Christian Grey: A Study of Character and BDSM

When I first heard about the infamous book in any kind of detail, it was my friend relaying the basic plot of the books to me. News of the film adaptation had just cropped up online, and my curiosity into the franchise was piqued enough to ask her about them. She was ready to tell me about the interesting sex-scenes and the two characters at the helm of the BDSM-flavored romp: Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. While she was less than impressed by the plot, the writing, the abuse, and the bland bondage, she was interested by one male lead by which the story took its name. She told me about his backstory and I found myself mostly dismissive, as I didn’t buy what the author had fed her for his reasoning for being into the scene, nor was I interested in the shallow paddling it advertised.

Sometime later, I saw headlines about tumblr users starting a campaign to boycott the film[1], and people in various cities attempting to keep the film from screening in their local cinemas[2][3]. The flagrant reaction was one that I didn’t necessarily anticipate, and I became curious again. Recalling what my friend had told me, the uproar that the adaptation’s impending release was causing, and the varied claims of what abuse was or wasn’t in the book as well as the accurate or inaccurate representations of BDSM that Christian displayed, I found it unpleasant to not be able to weigh in. Whether the books or subsequent film(s) were well-received or praised was not necessarily important, it was the obvious and clear influence that the books would have not only on erotica, but women’s literature in general for at least a few years after their release.

The most important aspect of this controversy is the object of Ana and (presumably) the audience’s desires: Christian Grey. There is plenty about his development throughout the series that is unbelievable, but the probability of someone like this damaged young man existing is not farcical. A closed off man with a broken childhood being adopted into a family at a young age where he wants for nothing, yet he never feels like he belongs there. He learns to deal with his misplaced anger and poor self-image from a family friend that preyed on his vulnerability and teenage hormones. His inexperience with intimacy as well as a broader inability to emotionally connect with anyone outside his family is attributed to the folly of his birth mother while his confidence and desire for control he attributes to his past relationship with his adoptive mother’s friend introducing him to the BDSM lifestyle. He is private and cold, manipulates and navigates business ventures well, and is good at reading anyone but himself. He hates his torso being touched, and experiences severe mental and emotional anguish when he isn’t able to control some circumstances.

This is the image of a fractured soul with a tough, hard mask of control and power. It’s a character very well tailored to be appealing to straight women, and in that vein, is stunted by the poor writing of the abhorrent book that he is titular to. He is interesting and ripe for character development, and is easily the strongest character in the erotic trilogy despite a badly written character arc. If he could be appropriated to another story with some changes to take away the absurd fantastical elements (CEO before 27? Please.) he could really be an inspiring character to help women broaden their ability to empathize and understand someone that totes such troubling and stressful baggage without painting it as accepting manipulative abuse. Individuals with abusive tendencies can seek psychiatric treatment to help curb their anger and insecurities, which is unfortunately never mentioned in the book despite Christian seeing a therapist. His character has great potential, but its wasted in the hands of an author who can’t (or doesn’t care to) handle the depth that she has created, which results in a larger audience that takes very misunderstanding notions not only about Mr. Grey, but also about the culture that he largely represents in the books: BDSM.

The controversy around this book is mainly centered on the abusive relationship that exists between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. Claims such as Christian ignoring Ana using safewords[4], beating her into submission, attempting to manipulate her into a relationship she doesn’t want, forcing sex on her[5], etc. The aforementioned are false. These are so prevalent among individuals that have not and/or claim to have read the books that I will take a moment to spell these out:

  1. Ana uses a safeword one time in the trilogy. Fifty Shades Freed, Chapter 11, page 251 (or the 2nd page of 43% if you’re reading an ebook) in which she says “Red” while being repeatedly denied orgasm by Christian. When she says it he stops immediately, unshackles her, and consoles her. There are no times in the books where she tells him to stop and he does not comply, aside from the perhaps two sexual encounters where he explicitly tells her that “no” will not stop him, and that only a safeword like “red” will. In either of those cases, she never uses her safeword. Other than the above instance, the safeword is only used when Christian reminds her or asks her what they are in order to remind her that she can use them, which is standard practice. It’s also necessary, since she forgot the safewords between the first and second books.
  2. Christian never assaults or hits Ana outside of a sexual context. Him spanking her is punishment, but it’s also quite sexual in nature. The scene this claim typically refers to is near the end of the first book when Ana gives her consent to be beaten with the intention of experiencing the kind of anguish that Christian feels when people touch him. She regrets it and reacts very poorly, resulting in her leaving him. Other times she is “punished” for disobeying him or going back on her word. While these are certainly emotionally manipulative and abusive by themselves, they are not assault, because Christian makes it clear that she can stop him any time by safewording. This is less clear in some of the first book as it is overshadowed by her fear of his mood, which is in and of itself, mental abuse. By the scene at the boathouse, which is probably the most abusive of the first book, she had already consented to that life style.
  3. There is no time in which he manipulates her into a relationship with him. He’s very straightforward from the get go (it’s one of his character traits) and makes it explicitly clear that the state of their relationship is up to her because she is the submissive, and later his romantic partner. His domineering and controlling behavior makes it very difficult for her to believe that, and that is manipulative in some way, but Christian never forces Ana into becoming his submissive or forcing her into any relationship that she doesn’t want.
  4. As briefly mentioned referring to the use of safewords, there is no time in the books when Christian forces himself upon Ana or takes away her ability to consent or not to his advances. He does not force alcohol upon her nor does he make her feel obligated to have sex with him or put her in a situation where it is her only way out. Rape is nowhere in this book.

