More than 50 different shades of relationship abuse are depicted in the best selling trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, and none of them have to do with bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism or masochism (the interchangeable words that make up the catch-all acronym BDSM). The two series of books have made a significant mark on current popular literature, and continue to be a hot topic with the release of the film adaptation of the first book this year. Published originally in 2012, nearly two decades after The Beauty Trilogy by A. N. Roquelaure (a pen name for Anne Rice), the general public now has something sexy to talk about. What is the opposite of sexy, however, is the casual attitude with which Fifty Shades depicts violence and consent transgression within relationships. Rice produced a set of erotic fantasy novels that, while having their own set of problems around consent, are otherworldly enough in nature to mitigate the reader’s tendency to draw real-life parallels. She achieves escapism and portrays racy subject matter without setting negative examples for kink dynamics in the real world. Thankfully, we are not all princes, princesses, or anything in between on the gender spectrum, susceptible to curses that induce a century of slumber, living in kingdoms in which we are taken into captivity to serve the court as sexual slaves. Although parallels can be drawn and differences highlighted within several aspects of the two trilogies, the distinctions between them are significant. In this essay, I will explore how each trilogy portrays male-dominated power exchange, marriage, sex-negativity, and levels of realism to demonstrate the problematic elements of Fifty Shades, and how Beauty has managed to circumnavigate them, lacking the “beast” of social norms around relationship abuse.
The development of a singular power dynamic, of Christian Grey and his control of Ana Steele, drives the storyline in James’s books. Grey is a rich, powerful and privileged man who uses his wealth and influence to steer Steele first into his bed and later into a committed relationship. He exerts his privilege over her with the purchases he makes for her (a car and a laptop), by seizing control of the company she works for, and by tracking her location through the cellular phone he gives her. He wants her to submit to him completely and allow him to dictate what she eats, the birth control she takes, and what she wears. As Downing emphasizes, “The idea of the woman who is initiated into BDSM by a more experienced, often older man is a long-standing and somewhat ubiquitous trope in both fiction and first-person confessional accounts.” (96) In The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, the protagonist — Beauty — has many trials and tribulations, and endures oppressive systems of control exerted over her from the start. We get a clear sense of her experience in the beginning, and later we are introduced to the perspectives of others, namely Alexi, Tristan, and finally Laurent, which provide us with a myriad of different power dynamics amongst several gender configurations and sexualities. Beauty is under the control of first the Prince and later Mistress Lockley, prior to her kidnapping by the Sultan. We witness snippets throughout the three books of the experiences of the three men Beauty encounters intimately in a slave setting, experiencing a variety of submissive roles amongst themselves and with others, and some dominant ones, eventually. Ziv writes, “In particular, the work does not problematize gender relations: its main erotic force does not hinge on the power differential between women and men.” (68) This array of power exchange levels the playing field and normalizes alternative relationship styles in a more sexually egalitarian manner.
One example of sharp contrast between the two sets of books is in their treatment of kink within the parameters of marriage. When Christian proposes to Ana in 50 Shades Darker abruptly to prevent her from leaving him again, he is blatantly motivated by controlling her and the situation. Ana requests time to think about it, and by the end of the book they are engaged. 50 Shades Freed begins with them having a long honeymoon in Europe. The marriage depicted is one of compromise; Christian has moved past his tendencies towards kink in exchange for a long-term relationship with Ana. Yet, all of the language used around their marriage depicts ownership and possession, suggesting a imbalanced power exchange in Grey’s favour. At the wedding altar, Christian whispers “Finally, you’re mine,” as they kiss. (20) Beauty and Laurent are the perfect match in Beauty’s Release, “and a good deal happier, I think, than anyone else could ever guess”, Beauty claims at the conclusion of the text. (238) Laurent rides a horse to her upon discovering she has not accepted the proposal of any suitor since she left the possession of Queen Eleanor, returning to her own kingdom at her parents’ demand. There is a strong possessive element in the way these two interact as well, and Beauty craves that possession as much as Laurent does. “I never dared dream of this moment” (235) Beauty says upon discovering Laurent is there to whisk her away as his wife. Leading to this point, every indication is given that Beauty wants to be dominated and controlled. She had been rescued from the possession of a Sultan, and was to be sent back to her family when she arrived at the Queen’s kingdom. But she raged against this — against the clothes she was given to wear, and against being released from her captivity. Her marriage with Laurent was for her a true release from what she would not accept: her freedom. In contrast, Christian Grey inflicts control and possession on Ana throughout the 50 Shades trilogy to her dismay and discontent.
