In my final paper for this independent study, I want to explore how some fans have combined GIF sets and fanfiction to create a hybrid genre, GIF stories (or what I insist on calling it: GIF fics). Both GIF sets and fanfiction, albeit in different ways, function in fan communities as ways to communicate interpretations, generally about ships (the romantic pairing of characters). In this paper, I want to examine how the GIF fic draws from these two rhetorical traditions within fandom, making use of the affordances of each to develop a new form of argumentation.
On social media site, like Tumblr, GIF sets, groups GIFs, are circulated to craft
arguments and evoke feels. The looped nature of GIFs encourages viewers to pay attention to the subtle subtext of actors’ gestures and facial expressions. Often interpretations of the actors’ nonverbal cues are directed (as per Roland Barthes) by captions, tags, or superimposed text. GIFs are often paired with lines and lyrics from poetry or songs; the combination of text and image working together to create an argument about the characters’ relationships or romantic attachment.
Fanfiction, too, functions as a form of argument. Through fic, fans present their interpretations of different characters and promote different ships or theories. Like GIFs, fanfiction tends to focus on the romantic relationships between characters, using their stories to demonstrate how romantically or sexually compatible they are. But fanfiction is about more than just making your favorite character do it. Henry Jenkins, and numerous other fan scholars, have observed the deep understanding of the source text, and the fanon that has developed around it, that fanfiction requires. In crafting arguments about the romantic or sexual attraction of characters, fans will often allude to events within the source’s canon or popular theories posited and promoted by the fan community.
GIF fic emerged from the practice of pairing relatively short GIF sets with “incorrect” subtitles. The dialogue imposed on these GIFs might have been
taken from television shows, borrowed from other users’ posts, or invented by the creator of the set. These GIF sets follows the conventions of dialogue captioning and are visually indistinct from the GIFs with the canonical dialogue. If a person unfamiliar with the show were to encounter one of these sets, they would not be able to tell from their visual presentation whether or not they were original to the show or created by a fan.
But for the fans that recognize the remixed subtitles for what they are, the images of the GIF are de- and re-contextualized. The introduction of the new subtitles alters viewers’ reception of the image; certain gestures or expressions might be emphasized because of the added text or the interpretation of them might shift because of subtitles offer a new direction for reading them.
GIF fics function on a similar principle. In GIF fics, new dialogue is added to GIFs, though the sets are much longer, sometimes encompassing multiple themes. GIFs are arranged in such a way as to tell a sustained and cohesive story. In this paper, I will be examining “Jonsa Season 8,” by Tumblr user Tiny Little Bird. The story was posted in six parts, each containing at least thirty –five GIFs, with some chapters exceeding fifty.
Some questions I plan to explore in this paper:
How does the dialogue added to GIF sets interact with images? What is the relationship between visual and the verbal?
How does GIF fic fit into fan communities’ discourses about specific scenes or interactions?
What resonances exist between the scene in the source material and the way in which it is remixed in the GIF fic?
What approaches to authors of GIF fic take to “missing scenes” for which they do not have footage (for example, a sex scene between characters who are not a canonical pairing)?
How do GIF sets function as a rhetorical tool? How the inclusion of material from the show help to visually support the argument made in the story?
In 2006, Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, with her “long ebony black hair… with purple streaks and red tips that reaches [her] mid-back and icy blue eyes like limpid tear,” insinuated herself into Hogwarts, the Harry Potter fandom, and the fanfiction community at large. She is the Mary-Sue protagonist of “My Immortal” which was posted to Fanfiction.net by a writer who identified herself as Tara Gilesbie, user name XXXboodyrists666XXX.
“My Immortal” is terrible. Famously terrible. The text is rife with misspellings and errors in word use, sometimes to humor effect, often to the bafflement of readers (characters, for example, are constantly “frenching passively”). The plot is illogical and incomprehensible; scenes occur out of order or are repeated, characters appear and disappear, dying and coming back to life with no explanation. Sex scenes are juvenile, reduced to “he put his thingie into my you-know-what and we did it for the first time.” Gilesbie feuds with flamers in her Author’s Notes, a saga that becomes a narrative in its own right. The story is needless angsty and spends a disproportionate amount of time describing clothes from Hot Topic (the store itself gets named dropped). And of course, the whole thing is very “goffic.”
