Fifty Shades of…What Is It When a Man Hits a Woman?

I read Fifty Shades of Grey expecting loads of bad writing and S&M up the kazoo…and got neither. But questions? Oh, I came away with questions.

What is good writing? Some reviewers lambaste the writing—and Fifty Shades has its quirks. Christian Grey, the dark hero, often “cocks his head to one side,” as though he could cock it any other way. And maybe an editor or someone should have realized that no one in Seattle would say, “I shall no longer have to sit in rows of anxious students,” or speak of a man’s “bespoke suit.” I know the British thought of English first, but that just ain’t the way we talk it in America.

On the other hand, I agree with thriller author Sean Black, who says in Fifty Million Shades of Green: The real story behind Fifty Shades of Grey, that “to complain about the writing “is to ignore the fact that the ability to engage on a storytelling level with readers often trumps the ability to craft beautiful prose.”

So it must be something else that so many people find so fascinating.

Is it the S&M? If that’s the case, our society is worse off than I ever imagined. I mean, I first saw the movie 9 ½ Weeks in 1986. There’s not much in Fifty Shades that’s not in 9 ½ Weeks. Where’s everybody been for the last 26 years?

And, besides, erotic stories that include S&M has been a fast-growing segment of romance for several years, according to Ellora’s Cave publisher Raelene Gorlinsky. Should anyone be surprised that a book from the subgenre finally hit the big time?

Is it the romance? “What I loved was that it was a great love story,” a 39-year-old mother and lawyer from New Jersey told ABC News recently. To which I say, “What love story?”

Seriously. A 21-year-old virgin who talks like a seventh-grader meets a handsome, rich dominant male and, after three weeks, all they’ve done is have sex and talk about having sex. And when she decides they need to talk more, they just rehash a bunch of their old conversations.

Oh, Christian is willing to go beyond his usual limits with Ana, which in his case means having sex without whips and chains. And I guess more happens in books two and three, where the heroine, Ana, “fixes” Christian so they can finally realize their Happily-Ever-After.

Or maybe it’s because Christian thinks Ana is so desirable that he has to have her no matter how “yucky” she is at the moment. In one case, it’s after she’s just gotten back from a five-mile run; in another, it’s when she’s having her period and he yanks out her tampon as part of the foreplay. (Hey, I agree that if women can handle menstruation, men certainly should be able to as well. But, really, he doesn’t even ask her first.)

What makes a great romance story? Great characters you care about. Does Fifty Shades have that? Meh.

Is the book a romance at all?
Romance author and USA Today blogger Joyce Lamb says no. “The ending (of book one) is not happy,” she recently posted. “The No. 1 rule in romance novels: A happy ending is a must, even when a book is only the first in a trilogy that probably does have a happy ending. Also, the ‘hero’ of Fifty Shades of Grey does something at the end that is not redeemable by romance novel standards.”

What’s all the fuss about? Or, more precisely, what should all the fuss be about? I’m pretty sure that the use of floggers and vaginal pleasure balls, and not tampon tugging, is the reason Fifty Shades has been banned in some places. Which also says something unfunny about our times. Is it really all that bad if some people get jiggy when other people shove steel spheres into their orifices? Isn’t it far worse that Ana talks about Christian the way you hear abused women talk about their abusers? Like musing about how hitting her is how he “gets his kicks” and apologizing to him for being angry over a severe spanking by saying, “I asked for it.”

Gulp.

I’m not alone in wondering about this. In her HubPages blog, writer and public health professional “LauraGT” writes, “What is disturbing about the popularity of this novel is not the mild S&M scenes, but how the storyline so closely mimics the patterns displayed in an abusive relationship. Remove the S&M entirely, and the basic dynamics of power and control that exists in abusive relationships remain.”

Furthermore, Ana only participates in Christian’s sadomasochistic “play” because she thinks it will make him love her enough to change. But “in reality,” LauraGT says, “it is rare for someone to change in this type of situation, without serious professional help.”

She goes on to articulate my thoughts quite well, acknowledging that while she seems to be taking the book too seriously, “I know it’s fantasy. I know it’s escape. But, why are people still writing about romance this way? And, why are so many women (and men) gobbling it up? One explanation is that women still don’t feel powerful (or equal) in their relationships, and they seek fantasy worlds where women with magical powers are able to change the men in their lives and make them more loving.”

That’s more than I expected to take away from this wildly popular and widely derided book, so maybe it is a work to be taken seriously. I don’t know if I’ll ever have all my questions about it answered, but I do know I won’t be finishing the trilogy.

