Critical Analysis: Fifty Shades of Grey

This is part of an upcoming promotional eBook for Teen Guide to Sex and Relationships (an advice book for young people / non-fiction), co-written by Matt Posner and myself.

teen sex

Teen Guide: Promo eBook on jessINK

I recently read Fifty Shades of Grey in order to answer the following email from an inquisitive Teen Guide reader/customer:

“Is the sex in Fifty Shades of Grey realistic?”

This answer was written for a teenage audience, but since many of the themes are relevant to adults as well, here it is in its entirety (brought to you by the authors of Teen Guide).

* * *

Qn: Is the sex in Fifty Shades of Grey realistic?

MATT POSNER:

I can’t respond to this question meaningfully, for a couple of reasons.

First, although I’ve had some friends over the years who were into BDSM, I did not share their interest. I don’t know the intricacies of a real-life BDSM relationship.

Additionally, Fifty Shades of Grey bothers me on the personal level, because it is so badly written, and has made so much money nonetheless. As a writer who worked hard to develop his craft, I am appalled to see a book written with so little skill, with such ludicrous content, and with such shallow values, pull in millions.

Jess is better equipped to answer this question than I am. She’s a writer of erotica. No, not pornography. (See Teen Guide for what we both have to say about porno.) Erotica is a category of literature which deals openly and excitingly with sexuality as a part of human experience. Jess’ work is what we call relationship-based erotica, meaning that she shows the characters in a detailed and complex way so that their sexual interaction is meaningful to them and the reader. Her writing is inspired by the classic literary texts of sexuality, such as Anais Nin and D.H. Lawrence.

Wikipedia (erotic literature) is a good resource if you want to learn more about this type of literature, and find the classics.

Over to you, partner.

JESS C SCOTT:

My answer is quite lengthy, so I shall split it up into two parts:

PART 1: Fifty Shades as Twilight fan fiction (it’s romance, not realistic BDSM)

PART 2: Fifty Shades excerpts (exploring fantasy vs. reality)

* * *

PART 1: Fifty Shades as Twilight fan fiction

Fifty Shades of Grey was originally written as Twilight fan fiction.

fanfiction

Pic taken by JCS/jessINK

There are many similarities between these two massively popular romances (it is important to keep in mind that both these works fall into the commercial “romance” genre).

Here are some of the similarities I’ve noticed so far:

(1) Both feature an ordinary virgin protagonist, whose Prince Charming comes in the form of a very rich/handsome prototype that is ONLY attracted to the virgin protagonist.

(2) The virgin protagonist feels good about herself and bases her self-worth/self-esteem, to a significant extent, according to the wishes and desires of “her man” (she needs constant attention from the man to feel complete/fulfilled/good about herself).

(3) Both these works are “safe” for the mainstream reader/consumer.

These are all very important points because of fantasy/escapism and reality.

In real life, a lot of guys dislike (or despise) these sort of romances, because of the way they reduce men to be “rich, handsome, 100%-attentive, perfect” heroes (and when they “fall short” of any of these qualities in real life, their female partners get disappointed). It is very similar to the way females are portrayed in commercial pornography (it can reduce women to be “sexualized, well-endowed, blemish-free, 100%-physically perfect” beauties (and some women expect themselves to have to look “that way” in order to sustain a male’s interest).

If Twilight is the only book you have read, Fifty Shades of Grey is going to be very “hardcore” (because of the BDSM themes in the book).

As a person with a long-time interest in bondage and the power play dynamics involved with BDSM, one of the things I disliked about Fifty Shades was the extremely narrow and limited portrayal it gives of the BDSM scene.

No, BDSM is not all about “Dom/sub” contracts (where a couple writes down, in detail, what their relationship entails). A “Dom/sub” relationship has the potential to draw out the best in each person, because of the intensity of such an extreme set-up (in Fifty Shades, you will see that the psychological intensity of a “Dom/sub” relationship is never really portrayed — it’s a fluffy version of BDSM, where the “romance” with the Prince Charming male is the backbone of the story — not the actual eroticism of true BDSM). In this type of relationship in real life, it is not the dominant’s job to be a control freak — it is the dominant’s job to make sure the submissive is “well taken care of” and fulfilled in their partnership.

To my knowledge, Ana (the lead female character in Fifty Shades) spends more time “biting her lip” and going “Holy Crap” and talking about her “inner goddess” than talking about the real aspects of a relationship strongly characterized by BDSM activity.

