What happens when Hollywood decides to take a break from rebooting anything they can get their hands on? We’re all about to find out on February 14th, when 50 Shades of Grey hits the theaters. You know the one — it’s supposed to be an erotic romance, but the trailer makes it look and sound more like psychological horror. Which is, as you’ll see, weirdly appropriate.
A quick primer, for those not in the know: first, there was Twilight. It wasn’t great, maybe, but it was at least fairly original — I can’t think of any other stories where the vampires have sparkle power. Then, author E.L. James decided to take a crack at some Twilight fanfic. She didn’t create any original characters, but she did remove the vampirism and attendant sparkles, give Edward a billion dollars, and age Bella enough that she could no longer be considered jailbait. Also, there are a few more sex scenes than the original Edward and Bella ever got. This “highly original”piece was posted on a fanfic site under the name “Master of the Universe”. Then, because life is unfair, the piece got picked up by a publisher. The names of the characters were changed, the story was rechristened 50 Shades of Grey, and the whole thing was broken up into a trilogy so that potential readers and later, potential viewers, would have to shell out at least three times.
So here we are. For whatever reason, 50 Shades was a big thing as soon as it started hitting shelves and/or Kindles. I can’t explain it. Erotica (much, much better erotica, for the most part) existed long before 50 Shades. Maybe it was popular because Edward and Bella were popular, and E.L. James aged them just enough so that lusting after them was vaguely socially acceptable? Who knows. What I do know is that the books are bad. I know that because I read all three of them, and I’m still angry at the people who kept insisting, “keep reading! It totally gets better!” I want those hours of my life back, people. And based on rumors that E.L. James insisted that the movie stick as close to the book as possible, and also based on the fact that this mess is being released on Valentine’s Day and not Halloween, I think it’s safe to say the movie will be just as bad. Let me use put the hours that I spent reading that awful trilogy to some good use. I present to you, in no particular order, my list of 15 reasons NOT to go see 50 Shades of Grey this Valentine’s day, based on my experience with the trilogy. (Spoilers coming). I was going to make it 50 reasons — and I promise you that I could come up with 50 reasons — but then I decided this would be entirely too long. So, 15 it is.
This is Not What BDSM Looks Like.I feel like I should cover this first, before I’m accused of being a prude. I’m all good with BDSM. And the “BDSM” featured in 50Shades isn’t even all that kinky. I don’t object to the so-called kink. I object to the fact that the characters don’t adhere to the BDSM watchwords, “Safe, Sane, and Consensual”. Christian is a crappy Dom, and consent is absent or highly suspect in many of these scenes. Don’t take my word for it — people that actually practice BDSM are pissed off about this misrepresentation of their lifestyle. They’re also pissed off that Christian is only into BDSM in the first place because he had a crappy, abusive childhood, and Ana is basically just in it to “cure” him of wanting to be a Dom. In other words, BDSM is presented as basically as something that only broken people do. How insulting.
The Heroine is a Terrible Person. I don’t understand in the slightest why so many women want to be Ana. Personally, as I read the books, I kept thinking that I should feel sorry for her. She’s being manipulated, emotionally and sometimes physically abused, and controlled by a frankly scary man with a lot of power and no particular restraint on his behavior. That’s terrible! Readers should feel bad for her. But they don’t, because she’s an awful person herself. She mooches off of her friends and mentally badmouths them for caring about her and asking her questions about her life. She’s jealous of a child abuser. She’s a snob. And she thinks she’s much smarter than she really is. Basically, she’s an annoying, needy, whiny emotional vampire.
The Hero is a Terrible Person. I guess if all you really want in a man is a bajillion dollars and a private helicopter, Christian Grey looks like a catch. He’s not. He’s a stalker. He’s violent. He’s insanely possessive. He’s a control freak. He doesn’t give a crap if you consent. I’m very serious. He manipulates and bullies Ana into having a relationship in the first place. He stalks Ana to another state after she tells him that she wants space. He isolates her from her friends and family. He bruises her as a punishment for showing more of her body than he’d like. He flips out on her for going out for drinks with a friend. In one scene, he uses orgasm denial as a means to punish her, even though they’ve never discussed it or agreed to it, even though he knows that her sexual history is basically nil and she has no idea what he’s going to do, so she can’t possibly give any kind of informed consent. He admits that he’s doing it to hurt her. And when she safewords, he takes it as a personal insult. He forces hormonal birth control on her because he doesn’t want to wear condoms. When she gets pregnant (you know, from the sex without condoms) he throws a violent temper tantrum that is, without question, one of the most disturbing scenes in the books. Ladies, he’s a creep. This is not the man that you want. Run far and run fast from Christian Grey wannabes.
