Two things happened recently that made me think about Fifty Shades.
E.L. James released another book, called Grey, which is apparently written from Christian Grey’s perspective, and last month I came across an essay on Guernica on Fifty Shades of Grey. And it struck me that although it has been ages since Fifty Shades and its sequels came out, I don’t think I have ever had a week go by without an article, ad, listicle or some paragraph tucked away in an article about it. Earlier this year when the film came out, the intervals of life without Fifty Shades shortened considerably, and for a while it was hard to read news online without having the ad columns pop up on the sides with Jamie Dornan’s constipated sexy-face in a thematically grey suit. While I do not appreciate the broad strokes of vitriol that are normally directed at Fifty Shades for reasons that form this essay, I do find it a little strange that it is so consistently visible, even though I am an Indian woman, writing this in Delhi, and the social milieu that I inhabit – newly (and in this case barely) employed hipster graduates with little tolerance for romantic fiction – is as far from the target audience of the novel as possible. It turns up everywhere: bookshops, airports, railway stations, pavement stalls, not to mention Facebook and Twitter.
It was still surprising, even jarring, to come across the book on Guernica Magazine. Guernica is where I have found gems over the years: pieces like Mirza Waheed’s ‘The Torturable Class’ (my introduction to Kashmiri politics) and interviews of people like Habibe Jafarian and Hayv Kahraman. I trust it to come up with interesting, well-crafted, occasionally life-altering prose. I should add that Aya de Leon’s essay was also political. It went deep into the origins of EL James, born Erika Mitchell, and speculated about the effect of Pinochet’s dictatorship upon her Chilean immigrant childhood. In a nutshell this was the argument: ‘While some feminists have argued that Fifty Shades is a tale of domestic abuse wrapped up as a love story, it can also be understood as a romanticized allegory of Pinochet’s dictatorship.’
Once I got over my surprise, it struck me that my initial reaction is exactly the kind of problematic relationship most feminists and students of literature have with Fifty Shades of Grey and its immediate predecessor, Twilight. We cringe, we do not deign to read; at best, after reading a few pages – which are obviously awful – we throw our arms up. We agonize over the fact that people like these books. Fifty Shades has three books in total, and Twilight four. These are books of medium to heavy thickness, and it continues to surprise/worry many of us that they are devoured with appetite and shown hysterical devotion by a large number of people. By mid-2014 it had already sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. I have no idea what the figures are now, after the film. In my case it manifested most recently in incredulity that Guernica should publish an essay on Fifty Shades. I have seen the same dismissal in many published pieces, especially those written by respectable, well-known feminists on respectable, well-known platforms. Most of these authors wear with pride the fact they have read either a few pages, or at best, the entirety of only the first book of either series. They also wear with pride the fact that they do not understand its appeal, as if this incomprehension is also a protection against accidental stupidity, or internalized misogyny, which every adoring reader is charged with.
To clarify a few points here: I have no doubt that both Twilight and Fifty Shades are extremely violent and misogynist. I have read all the books in both series. They are both about young, naive and vulnerable women who enter into highly unequal and dangerous relationships with men who are (in one case supernaturally) older and stronger than them. These women face forceful confinement, possessiveness, threats against their life and finally enter into marriage – an institution steeped into the tradition of seeing women as property and disposable reproductive instruments. These books are also homophobic : both Edward Cullen and Christian Grey baulk at the thought that they may be seen as gay. Indeed there are no LGBTQIA characters. Besides, masculinity is repeatedly written into the text as the male right to infantilize, stalk, dismiss and abuse their female partner. In both cases, the protagonist loses her (male) best friend in the process of fusing with her partner. And both series are awfully written: endless repetitions, banal diction, rickety, purposeless sentences, primary-school expression and, of course, the terrifying ‘inner goddess’. The point of this litany is that it eases the way to a question.
Since all of these things are obvious, I am forced to ask why so many women – intelligent, adult, and competent – read these books. When I was interning at a car sales showroom in the summer of 2012 (a horror story in its own right; I was terrible at it) I found a copy of Fifty Shades lying in my boss’ car when she dropped me home one day. The significant bit was that it was lying hidden under the seat, heavily dog-eared. This was not just a pleasure; it was one that was self-conscious and covered in shame. This makes sense, since most of my attempts at discussing these books have been tedious things dominated by frantic avowals of not being a fan in order to be taken seriously, and then a petering out, because there was no interest in the absence of fandom. These two attitudes – vicious dislike and surreptitious copies under car seats – sum up how these books have been received, to the point that any conscious, unapologetic reading became a rare thing. Amy Jenkins writes in the Independent: ‘Fifty Shades was always said to be the book that took advantage of the new-found anonymity of Kindles – you could read it on the train and no one would know.’ But Jenkins’ essay too stops with the limited observation that the books are quite, quite badly written and violently sexist. Again, no attempt to analyze their popularity.