Then there is Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, the vampire-wizard-Hogwart’s-student-My-Chemical-Romance-enthusiast at the heart of the story. She embodies all of the worst stereotypes of the Mary Sue. She is beautiful and spunky (if yelling all the time and flipping people the bird count as spunk), but also moody and constantly thinks about slitting her “rists.” She hates posers and preps. Pretty much every male character is in love with her, as she complains to Draco:
“Yeah but everyone is in love with me! Like Snape and Loopin took a video of me naked. Hargrid says he’s in love with me. Vampire likes me and now even Snaketail is in love with me! I just wanna be with you ok Draco! Why couldn’t Satan have made me less beautiful?” I shouted angrily. (an” don’t wory enoby isn’t a snob or anyfing but a lot of ppl hav told her shes pretty) “Im good at too many things! WHY CAN’T I JUST BE NORMAL? IT’S A FUCKING CURSE!”
This is possibly the most Mary-Sue speech ever yelled by a character. Ebony bemoans her beauty, her heterosexual appeal, the fact that she is “good at too many things”! (A character trait that is largely informed and that we don’t see play out much in the story.)
The odd thing is that despite its obvious problems, this story does occupy a place of affection among many members of the fan community. In some cases, it is earnest; in others, it is ironic—a love that comes from the story’s it’s-so-bad-it’s-goodness. But regardless, fanfiction readers seem to have a soft spot for this piece.
For example, in The Guardian, Mathilda Gregrory defends “My Immortal” and Ebony’s Mary-Sueness, noting that “Because under the black leather, it is just a story about a teenage girl who wants to dress up in amazing clothes and date Draco Malfoy. It thereby captures a more painful and poignant truth about being a regular teenager than Rowling’s original series achieves with many, many more words.” She notes that the story subverts the “straight-white-maleness” of Rowling’s text by placing Ebony, a version of Gilesbie, and “all the silly, brilliant, trivial things she cares about” at the “centre of Hogwarts” and the story (Gregrory, “The Gloriously Immortal”). And Simon of Thefandomentals, argues that the story actually points to and is critical of a number of faults in Rowling’s original, not the least of which is Dumbledore’s favoritism.
Others, like Gina Annunziato, argue that “My Immortal is nothing but a trollfic.” It is a parody of terrible fanfiction and a satire skewering the tropes of a lot of juvenile fic that was being written within the Harry Potter fandom at the time. If you read the story as genuine, these fan argue, it is only because of Poe’s law.
As Kayleigh Donaldson notes, though, it doesn’t matter if you view the story as the genuine “id-ridden screed you can only write as a teenager” or “the ultimate parody of bad fiction.” The text supports both readings and no matter what approach you take it “loses none of its impact.”
Part of the reason for the debates about the (in)sincerity of the fic has to do with the fact that its author has long remained unknown. Although the collective intelligence internet has tried to hunt down the fic’s real author (Tara Gilesbie, it turned out, was as much a pseudonym of XXXboodyristsXXX), it couldn’t.
At least until 2017, when, on Tumblr, Rose Christo, a queer-identifying American Indian came out as the story’s author (Romano).
Christo’s announcement spurred a number of articles and think pieces, demonstrating the story’s continued relevance within fandom. Christo revealed that she had written the story as an attempt to use the networks of the fan community to find her brother, from whom she had been separated while they were in the foster care system (Romano). Christo promised to document her story in Under the Same Stars, a memoir, that was soon to be published with Macmillan. Christo’s outing was likely part of the publicity for her book (Shamsian).
Except that the memoir was never published. According to Alex Nolos, Mcmillian canceled the deal because Christo had tampered with documents about her family. In addition, a man claiming to be her brother has come forward “alleging that not only is her real name not ‘Rose Christo’ but she has never been placed in foster care, nor does she have any Native American heritage” (Nolos).
Christo’s claims that she wrote my immortal seem to be sound, but her insistence that she was in on the joke, purposely writing bad!fic, does not seem to have affected how people read the story. “My Immortal” existed for so long without claims of ownership, that fans, at this time, don’t seem all that interested in confirmations of authorial intent.
