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Fifty Shades of Shame
Fifty Shades of Grey - E L James
Member Name: shroud
Fifty Shades of Grey - E L James
Date: 24/07/12, updated on 29/07/12 (139 review reads)
Advantages: woke up more of the general population to the idea of "kink" as fun sex play
Disadvantages: poorly researched, badly edited, awkwardly written sex scenes
The sorting of the merely good to the great can be further pared down by how well the author has portrayed key elements within a sub-genre. Mistakes in key plot elements often ruin a book, as the gaffes make the plot ever more improbable. Of course, every writer can't have an in depth knowledge of absolutely everything, but there is a rule usually best adhered to: "Write what you know". If you didn't know it before, you'd best do extensive research using reputable resources before sticking your neck out, else risk getting called out on errors. So, how did this stack up?
Well, let's take such a look at one of the key elements of this particular book: BDSM. Now, when I first heard about this book, I was intrigued. I then read an interview where the author admitted she knew nothing about BDSM herself, and did several other interviews where she admitted to no actual research on the subject, bar watching a few porn videos and reading some internet sites. Oh, and she kinda knows one guy she finds strange, and he happens to claim to be into BDSM. Uh oh...these facts do NOT bode well for accuracy. Now, if the BDSM in the story is of the Ann Summers role play type fun, this is pretty okay. But when you base an entire novel around a supposed serious and experienced BDSM practitioner and base the "love affair" around said "lifestyle", you need to know a bit more than one obvious weirdo, a few websites that may be suspect, and some porn videos (which as we all know are sooo realistic... yes, that's sarcasm. And I do know a lot about porn actually, and how it's filmed, due to some other professional acquaintances, but that's another story entirely).
When portraying a lifestyle, one first has to understand it. BDSM is no exception. First off, let's look at that acronym- BDSM. What does it stand for? Well, TWO things actually. Firstly, Bondage, Dominance, and SubMission. That pretty much explains the lifestyle as a whole. Within that are subcategories, where the S and M can stand for Slave and Master and/or Sado-Masochism. These subcategories are towards the more extreme end of the lifestyle, and often the most sensationalised. On a scale of 1-10 , think of the blindfolds and scarves role play end as the 1 and those last two as being 9 and 10. Most people into the lifestyle fall somewhere between these, and you are quite likely to NEVER guess. In fact, those that go so far as to submit to a collaring, you'd probably never know about, as it isn't necessarily a dog style collar- it could be a necklace, a bracelet, a unique finger ring, or even a cock-ring.
Now, admittedly, regardless of how far up the kink scale you go, there is dominance and there is submission. And we get that...Christian Grey is a Dominant who meets virginal Ana while she substitutes for her friend and goes to interview him for their university newspaper. She falls flat on her face as she is a right clumsy clots, and he is immediately endeared and decides that her shy embarrassment may indicate the makings of a damn good Sub. Ana is wowed by his good looks and gets her first sexual crush. And so their little mating dance begins, only Ana IS actually a virgin. Not only that, but despite having a worldly room mate and best friend and a mother who's working on yet another marriage, she is also woefully na´ve. All she actually knows about love and romance comes from classic British lit, such as Thomas Hardy and the Bronte sisters and such. So when Christian shows her his playroom, she is freaked out. But also turned on. So, since it unexpectedly makes her panties wet for the first time ever and gives her an erotic orgasm inducing dream about being cropped on her genitals, she decides on the spur of the moment that Mr Grey is indeed the one for her.
Well, that is, except for what seems is every other paragraph. Grey is completely upfront with her on several scores- he normally doesn't do the girlfriend thing, but he's willing to try for her as she feels different. And he carefully explains the lifestyle to her. James' handling of this is just fine, up to a point. That is the point where her lack of in depth knowledge on the lifestyle shows up. Firstly, she has Christian tell Ana that he is NOT a sadist, but a Dominant, and indeed, the hard limits portion of the D/s contract's list seems to address this on the surface. But during the course of the story, several times she has Christian mention how much he loves to inflict pain and gets off on it. Sorry...but that's the mark of sadist, not an "ordinary" Dominant.
