Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed are a relatively new trilogy written by author E.L. James. These novels have risen to the tops of best-seller lists, have lined supermarket bookshelves and are a series that many have read and many will not admit to having read. The books are supposed to be thrilling, shocking and fresh.
Yet what James has to say in these novels is not new, and is certainly not shocking, except in that the perpetuation of primitive value systems is shocking to those who have progressed beyond them. E. L. James has written a book about gender roles. She sets up a dichotomy between the protagonist Anastasia Steele and her despotic seducer (later turned spouse), Christian Grey, posing them against one another to compare and contrast the perpetuated separation of female and male. The comparisons are endless: virgin/whore, dominant/submissive and seducer/seduced, to name a few. Ana herself lists pairings directly in the text, saying about herself to Christian, “I’m all deer/headlights, moth/flame, bird/snake.” Ana’s naiveté is the perfect antithesis to Christian’s endless experience, her gauche to his worldliness, her feminine being seen with his masculine gaze.
James pairs female and male together, and not only as a means of highlighting her ideas of fundamental and societal differences. In the Fifty Shades novels, James argues that men and women need one another. Christian and Ana, once they have found each other, are lost without each other, incomplete; and when they are together, they are of similar mind, sharing ideas as well as their bodies, while maintaining their specific roles and characteristics. James is arguing that male/female gender roles are both innate and necessary. If men and women need one another, it must be that men and women offer different specialties, values and roles that must be shared with their dichotomous partner. The fact that the pair (spoiler alert!) procreates very soon after marriage seems to be both a thinly redesigned variation of the Twilight series and a restating of the strict Mormon virtues that undergirded the plot of this fanfic’s inspiration.
However, James does crack the façade of strict dichotomy at certain points of the trilogy. In the first novel, we learn that Christian’s list of rules for his submissives includes a list of prescribed foods that are okay for his subs to eat – these and nothing else. Anastasia, in her one moment of firm conviction that runs parallel to Christian’s desires, refuses to follow this list; in fact, forcing her to follow the list would be a deal breaker (the only deal breaker she mentions until the third novel). Christian’s obsession with food is a thin metaphor for his obsession with control, the body and, ultimately, love. Anastasia’s refusal to allow him to control what she eats is a way of taking charge over the love she wants and thinks she deserves and needs – the one point she is not willing to cede to this dominant man. In this way, James allows Ana to be an autonomous person, albeit again in contrast (and thus pairing) with the masculine. However, throughout the rest of the novel, along with the other two books, Ana yields to Christian when he insists on when she eats, allows him to choose foods for her, and often iterates that Christian’s choices were the right ones. In this, James maintains the control that Christian has over Ana, along with the notion that that control is what is best for the couple.
James isn’t a beautiful writer. She peppers the dialogue with senior-year vocabulary on occasion, attempting to prove that Ana is an intelligent, well-educated woman and that Christian is a “man of the world,” but her writing is basic, and the jolts of elevated vocabulary feel out of place and forced surrounded by otherwise bland language. Ana’s internal dialogue often reads like a stream-of-conscious measure in a psyche that isn’t interesting enough to make these thoughts worthwhile. Ana narrates mundane activities, like driving and choosing music, and though mundane scenes could be lovely in the hands of a skilled writer, and from the mind of one who has something to say, James is not that writer.
But that is not the point of these novels – James makes an argument about gender, and enforces archaic value systems, but all while really writing about sex. If the themes were different, if the characters were more or even less fleshed out, if the plots didn’t involve stiff passages like a car chase, bank heist, kidnapping or blackmail, most people who read Fifty Shades would still read Fifty Shades. Even James’ attempt to flesh out Christian Grey into an unhappy, psychologically struggling character doesn’t lend as much to the novels’ development as one would hope. James’ revelation about Christian – his abuse as a child, his subsequent molestation as a teenager and the continuation of his relationship with his molester for six years – doesn’t change how Ana and Christian interact, either as characters or as symbols. Christian is still in charge, is still the dominant, and the fact that his only years as a submissive put him in a feminine role in which Ana is now only reinforces the idea that the male and female are separate and disparate; Christian managed to rise above his feminine placement into a firmly masculine role, while Ana maintains her feminine role throughout the novels.
James doesn’t need something to say; she simply needs scenes that are taboo enough to titillate and just realistic enough that readers can sink their teeth in. The titillation is also supported by Christian’s many accomplishments and social advantages; without his exceedingly good looks, extreme amounts of money and elitist taste in everything from art to music to wine, the sex scenes wouldn’t be nearly as palatable. Who wants to read about a controlling, emotionally stunted man seducing a boring, uninformed woman when the man is ugly and broke?
James’ novels, though littered with value statements on virtue, gender roles, control and love, don’t have a real purpose outside of giving an outlet to her readers’ preexisting fantasies and providing fodder to spawn new daydreams. Fifty Shades, in its most basic, bare bones form, is erotica, sustained by a tired, antiquated belief system.