Sex-criticism is making its way into mainstream media as consent becomes a widely discussed point of advocacy, and more and more, equality is being sought out in the bedroom by all genders. In North America, at least, there seems to be an outcry for freedom, and a space to choose to participate enthusiastically in sexual activity with the uprising of consent culture. On college campuses, students are once again campaigning that “no means no” and that people should be able to safely move through their environments without risking assault. Heterosexual women are increasingly empowered to seek pleasure as they see fit — autonomously, not as objects meant to please men. Dana Goldstein writes, “asking for what you want in bed is a feminist political act.” In Fifty Shades, Ana is introduced to us as a virginal college graduate; she is portrayed as young, inexperienced, and powerless. Since the books are from her point of view, we are privy to her stream of consciousness which reveals her apprehension around Christian’s domination of her: “I shake my head to gather my wits. My heart is pounding a frantic tattoo, and for some reason I’m blushing furiously under his steady scrutiny. I am utterly thrown by the sight of him standing before me.” (46) For her part, while Beauty is stripped of her autonomy within the first chapter, the inner dialogue we hear suggests that even though she expresses fear of her situation, she embraces the Prince as her love and her role as absolute. In that fantasy world, sexual awakening runs parallel with enhancement and changing for the better (Rice. 16).
We slip easily into a tale eloquently told, and end up down the metaphorical rabbit hole with escapist literature. In fact, we often disappear into stories, rely on them for the fantasy that they offer, even, as a break from the real world. When the real world is perceived in literature, it is that much easier to escape into its romanticism, to lose ourselves in the fantasy. That is the danger in Fifty Shades. The trilogy was written as Twilight fan fiction: a sexy, risqué adaptation geared towards entertaining those with a more normal life. Escapism is wonderful when potentially dangerous scenarios are evident to the reader. However, James has taken a typical romantic trope and spun it in a very unhealthy direction. There are real men in the world who are powerfully wealthy, own companies, and destructively exert their influence on those around them. There are real Christian Greys prowling our cities. The problem with the example set by James is the normalization of violent behaviour towards women. If stripped of his kink and his money, Grey’s behaviour would land him in jail (assuming an effective justice system). Instead, they are married and live happily ever after, we are led to believe. The tone set by a narrative in which everything works out in the end — even after all of Grey’s reprehensible behaviour — is permissive of violence towards women, of class-based power, and of patriarchy. These are very real problems in our world; to spin a yarn that affirms such behaviour to the general public is dangerous and harmful. In contrast, Beauty’s tale of adventures through castles, villages and palaces of sexually charged debasement is clearly fantastic and other-worldly, and subsequently difficult to draw likeness to real life and permissions for behaviour from.
The hold on society that popular culture has is formidable. The wide availability of information via social media and click-bait style advertisement means that people are influenced by what they see most. When something “goes viral”, it is accessed by the masses and amplified to popularity without much critical thought. Ana Steele represents an archetype that many individuals identifying as women can embrace without much reflection. Indeed, her character is hardly unique. Popular culture frequently shoves the trope in our face: boy meets girl, boy pursues girl, boy convinces girl to submit. While it has perhaps seemed harmless for decades — in books, movies, and other media — it reinforces cultural norms that condone violent relationship dynamics and silence the voices of victims. A hypothetical woman could confide in her friend that she is stalked day and night, her phone is tapped to track her whereabouts, or someone comes to her house unannounced after an argument and forces themselves on her. Any good friend would call the police for her if she would not do it herself. This is precisely what Christian Grey does with Ana Steele, and it is touted as romantic, as a love story, and as her good fortune for being swept up by a wealthy, powerful, passionate suitor. In order to move past such damaging norms toward a society that readily accepts the healthy portrayal of relationships, there must be accountability and acceptance of what is not okay. The Christian Greys of the world must be held accountable, so that the Ana Steeles can realize their own power.
Downing, Lisa. “Safewording! Kinkphobia And Gender Normativity In Fifty Shades Of Grey.” Psychology & Sexuality 4.1 (2013): 92-102.
Goldstein, Dana. On Feminism and Sadomasochistic Sex. The Nation, 16 Apr. 2012. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.
James, E. L. 50 Shades of Grey ; 50 Shades Darker ; 50 Shades Freed. New York. Vintage, 2012. Print.
Roquelaure, A. N. (Rice, Anne) The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty ; Beauty’s Punishment ; Beauty’s Release. New York: Penguin, 1983. Print.
Ziv, Amalia. “The Pervert’s Progress: An Analysis of ‘Story of O’ and ‘The Beauty Trilogy’ Feminist Review.” Sexualities: Challenge & Change. 1994, 46. pp. 61-75 Palgrave Macmillan Journals.