The Supporting Characters are Terrible Too. There is no one to root for in this book. The supporting characters are either evil or oblivious, and few of them are fleshed out enough for anyone to care what happens to them.
The Weird Eating Disorder Subtext.The heroine’s name is Ana, the hero’s sister’s name is Mia. Seeing those two words together brings to mind the Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia websites out there in the wilds of the internet, where Ana and Mia are the “friendly” names given to anorexia and bulimia by wackos who think that starving to death is a lifestyle choice and not a disorder. This is probably a coincidence. What’s not a coincidence is that Ana is almost certainly anorexic. She hates to eat. She uses her food intake (or lack thereof) as a means of controlling somethingwhen the rest of her life is out of her control (thanks to her control-freak boyfriend/husband). She’s portrayed as being so skinny that she can’t maintain her body weight — anytime she misses a meal or two her weight drops enough that the other characters notice it. This is what anorexia looks like. What’s bizarre is that James put all the behaviors there, but never once addresses the fact that her heroine has an apparently severe eating disorder. Christian also has weird hang-ups about food — he likes to force people to eat — but at least his issues get explained.
The Tampon Scene.This couldhave been an empowering statement about how menstruation is normal and natural and shouldn’t stop women from enjoying sex if they want to. I mean, it still would have squicked me out, but at least the message would have been positive — if you’re someone who’s not squicked out by period sex, then you absolutely should have yourself some period sex and enjoy it. That wasn’t what happened, though. Because Christian is an abusive control freak and Ana is a doormat, it just got written as a scene where a man wants sex and is going to remove whatever gets in his way, including a tampon. Ana has no real agency at all. That’s even grosser than period sex.
The Infantilization of Ana. E.L. James made Ana chronologically old enough not to be jailbait, but she forget to advance her mental or emotional age. And since the story is told in first person and all we get to hear is Ana’s inner monologue, that can get pretty disturbing. Ana starts the series with all of the sexual awareness of a footstool. The problem isn’t so much that she’s a virgin who’s never been kissed. It’s not even that she’s apparently never fantasized or touched herself in any way (although, seriously, WTF, E.L.?) It’s that she completely lacks any awareness of how her own body works, or how to protect herself physically or emotionally. She never has any idea what’s coming next. Honestly, it’s like she never even went through a high school health class. And it’s not just her sexuality that’s stunted — she can’t manage her relationships with others, either. Even familial or friendly platonic ones.
The Sex Scenes are Just Not Hot. I know what you’re thinking — “it’s erotica! It’s fantasy! You read it for the sex scenes! You’re focusing too much on the story. The story doesn’t have to be that great for erotica to work.” First of all, if you’re reading it just for the sex scenes, good luck. They’re honestly pretty few and far between compared with other books in the genre. That’s probably why they can make a movie out of this at all without having to label it as porn — if it’s truly supposed to be an erotic fantasy, there’s way too much story in between the sex scenes. However, given the way the sex scenes are written, I’m actually grateful for the plodding, disjointed storylines. These two have the most boring sex ever. They say the same things, over and over again. Ana thinks the same things, over and over again. And Ana can’t even name her own body parts. She refers to her vagina as “down there”. She experiences sensations “everywhere below the waist” (so, in her knees? Her toes? She’s so vague that this could be a book about foot fetishism, for all the reader knows.) Someone needs to hand Ana a doll and ask her to point to the body parts she’s talking about, because she apparently has no idea what they are.
Ana’s Imaginary Friends. Throughout the three books, Ana constantly talks to two people in her head. One is her subconscious. This is clearly what she’s named her imaginary friend, and not her actual subconscious, because she wouldn’t be consciously aware of her subconscious. The other is her inner goddess. Subconscious and Inner Goddess are more fleshed out than many of the actual characters. They have props, like glasses and pom-poms and chaise lounges. They do tricks, like cartwheels. And they never shut up. I kind of believe that Ana’s and Christian’s relationship is so traumatic for Ana from the outset that her personality is splintering, and Subconscious and Inner Goddess are early signs of Multiple Personality Disorder. That would make perfect sense to me. However, I don’t think E.L. James is a good enough author to write that story. So… Ana has imaginary friends and can’t name her body parts. She’s a four year old. Gross.
