I’ve been meaning to talk about the Fifty Shades of Grey series for a while now, since I’ve finally fought my way through the third book.
Oh dear lord, why is this famous?
I will reluctantly give it this – and those who haven’t read both series may be surprised to hear this – it’s BETTER WRITTEN THAN TWILIGHT.
That doesn’t mean it is GOOD.
“Better than Twilight” is like saying “better than having your eyes removed with a melon-baller”. You could still be referring to a root canal or stepping on a piece of lego in your bare feet.
To briefly compare, let’s go over all the things wrong with Twilight, shall we?
Okay, well, let’s briefly sum up the WORST things about Twilight:
1. Protagonist is dim witted and a terrible person.
2. Protagonist is a weak female who promotes all those unhealthy stereotypes of the fainting, delicate, door-mat princess who tries to look feisty by occasionally having an opinion about her own fate.
3. Love interest is a domineering, condescending, power hungry bad boy who repeatedly puts his own desires first.
4. Poor plot structure – story consists of purple prose romantic fantasy briefly interrupted by a random action climax completely unrelated to the previous 200 pages of story line.
5. Cardboard cut-out characters who often act against their directly-described characterization (e.g. a character is described as terse but then goes on long rambling diatribes).
Now, let’s compare that to its spawn, Fifty Shades of Grey (for those who might be unaware, Fifty Shades originated as Twilight fan fiction which took Edward’s creepy bossiness to a whole new level):
1. Protagonist seems aware of her surroundings and doesn’t repeatedly lie to her father, flirt with someone she is uninterested in for the express purpose of extracting information, or blow off people who try to be nice to her.
2. Protagonist is still a weak female who promotes all those unhealthy stereotypes of the fainting, delicate, door-mat princess who tries to look feisty by occasionally having an opinion about her own fate. Also, slight hints at an eating disorder.
3. Love interest is a domineering, condescending, power hungry bad boy who repeatedly puts his own desires first… but at least the protagonist recognizes that this is a problem.
4. Poor plot structure – The first book ends at the climax, and you don’t get the denouement until you pick up the second book. Then a random action sequence is inserted to create further tension in later books but seems constantly tacked-on to the main storyline
5. Protagonist and her love interest are actually surprisingly three dimensional. The rest of the characters are simply extras with no depth, however.
So, as you can see, it is MARGINALLY better.
If you put a gun to my head and said I had to re-read one of these two series, I’d pick Fifty Shades, hands down.
If you want, I can do a Twilight vs Fifty Shades series at some point, although it would sort of be like pitting Cow Pats vs Dirty Diapers.
Fifty Shades has elements that, in the right hands, could actually have made it good. It brought the world of BDSM into the light (albeit in ENTIRELY THE WRONG WAY), which is refreshing if also worrying. Although it’s also annoying because suddenly bondage is a fad and I’m like “lol wut?”
Either you’re into it, or you’re not, right? Why is it suddenly hot when previously it wasn’t? If women have been longing to be tied up all these years, why didn’t they just go to their husbands and say “hey, tie me up, would you?” And besides, the BDSM style it brought into the light was female-submissive, male-dominant, which single handedly took feminism back 100 years.
Anyway, the character of Christian Grey is actually interesting, if not likeable.
But then there’s the unalterable fact that it’s badly written. It provides a hideously unhealthy relationship example – remember kids, if he’s controlling, domineering, and seriously screwed up, you should put up with it as long as he’s good looking and says that he loves you – and it has creepy subliminal-messaging-style references to anorexia.
Check it out (spoiler warning – if one can “spoil” something that is badly written erotica to begin with):
The Main Characters:
Her nickname is Ana, which also happens to be the name given to the personification of anorexia by people who think that anorexia is JUST WONDERFUL (yes, those people exist).
Coincidentally, Ana rarely ever eats. She never openly refers to purposely starving herself. Instead she just “forgets” to eat when people don’t directly suggest it. In the beginning of the second book she goes a whole week without seeing Christian and doesn’t eat at all during that time.
In fact, you never see her eating unless being urged to do so by someone else (although one time she anticipates this and goes to get a cookie so that later she can say “yes” when Christian asks her if she has eaten). Sometimes she is told that she is too thin, especially after the week of starvation where she dropped a billion pounds, but she assures the readers that she likes “being this thin”.
The food stuff gets even weirder because once she is actually bullied into eating she suddenly discovers that she is ravenous despite protesting moments before that she was not hungry at all, then tends to lose her appetite a few bites in, usually as an emotional reaction to something, such as a change in Christian’s mood, a new plot point being revealed, a slight draft, whatever.