This indifference could be attributed to the fact that fans have, in many ways, made “My Immortal” their own. There is a surprising amount of fan art for the story. On youtube, people post dramatic readings, accompanied by everything from classical music to illustrations of the text to video game play. From 2013 to 2014, MediaJunkies Studio released two seasons of a live action adaptation of story. Their (My) Immortal functions as a kind of fanfiction itself. Ebony is still at Hogwarts, but we are out of her point view and she is the weird girl who, for some reason, calls Harry Potter “Vampire” and insists that the young men around her wear increasing amounts of black eye-liner. She dates Draco, but seems completely unaware that his real romantic interest is in Harry (he is using her to get close to him). The approach gives Ebony pathos that she doesn’t have in the story. This isn’t the story of a Mary Sue; it is the story of a girl who thinks she is a Mary Sue, but isn’t.
“My Immortal” is more than its individual writer; it represents fandom itself. It represents day dreams of Mary-Suedom and romantic entanglements with your favorite characters. It represents the vulnerability that comes from writing and posting fic and the desire to be cool. It represents the flamers, the trolls, and the negative, ungenerous side of fans, but it also represents the way that fans can find the good in what’s awful. Over ten years after it was written and posted, the story continues to be read, enjoyed, and adapted. It is mentioned in books about fanfiction and shows up on syllabi for fanfiction classes. There are countless 2006 fics that are likely better written but forgotten. “My Immortal” on the other hand, has had a robust afterlife. And I can’t help but wonder if that is because we all have a little Tara Gilesbie in us and a little Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way as well.
In my last post, I explored E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey as a work of fanfiction, discussing its relationship its source text, The Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyers. I observed that although the novel come close to critiquing its source text, it ultimately fails to do so and ends up reinforcing some of Twilight’s most problematic elements.
The same cannot be said of the fanfiction I will be discussing here. In mainstream culture, the term “fan” tends to connote uncritical devotion to and consumption of media property. However, anyone who has spent time on Reddit, or any in any other fan community, knows that this is not the case. Fans can, in fact, be the most critical consumers of media, precisely because they are so invested in it. While there are fanboys and fangirls out there who are personally insulted by any suggestion that the object of their fandom is in any way imperfect (R/The Walking Dead was a good example of this for a long time, though there has been a decisive tone shift with the show’s last, disastrous, season), most fans recognize that even their favorite show, film, or novel isn’t perfect. As reginahalliwell, author of “It Takes Two to Make a Baby,” a story that attempts to renegotiate Christian’s response to Ana’s revelation in Fifty Shades Freed that she is pregnant, notes about her own complicated relationship with the Fifty Shades Trilogy: “Guilty pleasure doesn’t mean it’s unproblematic, that’s for sure.”
And that’s where fanfiction comes in. In many ways, fanfiction is a place to explore “what if” in such a way as to fix some of the problems that fans perceive in media texts. In some cases, these fixes might be to plot (“x would never happen in this universe”) or characterization (“y would never act that way”). But they might also be a response to the show’s politics or issues of representation. Fanfiction might tell stories from marginalized perspectives, giving voices to women, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ+ community that have been silenced by the source text. Or they might challenge gender, racist, or queer stereotypes, using fanfiction to draw attention to problematic representation in the media. These fans want “more from” the object of their fandom not just in terms of quantity, but quality. They are writing in from the margins of the text to demand better politics and representation.
As I argued in my last blog post, Fifty Shades of Grey is problematic in a lot of ways, most notably in its representation of Ana and Christian’s relationship. Like Twilight, Fifty Shades romanticizes and normalizes behavior that, in the real world, would be considered intimate partner abuse. In addition, although the novel became (in)famous for its representation of BDSM, many members of the community rejected the novel’s troubling portrayal of kink.
