Note: The following review is definitely NSFW, full of snark and a discussion of all things kinky, and is potentially triggery for abuse. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, so I’m going to cut the post. If any of the things I just listed make you uncomfortable, please stay tuned for Post #51, where I will return to talking about geekdom or Paganism or something. If you would still like to read this review in it’s entirety, hit the jump. (There will be lots of snark.)
I don’t usually read bestsellers or romance novels, but after reading about the horribleness that was this book on the internet, I just had to read it. It wasn’t enough to listen to Gilbert Gottfried’s hilarious reading on YouTube or to read Jennifer Armintrout’s hilarious recaps (which I recommend if you want to read the whole book without reading the book), I had to see for myself. I found it at Costco at a discount, bought it, brought it home, said my prayers to Kushiel, made my inner goddess don combat boots, and, with notepad and pencil in hand, began to read.
That was on August 10th, ten days later, I have finished the book, all 514 pages of it.
Where do I begin?
Let’s start with a bit of background about me so that you know where I’m coming from in this review. My experience with kink has been limited to what I’ve read on
FetLife the Internet and books, lots and lots of books and FetLife. My tastes do not run psych play in general and D/s in particular, though I have occasionally fantasized about being Dominant in a relationship, submission does not appeal to me at all, in fact, it disgusts me on a very visceral level (not that submission is in and of itself bad, it’s just not for me, it’s Not My Kink, it’s a major turn off). Since I feel like a major hypocrite for enjoying one and being squicky about the other, though, I just stay away from talking about psych play all together. What I really find intriguing is sensation play (not the painful variety, although I would be willing to try it, once, for about two seconds). I would also like to say (for the record) that I am psychologically healthy (or, at least, I’ve never had to be tested for anything), and have never been abused in any way. However, since I’m waiting to lose my V card gain some experience with vanilla type stuff first, it might still be a while before I ever jump in the kink pool, that’s okay, I can wait.
I’m telling you all this so you know where I’m coming from with this review, and why I think this book does a disservice to kinky folks everywhere.
You know what I think would make a great punishment for a misbehaving sub? Make them sit down and read an excerpt from this book (out loud, if you like). Optional: Have them write an essay on “How Christian Grey is a Horrible Dom”. I guarantee you, they will think twice about misbehaving in the future. Put simply, the writing in this book is so terrible that it should be charged with Crimes Against the English Language. Don’t believe me, here’s an excerpt:
But I never got to talk to her. Is she okay? I can see where things are going for her and him. I got to do the safe sex lecture. In the back of my mind. I hope she reads one of the posters on the inside of the bathroom door. My thoughts crash through my brain, fighting the drunk, fuzzy feeling. It’s so warm in here, so loud, so colourful–too bright. My head begins to swim, oh no….and I can feel the floor coming up to meet my face, or so it feels. The last thing I hear before I pass out in Christian Grey’s arms is his harsh epithet.
“Fuck!” (p 64)
Your homework assignment is to point out all the grammatical errors in that paragraph. If you think it gets better later on, let me just nip that in the bud and say that it doesn’t get better. It’s 514 pages of words hastily strung together to resemble actual sentences.
But you know what? You’re probably not here to read about how the writing is terrible (if you still aren’t convinced, there are more excerpts to come). For those of you who have
been living under a rock wisely avoided reading anything about this thing that resembles a novel novel. Here’s a brief summary: Bella Swan Anastasia Steele is a twenty-something literature student who meets sex god gazillionaire Edward Cullen Christian Grey, who is super rich and gorgeous and has a Dark, Dark Secret behind his (gorgeous) grey eyes. Did I mention he’s gorgeous and rich? Anyways, to make a long story short, Ana discovers that his Dark Dark Secret is that he’s into BDSM, and they spend the whole book having the most boring kinky sex ever while Christian tries to cajole Ana into signing a contract where she pledges herself as his submissive for three months.
Did I mention Ana is so sexually inexperienced she’s never held hands with a man? That’s right, everyone, Anastasia Steele could practically be the inspiration for the trope Virginity Makes You Stupid. Please don’t take this to mean that I think all virgins are stupid. I am a virgin myself, so I do empathize with Ana’s predicament, but for the love of everything, so inexperienced that she’s never held hands before, and she’s been to college? Forgive me if I don’t buy it, E.L. James, I don’t buy it at all.
Now, before you all jump on me. Yes, the “seduction of the innocent” trope is about as old as erotic literature: an inexperienced person (usually a woman) being given “carnal knowledge” (esp. of the kinky kind) by an older, more experienced partner (usually a man). It’s as old as Enkidu and Shamhat in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and it shows no sign of going away. If this was all that the book was about, I’d probably write it off as bad erotica (yes, I’ve read erotica I consider to be well-written and pretty steamy) and that would be the end of it.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough for E.L. James to completely mangle the English language in a way that makes netspeak look like the Oxford English Dictionary, she has to throw in a metric ton of misinformation ab0ut kink. (Note here that I use “kink” as a catch-all term that includes BDSM and other activities that don’t involve Bondage, Discipline, Dominance/Submission, or Sadism/Masochism but still fall under the category of “not-vanilla”.)