A lot of the abuse in Fifty Shades is poorly represented due to the heavy emphasis on Christian’s involvement with BDSM. If Ana were to have signed the contract and agreed to be Christian’s submissive, then a lot of his behavior would have been completely within his role. The contract that Christian presented to Ana was one that suggested what is called a Total Power Exchange (TPE) in the community, and gives the dominant party control over as many aspects of the submissive’s life as is deemed appropriate by both parties. The contract, which is laid out plainly in the book with a narration of some of its contents in the movie, is not an unreasonable one for a relationship like this. Although quirky, the film Secretary displays a consensual example of a TPE relationship, albeit in a less serious manner than Fifty Shades, and it features the submissive in bondage gear during work hours, control over the portions of food she eats, as well as punishment by spanking. The ultimate problem in Fifty Shades is that, though Ana consents verbally to try the lifestyle that Christian “needs,” she is always rebelling against those rules she agreed to because she truly isn’t comfortable with it. Ana giving her consent in writing is stressed as important up until it’s realized that her verbal consent should be enough. Despite this, her extreme discomfort with the rules leads her to rebel in childish ways rather than talking to him about her discomfort after the fact, or breaking the agreement all together. Her overwhelming lust and a bit of her feelings for Christian blinds her to her discomforts until she feels like it’s too late to back out. Understand that a lot of this sounds like victim blaming, but my intention is not to absolve Christian of his abusive role. It is to show that Ana is not powerless or free of criticism in this situation and that she has a role to play here too.

These things don’t absolve Christian of the emotional and mental abuse that he unleashes on Ana, largely in the first and second book, and less so in the third book since most aspects of their relationship (the largest anxiety factor being the lifestyle) are quelled and settled. He stalks her, antagonizes her for acting on her own will despite what he would prefer, fits her into ultimatums that limit her ability to choose, and all of this induces emotional anxiety and fear in Ana. Their relationship is abusive, but the larger problem is that the book seems to make the ultimate point for Ana to change Christian rather than to rid herself of the contract that she has little intention of upholding. She attempts to fulfill a very dangerous fantasy of finding an appealing man with a lifestyle that doesn’t suit her and changing him for the “better” by making him prefer what she offers instead. Not only does this paint BDSM as “undesirable” or “wrong”, but these kinds of ideas are what lead women into abusive relationships in the first place, and the kind of women that this fantasy appeals to are likely to see this book as validation for their desires. Christian having been changed significantly by the beginning of the third book alone and essentially being a different character altogether, further implies that this goal is not only fine to pursue, but reachable within a very small period after meeting which, when considering someone with the mental issues that Christian has, is laughably unrealistic.

For the large part, erotica for women has never been something to take seriously. Paperbacks featured for a few dollars in the drugstore is what most think of when they hear about women’s “dirty books.” One of those dirty books becoming a best-seller was genuinely a shock to many, especially considering the abject quality of its narrative. It may seem unfair to judge Fifty Shades on the level of other books that become best-sellers, but harsh criticism can also give future writers things to consider and stay away from, which in turn betters the genre as a whole. There have already been plenty of copycats trying to make money off of this surely temporary craze, but there has also been an important topic of women’s empowerment and safe kink practices being brought up. Despite the large downfalls that this book presents, its fantasy has paved the way for more structured critique of women’s erotica as well as taking shame away from female sexuality along with the ever important discussing of abusive relationships. Plenty of education can be done with the themes of this novel as a convenient jumping off point, and even while these three awful books fade into obscurity over time, I hope the lessons that we can learn from it stay with us, chiefly to never publish a fanfiction inspired by a bad book series, especially when that adaptation is terrible.


Banner from here.

Sources:
[1] http://www.dailydot.com/entertainment/fifty-shades-movie-boycott/
[2] http://woodtv.com/2015/02/02/petitions-want-fifty-shades-of-grey-showings-canceled/
[3] http://fox17online.com/2015/02/02/local-man-starts-petition-to-stop-fifty-shades-of-grey-from-coming-to-celebration-cinema/
[4] http://www.blogher.com/my-lovehate-relationship-50-shades
[5] http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/film/fifty-shades-grey-and-abuse

For Scientific Research Done on Fifty Shades of Grey:
Fiction or Not? Fifty Shades is Associated with Health Risks in Adolescent and Young Adult Females
“Double Crap!” Abuse and Harmed Identity in Fifty Shades of Grey

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4 thoughts on “Christian Grey: A Study of Character and BDSM

  1. It’s a little strange to me that people are upset that an unhealthy relationship is portrayed in fiction. That happens all the time. 50 Shades isn’t an after school special, the readers have to make their own judgments about what’s healthy.

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