Black and White Reality of Fifty Shades of Grey—J. Conrad Guest

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Disclaimer: Some will accuse me of envy that such drivel as Fifty Shades of Grey has become a phenomenon while, as a writer, I toil away in near obscurity. But truly? This is what passes as good fiction in the world today?

The book is an international bestseller, having sold more than 100 million copies worldwide, while the movie, billed as a “couples flick”, grossed nearly $158.3 million worldwide in its first weekend. Movie theaters were selling out a week before it opened. Amazon lists nearly 30,000 reviews of the book; slightly more than half the reviews rate the book four or five stars. Apparently readers either love it or hate it.

I read on a website, from a woman, that “women relate to Ana because she is so ‘ordinary’ that every woman can see herself in the character—her shyness, uncertainty, and ordinary looks.” Yeah, right, and Christian is the Prince Charming every young woman hopes to meet: handsome, rich, the bad boy for whom she dumps the warm and caring guy she professes to want because the bad boy is so broken he needs to be fixed and only she can love him in the manner he needs and deserves, all while he abuses her in every way imaginable. I’m so glad that my wife is extraordinary.

Another claims, “There is nothing wrong with women accepting and loving their sexuality as much as men. This includes watching and reading what turns them on and getting to know their own tastes and kinks.” Abuse, including rape and humiliation, is part of accepting and loving one’s sexuality? Ana is a virgin. What Christian puts her through is her introduction to sex. Our first time sets the stage for how we will view sex for the rest of our lives. In reality, a woman such as Ana would be scarred for life.

Fifteen hundred women die every year in the U.S. at the hands of their husbands or boyfriends. According to a Glamour study, 60% of women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five have experienced physical or emotional abuse. More than half of that number have been hit, shoved, choked, or felt threatened to the point that they fear for their life. In addition, at least one in six men have been sexually abused by the age of eighteen.

What’s it say about a society that turns into a bestseller a book that depicts stalking, manipulation, intimidation, and physical threats and violence against a woman? This isn’t fantasy, this isn’t kink, this isn’t a love story. This is more than disturbing. A couple’s flick? Really? This is a movie to be enjoyed with your significant other over a bottle of wine and a bowl of popcorn, watching a young woman being degraded and humiliated in the hopes she’ll find her happily ever after?

I haven’t read the book, nor do I intend to; nor will I watch the movie. Ever. But I have learned that the story is about Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. Christian, Ana’s romantic interest, is described as tall, lean yet muscular, and broad-shouldered, with dark copper-colored hair and intense, bright gray eyes. He keeps in shape by kickboxing and running. Ana describes him as, “He is not merely good looking—he is the epitome of male beauty, breathtaking.” Oh, brother. “Copper hair?” He looks like Carrot Top?

Born to a drug addled prostitute in Detroit, Christian’s mother committed suicide when he was four. He remained with her body for four days before the police discovered them. As he grows older, Christian continues having nightmares about the event, referring to his birth mother as “the crack whore.” This is supposed to make me sympathetic to him?

As an adolescent, Christian had violent mood swings that got him into many fist fights, and he drank alcohol. He hated all of the therapists that he’d been forced to see. At age fifteen, he took a landscaping job for one of his mother’s old friends, who seduces him and introduces him to the BDSM (bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism) lifestyle, where he learns how to control his emotions and channel his anger into positive channels. Yeah. Inflicting pain and humiliation on others is certainly positive. It’s okay for Christian to victimize others because he himself was a victim in his youth? We are always accountable for the choices we make as adults, no matter how disadvantaged our youth may have left us.

Christian briefly attends Harvard, studying politics and economics (how does he manage to get into such an elite school with his background?), but drops out to start his own business. Before he’s thirty, he’s a self-made multi-millionaire and pilot. Yes, well, it is fiction. I suppose if the consumer buys into everything else in this fantasy, they’ll easily embrace this as believable. They flock to the movie house to watch a woman, under threats, submit to her master in the bedroom while the bible, which teaches that a wife submit to her husband, is a threat against their rights.