This is why Aya de Leon’s commentary was refreshing. I did not really agree with the argument; while E.L. James’ Chilean heritage is certainly very interesting, the idea that the plot of Fifty Shades is a metaphor for the sexual violence and human rights abuse under the Pinochet regime seemed both too convenient, and a bit simplistic in its A-Level quality of biographical criticism. However, what it did was treat Fifty Shades as a delayed cultural effect. In doing so it raised the parameters of commentary from entertainingly hateful to soberly critical. The only other piece of writing that in my knowledge subjected the books to a critical eye has been Eva Illouz’s ‘Hard-Core Romance’ (2014). I have not been able to get my hands on it yet, but a useful summary of its explanation as to why Fifty Shades continues to be popular was found in a book review. Bestsellers, she contends, “are likely to be texts that encode problematic social conditions – that is, social conditions that threaten individuals’ capacity to pursue certain central goals, be they satiety, happiness, or material wealth”. This is an analysis I accept without hesitation.
And for me, although Fifty Shades is ostensibly about sexual pleasure and satiety, what underscore the trajectory of desire throughout the books are questions of wealth and class distinction. There is a scene in Fifty Shades Freed where Ana and Christian talk about the prenup. It is quite predictable: the billionaire protests against safeguarding his empire, to which Ana apologetically replies, “I’m bringing nothing to our marriage but my student loans.” This admission is perhaps what lies behind the phenomenon of Fifty Shades as a bestseller.
We live in a world where there is no free education, no real possibility of class mobility beyond a certain point (I am not even going into the question of emancipation from class itself). As women, we also live in a world where a pervasive aesthetic tyranny pressurizes us to live up to punishing standards of beauty that often require mutilating and arresting both the body and its natural desire for food, rest, growth and ageing. Think about it: dieting, threading, waxing, working out, bleaching, labioplasty – the list goes on. And the endgame, the promised reward, is a monogamous heterosexual state-sanctioned partnership with a man who either provides us with all of the above, or at least offers sexual fidelity and importance, elevating us from oppressed, undesirable objects to colonized, valued objects. Now, if my reading is harsh and unrepresentative of many marriages and partnerships, it is because this is not descriptive of how most human beings end up navigating the hot-coal intersection of gender and class. It is rather the description of what norm expects us to follow in most urban cultures.
And this norm is never more reified and normalized than in the genre of popular romantic fiction.
One of the more awkward moments of my undergraduate life as an EngLit student was when I had to write an essay on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Published in 1740, this novel is as triggering as it gets. The plot revolves around a poor fifteen-year-old girl who is sent to look after the household of a young squire called Mr. B. who is a sexual predator and entirely a product of his new found inheritance. He confines Pamela in his manor, intercepts her frantic letters to her parents when she asks to be taken back, and by turns threatens and bribes her to sleep with him. Since I am quite sure you will not pick it up for weekend reading, I will keep the spoilers: the full title of the novel is ‘Pamela; Or Virtue Rewarded’. The ending, therefore, consists of Pamela’s brief escape from this house of intimidation and sexual harassment when she is interrupted by Mr. B’s contrition and proposal for marriage. Of course, Pamela promptly forgives him and there is a marriage, followed by some more drama with B’s snobbish family and a happy ending. Virtue, then, is coded both as a gesture towards accepting the norm, but also is a self-protective mimicry of that, i.e. chastity in the face of a financially exploitative deal and swift acceptance in the face of a more profitable one.
Would Pamela have accepted this proposal without the manor, the money and Mr. B’s position in the society? To put it more correctly, would Pamela’s acceptance of the proposal have been a believable fantasy –bestseller material – without those things?
Similarly, from the very first time they meet, the interaction between Ana and Christian has been marked very carefully and explicitly by class difference. Ana receives presents that she needs quite badly, but keeps reluctantly. During the course of their relationship in the second and third books, Ana’s dependence on Christian’s wealth increases, as she participates in his family life with its improbable conveniences, including a housekeeper, chauffeur and even a helicopter. She is bought expensive clothes, makeup, laptops – everything needed for a plush, urban, middle class life; the precise kind of life that a young American graduate (perhaps graduates everywhere) would both crave and find unaffordable.