For me, the BDSM activity was light and sanitized in Fifty Shades (but that’s because I’m familiar with the works of Anais Nin, and other writers of classic, high-quality erotic literature). Fifty Shades appears to be hardcore for people who (1) don’t read much and (2) have absolutely no knowledge of the BDSM scene.

A real BDSM relationship is not about who’s the richest or most beautiful (it is not about the romance with a Prince Charming prototype). It is not about a submissive who’s actually a “princess” and gets whatever she wants — as dictated by what her male partner desires.

A real BDSM relationship is about the power exchange, the trust issues, learning to respect your own self/needs and that of your partner, and the combination of fear and arousal.

Yes, Ana initially reacts with shock/fear/surprise at Christian Grey’s ways…but in the end, Fifty Shades is about “dominant” (Prince Charming) Christian giving all of his adoring attention to “submissive” (Princess) Ana.

Put aside the generalized BDSM components in Fifty Shades, and that’s what Fifty Shades is at its core: a fairytale (for adults).

* * *

PART 2: Fifty Shades excerpts (fantasy vs. reality)

I have selected a few examples from the book to better explain what is fantasy (i.e. the “romance” in the book) and what is realistic (i.e. how things would go down in real life).

Let’s explore fantasy and reality with the following four questions:

(a) Does Christian Grey depict what a Dominant partner is like, or should be like, in a real BDSM relationship?

(b) Is Fifty Shades of Grey about real BDSM?

(c) The scene where Ana loses her virginity and has sex with Christian for the first time — is this realistic?

(d) Is obsession the same as true love?

* * *

(a) Does Christian Grey depict what a Dominant partner is like, or should be like, in a real BDSM relationship?

My answer: NO.

From Page 287 of Fifty Shades:

Christian says that Ana “isn’t meant to like” being spanked. He adds, “I like the control it gives me, Anastasia…you will learn to behave the way I desire.”

From Page 349:

Christian says to Ana, “I want you, and I want you now. And if you’re not going to let me spank you — which you deserve — I’m going to [do it with you] on the couch this minute, quickly, for my pleasure, not yours.”

The above two excerpts do not show what a true sane/stable Dominant is. The excerpts show a control freak.

dominatrix

“Mask” | Image from Tricks

Yes, this “control freak” aspect can happen in or out of a BDSM relationship, but it should not be taken with the attitude of, “Oh, so this is what all Doms in the BDSM scene are like…”

In contrast, a real Dom would not be self-centered to the point of telling their submissive that “it is only the Dominant’s pleasure that matters.”

I know people (males/females/in different locations around the world/of different ages and cultural backgrounds) who are into BDSM. Many of them are very normal on the inside as well as on the outside.

One of them had an online friend who opened a BDSM dungeon in Los Angeles (where people pay money for discreet BDSM services).

The place was operated and owned by women. Dominants were never hired unless the individuals had experienced being a submissive. The owner felt that without the experience of being a sub, it would be difficult to get inside the sub’s mind to give them what they needed during the session (this is mentioned in the second story of Play, a realistic BDSM short story anthology I wrote in 2011).

In real life, BDSM practitioners have to walk a delicate balance between shared awareness and intensity. It is always about the pleasure of both the dominants and submissives involved.

BDSM is not about asserting your power over another person in a sexual situation, and justifying that you don’t need to care about their pleasure because “you’re the one in control” (that’s mental/emotional abuse, which doesn’t accurately define what a fulfilling BDSM relationship is about).

From Page 293:

Christian Grey (in an email) says to Ana, “So you felt demeaned, debased, abused, and assaulted…do you really feel like this or do you think you ought to feel like this? Two very different things. If that is how you feel, do you think you could just try to embrace these feelings, deal with them, for me? That’s what a submissive would do.”

That’s not the job of a submissive — the job of a submissive is to give to the dominant partner power and authority over the submissive’s body in exchange for the submissive’s happiness and health (this is part of the “power exchange” in a real, fulfilling, BDSM sexual relationship).

A truly emotionally supportive partner doesn’t tell their partner to “deal with their feelings” on their own (especially since the conflicting feelings involve the other partner too!).

It is the responsibility of both people in any kind of relationship to be open and honest to each other with their feelings.

(b) Is Fifty Shades of Grey about real BDSM?

My answer: NO.

Fifty Shades is a romance with BDSM window-dressing (marketed as a “BDSM novel” for some “spice” and “edge”).

romance

“Night Romance” | Image from Google

From Page 98:

This is the description of Christian Grey’s “Red Room of Pain.” The room is described as having “walls and a ceiling that are a deep, dark burgundy…the floor is old varnished wood…there is a large wooden cross like an X fastened to the wall…an expansive iron grid suspended from the ceiling…” and there are “ropes and chains”…and an “assortment of paddles, whips, riding crops, and funny-looking feathery implements.”