By the end, after Christian manipulates her with alcohol, sex, threats, rape and abuse, Ana fixes Christian and gets everything she wants: a loving husband who is perfectly adjusted. Really? In the real world, Ana would end up in a shelter, maybe even a morgue, and Christian would end up in prison. But readers buy into this as a love story because… well, maybe because they still believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and happily ever after.

Yes, I understand that in science fiction I must be willing to suspend my disbelief in time travel, alternate realities, and faster than light interstellar travel, but the story, the interactions between characters, must still be rooted in reality. Escapism should still possess some thread of reality, shouldn’t it? How does this story, which I understand doesn’t accurately depict BDSM, even remotely resemble reality?

It’s a harmless fantasy, you say? It’s been said that fantasy is both an escape from reality and an expression of hidden desire. If that’s true, what message does Fifty Shades of Grey send to young people? What lessons does it teach about normal, healthy, nurturing relationships between men and women?

If fantasy reflects who we are while shaping what we become, imagine the damage this book and movie will do to future generations.

J. Conrad Guest, author of: 500 Miles To GoA Retrospect In DeathA World Without MusicBackstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings, January’s Thaw, and One Hot January

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Black and White Reality of Fifty Shades of Grey—J. Conrad Guest

  1. dellanioakes

    J. Conrad, thank you for this! I agree 100%. Grant you, I write romance & I have some “damaged” characters, but not like this and they don’t treat one another this way.

    My daughter is a social worker who worked in a battered woman’s shelter for a couple years before graduating. She’s seen the shattered remnants of this kind of abuse.

  2. Excellent post, Conrad. You brought out some good points! Are people going to think, “I was abused, had a druggie for a mother, so I think I’ll go out, grab a girl and do despicable things to her.” This movie seems to be a textbook in how to get away with that very thing plus just have some money behind you and you can get away with anything. Well said, my friend.

  3. Love your post! I’ve been saying some of the same things myself. Like you, I haven’t read the book or seen the movie and have no interest to. One interesting note I would like to make about the book’s reviews on amazon – almost half of the reviews are negative ones; and books 2 and 3 each only have about a third of the reviews that 1 does. So obviously a lot of people get book 1 and then walk away from the series. I’ve had to delete comments off my posts on facebook about this topic. It’s concerning how many people what to shrug this book/movie off as ‘harmless, just a book’. Here’s a link to my post about it.
    http://jdshare.blogspot.com/2015/02/fifty-shades-of-stupidity.html

  4. “What’s it say about a society that turns into a bestseller a book that depicts stalking, manipulation, intimidation, and physical threats and violence against a woman? This isn’t fantasy, this isn’t kink, this isn’t a love story. This is more than disturbing. A couple’s flick? Really? This is a movie to be enjoyed with your significant other over a bottle of wine and a bowl of popcorn, watching a young woman being degraded and humiliated in the hopes she’ll find her happily ever after?”

    Perfect summation! I shudder and actually weep for where society is heading. The amount of sales, both in book and movie form, speaks volumes about the current mindset of our culture.

  5. Eileen Register

    I totally agree with J. Conrad’s statements. It is especially harmful for young adults and teens to read/watch this drivel. What is happening in our world that makes any of what SHADES OF GREY depicts okay??? Are we as a people so damaged by the violence in the world, especially the videos showing people being beheaded, stoned to death while buried in the ground from waist of neck down burned alive, etc that cruelty of the kind read about and seen in GREY seem tame by comparison? NO ONE, especially someone I think loves me or that I love has ever or will ever treat me like that. That is not love….it is obsession, insanity, and/or numerous other words along those lines. SOME SAY DON’T JUDGE. I am not judging others as it is their right to choose putting that crap in their brains. However, the damage done, esp. to younger people, will affect all of us, now and in the future.

  6. Pingback: Shades of Disgust | IDPA Sunshine Book Show BLOG

  7. My thanks to all for your comments.

    To be honest, I wasn’t sure how this post would go over. I wondered if I’d gotten too old and inflexible to be able to speak without bias on a topic I feel strongly about.

