Note: So here’s what happened. I wrote this post. Then I went to a romance writer’s conference. It became clear to me that saying bad things about other romance novels, etc., in a public forum was a no-no for an aspiring writer. So I took this post down. Then several people recently asked me what I thought of Fifty Shades of Grey, and I couldn’t just point them to my post. So I decided to put this back up. Partially because, honestly, it’s not really that scathing. I mean, I didn’t much like the book, but that’s not the point of the post; it’s more about a certain trope when it comes to make a female character likable. Also, in addition to the bazillions its made in sales, Fifty Shades got a $7 million dollar movie deal. So it can take a little thoughtful criticism, I should think.
Plus I need it to explain why I’m writing a series on female agency and pop culture.
Also I like the anecdote. So here it is in its original glory:
An Anecdote, and Fifty Shades of Grey
When I was a teenager, my dad and I very much enjoyed playing You Don’t Know Jack together. For those you who don’t know, this was a trivia computer game with a whole lot of snark and pop culture references. In the last iteration of it that we played, when you started the game, an either-or question would pop up, not a trivia question but an opinion question, and you’d get a theme for your puzzle based on the answer to the question. But the theme did not obviously or logically relate to the question. So one time my dad and I answered the starting question and we got the theme of . . . Fetishes and Fetishistic Sex.
So now we were stuck in a quandary. We could admit to each other, via playing the game, that we knew anything about the topic at all – and witness the other having knowledge of this topic – OR one of us could say to the other, “I forfeit.”
Any of you who know my father and me know that there was no real choice there. Of course we played. We couldn’t make eye contact pretty much the entire time. We didn’t crow over it every time we got a question right, like we usually did. But we certainly didn’t forfeit.
Why am I telling this story now? Oh, it’s just to say this: Dad, don’t read this post.
Also, anyone who just read that anecdote and went, “Yeah, Ricki, I don’t really want to confront the idea that you have ever heard of sex at all, never mind BDSM,” don’t read this post.
Now about this new reading phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. I wasn’t going to read it. I had read some reviews and none of them made it sound compelling to me. I’m not opposed the sub-genre; just ask my Kindle. But it sounded boring. And expensive. Then I read that it started life as Twilight fanfic and lost whatever interest I might have had.
But it’s getting all this press. And it’s selling like crazy. And I am trying to break into the romance novel market. So I figured I’d download it. For research. And not for “research,” like 90% of the other stuff on my Kindle. (Which IS for research. Also.)
I’m not going to bother reviewing it. I didn’t much like it, but I’m not going to say anything about that that’s more interesting that what others have had to say.
What I want to talk about is the way the book creates a female protagonist who is going to be both a) engaging in some pretty dirty sexual acts, and b) not at all a dirty whore AT ALL! And the necessity of doing so.
If I really wanted to do a good job of this, I should probably have read Twilight, and also Tess of the d’Ubervilles, which the female protagonist references all the time, to get a handle on this book. But what is this, a dissertation? No, it’s my blog post. So I’ll just stick with what I’ve got. (Although I will take the time to ponder how I could have two degrees in English Literature and not have read Tess of the d’Ubervilles.)
A brief synopsis for those of you who don’t know: The virginal college senior Anastasia Steele has a brief, and accidental, meeting with ultra-rich, ultra-hot Christian Grey. He becomes obsessed with her, stalks her a bit, tells her repeatedly to stay away from him (I actually thought that was funny because I have known plenty of girls who go out with guys who have told them, straight up, “Do not go out with me. I am bad news.” Those guys? They are never lying when they say that.), and then finally makes her an indecent proposal – that she be his “sub” for three months, under the conditions stated in the contract he presents to her. (If you don’t understand what I mean by “sub,” go put “submissive” into Google. Unless you’re at work. Then don’t.) She hems and haws. They have some sex. Some of it has some kink. Mostly they talk, endlessly, about their feelings, which is interesting (read: not at all interesting) since they are both described as having a hard time opening up. And it ends on a cliffhanger, because it’s the first in a trilogy. (And yeah, I don’t think I’m going to download the other two. I mean, I thought about it, because of this post, but it’s $20. I’ve already spent $10, and I’m not used to spending $10 on smut, so I’m really unwilling to spend $30 on smut I don’t like.)
