Fifty Shades of Interpretation: How Fanfiction Writers Critique Fifty Shades of Grey

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.”

Image sourced from Glasnost.

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.

Image sourced from Fifty Shades of Abuse

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.

Image sourced from Cosmopolitan.

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.

Image from Feminism and Religion.

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.

Works Cited

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.

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