Indeed, the further and further along I read, the more the lack of knowledge became obvious, to the point of being a near fatal flaw to the entire premise. It also seemed to me that not only was Ana based on Twilight's Bella in look and in mannerisms, but was also perhaps a mouthpiece for the author's own preconceptions and possible prejudices. In fact, I find Ana to be someone with some serious personal issues. She has a very negative self body image for one thing. She's also prone to simply not eating and as soon as ANYONE asks her if she's eaten, she mentally starts rebelling and calling them names. She even resorts to it over an act of courtesy...being left 2 ibuprofen and a glass of orange juice by her bed to help her deal with her hang over from the previous night's drinking binge is apparently overbearing and domineering. This is something she does with great regularity over other, often trivial, things as well.
Take for example her interview session with Grey at the very beginning. She asks him about his role as company president, and when he answers with a reply that pretty much sums up what every other successful CEO I have ever heard has said the job, she mentally calls him a control freak. Eh? She also refers to her best friend as a control freak, but only in her head (to her face she's nice as pie). Pretty much anyone who is assertive, or tries to remind her to do what she is supposed to be doing anyway, or who is self confident and in a position of any authority, is a control freak to Ana. The fact that he is a Dominant just seals the deal and makes her feel smug about her savvy intuition. But this is a fatal reasoning flaw.
In a D/s relationship, it is NOT the Dominant who wields the control- it is the submissive. The Dominant is bound to the terms of the contract, and also to any time the Sub feels the need to simply stop what is happening (safeword usage). The Dominant only has control over scenes and situations that have been agreed upon, and ONLY when the Sub decides to go along with it. It all has a purpose as well, and it is NOT the reason of "getting off", though that is a form of release that a scene between a Dom/me and his/her sub may culminate in. The purpose is to explore one's self...not just the sexual side, but to also find balance and one's centre and thereby experience personal growth. In fact, much of what occurs between a Dom and his sub (during a scene) is to tear down personal barriers and allow the sub to "fly". This occurs when endorphins are released either through pain or pleasure thresholds being breached, resulting in a euphoric state commonly known as Subspace. The Dom not only has the obligation to help the Sub reach this place, but to care for their safety and well being while there and to help them come down gently.
Why get there at all? While in Subspace, a Sub is pretty blissed out, and their mind is pretty blank. When they come down, whatever stress, upsets, or issues they suffer from is packed away, and can be dealt with from a now more objective point of view. It need not be anything major, in fact it can be just day to day frustrations. And the Dominant gets the joy of knowing he has helped his Sub, though during part of the flying, the Dominant may seek sexual release to relieve his own surge of endorphins and the resulting hormonally induced urges. In fact, the sub is usually quite sexually excited as well, so this works well.
This little titbit did not go unnoticed by James, but it gets played the shame card. Yes, Ana is ASHAMED. It's WRONG to get excited by being held down, or from erotic spankings. And it's twisted that Grey gets excited administering to this side of her, so the blame gets laid by Ana (and thereby by James), squarely on Christian's shoulders. To justify it, James has Ana clutch at straws. Grey suffered early childhood trauma before being raised in a happy, normal family that he fits in rather well with, but seemingly left him obviously damaged to the point where he is a sadistic pervert. He also had a Mrs Robinson type relationship during high school and part of university, so obviously he was led astray. Blah blah blah. Really?! His very early childhood may have left him with issues about hunger and wasted food (which led him to be a philanthropist relieving world hunger) and liking to be in charge, but to twist him into a sexual sadist? Err...just no. And that Mrs Robinson? She saw a kindred soul and introduced him into the world of kink, yes, and he was just shy of the age of consent which is just WRONG, but you can't create that which isn't there in nascent form. It wasn't even a 24/7 thing, but a ROLE play sort, as Christian himself admits. Nor did he think that he loved her...he just enjoyed the sex play. They "played" when they met up and he went on about his normal business at all other times, including going away to university. It was such a non issue, that the rest of his family, to whom he is shown to be quite close to, hadn't a friggin' clue. Huh. Okay...it's messed up, sure, but still not something that could have that twisted him into some kind of warped human being, given the the scenario.
In point of fact, modern psychiatry does NOT view BDSM as a sexual deviancy unless the BDSM behaviour is: 1) obligatory, 2) results in sexual dysfunction, 3) requires the participation of non-consenting individuals, 4) leads to legal complications, or 5) interferes in social relationships. None of which are true for Christian Grey. He not only requires consent, but won't move forward without it. It's NOT obligatory...he initiates vanilla sex on more than one occasion, as Ana wishes. Sexual dysfunction? Nope...legal complications...again, no...interference in social relationships..again...nuh uh. He only hasn't veered from having sex friends as it were before this point, because, well, he didn't fall in love with anyone else before. Fair enough. In light of this, the whole house of cards just sort of begins to fall down.
