You know the worst thing about Fifty Shades of Grey?
It’s not just that it’s an appalling affront to basic intelligence, with its awkward writing, cringe-worthy clichés and constantly repeated phrases.
It’s not that it was originally written as an online fan-fiction homage to Twilight, written under the pseudonym of Snowdragon Icequeen. And sure the sex scenes draw from BDSM ((bondage, discipline and sado masochism), but hey, whatever floats your boat.
These elements pretty much mark the book as your run-of-the-mill self-published erotic fiction novel, give or take the odd whip and nipple clamp.
For me what’s unsettling about this book is the manipulation, coercion and glamourised abuse of the young female protagonist, Ana, and the fact that women around the world can’t get enough of the bullying, controlling hero, Christian Grey.
Ana is a never-been-kissed 21-year-old virgin about to finish university and begin adult life. She owns just one skirt, doesn’t have a computer or smart phone, her car is a bomb, she’s never been drunk and she’s as about as streetwise as your average Amish teenager.
She’s introduced to readers as an empty vessel, a blank page upon on which Christian is about to indelibly stomp his muddy feet.
We’re told Christian is one of America’s leading entrepreneurs, a powerful global player at just 27-years-old, with 40,000 minions beneath him and several romantic relationships under his belt.
“His time is extraordinarily precious – much more precious than mine,” Ana tells us in clunky first-person prose.
The dynamic of their relationship is demonstrated at their first meeting when Ana trips over thin air and ends up on her hands and knees before Christian. Cos girls are clumsy and silly – and easily subjugated – like that.
The clear imbalance of power between Ana and Christian, who is “like a man twice his age,” and his penchant for hurting women – which is hinted to stem from his own childhood abuse – sets up a coercive relationship. Christian pressures Ana to sign on to play Sub to his Dominant via a detailed contract, which would control every aspect of her life, both in and out, of the bedroom.
BDSM is an erotic choice made by consenting adults, but in this book we don’t see two equal, mature adults make informed decisions about their intimate lives, we have a young woman in the throes of her first romance who is coerced and manipulated into allowing an older, more-experienced man to play out some fairly extreme fantasies.
And forget simple role-playing fun with handcuffs and a feather. In one scene, to demonstrate her ‘love’ for Christian, Ana allows him to hit her as hard as he wants.
“I close my eyes bracing myself for the blow. It comes hard, snapping across my backside and the bite of the belt is everything I feared.”
This is the sort of action that has suburban mums gossiping at the school gates? Which part of a man controlling, hurting and manipulating a young woman is sexy exactly?
After the beatings Christian brings Ana painkillers and rubs cream on the wounds he inflicted. This is even creepier than the beatings. This damaged billionaire can only express tenderness after he’s purged his need to inflict pain. Therapy anyone?
The couple’s relationship also seriously blurs the lines between the roles of father and lover. Christian washes Ana’s hair, nags her to eat properly, buys her a new, safer, car, sends her for a check up, rebukes her for running on a slippery floor and threatens corporal punishment if she breaks his rules – punishment that combines sex and pain.
Interestingly Christian himself doesn’t like to be hurt, he simply likes to hurt women. Nice.
Some readers describe the book as escapist fun and a romantic romp. A woman being degraded, hit, controlled and coerced into meeting the needs of a seriously screwed-up chap who sounds like he needs a good decade on the couch doesn’t sound much fun to me.
I understand that proponents of BDSM are not mentally unwell, but Christian’s need to hit to get off is more than a sexual choice, it is presented as the symptom of an abusive past.
The contemporary proliferation and normalising of porn largely due to online media, has already taught young women that surgically ‘improving’ their labia, bleaching their bottoms and ripping hair from their hoo hoo, is ‘expected’ sexual hygiene. This book seems to suggest that if they’d now bend over for a good walloping they’d really brighten up the bedroom.
“I do it for you,” Ana says of the beatings. “Because you need it.”
I look at the success of this book and wonder what happened to feminism? There are so many choices of clever, insightful, escapist, sexy and funny books available, why would women settle for a sordid story that reduces us all?
Michelle Hamer is the bestselling author of seven books, including Gucci Mamas. She is a former editor at The Age newspaper and is now a prolific freelancer published widely in newspapers and magazines across the country. She blogs here and you can follow her on Twitter here.
Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey? What did you think?