I just finished reading E L James’s bestselling romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey because one of my students is writing his senior thesis on it. It isn’t horrible, and is worth reading as sociological research. I had heard that the writing was atrocious, but aside from James’s overuse of the words “jeez” and “crap” and the frequent misstep of having her American characters use English idioms, it’s no worse than any other romance novel.
Fifty Shades has gained notoriety in part because of its depiction of BDSM. While its general description of the BDSM scene (especially the Dom/sub contract) is accurate, I would not classify it as a BDSM novel in the way that Molly Weatherfield’s, Claire Thompson’s, or Pauline Réage’s books are. Rather, BDSM is used to titillate the reader, but the novel’s ultimate view of it is a conventional, close-minded one, as Christian is portrayed as both an ineffective Dom and a demented freak, and the protagonist Anastasia is unable to accept her submissive side. She is a strong character–I don’t see much merit in the criticism of her or the novel as sexist (I think this criticism comes from a misunderstanding of the Dom/sub dynamic, in which it is actually the sub who has all the power, as the novel states. As third-wave feminism teaches us, if a woman gets pleasure from being a sub, there is nothing wrong with or degrading about it. However, this critique is valid in that I don’t think the book would be as successful if it involved a female Dom and a male sub, but this is a problem with sexist readers, not with Fifty Shades itself)–but she isn’t ever able to accept herself; she is too worried about societal conventions. I had hoped that Fifty Shades‘s popularity might be a signal of increasingly liberal attitudes toward sexuality in the general reading public, but there’s nothing that questions the status quo in it.
Aside from being sexually milquetoastish, Fifty Shades is also plagued by homophobic and racist elements. Christian’s reaction to Anastasia’s question of whether he is gay or not and the subsequent references to this exchange clearly imply that there is something that is somehow lesser about being gay. But the treatment of the character José is the most offensive aspect of the book. He is first portrayed as the stereotypical Latino comic relief, and then as a Don Juan-esque sexual predator. The stock nature of the novel’s secondary characters is mostly benign, but in this instance is cringe-worthy.