R.O.W.E. Week 10: Fifty Shades of Not Okay

I’m Brianna Kratz, a Chicago poet and literature enthusiast. In 2016, I’m reading only women authors for my Read Only Women Experiment (R.O.W.E.). For weekly updates on challenges, conversations, and round-up lists of books I’ve read during the month, keep up with me via Goodreads or Twitter.

Fifty Shades and Come As You Are. Photo by Andrew Gingerich. Fifty Shades and Come As You Are. Photo by Andrew Gingerich.

We all know the story by now: virgin college student meets successful businessman. Businessman is intrigued by the awkward, bumbling college student. Businessman offers to introduce her to the world of rough and unconventional sex. College student agrees.

I’m late to the party, but I started reading E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey out of curiosity (Is it really as poorly written as I’ve heard? Is it sexy? Etc.) during my month of romance last month.

Yes, it is as poorly written as you’ve heard. Shortly after the heroine, Anastasia, sends a curt e-mail, Christian Grey arrives at the apartment she shares with a roommate: “Vaguely, I’m aware that I’m still in my sweats, unshowered, yucky, and he’s just gloriously yummy, his pants doing that hanging from the hips thing, and what’s more, he’s here in my bedroom” (James 189). The contrast between “yucky” and “yummy” could be interesting, but it's combined with a really strange way of explaining that a man is wearing pants. The use of multiple adjectives in quick succession throughout the novel is appalling, and I suspect that James put a word of the day calendar to good use to come up with words like “gamine,” “profligate,” and “mercurial.”

James uses classical, Biblical, and literary allusions to seemingly elevate the content and hide the poor writing. My current favorite (read: offensive) moment is when Anastasia muses, “Will he let me sleep, perchance to dream?” (James 126). Anastasia, Hamlet wasn’t talking about sleep in that most famous soliloquy, he was talking about suicide. You were an English major, you should know better.

I paired my reading of E.L. James with Emily Nagoski's Come As You Are. Nagoski refers to Fifty Shades in her chapter about arousal nonconcordance. She writes, “…there is no predictive relationship between how aroused feels and how much her genitals respond—statistically insignificant. Her genital response will be about the same no matter what kind of porn she’s shown, and her genital response might match her sexual orientation…or it might not. It’s called ‘arousal nonconcordance,’ and it’s totally a thing” (194). Take a moment to take that in.

Nagoski applies this theory to Fifty Shades, explaining, “Arousal nonconcordance in the first spanking scene. During the spanking, heroine Anastasia tries to move away, she screams in pain, and her ‘face hurts, it’s screwed up so tight.’ There is not one word about her liking the spanking as it’s happening. Afterward, hero/spanker Christian Grey puts his fingers in her vagina… tells Ana: ‘Feel this. See how much your body likes this, Anastasia’” (208). Grey assumes that Anastasia's bodily response means that she likes what's happening to her and wants it to continue.

Anastasia uses words like “demeaning,” “scary,” and “debasing,” to describe her activities with Grey, and she admits, “I don’t want him to beat me, is that so unreasonable?” (James 286). No, Anastasia, that’s not unreasonable. It’s dangerous for women to be told that their minds and mouths can say no, but their bodies can say yes. Can you hear the perpetuation of rape culture in that assumption?

If a woman says that she’s not interested in sex, that means no, and the response of her genitals can’t overrule that.

Along with the frequently stated problems of style, construction, and story, Fifty Shades of Grey sets a dangerous precedent for sexual relationships. Even though the novel was written by a woman, it reflects current cultural and societal standards rather than true human relationships. It’s important to remember that Fifty Shades is at best a work of fantasy, and at worst an abominable misuse of the English language.

Currently reading: The Cuckoo's Calling by: Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling)

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Brianna Kratz

Brianna Kratz has a B.A. in English Writing from Illinois Wesleyan University where she learned the importance of "the poetic turn," the difference between thee and you, and how to read Middle English. She lives on the Internet where you can find her on Twitter and Lens & Ink.