In a nutshell, the novel’s stance on kink can be summed up as “Kink is a mysterious, scary, and dangerous thing that is only practiced by ‘fucked up’ people (likely caused by abuse) who need to be ‘saved’ by the healing power of vanilla sex.”
Since that is pretty broad, I’ll break it down into a few major points:
Ana is not submissive.
You would think a book about a D/s relationship would have a character that, while inexperienced, is willing to try or turned on by some aspect of a D/s relationship. Unfortunately, that character isn’t Ana Steele. Throughout the whole book, the reader is constantly barraged by a litany of comments to the effect of “I wish I could just bang Christan Grey without all the kinky stuff.”
Want proof? Here’s a short list of quotes (with page numbers for ease of reference):
- “And what’s more, you’ll want me to [order you around],” he adds, his voice low.
I seriously doubt that. (p. 151)
- “I shudder at the thought of being flogged or whipped.” (p. 175)
- “Maybe if I just sign up for the sex…would he go with that? I suspect not.” (p. 176)
- “Half an hour later, [after typing “Submissive” into Wikipedia] I feel slightly queasy [note: not excited or turned on] and shocked to my core.” (Note, this is what I got when I typed “Submissive” into Wikipedia.) (p. 186)
- “How did you feel while I was hitting you and after?”
“I didn’t like it. I’d rather you didn’t do it again.” (p. 286)
- Ana feels “demeaned, debased, and abused” after being spanked by Christian. (p. 292)
- “The problem is, I just want Christian not all his….baggage….” (p. 299)
- “Deep down, I would just like more, more affection, more playful Christian, more….love. (p. 355) (Note that this quote also implies–as the book often does–that kink is incompatible with love.)
- “I wanted the dark, to explore how bad it could be–but it’s too dark for me.” (p. 507)
The isn’t the behaviour of a submissive. This is the behaviour of a twenty-something college student who really just wants to have vanilla sex with a mysterious rich man. None of these quotes indicate that Ana finds any gratification in submission (which is really the point). While she does get aroused around Christian, the emphasis is definitely on the man himself and not on the flogger (or belt) he wields.
Keep this in mind, I’ll come back to it later.
Christian Grey is an irresponsible Dom at best and abusive at worst.
Once again, where do I begin? Let’s start with what he does after Anastasia has had her first kinky sex experience (her second sexual experience after they’ve had vanilla sex). The kinksters reading this might imagine that he talks to her about the scene, maybe cuddles her a bit, and then they both fall asleep in post coital bliss.
Actually, he walks out on her.
In fact, Christian Grey doesn’t give her any aftercare at all in the course of the novel.
For my non-kinky Pagan friends that are reading this: not providing aftercare to a sub (especially one as inexperienced as Ana) is like coming out of a very intense ritual and not grounding afterwards (or, at the very least, not eating something). I can’t stress enough how important this is, and I feel it’s a massive failure on E.L. James’s part (especially when the book stressed negotiation and consent–one of the things the book does get right) and a missed opportunity to show that, yes, kinksters care for their partners, but nooooo, kink needs to be scary shit that only fucked up abusers and their victims participate in, where’s the love and tenderness in trusting your partner to not go over your limits, or hit you too many times with that flogger, or, you know, doing things that get you both off because you care about your partner and their needs. Where the fuck is the romance?!
*takes a deep breath* Okay, where was I? Oh yeah, Christian Grey is a terrible Dom.
You know, it strikes me as ironic that a guy who requires all his prospective girlfriends to sign an NDA (p. 95-6) that they are not to discuss their relationship with him with anyone (something I find nonsensical) and who constantly stresses the importance of consent and negotiation should present a prospective sub (who is so inexperienced he had to explain to her the meaning of the term “vanilla”) with a three month service contract (which SPOILER ALERT she never signs) and then spend the rest of the book buying her consent with expensive presents. That’s not even getting into the complete WTFery that is Chapter Twelve.
Chapter Twelve occurs right after Christian has presented Ana with a service contract (which is remarkably similar to service contracts that I’ve seen online). In a nutshell, Ana sends Christian an email in which she states: “Okay, I’ve seen enough. It was nice knowing you.” (p. 188)
How does Christian respond? He breaks into her apartment. Ana narrates that she’s “looking for an escape route”. In response to Christian’s comment that it’s “serene and peaceful in here”, Ana thinks “Not at the moment….not with you here.”
To make a long story short, he starts unlacing one of her sneakers (after tying her to the bed, leading to this exchange:
“No, I’ve just been running.
‘No,’ I protest, trying to kick him off.
‘If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet, too. If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you. Keep quiet. Katherine is probably outside listening right now.’
Even if Ana is telling him “no, don’t take off my sneakers” because her feet are smelly from running, this still reads like an assault, especially since the first thing Ana does afterwards is cry (as usual, the Most Irresponsible Dom Ever doesn’t stick around to check on her). The kicker is what Christian says to her after the fact (bold mine):
“Only certain things are funny, Anastasia. I thought you were saying no, no discussion at all.” (p. 199)
Really, Christian Grey, really? If you THOUGHT she was serious, WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO BREAK INTO HER APARTMENT AND FUCK HER? WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM?