In fanfiction, a number of fanfics take challenge the abusive nature of Christian and Ana’s relationship. For example, Natasja’s “Right Before My Eyes” imagines Ana years into the future. She and Christian are estranged from her children, who recognize their father’s abusive tendencies and are frustrated by their mother’s continued attempts to justify and excuse his behavior. The story is a retrospective, in which Ana reflects on Christian’s attempts to isolate their family, to prevent his children from learning about partner abuse in school, to monitor his daughter’s reading material so that she doesn’t get ideas about “strong independent women”, and control every aspect of their lives. This attempt to control is not presented as sexy or protective, but as abusive (Natasja). Ana ruefully recognizes that “My children saw what I did not. They got out of his control as soon as they could, and didn’t let sentiment lure them back” (Natasja). At the end of the fic, Ana is conflicted about leaving Christian, but not because she sees his actions as romantic or sexy. She recognizes the abuse, but, in a process that many survivors must go through, is isn’t sure that she can leave now. Natasja refuses to romanticize the abuse present in the novel and uses it to empathetically reflect on the emotional struggles of women who have survived or are surviving partner abuse.
Fans will also rewrite and thereby recontextualize scenes from Fifty Shades, often rewriting Ana to make her more assertive and less naïve. One of the most frequently revised scenes is the interview and initial meeting of Christian and Ana. In “Possessive and Obsessive,” QuintessentialCat asks, “What if Anastasia Steele was actually the college educated women [sic] that she’s supposed to be? What if Anastasia was strong willed, impulsive, and believed in a world of equality like many college educated women out there do?” QuintessentialCat rewrites the scene from this new and empowered point of view. Instead of being flustered by how beautiful Christian’s blonde secretaries are, Ana questions the legality of his discriminatory hiring practices. She is unimpressed by Christian Grey and is uncomfortable with the sexual subtext of many of his answers to her questions. His discussion of wanting to be in control is not sexy, it is, according to Ana, “The epitome of the white male in a hegemonic country” (QuintessentialCat). She leaves the interview not charmed, intrigued, and a little turned on like the Ana in James’ novel, but disgusted.
Zoenicole89 further de- and recontextualizes the interview scene in her story: “The One Where Ana is Hella Gay,” which promises readers “The very-overdone concept of The Interview, except with non-idiot Ana.” As the title of this fic states, this story queers Ana and she is represented as in a relationship with Kate. Like the Ana in QuintessentialCat’s story, this Ana is not taking any of Christian’s crap. She is angered by the way that Christian bodily picks her up when she tumbles into his office, because of the way in which it infantilizes her. She critiques his jargon-laden language and is disgusted by his arrogance and his attempts to flirt with her. This story’s recontextualization also reveals the latent homophobia in Christian’s response to Ana’s “are you gay” question, which makes this version of Ana feel uncomfortable. Her running commentary throughout the interview makes clear to the reader what an arrogant and unlikable man Grey is. He is not charming or mysterious or sexy, he is just kind of a dick.
Fans also confront the novel’s problematic depiction of BDSM. In the novel, James, to some extent, pathologizes and demonizes BDSM, suggesting that it is something that Christian needs to be cured of. In addition, much of the abuse in the novel hides under the guise of BDSM Dom and Sub practices. In a number of fics, fans demonstrate that what Christian is teaching Ana is not actually the dynamics of a Dom/Sub relationship but an abuser/survivor relationship.
To return to Natasja’s “Right Before My Eyes,” Ana is in a coffee shop when she hears two friends discussing BDSM. The one woman has entered into a Dom/Sub relationship, and she is explaining how it works to her uninitiated friend. Ana eavesdrops and is struck by the differences between the relationship that the woman describes and Ana’s experiences with Christian:
Everything they said was so different to how things had been when Christian wanted me to be his Submissive. With him, it had been all about control, and whenever I tried to disagree, he would either distract or punish me. The relationship this unknown girl had described was one of trust and respect, where the Dominant had more responsibility than just making decisions, and the Submissive still had the right to make her own choices.
Ana realizes that Christian had presented her with his own warped view of BDSM, one in which he concealed and justified his penchant for abuse under the veil of kink. Sexually naïve and unexperienced and socially isolated from people who might have helped her to see the truth, Ana hadn’t realized that Christian had used the veneer of BDSM as just another way to control her.
