If you’ve got nothing else to do on Valentine’s Day, I’m sure it may have already occurred to you to see the big screen rendition of the book that curled toes for some, and brought others to the brink of nausea.
“50 Shades of Grey,” the unprecedented literary hit of 2012 has now sold 100 million copies and has become one of the most popular and hotly debated books in publishing. But before you rush off to the theater, there are several dangers that author E. L. James has marketed as “sexy,” many of which have little to do with what happens in the “red room of pain.”
For starters, consent is regularly ignored for the sake of “hot” sex. Consent is crucial because it constitutes the line between sex and rape, BDSM and abuse. The relationship between Christian and Anastasia is fundamentally coercive. Despite the fact that there is a contract (or rather a laundry list of requirements around which Ana’s life as a Submissive must newly revolve), walking into the relationship with no sexual experience (with anyone including herself), or understanding of BDSM relationships, how can our heroine possibly be able to make an informed decision about whether or not this is actually something she wants?
Additionally, limits are not explained or explored. A partner has the right to withdraw consent at any time, even if they’ve ahem … signed a contract. But in the case of 50 Shades, Christian continues to “punish” Ana, even though it frightens her. Our male protagonist continually pressures, persuades and punishes Ana without her explicit consent which is a major turnoff, not to mention an inaccurate portrayal of a healthy BDSM relationship.
Furthermore, psychological violence and control are promoted and dangerously eroticized in this novel. He stalks her, mysteriously knows her address, dictates who she can spend time with and obsessively embarks on making her his conquest. And what’s worse, this is supposed to be sexy, a compliment and testament to how desirable she is. At the risk of stating the obvious, desire can exist independent of stalkers and psychologically abusive relationships.
Yet despite all of this, Christian Grey is just “so delicious” that Anastasia simply cannot resist her own desire to please him. She is written into a traditional romantic female trope who has almost no defining traits, low self-esteem and little experience with sex, which is just as problematic as Christian being written into a violently masculine one. All in all she is the perfect blow up doll, whose only power and very existence requires the validation of Christian’s desire.
Now, here comes the tricky part: “But it was women who made this book popular; if they like it, what’s so wrong?” This is a question that has been floating around the internet in opposition to critiques of the book. It is certainly not my intention to bash the fantasies of quite literally millions of women, and perhaps men as well, it was written to be sexy — but sexy in the context of a culture that values male power and dominance over women, and that repeatedly misunderstands consent. More so, I am pointing out the fundamental problems with these interactions which have been marketed as cheap titillation.
It is imperative in our society as women are increasingly empowered to own their sexual desires, that we are critical consumers, so as not to make the mistake of reproducing harmful gendered power dynamics that fundamentally objectify and subordinate women, eroticize male violence, and ignore and belittle consent. It’s Valentine’s Day, find something else to do.
Collegian Columnist Caroline King enjoys cats, long walks on the beach, and social justice, and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @cgking7.