[Trigger warning for sexual violence and emotional abuse]
Valentine’s Day is coming up! That day of romance, of togetherness, of coupledom, of… domestic abuse… Valentine’s Day is the release date of 50 Shades of Grey, that sensationalistic movie based on the “How to Spot an Abuser” pamphlet in your college guidance counselor’s office. Women and men who have read the book and know perfectly well what the story is about will flock to theatres, either a) dreaming of the day that they’ll be stalked and violated by someone as dreamy as Christian, or b) hoping to score on Valentine’s night with the person they took to the movie.
As much as I hate to be a buzzkill (note: This is true. I do, in fact, hate being a buzzkill), I can’t not point out that the book is a horrible, awful book, and that unless the movie carves the entire storyline down to the glider scene and some of the scenes with Kate, who seems cool, it’s going to be a horrible, awful movie as well. Moreover, though, it’s a book that romanticizes a seriously abusive relationship, and while people are free to publish whatever they want and read whatever they want and get their rocks off to whatever they want (within certain limits), it’s important to acknowledge that what may (for some reason) come across as sultry and sexy on the page would, in real life, be a Razorbacks halftime show’s worth of red flags.
What’s that, Imaginary Interlocutor?
Okay, the book has sold more than 100 million copies. You can say a lot of things about it, but it can’t be that bad.
Untrue. This book is indeed very, very badly written. Consider:
— A protagonist whom other characters extoll for her multitudinous virtues when, by her actions, we can discern that she’s a crappy friend, a crappy employee, completely self-involved, and really, really dull
— A Hispanic character who says “Dios mio!” all the time
— A misplaced hymen
— A protagonist who says “Aargh!” when she loses her virginity
— Approximately ten bazillion uses of “murmur” or “mutter,” making me wonder if this movie is going to be subtitled, because the book reads like nothing is ever spoken above a whisper…
— … except when Christian is yelling at her
— A protagonist in an erotic novel who can only bring herself to talk about “down there” and her “behind”
— “Oh my”
— A subconscious of which the protagonist is, in fact, conscious, accompanied by an “inner goddess” who dances around like a child stage actor who’s never been given anything but positive feedback
— A college senior who doesn’t have an e-mail address or know how to use Wikipedia
Someone’s just jealous.
Bad fanfiction turned into a worse novel, now one of the fastest-selling books in history? You bet your ass I’m jealous. But I’m not just jealous.
Whatever. You’re just one of those angry feminists who thinks BDSM is awful. There’s nothing wrong with it. BDSM is not abuse.
I couldn’t agree more. BDSM between two informed, consenting parties who are both into it is great. Fifty Shades of Grey, however, isn’t BDSM. It’s abuse that happens to take place in and around a Red Room of Pain (not kidding). Examples of stuff that isn’t BDSM:
— A complete neophyte sub saying that she wants to see how extreme BDSM can get, and her experienced and oh-so-responsible Dom saying, “Sounds legit. Bend over so I can whale on you with this belt until you’re speechless with pain and can’t safeword.”
— Dragging your terrified girlfriend over your lap and spanking her for rolling her eyes at you, as well as other dubiously consensual rage-spankings
— Spanking a sub until she cries and then just leaving
— Handing said neophyte — seriously, a never-touched-herself-down-there virgin — a contract full of sexual acts she’s never even heard of and telling her to sign or GTFO
— Objecting to breath play but being fully on board with anal fisting (okay, that’s not not-BDSM, but seriously? “I won’t choke you a little bit, but guess where I’ll put my entire arm”?)
— A grown woman raping an emotionally damaged 15-year-old boy
— An activity only undertaken by sick, damaged people, who will stop doing it as soon as their emotional trauma is healed by the Power of Love
— Beating/dominating a sub with no interest whatever in her enjoyment, fulfillment, and well being
— A power-imbalanced relationship between a selfish, emotionally unstable man and a woman who doesn’t actually enjoy it but will do anything he wants for fear of losing him
So what? It doesn’t have to be a completely, 100-percent-accurate representation. It’s just one woman’s fantasy. It’s fiction.