The Briticisms. It’s not that I dislike Brits or Briticisms. It’s that the book is set in Seattle. If I were reading a book set in London, it would make perfect sense that all the characters are obsessed with tea and none of them speak like 20-something Americans. But as it is, it makes no sense. If you ask me, this is the most blatant clue that the book is a complete ripoff of Twilight. It’s clear that James didn’t bother to do any real research into Americanisms — she just plopped her characters into Washington state because that’s where Bella and Edward happened to be.
The Marketing. Why pick on 50 Shadeswhen there are so many terrible books and movies out there? Well, in large part, because of the way that it’s marketed. Check out this real, live ad for the books, found in a popular men’s magazine:
See those lines toward the bottom? First of all, there’s “What every woman wants.” Um, no, E.L. James and publishers, every women does not want a relationship with a creepy manipulative stalker who abuses his partner and tries to pass it off as BDSM. Then, perhaps even more troubling, “Read it and share the experience.” Do you know what women don’t want and don’t need? We don’t need men reading 50 Shades and trying to recreate themselves in the image of Christian Grey. We need fewer creepy abusive manipulative stalkers in the world, not more. It completely pisses me off that rather than just release the terrible book neutrally (or with a “don’t try this at home” warning label) it’s being touted as some kind of a guide. Imagine if men actually start to imitate this, and expect their female partners to do the same? And (going back to my point #15) women not familiar with BDSM may begin to ignore or excuse abuse because they’ve been tricked into thinking that this is what BDSM is. I would like to think that people generally are too smart to be fooled into allowing themselves to become abusive or to be abused. But — let’s face it, this book is a best seller. There’s a limit to how far smart goes. Marketing this book as a relationship guide is utterly irresponsible and probably dangerous.
50 Shades is Hazardous to Your Health.No, really. There’s a study out of Michigan Universitythat shows a correlation between the 50 Shades trilogy and binge drinking, eating disorders, and abusive relationships. Now, the study can’t tell us whether the books cause the health risks or if people with those particular risks are just drawn to those books, but it doesn’t matter either way — experts worry that even if you are only drawn to the books because you already have unhealthy eating, drinking, or relationship behaviors, the books will make things worse by reinforcing those behaviors (since all the characters do is drink, deal with weird food issues, and have unhealthy relationships.) So, if you feel compelled to read or watch 50 Shades — maybe go to an AA meeting instead. Or eat a balanced meal. Or go to couples therapy. You know, something constructive.
The Weird Stereotypes. In the 50 Shadesuniverse, rich people are good and benevolent, while poor people are evil. Blondes are also evil. Ana’s internal monologue lets us know that every blonde she comes across — including her own so-called best friend — is either a bitch or a potential man-stealer. In fact, almost all women are potential man-stealers. Except for black women — Ana is a lot like that person who’s “totally not racist; I have one black friend” and she never sees black women as potential rivals, which gives the impression that she thinks they’re somehow below her husband’s notice, considering she’s terrified that he’s noticing every other female they encounter. Also, there are a few instances where being gay is treated as the worst of all possible things, because we wouldn’t want to leave homophobia out of a book that already contains classism, sexism, and racism.
The Child Molester. What is up with this bullshit, E.L. James? Who thinks, “I’m going to write erotic fanfiction. You know what will totally make it hotter? If the hero was introduced to kinky sex by being molested by one of his mother’s female friends when he was a young teenager!” Do I even need to mention that this is totally not how people find their way into the BDSM lifestyle? And — just why?
You’ve Got Better Things to Spend Your Money on. Look, movies are expensive, and 50Shadesis poorly written dreck that normalizes and promotes abusive relationships. There’s no reason to think that the movie is going to be any better than the books — all the news so far indicates that it’s going to be just as bad, if not worse. Put your movie ticket money to better use. Personally, I like this idea, courtesy of Jenny Trout: donate the money that you would have spent on a ticket to see 50 Shades to an anti-domestic violence or rape crisis organization. At the link, you can find a partial list of organizations in various states and countries. Or you can look up an organization in your own local area. Put that money to some kind of good use, instead of in the pockets of people who can’t tell the difference between a love story and domestic abuse.