Is This Normal? 'Fifty Shades of Grey' Review

A mental health perspective on the book that all the moms in your neighborhood are reading.

This post contains mature content. The language and the subject matter are not suitable for some readers.

'Sex Should Be Like Math…'

When I decided to read and review Fifty Shades of Grey, I was hopeful. I had heard Shades of Grey was erotica that catered to women and that women couldn’t stop talking about it. Because so much erotica is exploitive, demeaning, and just boring after awhile, I thought erotica that catered to women might stress women’s pleasure and power. I thought it might even be instructional. 

There is little in the way of a productive dialogue about the mechanics of sex despite our culture dripping with teens hooking up on Glee, women throwing themselves at any Bachelor that shows up on TV, The Jersey Shore, and my neighborhood high school dance where my daughter informs me that “… [girls] don’t bend over more than 45 degrees because that’s just asking some guy to come up and grind on you.”

I thought that Shades of Grey might be a start of discussing how to improve sex within the context of sustaining relationships. After all, committed, sustaining relationships are very sexy to women. However, decades into a committed relationship when couples still want to connect sexually, where do they go other than the porn industry for real ideas about sex?

The main character in one of my favorite books, I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusak, thinks that:

…sex should be like math…No one really cares if they’re crap at math.  They even proclaim it.  They’ll say to anyone, “Yeah, I don’t mind science and English, but I’m absolutely sh--house at math…”

 You should be able to say that about sex, too.  You should be able to proudly say, “Yeah, I wouldn’t have a clue about all that orgasm sh--…”

No one says that, though. 

You can’t.

Zusak’s character, Ed Kennedy, makes a solid point.  It’s ironic to live in a culture where sex is packed in everywhere, yet so many are dissatisfied in their intimate relationships, sexually or otherwise.  I had high hopes for Shades of Grey.

'I’m confounded and heated…'

Shades of Grey isn’t anything close to what I thought it could be, so let me get this over with.  It’s cliché porn.  It’s just more cliché porn.  The characters are predictable and two-dimensional.  The story is too familiar and portrays a controlling, disturbed man as sexy and desirable.  Remember Twilight’s Edward?  The writing doesn’t help the story by being awful. 

As a therapist who specializes in women and girls’ issues, my caseload usually has one client who is in therapy because of a relationship with a controlling, disturbed man.  It’s damned discouraging to see women eating up this book like it’s Greek yogurt. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

'You sound like a control freak'         

The main characters are Ana and Christian. Ana is young, “…too naïve and inexperienced,” poor, is just graduating from college as an English major, and a virgin. She describes herself as “clumsy,” thinks often about “tendrils” of hair, and believes Jane Eyre is “too frightened” which makes me conclude that she should have selected another major.  She is seduced by Christian into a BDSM (Bondage, Discipline or Dominant, Sadism or Submissive, Masochistic) relationship. Ana narrates the story, so readers must sift through Ana’s interpretations of events and her interpretation of Christian.

Christian is slightly older, worldly, wealthy, controlling, and has an anger problem.  Unsubtle hints at a tragic childhood color his two dimensions, and it’s hard to tell if the tragic childhood is inserted in the story to garner sympathy from readers or to make the character appear three dimensional.  Christian describes himself aptly to Ana as “fifty shades of f----d-up,” and Ana still finds him irresistibly attractive.  He warns Ana to “steer clear of [him],” and explains his controlling behavior with questions like, “Why is anyone the way they are?” (the grammatical disagreement belongs to EL James), and even “Why do some people like cheese and other people hate it?” 

The story’s conflict lies in which character’s relationship preference will … dominate.  Ana hangs on to the relationship because she “wants more” than just BDSM exercises.  Christian wants Ana to be his submissive, but he finds her minor disobediences “hot.”  They’re both uncomfortable with the needs and wants of the other but can’t resist the sexual attraction between them.  Maybe I shouldn’t have expected a more complex plot line, but the writing doesn’t help the book’s lack of complexity.

The writing becomes tiresome seven pages into the paperback when Ana falls into Christian’s office and says, “Double crap – me and my two left feet!”  There’s standard porn language with lots of “growling,” “moaning,” lip-biting, and pages of tedious emails packed with double ententre.  Clumsy metaphors for Christian’s penis and cliché phrases like, “…two can play that particular game” abound.  There’s also an oyster and asparagus eating scene that’s so over the top, it’s worthy of an Austin Power’s movie.  Then there’s the sex.

The sex scenes comprise much of the book.  There are riding crops, handcuffs, cable ties, and the aforementioned limited language.  I don’t object to BDSM between two consenting adults as a role play.  I do object to BDSM as a lifestyle, and many of my colleagues will disagree with me on this.  Some of my colleagues feel that dominants and submissives can be in healthy, authentic relationships as they carry the dom and sub roles into their everyday lives.   Some of colleagues support D/S couples committing to each other as dominant and submissive in a collaring ceremony.  Some of my colleagues allow submissives to sit on the floor at the dominants’ feet while in therapy.  They understand punishing a sub for disobeying the dom. 

