By Alexandra Smith
Recently, many news outlets have been discussing “Fifty Shades of Grey,” an erotic romance novel by British author E.L. James. According to a June 2013 article on usatoday.com, the novel “follows the steamy sexual relationship of 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey and college student Anastasia Steele,” and the film adaptation of the book will be released on Aug. 1, 2014.
Author E.L. James published two subsequent novels, “Fifty Shades Darker,” and “Fifty Shades Freed.” According to usatoday.com, the Fifty Shades trilogy has sold over 70 million copies “worldwide in e-book and print.” The trilogy is famous for its depiction of Christian and Anastasia’s sexual practices, which include a “BDSM” relationship. “BDSM” is known as a variety of erotic practices that involve bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism.
In March 2012, nytimes.com reported that “in the cities and suburbs of New York, Denver and Minneapolis, the women who have devoured the books say they are feeling the happy effects at home.” I find the interest in the Fifty Shades trilogy to be distressing, especially for women. I fear that Christian and Anastasia’s relationship will be viewed as the romantic ideal for women.
There are four issues throughout the trilogy that bother me, and make me question how women perceive personal relationships as they read these novels: Anastasia’s insecurity, Christian’s controlling nature, Anastasia’s refusal to eat enough, and the couple’s marriage.
Throughout each book in the Fifty Shades trilogy, I noticed that the author portrayed Anastasia as a character with very little self-esteem. Christian stalks, intimidates, and isolates Anastasia. What does she do in response? She manages her behavior to keep peace in her relationship with Christian. This is a habit often used by women who are being abused. Why does Anastasia stay in a relationship with a man who doesn’t view her as an independent person? Because she has low self-esteem. The author also makes it clear that Anastasia only feels attractive when Christian says she is, and when he patronizes her, she internalizes everything he says as truth. E.L. James makes it apparent that Anastasia’s home, job, and everything she owns comes from Christian’s influence in her life. Is this the way women should want their partner to influence their life?
The control that Christian exerts over Anastasia is obvious throughout each Fifty Shades book. Before entering in their relationship, Anastasia must sign a contract stating that she will take a form of birth control, exercise with a trainer, sleep at least eight hours a night, and only eat from a list of foods Christian approves. What’s saddening, besides the fact that Anastasia signs the contract, is that she doesn’t make any of her own terms on the contract—Christian has full control of her life.
Christian constantly urges Anastasia to eat more throughout their relationship, and the author depicts Anastasia as someone who frequently skips meals because of the control her emotions have on her life. What troubles me behind Anastasia’s constant refusal to eat is that the author shows how co-dependent Anastasia is upon Christian. At the end of the first book, Anastasia and Christian break up. At the beginning of the second book, the reader finds out that Anastasia essentially starves herself until she and Christian later reconcile. I believe that starving oneself isn’t a valuable way to cope with emotional stress.
Christian and Anastasia’s marriage seems to be based on desperation and insecurity—not the first attributes that come to one’s mind when thinking about a healthy marriage. Christian storms out of the house with anger when he finds out Anastasia is unexpectedly pregnant. A woman shouldn’t fear her husband when finding out she’s pregnant, even in the worst life circumstances. Christian and Anastasia’s marriage make it seem like emotional abuse from a spouse is acceptable as long as he or she is great in bed. That’s not exactly my definition of romance.
It’s undeniable that the E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey has been successful—theguardian.com reported in December 2012 that it was voted the “most popular book of 2012” in the United Kingdom. I understand that many people are perfectly happy in “BDSM” relationships, but I question why E.L. James wrote a trilogy of books that seem to make these types of relationships seem so unsettling, but also appealing to many. Mostly, I worry that women reading these books will think it’s normal to base their wellbeing and self-esteem on another person’s opinion of them. In my opinion, having a relationship based on love and equality is much sexier than one based on co-dependency and fear.