk
Winner of ‘Best Blog’ from the Write to End Violence Against Women awards 2015