Oh, and Christian Grey’s sister just happens to be named Mia, which also happens to be the name given to the personification of Bulimia.
BUT WHATEVER, I’M SURE THAT DOESN’T MEAN ANYTHING.
Ana has a lively mental imagery in her thought processes. She has broken her inner conflict into two sections – her Subconscious, who tends to raise eyebrows at her when she acts incautiously, and her (I swear to God, I am not making this up) Inner Goddess, who just dances around and gets really excited at the thought of sex.
I don’t have a problem with that PER SE, because I think it’s actually healthy to break up your self-talk a little bit. When you can say, “oh, that voice is the depression/anxiety/ANOREXIA talking” it is easier to address.
But I can’t respect or take seriously anyone who talks about their “inner goddess” when they really mean “the part of me who likes sex and who I must therefore distance from my main sense of self”. Also, her Inner Goddess is highly annoying and sometimes I want to punch it.
Ana fills the Madonna-Whore role by being both innocent and sex-mad. She claims to have never masturbated or ever been attracted to anybody ever, but explodes multi-orgasmically into the world of sex without so much as an “oh, that smells strange”.
Meet Christian Grey.
He’s Edward without the vampirism. In substitution for his vampirism he is a more realistic sort of monster – a seriously effed up guy with some major fetishes and control issues.
His backstory is elaborate and vaguely interesting. He’s somewhat three dimensional, in a stomped-on-cardboard-box kind of way. He’s a damaged, multi-faceted character who I actually find slightly believable and decidedly interesting. In order to make him seem more attractive, he is obscenely wealthy and good looking.
Ana is always insisting that she doesn’t like him for his money, but if he were unemployed, on the dole, and living in a basement apartment, do you think she would have stayed with him?
Throughout the story he roars around bullying and controlling everyone and everything while Ana rolls her eyes and calls him mercurial.
The main deal with Christian is that he’s into a hardcore BDSM lifestyle, complete with slave contracts.
I think that right here we have the primary reason for the series’s success, because the vanilla housewives of the world are so titillated to learn about what they could have been doing in bed all these years (although I don’t know why THIS book, since there’s lots of BDSM romance out there).
And then they freak out about a grown woman shaking her booty on the VMAs.
The… Er… “Plot”
So, Fifty Shades of Grey is primarily a romance story. It’s about the tension between Anorexia, I mean, Anastasia, and Leather Boy as she tries to negotiate a vanilla relationship while he tries to convince her to try being a submissive.
Ana scores two points over Bella Swann by a) recognizing that her boy toy has a problem with control and b) laying down some limits about what she is or is not comfortable with and actually insisting on having them respected. Whereas whenever Bella lays down limits, Edward completely ignores them and Bella just whines.
The two of them have a lot of playful email banter – very Bridget Jones – and they spend a lot of time trying to work out their differences. Occasionally they take a break to have kinky sex. Ana rolls her eyes and pouts a lot. Her inner goddess does a wide variety of dances. She gets upset when Christian spanks her.
It’s half decent character conflict, really.
The first book actually has quite a satisfying ending because it culminates with Christian going too far and Ana storming out. It’s like A Doll’s House. But with whips.
Then the next book happens and things get REALLY boring.
Christian immediately goes from “I want you to be my sex slave” to “I lurrrrve you. I ADORE YOU. We can scrap the BDSM stuff!”
Much like Rochester from Jane Eyre, he has discovered that he actually likes an aggravating woman who stands up to his crap every now and then.
…And somehow that doesn’t end the story.
Instead, this happens:
1. The sex gets much more boring, and even more frequent. I mean, the story is constantly interrupted by yet another sex scene. It’s like “Oh, dear god, they’re at it again. Didn’t they JUST HAVE SEX two pages ago? Can something interesting happen now? Oh, okay, they’re done now. Whew. Maybe now they’ll… oh, no, they’re going again…”
2. Ana constantly obsesses over the fact that she isn’t fulfilling his “needs” and suffers from debilitating inferiority and worry that he’ll leave her for a slave girl despite his CONSTANT WORSHIP.
TWO BOOKS OF THAT.
To interrupt the monotony of “I love you and I don’t want that lifestyle any more” vs “but your neeeeeeeds! I can’t fulfill your neeeeeeeeeeeds!” and miraculous amounts of ecstatic sex, E.L. James had to fabricate something else to create, you, plot.