This description is a very stereotypical set-up (not every person in real life is insanely rich like Christian Grey to be able to afford a beautiful room in one house JUST for “play”).

A person does not need ALL the above equipment to be considered a “real” BDSM practitioner (it’s not about quantity; it’s about quality).

So in Fifty Shades, we have the “playroom” (Christian sex room which is a stereotypical BDSM set-up with BDSM props and equipment), a Dom/sub contract (where Christian and Ana list down in detail the limitations of what they’re willing to explore in their supposed BDSM relationship), and the sexual scenes (which are more “mild kink” for real-life practitioners of BDSM).

But if you take away these BDSM elements, the plotline of Fifty Shades still works, because of the “emotional relationship” and “romance” between Christian and Ana (that is the backbone of the story, not BDSM).

How can a story be about real BDSM when the story is still there when all the BDSM elements are removed?

Christian Grey never actually “trains” Ana to become his “submissive sex slave” (something that is done in a real life BDSM relationship).

Perhaps this is why many people into the BDSM lifestyle don’t like Fifty Shades.

It’s like slapping an LGBT label onto the thing for coolness factor, then deciding in the end that “being straight” is where it’s at. That might be the case for some people in real life, but in that case the thing shouldn’t be marketed as “LGBT” (or “BDSM”, in the case of Fifty Shades).

Fifty Shades presents BDSM as something bad/naughty and “forbidden” (like the “forbidden love” in Twilight), and suggests to the reader that the romantic love Ana yearns for is not compatible with BDSM, because BDSM is something that stems from a wayward/abusive past (Christian Grey has an abusive past).

The message is that BDSM is a fetish kink that stems from abuse (and that it’s not something that ordinary or “normal” people should be into).

The above is not true. The sane and serious practitioners of BDSM are into BDSM because of how BDSM enhances their sexual and personal life.

Yes, you’ll have some psychotic people who are into the BDSM lifestyle (as in other areas in life), but this minority of twisted beings should not be seen as “representative” of the entire BDSM community.

Fifty Shades was not written to explore BDSM or personal sexual themes. Fifty Shades was written as Twilight fan fiction (entertainment) to please Twilight romance fans.

In other words, Fifty Shades does not offer an authentic portrayal of a real BDSM relationship.

(c) The scene where Ana loses her virginity and has sex with Christian for the first time — is this realistic?

My answer: NO.

Good heavens, my answer is definitely ‘no’.

sexy_bed

“Sexy Bed” | Image by Jodi & Alicia

Ana Steele in Fifty Shades is a twenty-one year old virgin. If a girl/woman has never had sexual intercourse, she is likely to be tight (she would need to be “relaxed” beforehand so that there is less pain during penetration).

From Page 117:

“I’m going to fuck you now, Miss Steele,” [Christian] murmurs as he [gets ready to enter me]. “Hard,” he whispers, and he slams into me.

“Aargh!” I cry as I feel a weird pinching sensation deep inside me as he rips through my virginity.

One and a half pages later, we are told that Ana has experienced “two” very amazing “orgasms.”

This is not realistic — please don’t think that just because you’re with a “hot, handsome” guy, first time sex with him is bound to be amazing.

There can be blood and pain during first time sex even with a good partner/lover, who’s sensitive, considerate and aware of their partner. This “virgin to sex machine who can keep up with the amazing Christian Grey” transition in Ana in Fifty Shades is PURE fantasy.

It takes skill and effort to be a good lover in bed (but that’s another story for another day…).

(d) Is obsession the same as true love?

My answer: NO.

Is this trendy if you’re part of the Twilight generation?

Yes.

And it can get very dangerous if you think that obsession, in real life, means true love.

The main character, Ana, describes their relationship as an obsession.

From Page 221:

He’s so passionate, mesmerizing. This is obviously his obsession, the way he is…I can’t take my eyes off him.

From Page 355:

“This man, whom I once though of as a romantic hero, a brave shining white knight—or the dark knight, as he said. He’s not a hero; he’s a man with serious, deep emotional flaws, and he’s dragging me into the dark. Can I not guide him into the light?”

From Page 360:

“I need to be able to show him affection — then perhaps he can reciprocate.”

