Perhaps we should be happy that twenty million readers worldwide have embraced their inner spanker and/or spankee. Perhaps we should accept that the vessel of truth is, in this case, highly imperfect. Written as a spin-off of Twilight fan fiction, entirely in present tense, with awkward inner monologues and lacking in any descriptive prose, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed) chronicles the relationship of a super-rich pervert and the woman he loves and spanks. Along the way, there is minimal but unmistakable (unmistakable because absurdly obvious and telegraphed) character development, as Christian Grey learns how to be a more confident and communicative top, and Anastasia Steele learns how to get in touch with her inner bottom by allowing Grey to wantonly spank her exterior bottom. Yummy stuff, shallow as a puddle of spit, but scandalously successful for its author, E.L. James.
The problem with Fifty Shades is certainly not the BDSM. The exploration of dominance, submission, pain and punishment in sexuality (certainly when all parties consent and so desire) is healthy and liberating. For some, it provides playful and harmless fantasies. For others, it may provide a path for healing past abuse. And spanking-with-sexual-innuendo is everywhere in popular culture today, so it’s not even as if Fifty Shades is in any way radical. In 1983, ’84, and ’85, using the pseudonym A. N. Roquelaure, Anne Rice wrote the Sleeping Beauty Trilogy, with a plot line, prose, and sex scenes that make Fifty Shades look like…well, weak modified fan fiction prose.
Nor does Fifty Shades necessarily misrepresent the behavior and speech of characters in this kind of relationship. In fact, the most defensible characteristic of Fifty Shades, the aspect of the work that makes me believe E.L. James actually does know a few spankos personally, is the whiny, self-indulgent, childish behavior of Christian Grey. Like most people who over-determine one particular aspect of sexuality in their lives—particularly BDSM stuff– the guy never shuts up, and what he talks about is a whole can of prissy, self-indulgent cream soda: He might as well be saying: “Hey, look at this strap, Ana. You know, I’m going to hit you with this strap now. Square on the ass, in fact. What do you think of this fine leather? Did you know I ordered it hand-tanned from Tibet? Are you impressed? Are you scared? Are you intimidated by the fact that I’m a control freak? Am I boring you? I can stop talking any time, you know. Well okay, actually I can’t, because I need to keep a monologue going about my fine BDSM equipment and what I’m going to do to you with it. I realize I have lines like people in low-budget spanking videos. What do you think about that? Don’t answer that, Ana, just bend over. Ooh, I really like the way you bend over. Allow me to pontificate on your bending over before I actually hit you.”
Sheesh, I’m thinking; shut the fuck up and spank her, you rich pansy. Have you considered that one of the reasons you’re freaking her out so much is that you never fucking shut up?
And sure, we get it: He talks too much because he is in desperate need of affirmation. Grey needs Ana to tell him that it’s okay to want what he wants. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. If everyone had a partner who could affirm his or her perversions, indulge them, walk alongside their partner supporting such kinky quirks, whatever they might be, the world would be an exponentially happier place.
But it’s in our effort to universalize the benefits of kinky sex, our desire to say everyone should feel free to develop and practice their sexual fantasies, that we notice a stark difference between the affair de Grey-Steele and the affairs of the rest of us. The last time I brought a pretty woman to my apartment to experiment with her sexually, it wasn’t via private helicopter. The last time I visited her family, it wasn’t via private jet. I couldn’t replace her VW Beetle with an Audi; I had some money left over after paying my utility bills, so I took her to dinner at Perkins and had enough money for a couple of beers at the corner bar. And I don’t get to sit around for days at a time contemplating whether I have the proper custom-made devices with which to facilitate such experiments, because I am a member of the working class, and I can barely afford a new bed and couch when my old ones fall apart. I’ll spank you silly on that furniture, though, if you’re willing to lower your standards a little.
Not so for Christian fucking Grey. He can woo Anastasia Steele with every device available to those with the ability to pay, and he does. In order to convey some sense of liberal guilt about this, James has Ana weakly protest it, with little more than the literary equivalent of a heavy sigh and shoulder shrug:
‘It’s a car,’ I quip. She narrows her eyes, and for a brief moment, I wonder if she’s going to put me across her knee, too. ‘My graduation present.’ I try to act nonchalant. Yes, I get expensive cars given to me every day. Her mouth drops open.