Likewise, in “Eighth Wonder” by NarcissusPhinea, Ana, working in publishing, encounters queer BDSM erotic. Initially she is reluctant to read it, fearing that it will trigger her, causing her to relive her abusive relationship with Christian, which she has escaped from but which still traumatizes her. As she reads the novel, however, she notices distinctions between her experience of BDSM and that of the protagonist of the story. First, unlike Christian, the protagonist’s lover does not put limitations on when safe words can be used. She is shocked that the “Protagonist was clearly not dreading her punishment. Wasn’t the point that the Sub wouldn’t enjoy it in order to learn their lesson?” and that “The love interest actually praised her for enduring it while it happened!” (NarcissusPhinea). When Ana asks the author, Romina, about the differences between Ana’s experiences and the representation of BDSM in the novel, Romina explains, “Being a Sub doesn’t mean you’re exempt from receiving basic respect.” Like Natasja’s fic, this story attempt to correct some of the problematic misconceptions about BDSM in James’ novel; namely, that BDSM is not abuse, despite the way that the two are conflated in Fifty Shades.
Being a fan does not mean being uncritical of the object of fandom. Fans use fanfiction as a way to correct what they perceive to be shortcomings in the plot, characters, or representation of the source text. It should be worth noting, however, that not all fans are open to these critiques. While some of this fics I mentioned in this post, like QuintessentialCat’s “Possessive and Obsessive,” have overwhelming positive comments, thanking the author writing a feminist version of the story, other authors like zoenicole89 and Natasja, have received some really negative comments from angry readers, accusing them of not having read the books or not understanding BDSM. These negative comments attempt to justify Christian’s behavior and blame Ana’s discomfort with their relationship on her.
A user, for example, commented on zoenicole89’s fic, “Well that was certainly terrible. I can see you did not read the books or the characters. Ana wasn’t an idiot in the book but Ana/Kate is terrible. Kate told Ana what to do more times than Christian ever did. I’m surprised the ignorant people don’t call Kate abusive.” Zoenicole patiently and graciously responded,
“I think the great thing about books is that they can be interpreted in many ways. You obviously interpreted them in a completely different way than me, and that’s okay. Yes, obviously in the book that E. L. James wrote Ana is supposed to be super smart and Christian is supposed to be super romantic and Kate actually doesn’t get enough screen time to get to know her character that well. But that’s not how I read them.”
I have quoted Zoenicole at length because I think it demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of authorial intent and reader interpretation. She acknowledges that readers can have different interpretations of the text and that those interpretations can vary from what the author intended. Zoenicole and the other authors quoted here are reading Fifty Shades against the grain of the text, and rejected James’ authorial intent to present Christian as a romantic hero, instead recasting him as a villain. Fic is one place in which fans can explore, develop, and promote their interpretations of the text, whether complementary or not. In fic, interpretation becomes an act of creation as fans attempt to show their interpretation through the stories they tell and how they tell them.
Jen. Comment on “The One Where Ana is Hella Gay.” Archive of Our Own, 14 March 2017, https://archiveofourown.org/works/10286687.
NarcissiusPhinea. “Eighth Wonder.” 24 February 2018, https://archiveofourown.org/works/13787979.
Natasja. “Right Before My Eyes.” Archive of Our Own, 25 March 2015, https://archiveofourown.org/works/3618942.
QuintessentialCat. “Possessive and Obsessive.” Archive of Our Own, 18 January 2016, https://archiveofourown.org/works/5751025.
Reginahalliwell. “It Takes Two to Make a Baby.” Archive of Our Own, 16 September 2013, https://archiveofourown.org/works/968660.
Zoenicole89. Comment on “The One Where Ana is Hella Gay.” Archive of Our Own, 14 March 2017, https://archiveofourown.org/works/10286687.
—. “The One Where Ana is Hella Gay.” Archive of Our Own, 14 March 2017, https://archiveofourown.org/works/10286687.
Guys, I finally did it. I finally read E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. There are a lot of reasons why I hadn’t read this novel before:
I’m not a fan of Twilight by Stephanie Meyers, so I didn’t have much interest of spending time with those characters’ analogues.
The writing is famously atrocious.
The gender politics are worse.
The sex isn’t very sexy (at one point, while performing fellatio, Ana refers to Christian’s penis a “Christian Grey-flavored popsicle,” which is very funny, but not really arousing).
The representation of BDSM is problematic, inaccurate, and dangerous.
But here we are, and I could no longer ignore the most famous piece of fanfiction since the Aeneid.