Inner goddess: *starts massaging Gef’s shoulders* There there, calm down….
*takes a deep breath* Okay, I feel better now, so let’s move on to discuss another shitty aspect of this fucked up relationship: Remember how I said that Christian Grey buys Ana presents to buy her consent? He also guilt-trips her for not being submissive, as in this email. This takes place after Ana says that she feels “demeaned, debased, and abused” by Christian’s spanking session (bold mine):
“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.” (p. 293)
Do you know what would happen in real life if two kinksters have issues with compatibility, they either:
b) part ways and find other partners that share their interests
I’m sorry, Christian Grey, there is no magic button to turn vanillas into kinky sex fiends. Also, you’re an asshole.
Of course, the thing that seems to be upsetting kinksters the most is the fact that Christian’s kinks are explicitly tied to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother’s friend (when he was fifteen, no less), he is (as both of them say repeatedly) “fifty shades of fucked up”. I don’t think I need to go into how completely and utterly damaging this idea is and why I’m baffled when I see kinksters (who should know better) praising this book because it’s a “gateway drug” to kink. All this book is is a gateway drug to misinformation. By the way, I see kinksters bashing this book on the basis that it’s “not twu BDSM” because the kinkiest thing they do is a bit of suspension, some sensory deprivation, and a few clamps. Seriously, STFU….
Kink does not have to be “scary” to be kinky
Kinky activities do not have to involve pain or humiliation to be kinky
Your sub/bottom/whatever does not have to resemble a slice of meat at a butcher shop for you to be a “twu kinkster”.
Yes, plenty of people play “light”, that doesn’t make them vanilla. BTW, vanilla is not an insult, it just means “not kinky” stop using it like it’s the newest cuss word. Vanilla is a very delicious flavour and is enjoyed by many people–including kinksters.
What really bothers me is not “OMFG THEY’RE NOT DOING EDGEPLAY THEY’RE NOT KINKY!” but the idea that kinksters are who they are because of abuse. (As an aside: Why the fuck does Christian STILL TALK TO HIS ABUSER? It boggles the mind!)
Okay, I’ve had enough of tearing this book apart, so here are some suggestions to get the most out of reading this book:
Alternate Character Interpretations
Ana is a cyborg/really advanced robot.
This explains so much, from the wooden dialogue to the “electric charge” she gets from Christian to the complete ignorance of basic kinky terminology (despite having access to a computer). If you’re wondering how she can go in the water, she has a special coating that makes her waterproof, and she’s made to be as realistic as possible. The whole book is thus transformed into a tale about a man screwing a really advanced sex doll, feel free to be creeped out.
Taylor is a really old vampire
Well, that explains how he can pop in seemingly at random (super speed or the ability to teleport could be his special talent thing) and if he’s old it explains his ability to run around in the daytime (depending on the canon).
Taylor is the real love interest.
Every time Ana encounters Taylor, she remarks on how nice he is (as well as handsome, I believe) and that thing with the hanky at the end. Yeah, I’m just going to pretend that the last two books don’t happen and Ana runs off with Taylor.
And, lastly, here’s a little drinking game. (Warning: If you choose to play this game, make sure you have the hospital on speed dial, or, just to be safe, use a non-alcoholic beverage and GO TO THE FUCKING BATHROOM WHEN YOU NEED TO! SERIOUSLY!)
The Fifty Shades of Grey Drinking Game
Take a sip every time….
- Ana says the following things:
- Ana goes on about how hot Christian is (I counted AT LEAST sixteen times)
- Ana describes her attraction to Christian as “electric”
- a character says “____ shades of ____”
- Ana calls Christian “Fifty Shades”
- Ana drinks wine (take another sip if she calls the wine by name, add another sip if she describes the taste of the wine)
- Ana has either bacon, eggs, or pancakes for breakfast, finish your drink if she has all of these items in a meal
- Ana is jealous of Kate/goes on about how pretty and talented Kate is (also known as the “hot for roommate” instances)
- one of Christian’s associates has blond/e hair
- Christian asks Ana if she’s eaten (this one will get you very drunk)
- Christian tells Ana to stop rolling her eyes
- ….or biting her lip
- Ana says “I didn’t sign the contract” or something to that effect
- Mrs. Robinson is mentioned, take another sip every time Christian defends her
- Christian gets aggressive/jealous towards other men
- Whenever someone besides Ana is in awe of Christian
- Whenever “the fifteen” are mentioned
- Either Ana or Christian mentions that Ana is not submissive
- Christian buys something for Ana
- Christian’s tie is mentioned (the cover of the book doesn’t count)
Take a drink every time:
- Kate’s plum dress is mentioned
- The book promotes an unsafe technique (technically, the whole book could be this, but look for the obvious, ie. using plastic cable ties in suspension, neglecting a sub’s aftercare)
- Ana screams “Arrrgh” when she has an orgasm
- Whenever Charlie Tango is mentioned
Take two drinks every time:
- Ana buys something for Christian
- Christian admits to having paid for sex