This, dear friends and readers, is something that is romantic fantasy — in real life, all the love in the world CANNOT and WILL NOT “fix” a partner’s deep emotional issues (I know because I have experienced such people and situations in real life). A person with “serious, deep emotional flaws” needs to work on their issues to understand themselves — their problems are not going to magically disappear because of “true love” (that is why romance novels are ESCAPISM, not REALITY).

love

“Don’t Forget to Love Yourself” | The Budding Rose

My very-clever friend from the U.K., a male in his 50s, has this to say on the subject of “charming bad boys”:

In real life, the selfish brutes can be very suave, confident and charming. So they win women over. After all many women like men to take charge and show some strength and passion. This is how many women become trapped in destructive relationships with men who are selfish and abusive (i.e. men who aren’t sensitive, caring and affectionate).

I will paste excerpts from a short email correspondence here between myself and a Twilight fan (I shall call her “Bianca” here) to share some perspectives:

===

From: Jess C Scott
Subject: Fifty Shades
Date: Sat, Jun 30, 2012 at 11:08 PM
To: Bianca

Hi Bianca,

I remembered your email about the “intensity of Grey’s emotions” and thought I’d send you a quick email (I’m about 100 pages into Fifty Shades). I burst out laughing at one point about how Ana’s inner goddess was sitting in the lotus position.

I can see how Grey’s emotions are intense and will continue to make my way through Fifty Shades.

I am not the target audience (romance reader) for Fifty Shades, so I find the actual supposed BDSM elements of Fifty Shades to be disappointing (it feels like BDSM spice thrown in, rather than the realistic exploration of the depth of an intense BDSM relationship with strong power play elements). There’s references to Dom and sub and a contract, but like many others into the BDSM lifestyle, I found the actual sex scenes to be mild kink (hence making it a “safe” and marketable BDSM Lite product for the masses).

Fifty Shades is very much like Twilight in the fairytale sense (virgin protagonist defines her self-worth according to “her man” that comes in the form of a supremely attractive + insanely rich alpha male prototype). If Christian Grey wasn’t good-looking or super-rich, I think many more female readers would consider him a pervert.

I sometimes think of some of these female fans who’ll take a male’s obsession with them to mean “true love,” which might eventually lead them to get into a really intense BDSM-type relationship in real life without being prepared for it — yeah, there’s less chances of a fairytale ending happening there.

===

From: Bianca
Subject: re: Fifty Shades
Date: Sun, Jul 1, 2012 at 11:50 AM
To: Jess C Scott

Hey Jess,

LOL. I am not a fan of her writing but in fairness to James (author of Fifty Shades), the story did start out as a fan fic that went popular among the Twilight fans because she fulfilled their Bella-Edward fantasies in the sack.

I wasn’t really into Ana that much and her inner goddess. Grey’s unraveling or unmasking starts in book 2 and maybe his past doesn’t fully justify his current deviant behavior but I like the tortured soul part. People with a background of abuse, especially men, have different coping mechanisms and I’d like to think Grey’s is one version of it. But I agree with you, if Grey isn’t a powerful, handsome AND wealthy guy, I probably won’t like him so that adds to the illusion.

BDSM seems to be a hot topic lately and between you and me, it’s not as “romantic” as some people make it out to be especially if they’re basing it on this book. I agree, there are a lot of things that can go wrong with BDSM and I’m a little disappointed that some people overly romanticize this in their head. Mild kink is fine and a lot of people are into it but beating up your partner is a different story all together. I was so mad by the end of book 1, I felt that the conflict was hastily written and Ana is so dumb! But then again, this was a fan fic written in leisure so I have James some leeway for that.

Well these “tortured”, possessive men are only good on paper because we know how it ends and the author guarantees that they live HEA (Happily Ever After — this is a requisite for a romance novel) & the victims are redeemed. I think I’ll go berserk if this guy is for real and wants me signing contracts before we have sex.

* * *

REFERENCES:

To all members of the BDSM community… (Amazon Forum)

& Jess’s (+ her friends’) personal experience/s

* * *

FURTHER READING:

teen sex

Teen Guide: A Little Bit More… features a selection of additional questions from readers (upon publication of the original Teen Guide to Sex and Relationships). By Matt Posner & Jess C Scott.

bdsm

PLAY: BDSM Walkthrough is a promotional eBook where Jess talks about the themes and inspirations behind her (non-pornographic BDSM-themed) project.

fifty shades of grey

“My Inner Goddess” is Jess’s upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey parody. It’s likely to be a dark one ;)…

About Jess C Scott

Author/Artist/Non-Conformist @ www.jessINK.com View all posts by Jess C Scott

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