Everyone already knows the story. Anastasia Steele, our mess of a protagonist (seriously at the start of the book the girl is a graduating college senior and doesn’t have an email address), meets Christian Grey, the sadistic-but-gorgeous-rich-and-broken-so-we-forgive-him-I-guess love interest, when she interviews him for her roommate Kate’s article in the university newspaper. Ana literally falls into his office and Christian is intrigued because he has questionable taste in lots of areas of his life. Ana likes him because he’s rich and hot and he likes her for some reason and they get together. Turns out that Ana is a virgin, because of course she is, which is a problem because Christian likes to disguise his physical and emotional abuse of women as kink. They flirt and fuck and do rich people stuff, like fly in helicopters and drink champagne and buy brand name products, Ana bites her lower lip and rolls her eyes a lot (which Christian comments on EVERY.SINGLE.TIME), and call each other “Mr. Grey” and “Miss Steele” which is supposed to be sexy but is actually just pretentious. Christian takes Ana down to his Red Room of Pain and has his way with her, coercing her through conditional affection; she orgasms any time he so much as touches her. She tries to live by the literal contract that is supposed to outline their Dom/Sub relationship, but she wants “more,” like some respect and agency, and is pretty sure she can fix him. One night after he brutally takes a belt to her, she decides that she’s had enough and leaves him.
Tons of articles and think pieces have been written on the novel, analyzing its representations of sex, gender, abuse, BDSM, social class, psychology, etc. And while many of these mention that this story started out as the Twilight fanfiction Master of the Universe, few really interrogate what that means or how James’ work comments on Meyers’.
It is frustrating for some members of the fanfiction community that Fifty Shades became many people’s introduction to the genre. It is not particularly good fanfiction and it’s not very good erotica. I have read lots of stories and lots of sex scenes much better than this. Even more frustrating is that a number of articles about the novel snidely note that it began as fanfiction, implying that’s reason for its poor quality and suggesting that all fanfiction is full of sex and devoid of creativity.
While it is true that fanfiction uses source material, it’s creativity comes from way that it interprets and recontextualizes the its source (see Henry Jenkins, Katherine E. McCain, Bronwen Thomas, Veerle Van Steenhuyse). Fanfiction is not an act of reiteration but of analysis and transformation. In the rest of this post, I want to consider how Fifty Shades both appropriates and comments on Twilight.
Master of the Universe, the fanfiction that was the source of much of the novel, is an example of AU, or alternative universe, fanfiction. It takes the characters from a source text and places them in a new setting. Ideally, the characters should be kept relatively consistent as they function within their new environment and genre. Master of the Universe, and by extension Fifty Shades, provides an all-human AU of the vampire story, dispersing with the supernatural elements of the original.
Anastasia Steele is obviously the analogue for Bella Swan. They are both Mary-Sue-sque female protagonists, who don’t realize how beautiful they are, despite the fact that literally almost every man they meet instantly wants to bang them. Their flaws are that they are pale and skinny and clumsy. And they become instantly obsessed with their respective love interests and think about little else beside their eyes, lips, hair, and abs after their initial meeting.
Other analogues are equally uninteresting. Ana’s mom, like Bella’s, is flighty and geographically removed. She also has a well-meaning but clueless father figure, her stepfather Ray, who is akin to Bella’s Charlie. The American Indian werewolf Jacob is transformed into the unfortunately racialized Jose, who like his canine counterpart has an unrequited crush on the protagonist (because he is a man in her general vicinity, and that’s just want seems to happen). Ana’s best friend is Katherine Kavanagh, who is supposed to be Rosalie Hale. She becomes romantically involved with Christian’s adopted brother, Elliot, Twilight’s Emmett. Christian’s sister, also adopted, Mai is the human version of Alice, Edward’s psychic sister. The Greys, Christian’s wealthy parents who have a brood of adopted children, are stand-ins for the Cullens.
In contrast, what James does with Christian is interesting. It isn’t necessarily good, but it is interesting. Like Edward, Christian is unbelievably good looking; he mournfully plays the piano and is initially cold to the protagonist to protect her from himself. Both men struggle to control themselves, carnally, around their romantic interests but can’t help but be drawn to them (72). In Twilight, one of the key aspects of Bella and Edward’s relationship is unequal distribution of power between them. As a wealthy century-old vampire, Edward is inherently more powerful than Bella; he, not infrequently, physically menaces with his vampire speed and strength. Christian, lacking vampire superpowers, is just really, really ridiculously rich. And like Edward, who has been stuck in a teenage body since the Jazz Age, Christian is “old before his time. He doesn’t talk like a man of twentysomething” (19).