There is enough room for everyone to sit on a chair in my office.  Punishment for listening to your own heart isn’t on my list of hallmarks for healthy relationships.  For me, this book is as much about control and marginalization as it is about sex.

The relationship in Shades of Grey marginalizes Ana.  She enters a relationship with a man with whom she is “a coward to voice [her] thoughts aloud,” where she’s afraid “he’ll find [her] lacking in some way,” and she “[doesn’t] want to disappoint him.”   She keeps her thoughts to herself in order to protect the relationship.  At one point Ana says, “please don’t be angry with me…you scare me when you’re angry.”  She’s afraid to be herself around Christian, but that’s only half the story.  She’s afraid to be herself around Christian because he might punish her for it.

Ana doesn’t like to be punished but is willing to be punished in order to continue the relationship. For example, Christian doesn’t like it when she rolls her eyes at him. Being the dominant in all areas of her life, he punishes her for it. She describes her first spanking as “he hits me again and again.  From somewhere deep inside I want to beg him to stop.  But I don’t.”  She ultimately becomes tearful after the first punishment and asks, “I don’t want him to beat me, is that so unreasonable?”  No, it isn’t.  Then why doesn’t she leave the relationship?

Ana stays in the relationship because she wants “more – much more,” and she means emotionally.  Ana would like to form an emotional connection, with Christian not just a sexual connection.  She is constantly questioning herself about the relationship and thinks she should “back away…with what self-esteem I have reasonably intact.”  Ana feels badly about the relationship because she’s giving the control of her needs and her personal boundaries to someone else.  It’s worth examining what else about Ana Christian controls other than the sexual activity.

Ana relinquishes much of her nonsexual activity to Christian.  He “commands” her to “sit,” “eat,” and to go to sleep.  He “threatens” her to “…get dressed.”   He tells Ana she needs “…to sort out some contraception” and has his choice of doctor examine her (of which he says he “would pay very good money to watch”) at his house on a Sunday.  He has an alarm on his cell phone to tell him when Ana should be taking her birth control pill, so he can remind her.  She wants a Diet Coke for lunch, but Christian orders her a glass of wine because he thinks it will pair better with the lunch.  He tracks her location when Ana is on vacation visiting her mother and interrupts their visit.  Does all this sound sexy?

Many would view my concerns with Shades of Grey as hyper-sensitive and defend the novel as harmless fantasy.  The clients in my office aren’t fantasy.  I’ve treated many women who, by sacrificing their needs and boundaries to controlling relationships, discover they are miserable, used, and sometimes abused.  These women believe they did everything right in the relationship by sacrificing themselves, but in the end, control was the other partner – not them. 

Shades of Grey and its themes of control, marginalization, and pain equaling love aren’t anything new.  Sadly, these themes are everywhere, but my question is “Why?”  Why are smart, educated women engaging in dysfunctional relationships where they are marginalized?  Why are they interested in art that marginalizes other women?

'Everyone who is sexually liberated ought to be imitating strippers and porn stars'

Ariel Levy, author of Female Chauvinist Pigs, might argue that the answer is in part attributed to the minority (women) culture accepting the dominant (men) culture’s view on the objectification of women in order to adapt to the dominant culture’s expectations.  Think of women celebrities declaring their feminism by wearing micro-mini skirts, thongs, or flashing their genitals on the grounds that they are comfortable with their sexuality.  They’ve adopted the male objectification and are calling it liberation.  There is hardly any room for other expressions of sexuality because this one type of objectification is so prominent. 

Jane Banas, Director of The Counseling Center for Women in Rochester, Michigan, states that the women’s sense of power has “regressed” since the women’s movement.  Banas thinks that many women allow devaluing behavior from others because they don’t want to be labeled “an uptight bitch.”  She says that by accepting our culture’s objectifying views, women turn the anxiety and stress inwards against themselves.  In short, if women fight cultural norms that they should be used for sex and not much else, there are negative social ramifications.  If women accept cultural norms that they are objects, the tension between those norms and women’s true selves will lead to anxiety and stress. 

'Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude'

So, what are women to do with Shades of Grey, and other pop culture phenomena that glamorize controlling, disturbed men and the women who suffer physically and psychologically for the relationship?  When I have questions about erotic love, I turn to Erich Fromm, author of The Art of Loving.  Fromm maintains that “sexual desire is one manifestation of the need for love and union.”  A spicy sex life is short-lived.  Sorry, Christian. 

Sex can mask as intimacy but doesn’t offer the powerful, sustaining connection to the other person that love can offer.  This is why many people are hurt after the novel, intense period of infatuation ends.  They are left with the promise of what love can offer but no love.  Some will insist that all they want is a sexual relationship; they’re not interested in love.  I’m skeptical about that idea as a sex-only relationship leads into more of an addiction instead of a fuller way to experience life.  Not many begin relationships in search of addictions. 