‘Generous, over-the-top bastard, isn’t he?’
I nod. ‘I did try not to accept it, but frankly, it’s just not worth the fight.’
I flush. I haven’t told her about his private plane.
“What?” she snaps.
“He has his own plane,” I mumble, embarrassed. And it’s only two and a half thousand miles, Mom.”
Why am I embarrassed?
As it turns out, however, Ana’s preferences are transparent:
‘You know how much I dislike you spending money on me. Yes, you’re very rich, but still it makes me uncomfortable, like you’re paying me for sex. However, I like traveling first class, it’s so much more civilized than coach. So thank you.’
In order to throw some complications and some semblance of social consciousness into all this, we learn that Grey wasn’t born rich, but is instead a sad rich fellow who used to be poor and abused. The explanation for Grey’s non-illustrious origins is, in an act of literary unoriginalism that ought to be illegal: Grey’s birth mother was “a crack whore.” For those who haven’t read this stuff, no, I’m not joking.
There are a lot of false imperatives implicated here: The only redemptive way out of poverty is into wealth; a character can’t be considered to have developed if they stay in poverty, or rise only to modest, working class stature. And related to this imperative is the number one rule of sexual fantasy in shallow, popular erotic literature: Sex, particularly kinky sex, can only take place in five-star hotels and on country estates. You only get to spank me if you flew me via helicopter to your lair. You only get to tie me up on finely crafted mahogany whipping posts, using leather tanned and handcrafted by leather foundries in the western provinces of Slovenia or something, special ordered, costing a few grand.
So when one reviewer opines that Anastasia is Grey’s “equal,” that simply isn’t true in a material sense, and thus, as any good Marxist will tell you, cannot be true in any other sense. Grey, in fact, is not only a billionaire, but is also a capitalist who deals in “futures,” a line of work rendered possible solely by his own and other people’s money, and which frequently trades upon the speculation of others’ failure. This makes him not only a member of the top hundredth of one percent of society, but gives him a parasitic and Eichmann-esque role therein, one upon which he evidences practically no self-reflection. His far-fetched and clichéd origins in poverty (naturally his birth mother couldn’t simply be poor; she had to be a “crack whore,” because that’s what poor people are) serve only to offer a facile contrast to the fabulous wealth which is a moral and literary prerequisite, in E.L. James’s small mind, to the ability to be forbidding, sexy, and fearless–at least the whiny sort of fearlessness James believed would appeal to her readers. And so we’ve gone from Constance Chatterley slumming with the working class groundskeeper Mellors to a billionaire seducing a graduate student. The working class is no longer seducing the rich in our erotic literature. The rich are seducing the wannabe rich. And where D.H. Lawrence’s message was that the body (and not just the mind) is necessary for love, E.L. James’s unintentional message is that neither the body nor the mind really matter—it’s all about the bank account.
And I am left asking: Where is the working class kink, the sexuality of poverty, the acknowledgment that poor people and working stiffs fuck, experiment, spank, get spanked, explore our sexuality, and (gasp) withstand emotional development in our relationships? How much more engaging and exciting would be a Fifty Shades which traced the complexities of people struggling to be in love and come into their own sexually while simultaneously struggling to pay the bills, find good jobs, raise their kids in a world of frustrating forced choices and material challenges? In James’s opulent fantasy, Ana can explore her love, question her desires to be punished, contemplate her urge to escape such punishment, calculate her final decisions, all without economic complication. How much more honest, and therefore more truly erotic, would the story have been if the characters were struggling with mortgages, debts, and the looming threat of downsizing, outsourcing, pension cuts, and the like?
If your gut reaction is to respond “why should James have inserted such peripheral topics into the story?” my response is that such material context would not have been any more peripheral than the incidental fact that James’s Grey is a parasitic billionaire. Maybe James made him a billionaire to simplify matters; if so, that makes the story even shallower than it already seems. Maybe, however, she made him a billionaire because she believes that it made him sexier. I think that’s the more likely possibility, and if true, it is a terribly sad commentary on contemporary pop literature, and pop culture as a whole. It makes me want to toss all three volumes of Fifty Shades into the fire, and to call for randy writers to produce erotic novels about people like us. I’m game. Who’s with me?