This review was originally published on June 21, 2012. I’m republishing it here because it was very popular. It also contains many many spoilers for the 50 Shades series.
Usually when writing a review on a series, I will review each book individually. The 50 Shades of Grey series, however, does not have enough plot to allow me to do that.
Before I started the first book, 50 Shades of Grey, I avoided all online reviews. I knew only two things about it – it’s about a BDSM love affair, and it’s wildly popular. I don’t normally read books just because they are popular, but this one piqued my interest because of the BDSM theme. I’m always curious how BDSM is portrayed in mainstream media, as it’s usually bad. These books are no exception.
I started reading the first book on a plane from Dayton, OH to Philadelphia. After the first two chapters, I couldn’t believe how much like Twilight it is (I found out later that it started out as a Twilight fan fic, and was not surprised at all). The protagonist, Anastasia (Ana) Steele is plain, bland, boring, clumsy, and has absolutely no sense of self, no self-control, and no backbone. I didn’t think I’d be able to finish the first book, but kept going as I am a completest. When the flight attendant brought me my ginger ale, I realized I hadn’t brought a book mark. I used the barf bag from the plane, and found it to be an accurate visual representation of my opinion thus far.
50 Shades of Grey has no plot. None. It’s basically Ana mulling over whether or not she wants to be Christian Grey’s submissive, even though she is not submissive herself. She likes certain kinks – being tied up, light spanking, mild pain. But she can not agree to all he wants. And somehow, the reader is supposed to give a shit about that, but you won’t. Just like you don’t give a shit about Bella. And that is the first mark of a bad book. To quote a Twilight meme I once read, “no one read Huckleberry Finn thinking ‘I sure hope someone catches this truant motherfucker.'” I did care more for Ana than I did Bella, though, because at times she does show promise as a strong female character. About 3/4 into 50 Shades of Grey, she actually stands up to Christian and points out how patently ridiculous some of his demands are, such as ordering her to only eat certain foods. The author also dropped the point of Ana being clumsy about half way into the first book, and in the second and third books she’s confidently walking around in high heels almost constantly.
The end of the first book has Ana leaving Christian and calling him a sick son of a bitch. The second book starts with him trying desperately to get her back. He wants to drop the whole contract thing and just be lovers. Christian is softer in this book, 50 Shades Darker, and reveals a lot more of himself. I actually liked this book, from a psychological stand point, though it is problematic. It drives home the old stereotype that people into kink and BDSM are psychologically damaged people, that the love of power exchange or pain is the result of some deeply held mental flaw or trauma from our past. That’s simply not true. He also says to her at one point “Lovers don’t need safewords.” Um, yes they do. If you are into any kind of sexual play that may push limits, you absolutely need a safeword. It sends all kinds of bad, misleading, and stereotypical messages about the nature of kink and power play. I feel the author, EL James, did the bulk of her “research” into the lifestyle via Wikipedia – which is exactly what Christian tells Ana to do in the first book.
The third book, 50 Shades Freed, made me want to scream. The softer Christian from 50 Shades Darker is gone, and in his place is a controlling, vicious, immature, asshole. At the beginning of the book, Ana and Christian have gotten married. They are honeymooning in Europe (like you do) and Ana wants to indulge in topless sunbathing. So she does. Christian throws a holy shit fit and makes a production of escorting them off the beach and onto his yacht. Once on the yacht, he explains that he didn’t want her to be photographed by the paparazzi, which is something he could have done from the start instead of just telling her no and that she’s “not allowed,” like real grown ups do. This book is cringe-worthy in many spots, and Ana spends almost all of it afraid of Christian. I can’t count how many times she says to herself “Oh shit, he’s mad!” or some variation thereof. He emotionally and mentally exhausts her, and she is constantly on edge and unsure how he is going to behave. Instead of seeing this for the big fucking problem it is, she laughs it off and calls him “mercurial” and has a “Oh golly, what am I going to do with you?” attitude. I would not have been surprised if she, in the middle of one of his numerous tirades, had ruffled his hair and called him a little scamp before letting him punish fuck her to settle the argument. And the ultimate clincher – at the end of the third book, Christian orders, ORDERS, Ana to have an elective Cesarean with their second child. He completely strips her of her agency as a woman, and she lets him.
Some other “gems” in this series includes:
“My Fifty” – At one point, Christian says he is “fifty shades of fucked up,” which is quite apt. Ana makes this a nickname, in her head, for him. And it really, really grates. I found myself skimming parts of 50 Shades Freed because of the repetition and annoying sex scenes that derailed an already weak plot.
Repetition – By the end of 50 Shades of Grey, I was longing for James to have never learned the words “mutter,” “murmur,” “whisper,” and any variations of them. Just like Stefanie Meyer, we are constantly reminded that the main male character is beyond handsome, we are subjected to tales of Ana’s bizarre and anthropomorphic “inner goddess” and subconscious more times than I can count, and everyone is smirking, looking through eyelashes, and giving each other smoldering gazes.
