Shades of Ugliness

You know the worst thing about Fifty Shades of Grey?
It’s not just that it’s an appalling affront to basic intelligence, with its awkward writing, cringe-worthy clichés and constantly repeated phrases.

It’s not that it was originally written as an online fan-fiction homage to Twilight, written under the pseudonym of Snowdragon Icequeen. And sure the sex scenes draw from BDSM ((bondage, discipline and sado masochism), but hey, whatever floats your boat.

These elements pretty much mark the book as your run-of-the-mill self-published erotic fiction novel, give or take the odd whip and nipple clamp.

For me what’s unsettling about this book is the manipulation, coercion and glamourised abuse of the young female protagonist, Ana, and the fact that women around the world can’t get enough of the bullying, controlling hero, Christian Grey.

Ana is a never-been-kissed 21-year-old virgin about to finish university and begin adult life. She owns just one skirt, doesn’t have a computer or smart phone, her car is a bomb, she’s never been drunk and she’s as about as streetwise as your average Amish teenager.

She’s introduced to readers as an empty vessel, a blank page upon on which Christian is about to indelibly stomp his muddy feet.

We’re told Christian is one of America’s leading entrepreneurs, a powerful global player at just 27-years-old, with 40,000 minions beneath him and several romantic relationships under his belt.

“His time is extraordinarily precious – much more precious than mine,” Ana tells us in clunky first-person prose.

The dynamic of their relationship is demonstrated at their first meeting when Ana trips over thin air and ends up on her hands and knees before Christian. Cos girls are clumsy and silly – and easily subjugated – like that.

The clear imbalance of power between Ana and Christian, who is “like a man twice his age,” and his penchant for hurting women – which is hinted to stem from his own childhood abuse – sets up a coercive relationship. Christian pressures Ana to sign on to play Sub to his Dominant via a detailed contract, which would control every aspect of her life, both in and out, of the bedroom.

BDSM is an erotic choice made by consenting adults, but in this book we don’t see two equal, mature adults make informed decisions about their intimate lives, we have a young woman in the throes of her first romance who is coerced and manipulated into allowing an older, more-experienced man to play out some fairly extreme fantasies.

And forget simple role-playing fun with handcuffs and a feather. In one scene, to demonstrate her ‘love’ for Christian, Ana allows him to hit her as hard as he wants.

“I close my eyes bracing myself for the blow. It comes hard, snapping across my backside and the bite of the belt is everything I feared.”

This is the sort of action that has suburban mums gossiping at the school gates? Which part of a man controlling, hurting and manipulating a young woman is sexy exactly?

After the beatings Christian brings Ana painkillers and rubs cream on the wounds he inflicted. This is even creepier than the beatings. This damaged billionaire can only express tenderness after he’s purged his need to inflict pain. Therapy anyone?

The couple’s relationship also seriously blurs the lines between the roles of father and lover. Christian washes Ana’s hair, nags her to eat properly, buys her a new, safer, car, sends her for a check up, rebukes her for running on a slippery floor and threatens corporal punishment if she breaks his rules – punishment that combines sex and pain.

Interestingly Christian himself doesn’t like to be hurt, he simply likes to hurt women. Nice.

Some readers describe the book as escapist fun and a romantic romp. A woman being degraded, hit, controlled and coerced into meeting the needs of a seriously screwed-up chap who sounds like he needs a good decade on the couch doesn’t sound much fun to me.

I understand that proponents of BDSM are not mentally unwell, but Christian’s need to hit to get off is more than a sexual choice, it is presented as the symptom of an abusive past.

The contemporary proliferation and normalising of porn largely due to online media, has already taught young women that surgically ‘improving’ their labia, bleaching their bottoms and ripping hair from their hoo hoo, is ‘expected’ sexual hygiene. This book seems to suggest that if they’d now bend over for a good walloping they’d really brighten up the bedroom.

“I do it for you,” Ana says of the beatings. “Because you need it.”

I look at the success of this book and wonder what happened to feminism? There are so many choices of clever, insightful, escapist, sexy and funny books available, why would women settle for a sordid story that reduces us all?

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6 Responses to Shades of Ugliness

  1. Michelle, I’ve not read this book and your review is the first one I’ve seen that doesn’t make fun of the book, the poor writing etc but really draws our attention in a rational way to the poor characterisation and disempowerment of women that is at the heart of this book. It seems like a lot of popular fiction targeting women nowadays seems to delight in reducing women and girls to whimpering, clumsy, unable-to-think-for-themselves-without-help victims. I don’t want to read books about wimpy women and the men who delight in hurting them.

  2. Fiona Wood says:

    Great post, Michelle. Why is it selling so well? WHY? There’s well-written literary erotic fiction available. There’s heaps of romance genre fiction with erotic content. Why this one? Baffling and depressing.

  3. Teaki Page says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. And can I also add that I find it sad that so many women love this book because they would love to be ‘adored’ by a man like that. Firstly, why would anyone be in a relationship with anyone who doesn’t adore them? Secondly, why not find a man who adores you AND who’s not monumentally emotionally-retarded?

    My other biggest gripe with this book is the wrong messages another generation of women are getting in regards to female sexuality and sexual desire. She’s, never touched herself, has zero experience with another man yet she has 2 orgasms her first time? Pfft.

    The book does, however, point out just how many women are sexually frustrated and desperately needing the arousal we need before sex can occur.

  4. Joanna says:

    Thank you for this review – I could not agree more. This book is simply offensive to women (on so many levels). It degrades us all to awkward simpletons with no self-esteem or ambition, willing to be dependent on some freak`s whim. In my opinion it also cancels out everything feminists have fought so hard to achieve. Sad.

  5. Simon Elliston says:

    About time Michelle! Thankyou for
    giving voice to what a lot of people (both men and women ) have been thinking for a while. Where is it said that in order for a woman to be loved , she has to subjugate herself to a demeaning , dumbed down existence to please her partner. As you say, maybe Christian needs professional help.
    Hopefully, this book will be confined to the gutters of history where it belongs and we can see a (re-) emergence of beautiful romantic erotic writing. Feminism lives despite of this rubbish!

  6. Sue Hamer says:

    I have this book. Someone gave me a copy about eighteen months ago when they came to stay. I haven’t read it and have no desire to read it. Couldn’t agree more with the previous comments.

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