If it really were just one woman having bathtub funtime to an image of Robert Pattinson with a flogger, that would be fine. But it’s not that. The book has sold more than 100 million copies. That’s a lot of readers hearing a message that unprovoked violence from a selfish Dom is something they should just tolerate from BDSM, and that a man only stalks you and controls you because he loves you and wants you to be safe and healthy. I’m sure that E.L. James is a lovely person and intended nothing but good, sexy things from this book, but what she ended up with was a creepy, violent, sociopathic romantic lead whom women wish was their husband.
Well, you have to admit, he’s pretty romantic. And sexy. It’s all about the romance and sex.
Fifty Shades of Grey absolutely is a romance, in the same way that Sleeping with the Enemy is a romance, and if you aren’t familiar with the latter please understand that it’s actually a terrifying and not-at-all-romantic thriller. If Fifty Shades of Grey actually were a thriller, now that I think about it, it would be way more interesting. I’d be curious to see what the movie would be like if the Jaws theme played at the beginning of every sex scene.
Regardless, my point is that it’s not romantic or sexy, not at all, unless these things get you all tingly in your bathing-suit area:
— Tracing a woman’s cell phone and tracking her down when she drunk-dials him and he disapproves
— Driving three hours to visit her at her place of business after meeting her once
— … and buying rope, masking tape, and zip ties from her while he’s there
— Following her transcontinentally — to her mother’s house — after she’s made it clear that she needs time and space to herself to consider their relationship and has specifically told him not to come
— Tess of the d’Urbervilles
— Blaming a woman for her sexual assault
— … and telling her, “[I]f you were mine, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week after the stunt you pulled yesterday. You didn’t eat, you go drunk, you put yourself at risk.”
— Controlling what she eats, drinks, wears, and uses for birth control
— Forbidding her, via a legally binding NDA, from talking about their relationship with her friends or family
— Getting pissed off, then withdrawn and aloof, at her for receiving a phone call from a person he disapproves of
— … and then becoming possessive and cold the next time she so much as picks up the phone
— Telling her repeatedly that he’s dangerous and that she should stay away, and then following her around
— Knowingly, openly manipulating her with sex/arousal
— Showing up angry at her door when she e-mails him saying that she wants to end their relationship
— Telling her that she can say no at any time, and then spanking her and fucking her as punishment for rebuffing his advances
— Showing overt physical affection any time a perceived dude-threat is in the vicinity
— Intentionally getting her drunk to make her more talkative and pliant
— Answering her clear “no” and physical struggling with, “If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet, too. If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you. Keep quiet.”
— … and then fucking her
— “The sooner I have your submission, and we can stop all this… You, defying me.”
— “Next time you roll your eyes at me, I will take you across my knee.”
— “For the record, you stood beside me, knowing what I was going to do. You didn’t at any time ask me to stop — you didn’t use either safe word. You are an adult — you have choices. Quite frankly, I’m looking forward to the next time my palm is ringing with pain.”
— “Alaska is very cold and no place to run. I would find you. I can track your cell phone — remember.”
— “I think you need to learn to manage my expectations. I am not a patient man. If you say you are going to contact me when you finish work, then you should have the decency to do so. Otherwise, I worry, and it’s not an emotion I’m familiar with, and I don’t tolerate it very well.”
— “No one to hear you, baby, just me.”
— “I know what you’re trying to do — and trust me — you’ve succeeded. Next time you’ll be in the cargo hold, bound and gagged in a crate.”
— Words like “beat,” “assaulted,” “demeaned,” “debased,” “abused,” “uncomfortable,” and “guilty”
— When she’s constantly looking for an escape route during basically every encounter with him
— When she has to lie to her friends to hide the fact that he hurt her
— When she has to lie to him about where she’s been and who she’s seen for fear of his “palm-twitchingly mad” reactions
— “This is the first time I have ever had sex in my home, and as sex goes, I think it was pretty damn fine. But now I feel like a receptacle — an empty vessel to be filled at his whim.”
— “Will he punish me? I quail at the thought. … Perhaps I’ll stay in Georgia where he can’t reach me.”
— “And he hits me again and again. From somewhere deep inside, I want to beg him to stop. But I don’t. I don’t want to give him the satisfaction.”
