The first time I saw Mr Grey I knew it was the beginning of a queer little crush I knew most people would probably not understand. He was unnecessarily rude to his new secretary, but only to the untrained eye. Following a stay in a psychiatric hospital the female lead character Lee Holloway takes steps to reconnect with society and goes through the motions; finding herself a job and a man to settle down with. She’s invited to an interview for a secretarial post where she meets her new boss Mr E Edward Grey. Despite her limited proficiency for the job he employs her and over the course of the film their flirtations centre on her submissiveness and willingness to do practically anything he asks of her. He is initially perplexed and tests the boundaries of how far she is willing to go but quite quickly they are interacting with each other in what could be described as a consensual BDSM relationship.
Lee is also in a relationship with a childhood friend who bores her sexually. Her attempts to make him understand that she’s not strictly ‘vanilla’ end with frustration and a resignation to the role she must play within that dynamic. As he humps away for posterity, with his eyes closed and his hand outstretched from the sheer intensity of sexual congress with a seemingly consenting individual, she responds in a dull, monotonous fashion, oohs and aahs coordinated with each thrust. I found this scene uncomfortable because she is consenting to sex for his sake and not really considering her own feelings on what she needs from him. He doesn’t even notice she’s not into it and it is this detachment from the activity and from each other, the absence of mutual satisfaction that is worrying, that she allows her body to be used sexually because that is just what we do. Kind of like the dynamic between E L James’ Mr Grey and his victim.
It is no coincidence these two dominant male characters are both called Mr Grey when E L James’ inspiration comes from Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behaviours on which the popular cult film The Secretary is based. However, the similarities end with their name. James Spader’s Mr Grey isn’t a self-assured perpetrator of violence against women; he controls her day to day movements with her consent because she enjoys the sense of belonging (having been lost and alone up until that point) and the strict parameters within which she can satisfy her impulsions (preventing another trip to a psych unit). Lee has a troubled past with eating disorders and self-harm that they explore in detail. Mr Grey controls her but in a positive way; for example making a pact that she won’t cut herself because she can find that release elsewhere, spanking with a paddle brush for example. She wants him to tell her what she can eat, making the focus of this behaviour sexual instead of dysphoric, not so much calorie counting but the notion that the two of them are in it together to the bewilderment of everyone else “one scoop of creamed potatoes, a slice of butter, 4 peas and as much ice cream as you’d like to eat”. He indulges her, it’s not about him. In fact he withdraws from the relationship when he fears he might have taken it too far and stresses that his perversions are not sustainable long term. He punishes himself, taking out his frustrations through physical exercise. It is then up to Lee to assure him that she is a consenting adult in it for the right reasons, because she enjoys their dynamic as much as him. A lot of the communication between them is unspoken. He recognises that she intends to prove her intentions when she storms in on him in her wedding dress (she is engaged to the boring childhood friend) and plays along, telling her to sit with her hands palm down until he returns. So she does.
E Edward Grey isn’t the type to beat a woman up and rape her without her enthusiastic consent. Christian Grey on the other hand revels in humiliating his victim. Whilst humiliation is a turn on for some people, again this is with their full consent; between two people who can legally consent (minors/vulnerable adults – drunk – cannot, in any circumstance). There are safe words and there have to be rules both parties are aware of before anything happens. Everyone, from victims of male perpetrated violence to practitioners of BDSM have reacted with outrage to this framing of abusive behaviour as acceptable sexuality because of how it has been wrongly presented as some kind of celebration of female sexuality when actually it is about the power and control of women by men through dominance and violence. If this book was as progressive as people like to make out then there’d be a whole dialogue around BDSM and other sexual preferences/fetishes but there is not because usually we condemn women for expressing their sexuality. Patriarchy can hyper sexualise whomever it chooses to but it will not allow a woman to present her own sexual identity as she sees herself because then she’s just a slag.
The key issue that raises concern throughout the 50 Shades series is this matter of consent. Why does he have to get her drunk in order to have his way? He even admits to it. Sex with someone who is too drunk to consent is rape, clear cut. Try and explain this to E L James though and you’ll get the stock response that you’re a troll and have no idea what you’re talking about. Yes, even if you have suffered those same patterns of abuse in your own relationships or happen to be a lifelong enthusiast of consensual BDSM, your feedback does not matter. James believes she is the authority on a subculture she has tarnished with her twisted misogynistic views. At the beginning of this month she even chose to brandish actress Mara Wilson a ‘sad fuck’ for objecting to her badly written trash. What kind of person calls another, a stranger and perhaps a victim of male perpetrated violence (it being a patriarchy) a ‘sad fuck’? This abuse is indicative of the kind of mind that believes women are to blame for the violence they experience, that they should just put up and take it like a woman.
I know a lot of people who practice BDSM and they are possibly the safest and most considerate people to be around. I have myself been curious and experimented and even considered things such as consensual cutting, a practice that many might consider to be abusive even with informed consent but might make a difference to my self-image if I do not self-harm when I am in a negative mood. I am also a repeat survivor of domestic abuse. I know there is a pretty fucking wide line between the two but that’s only because I’ve spent a while learning about consent and owning my rights to my own body as an autonomous individual.
In a world where many women do not even know when they are being raped (having sex with someone who does not want to/cannot consent is rape not ‘non-consensual sex’) is it really any wonder this book has been so successful? For something so badly written it’s sure been pushed as some kind of revelation and I guess it would appear that way in a society that is otherwise shamed and ostracised for having sexual desires that do not conform to the hetero missionary lights off acceptable form of making babies. Of course misinformation around a book which explores those taboo acts We Never Speak Of will be gobbled up by the sex starved masses who are just grateful someone went there in the first place.
Except it’s dangerous when it encourages coercion and manipulation of vulnerable people and you can’t criticise the fact that it does.