  8. I have read things that got me worked up a whole lot more than I am sure this silly book would (I haven’t read it either). An old mentor of mine (RIP) once got a letter calling one of his books “a bit tendentious.” He (a PhD) had to look it up, and I did too. The exchange on Mr. Guest’s essay strikes me the same; impassioned, well-intentioned, but way too much vitriol for such an inconsequential work. Consider: A reviewer once said of a Henry Miller book: “This isn’t a book – it’s a sewer!” Well now, The Tropic of Cancer has stood the literary test of time. 50 Shades won’t. Ignore it and it will go away. Don’t give it legs it doesn’t deserve.

    • Thanks, Chuck, for your comments, but I hardly think Fifty Shades can be considered “inconsequential.” While it may not, as you say, stand the test of time, it has made a huge impact, all of it negative, save for the publisher and the movie studio. It lacks much in the way of truth, and it glamorizes an abusive relationship between a man and a woman. My ignoring it will do nothing to help it go away. Indeed, turning a nescient head is giving a silent nod of approval.

  9. Excellent points. I only wish you had read the books and/or seen the movie to give your POV more credibility. I did read all three books, just to see what the fuss was about, and was appalled and horrified. It was if I were watching a slow-moving (VERY SLOW-MOVING) train wreck and couldn’t look away. I kept waiting for the writing to improve, the characters to become believable, the story to become , well, an actual story: never happens, even by book 3. Just a lot of grimly written and (apparently, according to people who have tried to stage them) impossible-to-replicate abusive sex scenes.

    I am already a misanthrope and despair about humanity, which is the reason I write utopian, futuristic sci-fi with actual romance in it. The positive responses to these pieces of junk do not help my mood. The worst responders, IMO, are the ones who call this duo “romantic” and the depictions of their interactions a “love story.” Those people make me shudder, and most of them are women. So sad.

    Best to you,

    Sally

  10. If we’re concerned about abuse, humiliation, and violence, especially gun violence — and we are — there are LOTS of example of books and movies that deserve more scorn than 50 Shades. Pulp Fiction? Rambo? The thing is, though, I don’t really believe in censorship and, as Chuck said, I believe this book will just go away. (I haven’t read or seen it, but I know people who have and nobody takes it seriously.) I think what we’re doing is what we should do: expose bad things to the light and discuss them.

    • “…nobody takes it seriously.”

      That’s just it, Carole. It should be taken seriously, as seriously as we take violence against women in the real world. Violence should never be considered escapism or fantasy. We’re beginning to see the results of a generation of kids who grew up playing video games in which the object is to rape and kill prostitutes.

      Reviewers call Fifty Shades a joke; one went so far as to say, after reading the first two pages, that English was apparently not James’ first language, nor did it appear to be her fourth. Yet if it’s such a joke, if it can’t be taken seriously, why are people, women especially, supporting this film and book?

      I’ve long since vocalized my discontent with the desensitization of America. There was a time, and I’m old enough to remember it, when we couldn’t see Rob and Laurie Petrie in the same bed on prime time TV. When the bad guy got shot on Gunsmoke, he doubled over and died and we never even saw blood. Today we see all manner of soft porn and autopsies in gruesome detail every night of the week, and no one blinks.

      As for censorship, well, I’m generally against it, too; but like human rights, when your rights infringe on mine, then we have an issue. Several studies have concluded that violence in movies and on TV can increase violence in real life. Here we have a book and a movie that falsely depicts the BDSM lifestyle, which I think is irresponsible. I happen to agree with psychologists who have put forth their belief that a film such as this one can be harmful to a society.

      When young girls, both in ghettos and affluent neighborhoods, are being abducted off our streets and forced into porn for consumption on the Internet, I don’t think the porn industry should be allowed to hide behind the First Amendment. I can live with that kind of censorship.

  11. I shudder for both the literary world and the world in general. If this is what people want, we’re in trouble.

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