Ana isn’t very smart – In 50 Shades of Grey, Ana graduates with a BA in English, yet she seems very uneducated and not very bright. In the second book, she is talking to Christian’s therapist and he is using very basic psychological terms with her (terms that she, as someone with a BA in a humanities discipline, would have been exposed to in college), and she’s lost. And when Ana gets lost in a conversation, she tunes it out and starts thinking about sex or Christian or stupid shit, causing the reader to miss what precious little plot exists.
Christian Grey does not progress as a character – Though he changes his mind on the kind of relationship he wants with Ana, he never makes any breakthroughs to become a better person. There are also two things at play here – Christian’s psychological problems and his sexual kinks. They are two separate things, but James makes no distinction between the two. She also casually drops that he may have an Oedipus complex, and then never revisits that. His therapist says that he is, on an emotional level, still an adolescent. In the third book, this really shows. Ana calls him out numerous times, points out why his actions are wrong, he concedes, and still does the same shit anyway. And she thinks it’s charming.
Ana gives up her agency – After marriage, Ana wants to maintain her name in a professional setting so as to distance herself from her successful and wealthy husband. She wants to succeed in her career on her own merits, and that’s awesome until Christian storms into her office during her lunch break and bullies her into changing it to Grey at work. Now, she changed it legally, and only wanted to maintain her name professionally. At first she stands up to him, and I was rooting for her, but then she relents and I just wanted to chuck the book across the room.
The book is written in present tense. It’s also poorly edited and has a lot of grammar mistakes.
Suspension of disbelief – all of Christian’s psychological problems go back to violence he suffered when he was 4 years old. Yes, it was traumatic, but how many people remember being 4 that vividly? And how do you not work through at least a little of the trauma by the time you’re 28? Oh, and did I mention he’s a 28 year old billionaire?
“Down there” – The word “cock” is said once in the book, by Christian, during an epilogue at the end of 50 Shades Freed. Other than that, Ana refers to her genitalia as “down there” or her sex. She does use the word clitoris a few times. References to Christian’s penis are also metaphorical – “he stroked his impressive length.” Ana is a virgin when the book starts and she has never masturbated. It is not cute or ok to be that ignorant about your body. If you are having sex with someone, use your grown up words to talk about your bodies. Otherwise, you’re not mature enough for sex.
In summary, these are poorly written books with very bad messages to young women. Just like with Twilight, we are once again subjected to the notion that love is the same as obsession. Countless times Christian tells Ana “you are mine” or some variation thereof. He doesn’t want to be her partner, lover, or husband – he wants to own, control, and posses her. He likens her to his corporate assets, and says over and over “I take care of what is mine.” Sure, it is natural to be protective of those we love, but Christian takes it to psychotic extremes. And worse yet, everyone in his life either enables him or encourages it. His megalomania runs completely unchecked due to his fortune and access. Ana does have more redeemable qualities than Bella, however, in that she has hobbies, interests, she graduated from college, and she has friends. But she is just as obsessed with Christian as Bella is with Edward. James even writes that Ana is “dazzled” by Christian and can’t think when he’s around, just like Bella and Edward. And though Ana tries to stand up to Christian’s more childish behavior, she always relents either because he “dazzles” her and then hate-fucks her into submission, or she just gets tired of fighting and gives up. It’s so frustrating, especially in the third book.
It is not ok to be afraid of your partner. It is not ok to have to walk on eggshells because you’re afraid of your partner’s temper. It not ok for your partner to dictate how you will give birth. It is not ok for your partner to dictate what you will wear, how you will groom yourself, and who you will spend your time with. These go beyond the acceptable levels of bullshit that one must deal with in a relationship.
James also does the vanilla world a disservice in her presentation of BDSM. Ana is not a submissive. She likes kinky bedroom play, but she does not want to submit to Christian, nor does she like harder pain. At the end of 50 Shades of Grey, he gives her six lashes with a belt, and it tears her up to the point that she leaves him. Had the scene been written from the point of view of someone who likes pain, it would have been completely different, and erotic. As is, it is torture porn. It is not a pleasant thing to read, and it gives the idea that this is what a BDSM relationship is like. And it is not. Working out hard and soft limits beforehand ensures that the kind of play you’ll be enjoying is safe, sane, and consensual. It is not safe nor sane to lash someone who isn’t into pain with a belt, though she does consent to it. It should also be noted that being a Dom/Domme in the bedroom doesn’t necessarily mean one will be so in everyday life. Those kinds of relationships are entered into with mutual consent and agreement, and because both parties want it. In the 50 Shades series, Ana doesn’t want that, but ultimately lets Christian do whatever he wants because she doesn’t have the backbone to fight him, or better yet, walk away from him and find someone more suited for her. And as I said before Christian never relents, and never learns to compromise, nor does he fully grok why his actions are bad, abusive, and immature. It’s really disappointing.
I think stories like this are important to tell, but EL James does not have the writing chops to tell it. In other, more capable hands, the 50 Shades series could have been decent. As is, I wouldn’t read them again and I wouldn’t recommend anyone spend money on them.