It seems everyone is talking about Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James. Whether you read it or didn’t, loved it or hated it, I bet you’ve either talked about it with someone or read about it somewhere. Maybe you only heard the title mentioned and know nothing else about it. Or maybe you’ve read it 18 times and can recite it line-by-line. Whatever the case, it’s out there.
First, let’s just get this out of the way: I read all three of these books in a day and a half. As soon as I finished the first one, I bought the second. Likewise with the third. I paid $9.99 PER BOOK. It’s possible I was drunk at the time. Or should have been. Especially while reading the third. That was just a big ball of WTF rolled up in 500-something pages.
There’s been a lot of criticism on many fronts for this trilogy. I’m not going to touch on the fanfic aspects, because frankly I know nothing about fanfic and I’d only come off sounding like a moron (if you’re interested, author Kate Davies posted an interesting piece about fanfic and Dear Author did an entire series about it) . I’m also not going to address the “mommy porn” label that’s been ascribed to these books. The term makes my head want to explode and I have too much to live for. I will say that “mommy porn” is insulting and it makes me want to punch someone in the junk (because I’m sure a man came up with that).
I would like to address two misconceptions that bother me greatly about this series.
I disagree. While there are many similarities, what keeps this from being a romance in my book is the nature of the relationship between Christian and Ana, the main protagonists. Yes, it has many of the same tropes we find in romance: Billionaire, Tortured Alpha Hero becomes intrigued with Virginal, Malleable Heroine. She thinks she can save him and he only wants her for sex – but then becomes intrigued by her and decides he wants to keep her. On his terms, of course. Which she, naturally, doesn’t agree to. Much angst ensues. Until finally, Happily Ever After (complete with rainbows and unicorns a meadow full of wildflowers and mention of tasting breastmilk).
I know what you’re saying to yourself. You’re saying OMFG what do you MEAN tasting breastmilk??? “Gee, Holly, this sounds an awful lot like a romance novel to me.” And yes, I know on the surface it seems that way. But the truth is, at its core, this is a book about a sad, troubled man who tends toward being abusive and the woman who enables him in being this way.
After reading this trilogy I wanted to write a post titled Why Stalking Is Not OK. Actually, I still kind of want to write that post. But for now I’ll just say it here. Stalking Is Not OK.
I know some novels in recent years have glorified stalking. Most notably for me – probably because it’s marketed to young adults – is the Twilight franchise. But Edward sneaking into Bella’s room to watch her sleep without her knowing was nothing compared to this.
Let me outline a few examples for you.
1. Ana drunk dials Christian one night and he freaks out over the fact that she’s drunk and demands to know where she is. She hangs up on him. 5 minutes later he shows up at the bar. When questioned, he reveals he tracked her cell phone to find out where she was.
“How did you find me?”
“I tracked your cell phone, Anastasia.”
Oh, of course he did. How is that possible? Is it legal? Stalker, my subconscious whispers at me through the cloud of tequila that’s floating in my brain, but somehow, because it’s him, I don’t mind. (Grey p.57)
2. Christian sends Ana gifts to and drives her home. Only, she never mentioned where she lives, so how did he know?
“He pulls up outside my duplex. I belatedly realize he’s not asked me where I live – yet he knows. But then he sent the books, of course he knows where I live. What able, cell-phone-tracking, helicopter-owning stalker wouldn’t.” (Grey p.74)
3. He returns unexpectedly from a trip because she meets a friend for a drink instead of going straight home. Yes, he actually cancels a business trip because she met a friend.
4. Despite having only known him for a few weeks, he knows her social security and bank account numbers. And he accesses them without her permission.
Now, Ana does call Christian out for his behavior. But she does it in a way that says she doesn’t think it’s a very big deal. Personally I would have stabbed him in the throat called the cops the very first time he said he used my cell phone to track my whereabouts 5 days after I met him. But that’s just me. Ana sort of laughs off most of the things he does. If she does become angry and points it out to him, he apologizes and she forgives him. And then he does it again. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.
As I was reading, I kept wondering in what world it’s ok to do the things he did. Were we, the readers, supposed to accept his behavior because Ana did? Or perhaps I was supposed to accept his behavior because he was just a sad little boy on the inside? One who was “Fifty shades of fucked-up” from the emotional and physical abuse he suffered as a child? Because that doesn’t work for me. Honestly, that just freaks me out even more. An unbalanced, self-proclaimed “fucked-up” guy is stalking me at my place of work, knows every detail about my life and follows me around town? I don’t laugh it off and say “now, now, be a good boy”. I run screaming in the opposite direction.
2. This is a healthy, loving relationship.
No, this is a sad, destructive, abusive relationship. Over the course of the three novels it becomes slightly less destructive and abusive, but only slightly. When I finished the third book I did so with a heavy heart and a bad taste in my mouth. Yes, they are eminently readable. But they’re also depressing as hell.
The mind games and emotional bullying Christian indulges in to get his way. The fact that Ana seems more like a victim suffering from Stockholm Syndrome than a woman in a healthy, loving relationship. Cutting her off from her friends unless he’s with her or can control the environment she meets with them in. Following her on a trip to see her mother even though she expressly asked for time alone to digest things. Having her followed and spied on. Buying her a computer and a Blackberry and a car, so he can get in touch with her whenever he wants. Ordering for her and steamrolling her when she complains.
“Two glasses of the Pinot Grigio,” Christian says with a voice of authority. I purse my lips, exasperated.
“What?” he snaps.
“I wanted a Diet Coke,” I whisper.
His gray eyes narrow and he shakes his head.
“The Pinot Grigio here’s a decent wine. It will go well with the meal, whatever we get,” he says patiently.
“Whatever we get?”
“Yes.” He smiles his dazzling head-cocked-to-one-side smile, and my stomach pole vaults over my spleen. I can’t help but reflect his glorious smile back at him.
These are not signs of a healthy relationship. That Ana tolerated this behavior – and even excused it, or worse, came to enjoy it – does not make it ok.
I think the worst part, however, is the way he casually dismisses her feelings. Especially in the beginning when it comes to being a sub. The first time he spanks her, she’s very upset afterward. She tells him she felt demeaned and abused. His response?
So you felt demeaned, debased, abused & assaulted – how very Tess Durbeyfield of you. I believe it was you who decided on the debasement, if I remember correctly. Do you really feel like this or do you think you ought to feel like this: Two very different things. If that is how you feel, do you think you could just try and embrace these feelings, deal with them, for me? That’s what a submissive would do.
And naturally, she’s thrilled he thinks of himself as hers, and brushes aside the fact that he’s told her to get over her feelings and let him humiliate and debase her.
As the series continues, Ana learns to stand up for herself a bit more and Christian learns to give in to her occasionally – oh wait, no. That didn’t actually happen. The author told us that’s what happened, but the actions of the characters didn’t change a whit. Christian still ordered Ana about, cutting her off from her friends and managing her life whether she liked it or not. And she let him.
This does not a romance novel make.
Are these books very readable? Yes. Are they enjoyable? I would say no, but I think that depends on the individual person reading them. Are they romance novels? Not even a little bit.