Both men are also dangerous and warn the protagonist away from them. Edward tells Bella that he wants to drink her and can barely restrain himself from killing her (she doesn’t care, because, you know, he’s hot). Christian also warns Ana away, telling her “Anastasia, you should steer clear of me. I’m not the man for you” (49). Christian is described as “scary” (21) and “dangerous” (39,101, 501); he described as “predatory,” like “a panther or mountain lion all unpredictable” (250) and Ana admits to being afraid of him (394). While it is Edward’s vampirism that makes him a monster (as Xander Harris of Buffy the Vampire Slayer helpfully reminds us, “Vampires are monsters! They make monster movies about them!” (“Intervention”)), Christian, according to the book is a monster, not because he is a wealthy white male in the pre-#MeToo years, but as a result of his predilection for BDSM, “the monster who possesses whips and chains in a special room” (102).
I want to take a minute to clarify here. Engaging in BDSM does not make a person a monster. But as studies have shown, what Christian does isn’t BDSM; it’s abuse.
However, while the text insists that his kink makes Christian monstrous, it also demonstrates that he is dangerous because he is abusive to Ana. While in Twilight, Edward’s abuse of Bella is almost entirely subtextual, in Fifty Shades it becomes text. Edward stalks Bella under the guise of protecting her, while Christian stalks Ana openly; he shows up at her place of work (26), tracks her cell phone to a bar (62), knows what flight she is taking to visit her mother (389), as well as the addresses of her home and that of her family members (he also claims that it was protect her (67)). Unlike Bella, Ana actually calls him a “stalker” (295), and though this doesn’t change his behavior, at least it is recognized for what it is. In addition to the physical abuse for breaking one of his rules (275, 503), like Edward, he attempts to separate her from her friends (132) and wants to control almost every aspect of her body, what she eats, wears, and waxes (172). Also like Edward, he is possessive and overly jealous (148), and uses her emotional vulnerability (233) and sexual inexperience to manipulate her (201). When his abuse gets out of hand and she becomes upset, he blames her for not objecting (295) or presents Ana with a grand romantic gesture of apology (285-289,509).
The wildest thing about this representation of abuse is how overt it is in the text. Upon seeing Christian’s Red Room of Pain, Ana thinks “He likes to hurt women” (100). She might be thinking about BDSM, but her observation accurately reflects his abusive nature. Later she recognizes, “All the warning signs were there, I was just too clueless and enamored to notice” (280). Yes, Ana, all the warning signs were there. But Ana is not the only woman to be in an abusive relationship and not recognize it as such, to excuse and romanticize her abuser’s behavior. After, all, isn’t that what happened to Bella?
And now we come to what makes Fifty Shades of Grey so frustrating. It’s not the bad writing or the silly erotica. It’s not even the weak characterization and rampant consumerism. It’s that the book was so close to making a real point about the toxicity of Bella and Edward’s relationship, but instead romanticizes and normalizes it. Ana leaves at the end of the first novel, but, like Bella, she ends up marrying her abuser. Ana questions and challenges Christian’s behavior, but the text reaffirms it by explaining it away through a trauma narrative and retaining him as the romantic hero. Ana falls into the same trap as Bella, and the reader is invited to fall with her, to fantasize about a man like Christian. Fifty Shades offers an interpretation that presents Edward and Bella’s relationship as abusive, but then doesn’t do anything to challenge it.
“Intervention.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Jane Epsenson, directed by Michael Gershman, Warner Brothers, 2001.
James, E.L. Fifty Shades of Grey. Vintage, 2012.
Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Routledge, 1992.
—. “How Fan Fiction Can Teach Us a New Way to Read Moby-Dick (Part One).” Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, 11 August 2008, http://henryjenkins.org/2008/08/how_fan_fiction_can_teach_us_a.html.
McCain, Katherine E. Canon Vs. ‘Fanon’: Genre Devices in Contemporary Fanfiction. Masters Thesis, Georgetown University, 2015.
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