So what does a girl have to be to find herself a) a sexy and exciting romantic/sexual prospect for a Perfect Specimen of Masculinity* like Christian Grey, and b) the heroine with whom apparently thousands of “average” women across American can identify?
*Perfect Specimen of Masculinity – Extremely hot. Extremely rich. Extremely obsessed with the heroine. Does some major philanthropic something-or-other. Has a little bit of sad in his backstory. Commandeering, but amenable to a sassy, spine-having heroine. Has taste and education. Can always make her come.
1. Not interested in his money. It goes without saying that he has to have it. But it also goes without saying that she has to not want it. And not because she already has it by the bucketful; Ana Steele does not. She just has to not be into it, the same way he has to not be into stacked, skinny blondes with lots of make-up.
This is an old trope. It’s probably in Tess of the d’Ubervilles. I know it’s a major feature of Jane Austen novels. Eliza Bennett would not be nearly as charming – would, in fact, be her irritating mother – if she liked that Darcy had bank. Similarly, Darcy would simply not get to be the hero if he didn’t.
2. Not hot. This is also not an uncommon trope in romance novels. While 1970s-’80s romance novels tended to feature stunning Spectacles of Femininity, more often than not, they feature women who do not believe themselves to be beautiful, even if they actually are. It’s unclear if Ana actually “is” since we only ever hear her point of view, but Christian Grey certainly thinks she is. And two other guys have been panting after her for four years. Plus she fits into her hot roommate’s clothes.
But we know that it’s not just in Romancelandia that women are not allowed to believe themselves to be hot, no matter the evidence. Mean Girls actually summed up this notion perfectly in its iconic exchange between Queen Bee Regina and Newbie Cady:
Queen Bee: You’re really pretty.
Cady: Thank you.
Queen Bee: So you agree? You think you’re pretty?
Cady: . . .
3. Inexperienced. I mean, Ana isn’t just inexperienced, she’s a virgin. She’s not just a virgin, she’s apparently never heard of sex. Okay, I’m exaggerating, and since I’m talking about other romance novels here, I should be clear about that, since I’ve definitely read historicals in which the heroine had actually never heard of sex. But Ana seems extremely surprised by a lot of the stuff surrounding sex. And sure, in a novel with BDSM elements, that’s not unexpected. I guess there are still wide swaths of the college-age population for whom “safe word” is not common parlance. But she seems surprised by a lot of the “vanilla” stuff, too. Like, the fact that she has sexual responses. That seems sort of shocking to her.
Then again, she takes to blow jobs like a proverbial duck.
4. Not a “true” submissive. A lot is made of this throughout the book. She has never heard of BDSM. She’s shocked by all of it, and sort of put off by it. She does not like the idea of spankings, and, most of the time, does not actually like being spanked. (Well, one out of three times she likes it. Two out of three she does not.) She is very explicit, more than once, about wanting a real relationship with Christian Grey, being extremely turned on and eventually in love with Christian Grey, but only willing to put up with this tying-up-and-spanking thing because it’s the only way to be close to him and not because she likes it. Also she’s defiant and disobedient to him.
There’s this constant tension between what we are told about her and what we see happening. We are told that she’s “not hot,” but we see three guys behaving obsessively about her. We are told that both she and Christian are kind of closed when it comes to their emotions, but they talk about them all the damn time. We are told that she’s not really all that sexual, but damn does she get into things with alacrity and swiftness (and then moans about her emotions some more). We are told that she’s not a “true sub” but, even out of the sexual realm, she seems to do basically what other, pushier people tell her to do. And then in the sexual realm she really gets off on his commanding nature, his tying her up, and even, occasionally, his hitting her. And it’s not even like, “I’m not a sub, I’m not a sub, I’m not a – Oh. I liked that. Maybe I am.” It’s more, “I’m not a sub, I’m not a sub, I’m not! Even if that thing you did just drove me crazy, I’m still not a sub! Sir!” I don’t know if that will change by the end of the trilogy, and again, I’m not reading the damn thing just to find out, but I don’t get the feeling that it will. I in fact get the distinct impression that the happy ending for this trilogy will involve making Christian less Dom, not Ana more sub.