— “I want to stay because he wants to stay with me, not because I’m a blubbering mess, and I don’t want him to beat me, is that so unreasonable?”
— “He uses sex as a weapon.”
— “Please don’t be angry with me… I’m sorry… You scare me when you’re angry.”
— “Holy crap… he’s angry.”
— “He wants to hurt me… how do I deal with this? I can’t hide the horror on my face.”
— “Are you going to hit me again?”
— “Because I think I love you, and you just see me as a toy. Because I can’t touch you, because I’m too frightened to show you any affection in case you flinch or tell me off or worse — beat me?”
— “He’s not a hero, he’s a man with serious, deep emotional flaws, and he’s dragging me into the dark. Can I not guide him into the light?”
— “[W]hen you want to punish me, I worry that you’ll hurt me.”
“You have to eat, Anastasia. We can eat down here or in my suite. What would you prefer?”
“I think we should stay in public, on neutral ground.” He smiles sardonically.
“Do you think that would stop me?” he says softly, a sensual warning.
My eyes widen, and I swallow again.
“I hope so.”
“Come, I have a private dining room booked. No public.” He smiles at me enigmatically and climbs out of the booth, holding his hand out to me.
— And this:
“I don’t want you to go.”
“Please… I have to.”
“Because you’ve given me so much to consider… and I need some distance.”
“I could make you stay,” he threatens.
— And this:
Dashing back to my bedroom, I close the door and lean against it trying to rationalize my feelings. Sliding to the floor, I put my head in my hands as my tears begin to flow.
Kate knocks gently.
“Ana?” she whispers. I open the door. She takes one look at me and throws her arms around me.
“What’s wrong? What did that creepy, good-looking bastard do?”
“Oh, Kate, nothing I didn’t want him to.”
— And this:
“Were you physically punished as a child?”
“So you have no sphere of reference at all?”
“It’s not as bad as you think. Your imagination is your worst enemy in this,” he whispers.
“Do I have to do it?”
“Goes with the territory, Anastasia. It’s what I do. I can see you’re nervous. Let’s go through methods.”
He shows me the list. My subconscious runs, screaming, and hides behind the couch.
— And this:
“Are you going to hit me?”
“Yes, but it won’t be to hurt you. I don’t want to punish you right now. If you’d caught me yesterday evening, well, that would have been a different story.”
— And this:
I close the door and stand helpless in the living room of an apartment that I shall only spend another two nights in. A place I have lived happily for almost four years… yet today, for the first time ever, I feel lonely and uncomfortable here, unhappy with my own company. Have I strayed so far from who I am? I know that lurking, not very far under my rather numb exterior, is a well of tears. What am I doing? The irony is I can’t even sit down and enjoy a good cry. I’ll have to stand.
— And this:
I shrug, trapped. I don’t want to lose him. In spite of all his demands, his need to control, his scary vices, I have never felt as alive as I do now. It’s a thrill to be sitting here beside him. He’s so unpredictable, sexy, smart and funny. But his moods… oh –- and he wants to hurt me. He says he’ll think about my reservations, but it still scares me. I close my eyes. What can I say? Deep down I would just like more, more affection, more playful Christian, more… love.
— And this:
And then this evening, he actually hit me. I’ve never been hit in my life. What have I gotten myself into? Very slowly, my tears, halted by Kate’s arrival, begin to slide down the side of my face and into my ears. I have fallen for someone who’s so emotionally shut down, I will only get hurt — deep down I know this — someone who by his own admission is completely fucked up. Why is he so fucked up? It must be awful to be as affected as he is, and the thought that as a toddler he suffered some unbearable cruelty makes me cry harder. Perhaps if he was more normal he wouldn’t want you, my subconscious contributes snidely to my musings… and in my heart of hearts I know this is true. I turn into my pillow and the sluice gates open… and for the first time in years, I am sobbing uncontrollably into my pillow.
But when they’re in the Red — the Red Room — the —
See? You can’t even say it.
But of course he’s going to say stuff like that when they’re in the… playroom.
That’s all when they’re not playing. For the most part, it’s actually a lot less disturbing when they’re playing.
Wow. That sounds… fifty shades of fucked up.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Tell me about it.
… That Beyonce song, though.
Oh my God yes.