Likewise, I found Ana rather too immature in her general world view. Everyone who is vaguely nice to you is NOT your friend. Everyone who reminds you that you need to eat, or offers you advice, or tries to make sure you have what you need when ill, is NOT a control freak. And every other paragraph breaking out the "Oh golly!" and "Oh gosh!" and other 1950's Disney movie teen sayings only hammers home her childishness. Her insipid shallowness in regards to material things hammers this home as well. She takes a lot of time describing in minute detail just how posh everything is...whether it's a suit worn by a secretary we never see again, to the layout of his penthouse, to what his place-mats are made up of. She simply gushes over it in awe, all the while denigrating herself and patting her low self esteem on the back. But let someone try to share any of their good fortune by gifting...look out! It's control freak time again, being patronising, sulking "whatever" time. I actually began to wonder if Ana was bi-polar, as she was prone to such extreme mood swings.
And as for the sex scenes being "hot"...well, there is a good reason this got dubbed "mummy porn" I've found. Now, don't get me wrong...there is porn and then there is porn...and then there is erotica. The book may have been intended as erotica, but the sex scenes read like the script to some cheap porn you might find free online. I've got to say it...these scenes were almost cringe-worthy. In fact, I did actually cringe during a few. If you want to get an idea of what I mean without buying the book, Google "50 Shades tampon scene" and have a good read, as it's quoted in full in several places, including Tumblr. I've read a LOT of erotica, and a a Sub myself with over 20 years being in and around the community, I admit I do like to read erotica with a BDSM kink in it. I can tell you I have read much, much better. If I had to name just one, right off the top of my head, I'd recommend Anne Rice's Beauty series before this one. Even if you happened to enjoy this book, I'd still recommend Anne Rice's Beauty series...her prose is a sensual delight in itself.
This is, of course, book one of a trilogy, so the end is not the end. Suffice it to say, Ana's issues get in the way of things and so the story needs to drag out across two more volumes-where she hopes to fix him and "drag him into the light". Which all sits very uncomfortably with me, echoing as it does certain sections of society that view anything different to being morally wrong and in need of "fixing". Gay? Let us fix you... Like BDSM? Let us fix you...It's not a disorder, so these things are not something that needs fixing. What needs fixing is one's own insecurities that leads to a need to build oneself up while crying "deviant" and "control freak" or "weirdo" at everyone around you with alarming regularity. Rather than a boyfriend, I believe Ana requires a therapist, because this is precisely what she does, often while whining about how she needs a hair tie because her hair simply will not behave.
The book's editor seemingly needs professional help as well, as he or she seems to be having a crisis so that they cannot tell where they are, or where the character is from apparently. I'm aware James is a Brit. But the book is set in Seattle, and Ana several times refers to the southern state of Georgia as "home" (Ana and her Mom moved each time her mother remarried right up until Washington state, whereupon Ana stayed on with her then stepfather, seemingly as a teen. Mama's latest marital conquest has her back in Georgia). I spent several years in Georgia, as mentioned in a previous review. Ana exhibits absolutely NO Southern speech patterns...and neither does her mother back in Georgia There are certain "tells", mainly with certain turns of phrases,and such, that alerts a reader that that someone in the book is from the South...whether it is Georgia, or Alabama, or Mississippi or where ever. Not only are these missing, but the general prose veers between US and UK English. It was highly distracting when I came across it.
All in all, I cannot really recommend the book on several levels. James bills this as a fantasy and says it excuses the flaws and inconsistencies, but she has written it to mirror contemporary reality and roots the book deeply within a particular minority community. Her failures to do so consistently and without any properly researched understanding lets the book down. Likewise her sex scenes need work, and I would suggest rather than watch porn videos, that she try reading some well established erotica writers to get ideas on style and content. Lastly, the books need to be re-edited. I understand the story is being made into a film and that someone else is writing the script with the sex scenes made "tasteful", which suggests the film may not end up resembling the book closely (typical Hollywood, that) . So my advice...if you must, simply read the fan fiction that's still up from before she changed the names to be able to sell this (Google, you'll find it I'm sure). Or better yet, read Anne Rice's Beauty trilogy and wait for the 50 Shades movie to come to TV. As for me, I'm glad I was loaned the book and didn't pay for it. If I had, I'd have deserved a paddling.
Summary: Kinky, but if you want high quality BDSM erotica look further.