And, no, it’s not the tampon thing or the thin lines between eroticism and abuse. In the end, I just don’t care all that much about the characters.

13 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of…What Is It When a Man Hits a Woman?”

  1. I would like to officially refer you to the twilight saga. This is fanfic that's been changed and published. Which is an issue in itself but not my point. My point is that the power dynamics and abusive behavior all exist in Twilight but few people recognize it. It's been read by millions and girls love Edward, even with his controlling, secretive and psychologically abusive ways. It's not surprising that a book modeled after those characters and themes would also highlight issues of power and control in a relationship. It was unhealthy when it was Bella and Edward and it's unhealthy now.

    Wonderful blog. Thank you.

  2. I agree with Pavarti 100% – and with you. This is less about a book and more about a culture. As women, insisting out one side of our mouths we can be equals, we are then devouring 'entertainment' that proves to us and the men around us we're happy being abused, stepped on and controlled, all in the name of 'love'.

    Total and utter crap (I'm thinking a stronger word here but I'll keep it clean). I find it incredibly frustrating and embarrassing that my fellow women can sigh happily over a man abusing a woman, even in fiction.

    Especially in fiction. Thanks for posting this, I'll be passing it around.

  3. Great blog post.

    I wrote my 50 shades review a while back and the fact Christian was an abuser was the main topic of my post. Ana acts like a typical victim of abuse – hyper vigilant lest she upset him, thinking about him constantly, doing things she doesn't want to, to please him, being afraid of physical punishment because she forgets to stop doing things he's told her not to (like the heinous crime of biting her own lip, for example).

    In a later part of the trilogy, she defies him by wearing a bikini that shows more of her flesh to other beach goers than Christian likes. So, during the next kink session, when she is blindfolded, he covers her body in love bites so she can't wear the bikini for as long as it takes for the marks to fade. Now, if that ain't abusive, please tell me what is!

    As for Twilight, totally agree with the comments here. The scariest message that saga sent was, for me at least, that when your boyfriend leaves you, he might come back if you try to kill yourself. And that you can get your own way over everything, turning the lives of everyone around you upside down, just because you are a special snowflake!

  4. I've had a problem with this for years. More so since pseudo-rape started once again becoming acceptable. (Ellora's Cave, mentioned in the article, now includes such scenarios.) Fantazizing about rape-like situations does encourage some to believe that women want that kind of behavior, and that's disturbing. The reality, of course, is far different.
    I've always had issues with the kind of romance books where the woman is a helpless little thing while the man treats her horribly until he suddenly realizes that 'he loves her' . And we wonder why some women stay in abusive relationships? Of course they do…"when someday he'll realize that he loves me… swoon"
    It's even more disturbing in light of the regression in women's rights that we're experiencing right now.

  5. I love this. I agree with everything you've said. And Pav is right. If you want to know where the inspiration for this kind of abusive relationship comes from look no further than Twilight. I think what upsets me the most is everything this book represents. It's unethical (in my opinion) at its roots, it's promoting poor decision making and behavior, and it's utterly unrealistic. And on top of all that, it's A REALLY BAD BOOK. It's not even something where I can say "wow, this book is bad for society, but it's really good!".

  6. Thanks everyone for weighing in. I really would like to hear from someone who liked the books and has a different opinion about the Ana/Christian relationship. (You can always sign in as Anonymous or using a psuedonym.)

  7. It is NOT a well written book. I should have started counting the number of times she says "his breath hitched" or "my breath hitched" or, as mentioned above, she bites her lip. Oh, and maybe he needs to buy, with his millions, something other than a white linen shirt. BUT…having said that, I enjoyed the banter between the characters and Ana's struggle with her inner goddess vs her subconscious.
    Putting all women in a box with Ana is dangerous. This relationship is not, in my opinion the same as someone being raped or abused by a loved one who is evil. Christian Grey is not evil, just f*^%ed up and honest about his desires and lifestyle.
    I'm off to read the next 2 and this time I'm gonna count the "hitches"!! 🙂

  8. Thanks Dave. Great post. I'm passing this along to several friends who have asked what all the fuss was about. I read the first two pages, then turned off my Kindle. I'm glad I didn't get to the abuse or I might have thrown my precious e-reader across the room. Kathy

  9. Well said, everyone! I have not and will not read this book, so I can't really address the claims of poor writing or unsympathetic characters, but I do think it's a sad commentary on our society that books like this (and "Twilight," which, sadly, I did read) are so popular. Erotica? Bring it on. Idealizing abusive relationships? Uh-uh! And yeah… repetitive language in a novel (or series of books) by an author who's making a ton of money is one of my pet peeves. Use a thesaurus!

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