Retro Post: Fifty Shades of Grey is Not Romance

Posted June 21, 2017 by Holly in Discussions | 20 Comments

Retro Post: Fifty Shades of Grey is Not Romance

I (Casee) love this post. I have these books in my TBR pile. This is the second time this post has been reposted, but I feel that it is deserving. This post was originally posted in 2012 (when the books were published) and again in 2015 (when the movies were released).

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 for digital copies. 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.

This is a romance novel.

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.

A. 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. 15 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)

B.  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)

C. 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. He specifically told her to go home and when she didn’t, he rushed home to spank scold her.

D. 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 without my knowledge or permission? I don’t laugh it off and say “now, now, be a good boy”. I run screaming in the opposite direction.

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. These are textbook signs of an abusive 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 okay.

I think the worst part, however, is the way he casually dismisses her feelings. Especially in the beginning when it comes to being a submissive. 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.

Fifty Shades of Grey is not a romance.

*I made some minor editorial changes to the revised post

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20 responses to “Retro Post: Fifty Shades of Grey is Not Romance

  1. This, this, this, this, THIS! Thank you, Holly!

    I also devoured them in about a day and a half. They are compulsively readable. I compare them to a trainwreck. You can’t look away. But in no way are you left with the happy, satisfied feeling you’re supposed to when the books end.

    Thanks for putting into words what I’ve been feeling, but unable to articulate for weeks about this series.

  2. Great Post! I too read them and even blogged about them. I thought the 1st book was actually a good dark read and I was satisfied at the end when Ana seemed to wake up and leave. She reclaimed herself. I don’t know why I was expecting different but I thought the succeeding books would be more about her journey after Christian. Would she be intrigued with the BDSM world? Would she go running into the first wishy washy arms open and discover that isn’t any better. I guess I was hoping for a modern day Goldilocks who would keep looking until she finally met Mr. Just Right. What I got was a mea culpa for going over the edge in the first book. She tried so hard to make them appear more “Romance” normal and it just didn’t work. I wish I had left it at the 1st book.

  3. teenyann

    These books sound like all kinds of WTF and the subject matter is nothing I am even remotely interested in. Also, it appears that parts are written in the first person which is a big ‘nope’ for me.

  4. Thank you for this post!! I’ve heard so much hype I’ve contemplated reading them but have held off due to the price tag. After reading this, I’m no longer on the fence and no that I won’t be purchasing them.

    If all these women hyping this want a good erotic there are so many more (and much better the sounds of it) books out there.

    Lorelei James’ Rough Riders, Zena Wynn, Kate Pearce Simply Series

  5. A true romance for me is where the hero would never EVER say to the heroine he wants to beat the shit out of her because she dared to go out for drinks with her best girl friend. The moment I read that line in Fifty Shades Freed I want to burn the book. That line alone proves why Christian and Ana are all types of shades f’ed up.

    Other readers may think this is the ultimate sparkly special romance like Twilight, but Edward never threatened to beat Bella up.

  6. Excellent post, I’m glad you didn’t let potential hordes of crazed fangirls keep you from putting it up!

    I confess to flipping the digital pages at a furious rate through 1 and 2, but the third finally broke the spell.

    I really dislike the tendency I’ve seen for readers to dismiss the stalker, abusive tendencies as BDSM. There were trappings of BDSM in the book, but the D/s aspects were badly misused.

    I agree with Sarah L. It’s really too bad that, with all the excellent erotic romances out there, this is the one that made the leap to reading groups.

  7. You are more committed than I am. I read the first one and just don’t get what the fuss is about. I have no intention of reading books 2 and 3 despite lots of fans insisting that I should! I have other books that I want to actually enjoy reading.

  8. No stalkers allowed! I wasn’t planning on reading the books but this just sealed the deal.

    The whole cell phone tracking thing and knowing where she lived? Run, honey. Run far, far away as fast as you can.

    I would have stabbed him in the throat too, Holly!

  9. I’d heard about the book and the erotic content and was interested in reading it. Then I read the first couple pages in some “check it out” sample, and didn’t love the writing so hesitated about committing to the entire thing.

    After your thoughtful insights on which, I’m glad I didn’t bother. The story elements you’ve alluded to just would have angered me.

  10. Rowena

    I’ve heard these books mentioned around Twitter but I’ve never been interested enough to check them out. I’m actually pretty glad that I didn’t read these after reading this post.

    Stalking is not good and this doesn’t sound like a romance novel, not any romance novel that I’d ever want to read. The heroine sounds like a total push over and I’d want to punch her in the face if I had to read her brush off his stalking as nothing for more than a book.

    Good post.

  11. @Rowena – I don’t think you would have enjoyed them even without the crazy abusive-type relationship. You’re lucky you didn’t read them.

    @Kati – you say things I want to all the time. Guess it’s time I returned the favor.

    @Mame – YES! I thought the same thing when the 1st book ended. I understood her being upset about leaving, but I actually did a little fist pump that she seemed to grow up and grow strong. Too bad that wasn’t the case.

    @Teenyann – yes, all three are written in the first person.

    @Sarah L – There are definitely better examples of erotic romance on the market. I’m not sure why this is the book that exploded. I can only hope it brings to light some of the better written ones.

    @Lucy – I’m glad I wasn’t mobbed. 🙂

    @Marg – I don’t think you need to keep going. Books 2 and 3 are just more of the same.

    @KB – right from the beginning I was bothered by the way both Christian and Ana referred to his spanking her as “hitting” or “beating”. There is a big difference between erotic spanking and “beating” someone.

  12. Kate D

    Thanks for the blog mention! This whole phenomenon has made me a bit ragey, mostly over the fanfic part because I haven’t read them and can’t comment on the writing or story. But just reading your description made me want to scream.

    Unfortunately, the family is asleep so I have to refrain.

    No. No no no no no. Not a romance. Not a hero. Ugh.

  13. Seriously, thank you for posting this. I was considering buying the books, they sounded interesting based on the blurb, but if this is an example of the content then I don’t want to read it. In no way is this representative of anything but an abusive relationship. It’s not a healthy D/s situation at all.

  14. @Rowena – yes, but I’m not sure if they’re actually going to make them. I’m not even sure how they would. They’d almost have to be rated NC-17.

  15. I have never been interested in reading the books even though friends have encouraged me to give the books a go. Three years on – and I am still not interested. The only thing that makes me curious is how these books managed to attain the readership they did.

  16. Robert A. Kezer

    Great post Holly! Any suggestion by an author that rape, stalking, etc. is okay, erotic, or romantic is irresponsible and points to a sick mind.

  17. I didn’t tell you at the time, because I just couldn’t deal with any of the ‘mommy porn’ commentary, that this is an excellent, most excellent post.

    These books are readable, like many things that are neither right nor accurate nor informed, are readable. It pisses me off royally to see so many imbeciles tout them as what genre romance is. No, no, they are NOT.


    Thank you again.

  18. I so agree with your article. I get so upset that many of my daughter’s high school and now college friends had read this book and saw this as a normal romance. It doesn’t portray anything that is healthy.

    • That was the demographic I was most concerned about when the books were released. We all know HS and College girls were going to pick them up and think that was a normal, healthy relationship.

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