Sean O’Brien discusses why he thinks Fifty Shades of Grey warrants academic attention.
With the release of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E.L. James, a phenomenon was born. Women of various ages were not only reading and consuming erotic literature publically but were also publically discussing aspects of their own sexual experiences. Women were openly exchanging and exploring their sexual preferences in a way unlike ever before. A close comparison would be the reaction to the successful TV series Sex in the City which aired from 1998 to 2004, and showed female characters openly discussing their sexual preferences.
Both Sex and the City and Fifty Shades of Grey fall into popular culture; and within academia, popular culture is not popular. The elitist nature of academia usually ignores or discredits popular culture from actual critique. However, I believe this to be dangerous, as it ignores the fact that so many people are consuming the content of this media. The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy overtook the Harry Potter books to be the highest selling series of all time in Britain, and over 70 million copies sold in the first eight months in the US. This sheer volume of readers alone makes the series worthy of academic consideration.
One of the key elements of the Fifty Shades phenomenon is the cultural reaction to the text’s key themes and ideas. Although this provides an interesting take on the popularity of the series, I believe it is the dangerous misconceptions within the BDSM community, and the problematic issues of consent the series exhibits, that deserves the focus. James’ position as a female author could have allowed herself to highlight the BDSM community in a safe way for women, as previously stated, due to women discussing their sexuality being considered a cultural taboo. However, James’ inaccuracy about BDSM and the BDSM community, as presented in Fifty Shades of Grey, have exposed millions of women to an abusive and toxic relationship, which she has used as the pinnacle of her own inaccurate interpretation of what BDSM represents. Whilst the series has contributed somewhat to a breakdown of women discussing their own sexuality, the book itself exhibits major issues with women being in control of their own sexuality. A common critique of Fifty Shades of Grey is the nature in which BDSM is explored, with many sourcing the BDSM Wikipedia page to the author E.L James as a means to criticise her, as even Wikipedia contradicts many of the novels statements on BDSM.
However it is not just the sexualised aspects of the series which are problematic; most of Ana and Christian’s relationship is formed on Ana’s inability to freely give consent, which extends further than the bedroom. Christian stalks Ana, hacks her phone, refuses her pleas to see her friends and family, controls her diet and makes ridiculous demands on her general lifestyle, all the while holding her to a contract which he admits would not stand up under a court of law. A lot of this behaviour stems from power play, be it the male/female dichotomy or the difference in class and fiscal responsibility, in every instance Christian has power over Ana, so her ability to freely give consent is questionable. In my opinion, this behaviour is not typical of the BDSM community; this behaviour is typical of an abusive relationship. Fifty Shades of Grey originated as a ‘fan-fiction’ of Stephanie Meyer’s series Twilight, titled Master of the Universe. With many noting similarities between the couples, in that a close reading of the Twilight series can highlight similar abusive techniques that both Edward and Christian share, such as the stalking, trespassing and emotional manipulation.
The reading of Bella and Edward’s relationship as abusive can be seen in the way James has constructed the relationships in her own story, with the added threat of sexual abuse. This is the real danger of Fifty Shades of Grey, that young women consuming this information and identifying aspects of Christian’s behaviour in their partners and believing it to be acceptable and thus normalised. Fifty Shades of Grey attempts to normalise abuse.
Which leads us to question why some academics are not acknowledging this? I am not the first to make these points and I have not had to ‘read between the lines’. Ana’s best friend in the novel (Kate), even comments on the behaviour of Christian, sourcing most of the examples I referenced prior, showing that James is aware of the dangerous aspects of the toxic relationship she is presenting, by highlighting Kate reacting to the warning signs of her friend potentially being abused. But we as the audience are expected to take Ana’s perspective because we know the intimate details of the relationship and are supposed to believe it is not abusive because Ana ‘consents’ to it. However saying ‘yes’ does not equate to informed consent. It is here where the critical debate becomes complex; was consent freely given or was Ana’s agreement manipulated by Christian? To ignore these questions and critiques is to allow Fifty Shades of Grey to continue to normalise abuse. Many authors have imitated the aesthetic of Fifty Shades of Grey with their own work echoing the abusive relationship of James’ ‘Christian and Ana’ and marketing it as a sort of ‘new age romance’. It appears that with each manifestation of this relationship from Meyer’s ‘Bella and Edward’ in Twilight, to James’ ‘Ana and Christian’, to whoever decides to replicate this pattern of toxic relationships and abusive boyfriends again. With the financial success of the series and its adaptation soon to be released for film audiences, academics cannot ignore the phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey and purely debunk it into ‘popular culture’. As the issues that Fifty Shades of Grey raises are popular, real and could potentially lead some women into believing that an abusive relationships is normal.