Shades of Grey isn’t just another cliché porn read; it’s contributing to the current trend in pop culture media that sells the marginalization of sexuality, women, and love.  These are far more diverse and interesting than any Shades novel (there are two more) could ever be.  Women aren’t liberated or feminists because they read about a BDSM relationship in which a poor girl who doesn’t understand Jane Erye gets hurt.  Women are liberated when they make their own choices about their relationships, their sexuality, and their money. 

This liberated woman won’t be buying anymore Shades novels. I think I’ll reread Jane Eyre.           

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Katy J August 15, 2012 at 10:40 PM
Bridgette- I completely see where you are coming from. Growing up, I was never censored as to what I could or could not read. I read Joy Luck Club in 4th grade, which has very mature subject matter. As a new parent, to a newborn baby girl, I would have to say that FSOG is completely inappropriate for young readers. Again, I had planned on never censoring what my children read, hoping that if they were reading, then it's good enough for me. FSOG is one that I wouldn't want my daughter to read at a young age because you are correct. They are very impressionable in the relationship arena. I guess I was being naive to think that most readers were adults, and that was silly of me. However, at a certain age (16, 17, maybe), it becomes difficult to censor what they read. I think if a young adult is going to read this book, parents should be responsible to open up a discussion about the themes. Relationships any bit like the one portrayed in the book are not ok, real or fiction and it is much more difficult for young readers to know the difference.
Bridgette August 15, 2012 at 11:10 PM
I don't think censoring teens like you said (16 or 17) is a good idea either. I just feel like when I have children one day I want them to be able to draw their own conclusions from things and let them know I'm open for discussion on any touchy subjects like these girls: http://www.nypost.com/p/entertainment/the_hot_sex_text_zx2AW5DO7h40whfZSHG1kO/0 But then again I may be bias because I am 17 and read this book when I was 16. That's how I know teens are reading it--because nearly every single one of the girls in my grade and younger (our high school starts in 7th grade btw) has a copy or is borrowing a copy from another friend. They got it from their parents who are way more laid back and less strict than my parents.Teachers see it too but don't say anything because they read the book also and feel that they would be bias or too awkward by commenting on us having the book. It's funny how all the girls in my grade last year loved the book but hated Anna and found her annoying when she's the protagonist and it's written in 1st person. I guess I got bored by a combination of the rapid succession of the sex scenes that weren't impressive to me at all compared to ones I have read before of characters who respected each other (in BDSM), bad writing, coupled with a relationship that I knew was not a healthy one.
Katy J August 15, 2012 at 11:34 PM
I don't really think censoring is a good idea either. Again, I much prefer the stance that as long as your reading something it's better than not reading at all. I am 24 and can say that I'm finding some of the material a bit awkward, but I think that's the point. It's good that you can distinguish that the relationship isn't a good one too. I just think that this may be one of the rare circumstances where a younger reader (I'm thinking more very early teens), should maybe not be allowed to read the book, before having a discussion with a parent as to what the theme is. I don't think we give young readers the credit they are owed though either, but at such a young impressionable age (especially regarding relationships), a fictional portrayal such as the one between Ana and Christian, can give young girls the wrong ideas about what a healthy relationship is. As we mature and go through a myriad of relationship experiences, it's easier for us to dismiss the fiction in the book and just enjoy that fact that the writing doesn't require us to think too much into what we're reading. But younger girls, without conversations to show them the "fantasy" in the book, might begin to feel that the relationship (due to all of Ana's excuses) is truly a strong and healthy one.
Fiona November 21, 2012 at 02:09 PM
Please! It doesn't deserve even this much. 55 Shades is by far, the very very worst book I have ever read. It's just hilariously bad. About a third of it is e-mails consisting of one line, but only two of these communications nicely fills up another page, like an arts student trying to do a 4000 word essay. There's no story at all. The characters are chilly and remote and also almost horrifyingly perfect. Ana's interminable orgasms are counter-pointed by even more interminable worrying about whether he really likes her. Just a little humanity might have saved it. If Christian had been unable to get it up once or twice. Or Ana find she wasn't making that day. But no, every act leads to 'shattering' climaxes. Plus, it is above all, so very SAFE. It has none of the darkness of The Story Of O. Not even of Rhett Butler. It's a very clean and sterile world: there's even mention of a housekeeper, so you know there's no nasty staph infections lurking in that shiny playroom! Safewords and condoms: Jesus Christ, fantasy is about letting your imagination have free rein isn't it? At the end of the Story Of O, O is taken, in a strange and sinister costume of an owl, harnessed toa chain and laid across a table to be penetrated by guest after guest. "Whose is she? " someone asks Sir Steven. "Yours, if you want her", he replies. Now this is edgy. This book is just pretty porn for ladies. Middle-class ladies who are afraid of anything dirty and who don't like the wet patch.
Bridgette November 23, 2012 at 09:39 PM
You tell it girl! Finally, someone who makes sense around here.


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