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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Engrossing: ‘Fifty Shades’ of not OK

Published: September 7, 2012
Section: Opinions

If somehow you have escaped the buzz surrounding author E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades” trilogy—I will be generous and refer to them as—novels, I will attempt to recap them in a few words. The series centers around the relationship between college senior Anastasia Steele and young multi-millionaire CEO Christian Grey. The two meet under (very) unlikely circumstances, and the first novel of the trilogy, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” focuses on Grey’s borderline-stalkerish pursuit of Steele, his taking of her virginity and the formation of their dominant/submissive sexual relationship.

Some readers praise the books as an introduction of kink to the general public. It’s true that the trilogy—of which mainstream America seems to possess a strange obsession—portrays an alternative sexual relationship to what is generally found in this genre of widely consumed romantic fiction. Unfortunately, as many commenters have pointed out, Grey and Steele’s relationship goes beyond unconventional and passes the line toward abusive.

Steele and Grey’s sexual relationship has been widely classified as being unbalanced and unhealthy. Grey is dangerously controlling of Steele, whose young and often immature voice serves as the narrative voice of the series. Grey’s role as the sexually dominant individual in their relationship leaves her weak and disenfranchised. Their roles are helpfully summarized by Christian’s words to Ana, moments after taking her virginity—the fact that her virginity is taken is very emphasized in the novel when the millionaire growls to the 21 year old: “Every time you move tomorrow, I want you to be reminded that I’ve been here. Only me. You are mine.”

I will not pretend that I successfully read the first (and most famous) book of the trilogy: “Fifty Shades of Grey.” I found it unbearable shortly after reading the passage above. I did, however, manage to get through the second book titled “Fifty Shades Darker.”

At the conclusion of the first novel, Steele finally breaks it off with the uber-controlling—but still like totally in love with her—dark and mysterious Grey, after he crosses the line and his domination of her goes too far and causes her physical harm.

The second novel begins with the couple’s reunion. The rest of the plot centers around Ana’s refusal to be the submissive in their relationship and their strides toward balance, both in and out of the bedroom.

Most readers would smile at the narrator’s refusal to conform to the previous novel’s obviously troubling roles. While Steele no longer allows Grey to control her sexually, however, she is still painfully in love with the millionaire and continually describes herself as being powerless to her feelings for him.

Christian’s most significant domination of Ana doesn’t take place in the bedroom, but everyplace else. Throughout the novel, Grey arranges for Ana to be dropped off and picked up from work, he monitors her email, chooses her clothes, decides who she can and can not spend time with.

Throughout the novel, Steele refers to an inner-voice that governs her actions that she calls her “inner goddess.” Logically, since “Fifty Shades Darker” focuses on Ana’s establishment of herself as a strong and independent woman—a point that she stresses endlessly—it serves to reason that the narrator’s inner-goddess would push her toward autonomy and away from Grey’s dangerous brand of smothering love. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

In fact, the most independent move that Ana’s inner goddess prompts is her decision to allow Christian to purchase a Saab convertible as a graduation present for her—a different car than what he buys for all of his other submissives. Even this bold move is the millionaire’s idea—and one that Ana initially protests, as she prefers the “submissive special.”

Time after time, Christian swoops in and saves Ana from whatever trouble she has gotten herself into, performing as the knight in shining armor, if Prince Charming had a red-room of pain.

Toward the conclusion of the novel, Ana feels proud of herself for getting to a point where Grey allows her to have a drink alone with an old friend who had a crush on her. It is alarming to me that she didn’t expect that sort of mutual respect in the first place.

What I find most troubling about this series isn’t Grey’s sexual domination of Ana, but the fact that with every one of Christian’s line-crossing antics, Ana describes her inner-goddess as doing backflips of joy.

This not-so-secret yearning of Ana for Christian’s control and domination (in and out of the bedroom) belies the strong woman that she so clearly believes herself to be.

While it is a positive step that a book that is openly and unabashedly sexual is so widely accepted, consumed and discussed by the American mainstream—it was on the entrance display table of my local Barnes and Noble—it is sad that its story depicts such a gray portrait of how “modern,” “independent” and “empowered” women such as Ana wish to be treated.