It is even worse when you aspire for these things as a woman. While queer, trans or BME women are in many cases erased from the narrative of such achievements itself, even for a young, cis white woman, it is more difficult than for her male counterparts. As Ana demonstrates in her first meeting with Christian, she thinks of herself as plain, and inadequate because of the plainness: a feeling that Bella in Twilight, Jane in Jane Eyre, and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice all share. Fast forward to Fifty Shades Freed, we find Ana congratulating herself:
I gaze at myself, trying to absorb how I look. My body is so different these days. It’s changed subtly since I’ve known him . . . I’ve become leaner and fitter, and my hair is glossy and well cut. My nails are manicured, my feet pedicured, my eyebrows threaded and beautifully shaped. (p.47)
Money, specifically Christian’s money, changes Ana’s self-perception and material existence. The price? The above passage is succeeded by the discovery of bite marks all over her body, not made out of pleasure, but specifically to mark her body as Christian’s property.
This is a typical moment that highlights the problem with this book. That the need to mark a woman’s body is seen as an irritating but understandable, to be resolved by hurling a hairbrush at the man and then forgiving at the first sign of contrition.
I would like to go a bit further and attempt a slightly different reading – one that sees Ana’s reconciliation with her abusive partner as not a naïve lack of self-respect but as a clear-headed and necessarily unacknowledged compromise. In the beginning of the series, we read Christian as a man who is not interested in a relationship. He desires an (unfair) contract-bound, purely sexual relationship which Ana refuses to be part of, seeing it as counterfeit and less valuable than a romantic relationship. Instead she wants “hearts and flowers”, a recurring phrase through the series, standing in for monogamy, traditional rituals of romance and marriage. By the second book of the trilogy, Christian has forgotten all about his original parameters. He has morphed into Boyfriend Proper, and proceeds to propose in a room full of flowers on a boat:
“You wanted hearts and flowers,” he murmurs.
I blink at him, not quite believing what I’m seeing.
“You have my heart.” And he waves toward the room.
“And here are the flowers,” I whisper, completing his sentence.
I think the reason that this series is a bestseller is because Ana achieves the transformation of Christian, and not because of the appallingly-written descriptions of what claims to be kinky sex. What Ana rejects in the first books is not sex on the basis of contract, but sex on the basis of an inadequate and exploitative contract. She chooses to aim higher and assimilate Christian’s sexuality into an arrangement that benefits her on a permanent basis, and makes her the sole beneficiary of his financial, social and emotional capital. And never once is this conscious. The text itself tries as hard as it can to suppress any suggestion of a motive on Ana’s part that is not romantic love. It is rather that the popular model of romantic love itself is a product of necessities and compulsions imposed by a system where the fantasy of a billionaire who offers wealth, status, convenience and validation is a soothing balm to the unsolvable problem of being equal to the most successful man.
There is, of course, a much better answer to the problem. The answer lies in emancipatory feminism. Not a feminism whose highest goal is to mimic and outdo the most powerful man, but to shake off the very structures that allow for a Christian Grey to exist in the world and be seen as something enviable and cool. Emancipatory feminism would point out that Christian, even at his best, kindest self, is brutal to the invisible workers in his company whose cheap, unrewarded labour affords him his helicopter and other outrageous displays of self-aggrandizing generosity to a single person.
Audre Lorde’s famous, overused formulation comes to mind. A black lesbian feminist, an outcast in most narratives that occupy popular imagination, she said, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ For her and many other feminists, the solution lies in revolution and not resignation to an elaborate game of assimilation and capitulation; the aspiration being freedom from the need to be needed by an able-bodied, rich, cis partner to validate existence. But that dream comes with the risk of losing the plot. Choosing to love someone not assigned to us by the norm is to court social rejection at best and murderous violence at worst (see the history of interracial and inter-caste love). To resist the entitlement of a stalker is often to risk verbal and physical violence. And bestsellers point to the problem, not the most ethical or inclusive solution. Instead, they give us calming little pellets of fantasy that solve the question of unequal opportunity, unchecked privilege and male entitlement by giving women strategies to manipulate and tip the game in their favour. The most comforting component of these strategies is perhaps the fact that they read like anything but strategic: Anastasia, like her literary predecessors, practices a degree of open-mouthed naivete that very few women in real life can afford to: we have to worry about making ends meets, and our decisions can never have the moral neutrality (or vapidity) of Fifty Shades, and indeed, most popular romantic fiction, is not about dismantling the master’s house but infiltrating it and taking over. And this is why they are so popular.
This piece first appeared on the Zubaan Blog on October 9 (http://zubaanbooks.com/infiltrating-the-masters-house/).