So what’s going on here? Why is this novel getting so much press for being BDSM erotic romance while spending so much time explaining how much she’s not into that? Why does a heroine have to be unconvinced of her hotness, not into a guy’s money, and not really into sex in and of itself? And why is a book with those features being downloaded faster than videos of cuddly puppies revealing foreign atrocities?
I think the answer here is blamelessness. We want women to be blameless, and we want to be, as women, blameless. We’re in a very weird time in terms of social attitudes towards women’s sexuality. We’ve thrown away the madonna-or-whore complex and replaced it with a madonna-AND-whore complex and it’s really hard to walk the line, to not be too much of either. And this is one of the ways it’s done, through blamelessness.
Look, what happens in this book? Ana does not pursue any contact with Christian Grey; she’s pushed into his presence by her roommate, who was doggedly pursuing an interview with him. She does not, afterwards, in any way try to contact or attract him. Instead, he comes after her, over and over again, despite both of their objections. She doesn’t take the step to start calling him her boyfriend; her roommate does that. As the story goes on, all of her actions are either directed by him, or directed by the overwhelming emotions she has for him. She’s never an agent.
And as long as she’s never an agent, and certainly not an agent of her sexuality but only of her love for him, it’s okay that she totally gets off on all the spanking and bossing and Red Room of Pain stuff. Right? Because it’s not her fault. She’s not a “true submissive”; she’s not even really that into sex outside of Christian Grey. So the fact that he ties her to a wall and uses a riding crop on her and she comes like crazy? Not her fault.
Even more importantly, it’s not the reader’s fault. The reader doesn’t know from this BDSM stuff; that’s why they have to spend pages explaining it. So it’s okay if she gets off on reading about a girl tied to a wall getting off on a riding crop. Totally cool.
And partly, this is kind of what a submissive kink is about. A person who is, actually, submissive, might find it appealing to be blameless, to be without agency, to have their sexuality and their sexual choices be totally not their fault.
But Ana is not a “true submissive”! And chances are, the readers don’t feel like they are, either! Furthermore, this is really common in an form of romance – novel, movie, erotic, whatever – this compulsion to write female characters without agency and sexual awareness, in order to make them likable and relatable and all that. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this; just watch virtually any movie or read any book. How do we know who the heroine is? She’s the one who has all these things happen to her by accident. How do we know who the villainess is? She’s the one who decides what she wants and goes for it. Why are we so terrified of women knowing how their bodies work and acting to get what they want? Why are women so readily buying into this?
I’m not trying to exempt myself here. I didn’t like this novel, but I didn’t like it for a lot of reasons. I’ve definitely read novels I’ve enjoyed, or watched movies or TV shows I’ve liked, in which things happen to the heroine without her being proactive about them, or in which she’s sort of unfamiliar with her sexuality until The Hero walks in, or what have you. But I’m just pointing it out, and pointing out the ways it intersects with this particular phenomenon. Because I do believe this book could not have been a success if Ana knew which end was up.
Another, semi-related anecdote. Quite a number of years ago, someone published an erotic BDSM romance based on Phantom of the Opera, with Christine (talk about a woman with no agency) and the Phantom as the protagonists. And there was apparently a huge backlash, from women who were enormous fans of PotO and even more enormous ‘shippers for Christine and the Phantom – and felt that the BDSM elements sullied their relationship. Excuse me? The Phantom and Christine already have a Dom/sub relationship. He takes her to his dungeon and trains her in how to please him. With her mouth!
I kid, but, you know, on the square. Because seriously, any model by which the relationship between Christine and the Phantom is a good example of romantic/sexual love is already a BDSM model. This is not to say that any BDSM model of good romantic/sexual relationships must include Christine and the Phantom. He is, after all, a murderous sociopath. But still. I think that, if you genuinely feel that the relationship between Christine and the Phantom is romantic and sexually compelling, you have a little kink in you, and you’re depriving yourself of something by not exploring it.