Fifty Shades: A Series Review

My review deals with all three books. I just found it easier, at the time of writing, to talk about them as a whole rather than three separate entities. I’m reposting it here in 5 sections over 5 days, the original can be found here. This is one of the heftier reviews I’ve ever written! But also one of the more sombre. Rhi x

Here we go.

It is important to note, there is barely a description of either character in here. When all we know about the main characters is she has pale skin, dark hair and blue eyes, and he is ‘OMG so FUCKING HOT’ with unruly copper hair and grey eyes, we actually don’t really know anything. These characters are 100% empty vessels for every reader to pour their own fantasy into. We are never told about the shape of a face, or the imperfect aspects of either of them. They are just blank images. This is important. This right here partly explains why thousands of women are swooning after Mr Grey; an otherwise abusive, self hating, control freak, as though he were a god. They don’t need to know what he really looks like, or how his actions reinforce disturbing patriarchal constructs. They can just imagine him as their dream guy. Who’s really really good in bed. (Which, is a matter of opinion anyway. Let’s just say, I’m not particularly down with somebody RAMMING me repeatedly.)

1. Virgin vs. Whore: ‘I want to fuck your mouth!’
Of course Ana is a virgin. OF COURSE. She has to be for the crux of this story (if that is what we are calling this hot mess) to work. She had to be either a virgin or a whore, because that is all women ever are. She couldn’t ever have been a whore to win Christian’s love, there is only room for one person to have the sizeable baggage he brings with him, so she was always going to be a virgin.
A virgin of her choosing. Because she hadn’t found anyone to meet her high expectations of romantic love. As displayed to her through her love of the glorious works of Mr (original-woman-hater) Rochester or Heath(I’m-psychotic)Cliff.

As we all know girls thrive on romance. And boys thrive on sex. This is a construct that is perpetuated throughout society. Which is why men having lots of sexual experience is acceptable. Whereas girls who are sexually experienced must have something wrong with their romance gene.

But that isn’t really the reason she is a virgin. She is a virgin because it would be unheard of to have an experienced female in control of her sexual desires. She has to be trained by her super experienced, super large hunk of man meat. It is acceptable for him to be experienced, whilst it would whorish for her to be so.

I am not taking issue with this being a story that portrays a virgin. More power to Ana. I am taking issue at this novel perpetrating the patriarchal expectation that female virgin = innocent, but female experience = whore. Ana is so innocent she can barely refer to her female organs as anything other than “there”. Hee hee, giggle giggle.

As Christian experiences new things such as actually sleeping with a woman, taking her home to his parents, somebody daring to speak back to him; they are noted by him as ‘another first’. They are all largely emotionally related. Yet the Ana overwhelming firsts are all sexual, something Christian revels in, glad that ‘some fucker’ hasn’t touched her before him, and that he owns her body and soul. She would have been dirty property if any man had got there before him, obviously.

It is a double standard that is just as much at play today as it was 10, 20, 30, 40, 500 years ago. What gets my goat is books like this encourage it. Books like this make it normal for the man to have the experience and for the woman to want ‘hearts and flowers’. Ana only enjoys the sexual acts performed on/with her, because she believes she has feelings for Chrisian. She knows he’s messed up, but she loves him anyway. Would she participate in sex if she didn’t have an emotional connection? Probably not. Because she is the innocent, virginal maiden; saving herself for The One.

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It is not okay

I have read many articles over the last week, decrying Fifty Shades of Grey as light entertainment, no more serious than porn films. As another example of how women will always judge other women for their choices, in this case reading and enjoying 50shades. As a publishing phenomenon that is really harming nobody, but opening up the way for more female erotica. I have read all this with a mounting frustration that I find hard to put into words. But I will do my best, dear Lee.

As a high school English teacher, a literature and gender studies graduate, as a lover of all books, I understand that no novel can be taken out of its context. It can not be removed from its societal history and background. I teach my pupils this in class.

So for the purposes of effective book reviewing, here is some social and cultural context that I think is vital to the reading of 50shades:

  • In any one year there are 13 million separate incidents of physical violence or threats of violence against women by their partner or former partners in the UK alone. Thirteen million.
  • On average 2 women a week are killed by their partner or former partner. Two women a week.
  • 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence.
  • In 2007 stalking was the most commonly experienced type of ‘intimate violence’. Just under a quarter of all women have experienced stalking.
  • In the UK the police receive one call a minute relating to assistance for domestic violence. 89% of these calls are women being assaulted by men.
  • Less than 24% of domestic violence crime is reported to the police. Let me repeat that. Less than 24% is reported. Less than 24% yet they still receive 1 call a minute.

But here is the kicker. Here is the statistic that makes my job as a teacher to young people so difficult, and so important. Here is the statistic that demands ‘lighthearted’ best selling novels be held up against a burning light of deconstruction and analysis. Here is the statistic that suggests to me something is going very very wrong with our culture, with our expectations of equality and entertainment. This is the statistic that explains how a novel depicting an unhealthy and abusive relationship can become a best seller in the first place.

1 in 5 young men think abuse/violence against women is acceptable.
1 in 10 young women think abuse/violence against women is acceptable.*

Did you read that? Abuse/violence is acceptable? This is not okay with me.

So excuse me whilst I can’t just pass 50shades off as an amazing publishing phenomenon. Excuse me whilst it saddens me women would defend a novel that depicts such a unhealthy and abusive relationship. Excuse me for being sad and mad and angry beyond belief, that not only do people not seem to be able to spot an abusive relationship – but they are okay with an abusive relationship.

This is not okay. I am not okay with this. And I will write and talk and rage about this for as long as necessary. For as long as the police receive one call a minute. For as long as my pupils think it is acceptable for their fathers to hit their mothers. For as long as I live in a culture that tells me control is romantic and the norm for women.

I am not okay with this.

*All statistics taken from womensaid.org.