So I got around to reading one of the most popular books for women (now a movie) and yet again I am scared about the message it is sending. The first book is fraught with pervasive and negative gender messages (see Twilight book review Context, vol. 10(2) p78). The “love” story in Fifty Shades of Grey involves the two characters Ana and Mr. Grey, where Mr. Grey is a rich, extremely attractive emotionally closed off individual due to severe child abuse and Ana is a young, innocent recent college graduate with no previous history of intimate relationships who comes from a broken home. Add in her two friends: Kate, who Ana envies, and Jose, who has an unrequited love for Ana, and we have a story. To begin, the story does have some differences from Twilight such as it is not about vampires/werewolves, there is more sexual material (EXPLICIT!), and that’s about it. The Twlight series, actually, has a tamer representation of violence against women than 50 Shades of Grey (heretofore referred to as 50 shades).
Since Ana and Mr. Grey’s is a bourgeoning relationship the wheel is only partially represented. However, a frequent anecdote that is often heard from domestic violence survivors is that they feel stupid because they did not “get out” sooner insinuating that they knew he was dangerous all along (See Nice Girl Syndrome Beverly Engel). These signs are often termed red flags and our lead character, Ana, notices numerous times, on page 62 in regards to his appearance at the bar “Stalker, my subconscious whispers at me”, and by the end of the book p. 510 “I have had my eyes opened and glimpsed the extent of his depravity, and I now know he’s not capable of love—of giving or receiving love. My worst fears have been realized. And strangely, it’s liberating.” Ana’s low self- esteem likely contributes to her inability to truly “see” the situation. Having low self esteem and a sense of insecurity is all to present among girls and women and this tends to lead to a path of not truly identifying one’s own worth. Gender is CLEARLY traditionally constructed in this book where women are viewed as weak, submissive and men are controlling and dominant. The gender message continues into the description of the behavior of Mr. Grey. But, first let’s discuss the famous power and control wheel which is the well-known identifier for whether a relationship is unhealthy.
The famous power and control wheel includes: coercion and threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, economic abuse, male privilege, using children, and minimizing, denying & blaming (NCADSV, 2012). What tends to occur in unhealthy relationships is that the batterer uses these tactics of threats, intimidation and coercion along with physical and sexual violence. As the Duluth model states, “Physical and sexual violence holds it all together—this violence is the rim of the wheel.” Mr. Grey exemplifies many of these behaviors throughout the book, specifically, intimidation, isolation, and male privilege.
Mr. Grey views women as property when he states numerous times “you’re mine” which shows a flagrant lack of respect. If a person is property then they need to be under your control. Control can be masked as worry, “Anastasia that Beetle of yours is old and frankly dangerous. I would never forgive myself if something happened to you when it’s so easy to make things right.” (p.261). This behavior is also exemplified by “using intimidation”, where Ana is constantly afraid of his looks and the tone of his voice. She is constantly afraid of him “beating” her which sounds like fear not love. When he is literally carrying her to the boathouse he slaps her behind and she squeals. “’Keep your voice down,’ he growls. Oh no…this is not good. My subconscious is quaking at the knees. He’s mad about something—could be Jose, Georgia, no panties, biting my lip. ” (p. 345). Actually, it sounds like operant conditioning and similar to the classical conditioning of Pavlov’s dog and a dog is how she is actually treated. For example on p. 338, “Sit,” he commands, pointing to the plush couch, and I do as I’m told, carefully crossing my legs.
Then, we have the use of male privilege. Where he constantly treats her as less than, as he is the master of his domain and he is the one to make all the decisions. I suppose that is the point of a “submissive” correct? See Chapter eleven. This chapter is where she reads the contract where he is responsible for making all her decisions. On page 150, he says, “The sooner I have your submission the better, and we can stop all this,” …she says, “stop all what”, he says, “defying me”. Other examples are that: he constantly becomes irate with her for not eating enough food, insists on purchasing items for her when she continuously refuses, and shows up where she is basically whenever he wants (this is stalking!).
Next, Mr. Grey uses social isolation where he controls what she does, who she sees and what she wears. He has Ana sign a contract where she is not allowed to discuss the sexual escapades between them with anyone, even her best friend Kate. When she goes to visit her mother he follows her to Georgia after only one day. Now while, he is extremely charming with her parents this is all too common of a tactic. He dazzles her mother even after he just “shows” up. Again, to mention that just showing up across the country is called stalking. Also, he is ragingly jealous of her friend Jose, who yes technically did assault her at the bar by forcing a kiss, but I hypothesize that he will be jealous of any male that comes across her path. The issue of her powerlessness is ever-present where we cannot even trust her to make her own choices regarding friends.
At one point in the story Mr .Grey says that is really is Ana that has the power. It appears that he is saying this because he cannot control himself around her and his lack of self control becomes her problem. Regardless of who has the power this is the beginning of an unhealthy relationship. It is not that I do not have compassion for Mr. Grey who obviously had a rough beginning and is deserving of love. What I take issue with is the romanticization of a controlling relationship. Additionally, it is not that female characters cannot be represented in a submissive format, it is that historically that is too often the representation of females. As the internet banter goes, Joss Whedon of The Avengers fame (see also Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel), is continually asked why he writes strong female characters to which his response is, “because you still have to ask me that question.” In all actuality, even Whedon receives a share of criticism because he is unable to take the strength of female characterization far enough (see this)
This review is only of the first book and my fear is that will progressively get worse. The problem with this fairytale is that more often than not, these scenarios do not end in happily ever after, they end in murder. Intimate femicide is the killing of a female with whom an individual past, present, or expectation of having a sexual and/or emotional relationship (see DeKeseredy’s book Violence Against Women). Research continues to highlight that when a woman leaves her abuser this is when the most egregious abuse tends to occur which may often by murder. I do not think E.L. James wrote the books to be a thriller so I am not expecting a murder in books two and three. Unfortunately, however, the real life implication of her characterization of the relationship tends to end this way. Ending the book with Ana’s hasty departure from the relationship did not make me feel sad for her leaving her one and only love, it made me afraid for her well-being.
Ellis, D. & DeKeseredy, W.S. (1997). Rethinking estrangement, interventions, and intimate femicide. Violence against Women, 3, 590-609.