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.
Meyers, Stephanie. Twilight. Little, Brown and Company, 2005.
Thomas, Bronwen. “What Is Fanfiction and Why Are People Saying Such Nice Things about It??” Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, vol. 3, 2011, pp. 1-24.
Van Steenhuyse, Veerle. Canon, Fantext, and Creativity: An Analysis of Pamela Aidan’s Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman as “Fanfictional Response to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, MA Thesis, Ghent University, 2009.