Since its availability to the reading public, the novel Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James has all but exploded in sales. The buyers are mostly women. Another phenomenon since then is the wide array of opinions the book has solicited, either intentionally or unintentionally. Some have maligned the book for being little better than porn, while others have lauded it for its in-depth understanding of women, their secret desires, and their fantasies. The book's extreme popularity, or notoriety, is proved by the fact that it is about to become a film, and the choice of actors, especially for Mr. Grey, has been the subject of at least as much speculation as the book itself. And certainly, the content of the book and the way it deals with the challenges its main characters face can be the subject of much interesting discussion. Major themes in the book, for example, include gender performativity, bondage, and pornographic exploitation. The question in these themes should revolve around consent. Some related questions include: Is there equality between the genders when bondage occurs? Does it amount to exploitation when there is consent from all the parties involved? What is expected of the genders and are these expectations violated? For all the criticism, the book at least makes a very tantalizing read and the way it has left bookstore shelves empty of its presence is simply an indication of how curious, fascinated readers can themselves exploit the sexual aspect of humanity.
In terms of gender, the book appears to make an extreme distinction between the predatory nature of the male main character, Christian Grey, and the female lead, Ana. Ana reacts to Grey in the typically flustered female fashion generally reserved for romance novels and the style of prose somewhat snidely described as "purple." A good example of this is when she sees him again for the first time after her initial interview with him, which she agreed to only as a favor to her ill friend, Kate. She describes his voice, in "purple" terms, as "…warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel…or something." Also, her heart pounds "a frantic tattoo." This type of diction is romantic to the extreme and juxtaposes itself strongly with the types of activities the two ultimately engage in, cable ties and all. By thinking and talking in these terms, the main character, and possibly the writer herself, shows herself as naive and reactionary to men; a typically submissive woman, who could be expected to fantasize accordingly. This in itself speaks to the realistic edge of the novel, or lack thereof.
It is unlikely to think that a self-respecting, professional woman such as Ana in today's world would respond to the mere huskiness of a man's voice with a frantically beating heart. Personally, I found myself wondering if she has had any experience with men at all, since this reaction appears to be more immature than her nature or years should dictate, even before she knew about Grey's propensity for interesting sex games. Which is another difficult point in terms of realism.
According to those who are familiar with BDSM, or bondage, domination, and sado-masochism, in terms of both its physical and psychological nature, it is lamentable that the book perpetuates the ignorance and myths that many have of this sexual preference. In fact, the novel is accused of demonizing BDSM to such an extent that it is presented as both physically and psychologically unrealistic. First, there is Grey's use of cable ties. These are generally avoided by both novices and experts in the art of BDSM for their tendency to cause both scarring and nerve damage. It is more usual to use soft, thick rope to bound the submissive party. The character of Christian Grey is also unrealistic in that, despite frequent references to his expertise and somewhat wildness in the "playroom," he is also remarkably inept when interacting with his new submissive. He does not assess her naivety in a very competent way and terrifies her by using advanced BDSM techniques, including fire. This, according to those in the know, is not something that a BDSM practitioner, and especially and experienced one such as Grey, would even dream of doing. Grey is not only physically and mentally inept at his art; he is also mentally unstable, which is another point lamented by BDSM experts. The uninformed public and even many professionals, as pointed out by a blogger in The Guardian, assume that those with an interest in BDSM practices have some psychological instability, mostly caused by childhood trauma, generally at the hands of their own parents. According to recent research, however, this is not the case. BDSM practitioners tend to be generally well-adjusted people with no psychological instability or past trauma. Creating a character like Christian Grey, with his inept and even naive practice of BDSM and his psychological disturbance, is reported to be nothing short of irresponsible. When considering the novel in this light, this also raises an important point about the fantasy aspect of the novel.
In creating the somewhat amateur, and according to some, even boring, bondage scenes perpetrated by Christian Grey, one might surmise that the author herself has little experience of this type of sexual activity. Of course one cannot confirm this without in fact asking her, but according to the clues provided by the text, and indeed the diction she uses particularly for the female lead, there seems little possibility that she has much experience with the true nature of the bondage scene and its participants. So it is possible that she fantasizes about BDSM and the way in which she might enjoy participating in it. By association, the author invites her readers to fantasize with her. As such, the audiences who buy and enjoy these works must also be assumed to share at least some degree of the same naivety that she displays in creating the story. As such, the bondage scenes must be regarded as no more than unrealistic fantasies experienced by an inexperienced and immature main character, as well as perpetrated by an immature and unstable male lead. Those with a more realistic frame of mind are unlikely to fantasize to this degree. To return to a previous point, diction such as "husky" and "melted chocolate caramel" and a heart that is "pounding a tattoo" is usually found in romance novels to appeal to school girls with absolutely no sexual or even possibly dating experience and bored housewives who have forgotten the pleasure that sex could be. As such, Christian Grey offers female readers little more than the fantasy of a schoolgirl, most well suited to those with little or no experience. And perhaps that is indeed the aim of the book. To create and perpetuate fantasy. Perhaps, despite its inherent lack of realism, it should be accepted for this rather than an honest and non-partial exploration of what it truly is to engage in BDSM. Readers with a realistic frame of mind or at least some current sexual maturity should surely be able to decipher clues such as the writing style and characterization to be able to understand the basic lack of reality inherent in all the events of the book. However, it is also likely that, as the critics fear, BDSM and its practitioners will receive a bad reputation, or a worse one than they currently have, because of the popularity of this book.
A large amount of BDSM and its reputation revolves around the question of consent. In the novel, one might ask whether Christian's submissive is there of her own free will or if she has been coerced in taking part in the wildly fantastical activities he has planned for her. Given Ana's clear naivety at the start of the novel, it is difficult to imagine that she could give fully informed consent to Christian's attentions. Yet, there is also no indication that she is not somewhat fascinated, drawn in, and ultimately obsessed by the unfamiliar and sexy worlds that Christian offers. She is badly mismatched with him, however, being inherently romantic. However, she is also submissive by nature and therefore fits the bill to play the submissive to Christian's dominant. Hence, if I were to give a final analysis of this situation, I would not consider Ana to be coerced into her submissive role. She is characterized for it from the start of the novel. While she does not always play a conscious part in her desires and fantasies, she is nonetheless never forced to do anything that she does not ultimately wish for. Indeed, her subconscious, in an early chapter, screams mentally at Christian that "You! You are my thing!" The novel is also peppered with Ana's screaming subconscious needs, seldom voiced to the object of her desire, to first kiss her and later do more things to her. This makes the events a little predictable, but then it has been established that the novel is not the…