So she invents a flirty boss to harass Ana who Christian then fires (because he bought the company that Ana worked for just so he could interfere with her work affairs YES THAT’S RIGHT). This guy then suddenly becomes psychotic and starts trying to assassinate Christian/kidnap Ana.
The evasion of this dude and his eventual capture are completely accessory to the main story line, which is the aforementioned push and pull of “should we have kinky sex yes or no??”
Meanwhile, Christian blazes around being unreasonably controlling/furious then fluctuating to apologetic and adoring while Ana rolls her eyes and goes “lol he is SO mercurial!!”
Again and again.
His name’s Christian. He’s beyond handsome. He’s wealthy.… too wealthy. He’s very complicated and mercurial.
Oh, the many faces of Christian Grey. Will I ever be able to understand this mercurial man?
Oh, he’s so mercurial . . . his mood swings are like a metronome set at presto.
How mercurial you are.
Holy cow, he’s switched again. My Mr. Mercurial.
“Eat,” he orders, his voice soft.
How does he switch so quickly from one mood to the next? He’s so mercurial… It’s hard to keep up.
My sweet, mercurial, controlling Fifty.
And no, that is not ALL the instances of the word “mercurial”. It comes up in every second chapter.
Eventually, they resolve their problems by agreeing to have kinky sex, but not living the full lifestyle, which was the obvious solution the whole time.
Here’s where it really falls apart. Because if the repetitive and mind numbing plot weren’t bad enough, some of the writing just makes you want to *headdesk* so hard that you smash the screen of your Kobo (because I would never own a paper copy of this drek).
Perhaps the most obvious and glaring problem is the fact that the author hails from Buckinghamshire, but decided to set her book in FREAKING SEATTLE.
You know how EVERY aspiring writer is told “write what you know”?
Yeah. About that. People in Washington state shouldn’t talk like they’re from England.
I would never try to set a book in Buckinghamshire because you can’t just plop a story into a place you’ve never been and try to fake the language based on what you have heard on TV.
If you can turn the characters from Twilight into non-vampire residents of a different town in Washington, why not move them over to England? Set it in freaking London or something.
Superficially, you think it’s okay at first.
If I DID try to write a book that took place in England, I would know to use “trainers” instead of “sneakers”, “boot” instead of “trunk”, “lorry” instead of “truck” and so on. Most people can manage that and E.L. James has paid attention to these fairly major details for the most part.
But she didn’t proofread carefully enough.
In the very first book, Ana comments slightly obscurely “I rarely throw the toys out of my pram.” I took this to mean that she rarely makes a fuss. But it sounds bizarre coming from someone who was supposedly born and raised in the U.S. where NO ONE USES THE WORD PRAM.
But I could even try to ignore that. Ana is a real bookworm obsessed with classic literature, and obsessed with England in general. So I would give her leave to occasionally use British terms in a sort of fan-girl way.
But the rest of the characters also talk like British people who are trying to pretend they are American. Sure, they say “pants” instead of “trousers”, but then they talk about “ringing” each other and describe a nice dress as looking “smart”.
They say “shall” instead of “will” and they don’t use their contractions in an American way – they always say things like “I’ve not had sex before” instead of “I haven’t had sex before” the way a North American would. Words like “haven’t” or “isn’t” are rare in these books. It’s always “I’ve not” or “he’s not”.
A British person might not notice these tiny differences, but living just three hours from Seattle, I sure do.
I mean, I’m sorry, but no American would ask “how shall I fuck you?”
It sounds hilariously British to a North American ear. “Oh, pip pip and all that miss, terribly sorry to be a bother, but how shall I fuck you – shall we do it over tea and crumpets? Just lie back and think of England.”
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW, PEOPLE.
And if you DO write something you don’t know, use Google to CHECK IT.
For example, say you know NOTHING ABOUT SPORTS. I’m not saying that E.L. James doesn’t know anything about sports, but if she does, she must some day explain to us how the hell Ana’s inner goddess managed a triple axel dismount off of the uneven bars.
That’s right. Somehow, the inner goddess manages to use a figure skating jump as a way of dismounting from some gymnastics equipment.
USE GOOGLE. Find a real dismount name. It takes two seconds. I found one. The Hecht Dismount. Or Korbut Flip. WHATEVER.
On a similar note, what on EARTH is with the Medulla Oblongata? Ana repeatedly refers to her subconscious self as rising out of her Medulla Oblongata. Did E.L. James pick up on this part of the neurological anatomy from an Adam Sandler movie? What the hell does the Medulla Oblongata have to do with your SUBCONSCIOUS?
