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.

Fifty Shades of Deceit – what I find so repugnant about the promotion of Fifty Shades of Grey

So, before I begin, I haven’t yet seen the movie. I probably will be in the next couple of weeks though, watching it after a meal on a night out with some girlfriends – and I am most looking forward to the meal and the company of said friends. But watching Fifty Shades of Grey. Yeah. Well, I’m not really looking forward to that at all.

And let’s be up front – most people would be all “Why are you going to shell out close on $20 on something that you don’t want to see”.

Which is a really good point actually.

Because I have read the Fifty Shades of Grey books. Well the first and the last one anyway – I didn’t bother with the second as I had borrowed the books, and Fifty Shades Darker was on loan when I was due to read it, so I thought I’d skip ahead.

And it says something for just how shit a series of books is if you can skip one entirely, yet really not miss anything (well, anything that can’t be recapped in an exceptionally witty email by Rhian, your Welsh penfriend…).

These books are literary garbage. If at any time the theory of 1000 monkeys with 1000 typewriters could be pulled into play, it’s with this series of books.

I do have to give some credit to the shrewd EL James, who has managed to make a ridiculous amount of money from the ballooning of her titillating Twilight fan-fiction, into a set of novels that has so captured the imagination of the minds of so many women around the world.

More power to her in that respect, but let’s be clear. She got lucky in managing to find traction at a point when obviously the world was crying out for mainstream erotica with a slick cover and marketing campaign that people who “don’t normally read books” could latch on to. Savvy timing can be a wonder. But bear with me on this, because her books ARE absolute rubbish – spack filled with ridiculous descriptions of every.single.flipping.thing, and then topped up with vapid catch-phrases, enough clichés to fill a warehouse, and knotted up in a grey tied world of (apparently) badly played out BDSM.

The fact that EL James’ scrappily written tomes were the ones that found purchase in a genre chock full to the brim of bodice ripping Harlequin or Mills & Boon novels, is one of the things that make me completely infuriated about her success, given that there are so many other authors in the erotic genre who write a much better sexy read, who unfortunately missed out on the eruptions of gush that Fifty Shades of Grey has unleashed. My fave recommendations that can deal out a much more well rounded bit of fluffy rauch – yeah, that’s my goodreads category – include Alice Clayton, Jenny Trout (aka Abagail Barnette) and the duo that form the pen name Christina Lauren – please do look them up.

What it seems that many (MANY) people do not realise this series started out as some dredgy Twilight fan-fiction, published online under the title Masters of the Universe (something that grates given the awesomeness of the rad 80’s cartoon – all hail She-Ra Princess of Power!).

I digress.

If you have read both Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, you will immediately be able to pick up on the correlations in the story-line. As another pen pal Stacey so aptly put it on a Facebook comment she left for me today, where she described FSOG as “Twilight with a sadist instead of a vampire.” Which is a billion percent accurate description.

So it really infuriates me that a series that is basically plagiarised from another authors successful franchise has become so blisteringly popular. It’s like rewarding a 8 year old for copying their older siblings writing theme of “what I did on the weekend” in their story book in primary school. (But with, like, you know, sex and money and cars and things as the theme instead).

BUT I know many people actually do not give a flying rats either that it is fan-fic. Which I can understand. “It enlivened my bedroom” or “it’s just sexy fantasy” and many other such statements are the catch-cries commonly typed on comment threads everywhere.

Which brings me to the crux of why I really, REALLY absolutely HATE this series of books.

It’s the false marketing of abuse as romantic.

Because if I read the premise of a book or movie series as follows – “A creepy, controlling, manipulative stalker preys on a young virginal college student, using his money and good looks to lure her into a steamy relationship whilst isolating her from her friends and family.”, with the obligatory “Read/Watch the twisted erotic thriller of 2015” as the tag-line, then I would be all “ooohhh, wonder if it’s like Gone Girl or American Psycho”. And then I would be mentally prepared to read/watch a book/movie about a cringe-inducing handsome rich guy who ends up dragging a naive innocent girl into an abusive relationship. Because even if books or movies have very confronting content, if they are well written and rounded out to convey exactly what the story is, I will probably read/watch it.

And no – this has nothing to do with me being a “prude” or “vanilla” in the bedroom. I say more power to people who are in healthy relationships who can indulge in antics that steam up the place. GO CRAZY on it.

But Christian and Ana’s relationship…. It’s. Just.not.healthy.

Fifty Shades of Grey has Christian Grey as that creepy, controlling, manipulative stalker who due to his traumatic upbringing, preys on women who resemble his “crack whore” mother, and the young Anastasia Steele fits the bill so perfectly, that he wings his way into her life (or is that ‘blades’ – after all, Charlie Tango is a helicopter…), and seduces her with shiny shiny things like being RICH and driving AUDI’s and being OHSODASHINGLYHANDSOMEANDHOT. Ana is cajoled into thinking she can ‘fix’ and ‘heal’ Christian, and puts up with some really REALLY shady shit because he makes her believe that she is the answer to all his troubles, so she simply MUST do everything in her power (no matter how much her conscience – aka INNER GODDESS comes across against it) to make poor widdle Christian fweelings better.

*SPARE ME*.

What absolutely grates me about the books (and the movie promotion) is that it is marketing of what is by all accounts an abusive relationship (emotionally, physically and mentally), and bundling it up as “ROMANTIC” and “DESIRABLE”. And that people are eating that shit up like lollies at a party.

This series is NOT a “sexy romantic love story” as the display of the books and movie make out. It is in fact a “twisted psychological erotic thriller”.

And that is where many, MANY people are finding themselves almost smacking their heads up against desks all over the world in frustration at the “Fifty Phenomenon”.

Abusive relationships are not ok. It’s not ok to wrap them up in a tidy “Grey” bundle as being something every girl should want.

I mean, who watches American Psycho and wishes they could have their own Patrick Bateman – and he was rich & handsome (with a kinky fetish side) just like Christian.

It is fine to have fictional books or movies about really screwed up people in messed up relationships. But there needs to be honest portrayal of that aspect.

EL James has deluded herself into thinking her novels are the “marriage savers” the world needed. But they are not. They are a series of books that portray an exceptionally twisted relationship as romantic.

And that is just.not.ok.

I applaud Lisa Wilkinson and her candid review of what she thought of the movies, especially after not having read the books. It was brilliant. And I gave my own round of cheering ovation to her eloquent words and gutsy delivery.

So, back to why I will watch this movie? Well because. Because I have read the books. And hated them. But reading and hating them has allowed me to open dialogue with people about just what the books really convey, (once you take the sex out that has understandably captured the minds of so many). And because I have been so angry and vocal about the book series, I feel almost obligated to go watch to see just how it is conveyed on the big screen. Although, given some of the reactions of preview audiences I have read, I reckon I’ll be one of those getting shushed by fans for laughing inappropriately throughout at the cheesy dialogue – just like I did in the Twilight movies actually. Either that or I will be wanting to chuck Maltesers at the screen in shouting sheer frustration and anger about how horrible it is. One or the other.

Yep, I will most likely go watch it. On a night out with my friends while enjoying their company after a yummy meal somewhere. Knowing full well that it is a “creepy twisted erotic thriller” movie about an abusive relationship that I will be seeing, and not that smushy valentine romantic crap that it is being marketed as. And I’ll donate the equivalent cost of my ticket (actually, probably more than that) to White Ribbon Australia, so that they might be able to help someone who suffers an abusive partner, and who may need the help of a group like White Ribbon to leave that relationship.

**This is a Lee post**

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.