Your Medulla Oblongata regulates your breathing (maybe Bella Swan is missing hers), decides when you vomit etc. I’m pretty sure your Medulla Oblongata does not in any way sit around reading classic literature and then look severely at you over its spectacles when you think about sexy times.
E.L. James was a History major. I have said this before, but if you are an Arts major, don’t try and incorporate science into your book without a quick stop at Google.
AND GET AN EDITOR.
Yeah, there’s none of that.
Oh, sure, good ole’ Anorexia occasionally has flares of feistiness and objects to, say, her boyfriend buying the company she works for and then changing company policy just to stop her from going off to New York to attend a conference she’s really interested in, or when he hits her to the point where she is bawling her eyes out.
And some third-wave feminists might try to point to the fact that she enjoys sex as liberating, but honestly, aren’t we past that stage? The woman who likes sex is well represented in fiction of all varieties, probably to the point of setting unrealistic expectations for women who think it’s just ok.
Besides, if you really want a book about a woman taking control of her sexuality, write a book where the WOMAN is the dominant and the MAN is the submissive. Why does it have to be the man in control and the woman all tied up? That’s just called HISTORY.
And the fact that Ana rejects the role of submissive doesn’t make her a feminist heroine. We’re talking about someone who is constantly berating herself for pissing him off, even as she complains to him about how bossy he’s being.
Look how spunky she is:
and still so bossy, but I can’t complain, he’s in my bed. I don’t quite understand why.… maybe I should weep more often in front of him.
It’s liberating to be out, relaxing, enjoying Kate’s company. I contemplate texting Christian then dismiss the idea. He’ll just be mad and make me go home like an errant child.
My heart sinks. Oh shit! I really am in trouble. My subconscious glares at me, then shrugs, wearing her you-made-your-bed-you-lie-in-it face. What did I expect? I contemplate calling him, but it’s late and he’s probably asleep . . . or pacing.
I decide a quick text may be enough.
*I’M STILL IN ONE PIECE. I HAD A NICE TIME. MISSING YOU—PLEASE DON’T BE MAD*
Eat,” he orders. “You didn’t eat yesterday.”
Oh, bossy Fifty!
“That’s because you were being an arse.”
Mrs. Jones drops something that clatters into the sink, making me jump.
Christian seems oblivious to the noise. Ignoring her, he stares at me impassively.
“Arse or not—eat.” His tone is serious. No arguing with him.
“Okay! Picking up spoon, eating granola,” I mutter like a petulant teenager.
I cannot believe how fond I am of Taylor, but I really don’t appreciate being scolded by him—he’s not my father or my husband.
NEED I SAY MORE?
I don’t blame E.L. James for inflicting this book on us. She wasn’t trying to create great literature. She was clearly just masturbating with her computer keyboard.
I blame the WORLD for the success of this book.
The fact that this book caught on just makes me wonder if people use their brains.
I mean, I’m sure all the BDSM stuff titillated the millions of sexually starved vanilla housewives who think OMG RIDING CROPS THAT’S SO EXOTIC, but come on, REALLY? First of all, couldn’t they have been titillated by some sexy literature that DIDN’T present the man as the dominant, bossy one?
The sex isn’t even well written! It’s worse than Jean Auel’s sex scenes, full of inherently unsexy words like “groin” and “clench” and “moisten”. And the vocabulary is bizarrely random. Ana seems comfortable using words like clitoris and vagina, but always refers to her anus as “there“.
To top it all off, she constantly says “oh my” during sex, which I can’t help but hear in George Takei’s voice.
And sometimes, I hear it all in Gilbert Gottfried’s voice, thanks to this:
Here are some of my favourite laugh out loud moments:
I found some baby oil. Let me rub it on your behind.” Christian squirts baby oil onto his hand and then rubs my behind with careful tenderness — from makeup remover to soothing balm for a spanked ass, who would have thought it was such a versatile liquid
I eye Christian’s toothbrush. It would be like having him in my mouth.
“Hold on to the sink,” he orders and pulls my hips back again, like he did in the playroom, so I’m bending down.
He reaches between my legs and pulls on the blue string… what! And… gently pulls my tampon out and tosses it into the nearby toilet. Holy fuck. Sweet mother of all… Jeez.
I have wanted to do this to you for some time now, Ana.”
I groan. And I feel something cool, metallically cool, run down my spine.
“I have a small present for you here,” Christian whispers.
An image from our show-and-tell springs to mind. Holy cow. A butt plug.
I’ll just stop there because you’re probably squirming from ALL THE SEXINESS.
Just remember: THIS SOLD BETTER THAN HARRY POTTER.