A couple years ago, I tried to write an article for Cracked about a SUPER HOT TOPIC at the time. They weren’t biting and I dropped it. But with the release of the 50 Shades of Grey trailer and the fact I have a blog now, I thought I’d resurrect it. Here’s the original article:
Straight up: before writing this article I read both Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, I did it sober, and holy shit was that the worst idea I’ve ever had. But once the migraines subsided, I tucked back my man-bits, took some Midol and pretended these books were marketed towards me. This is how I came to my conclusions. Note there are spoilers to follow:
1) It’s Fan-Fiction!
For those wondering why I bothered to read Stephanie Meyer’s abortion of literature for a 50 Shades article, let me enlighten you: 50 Shades of Grey started its rags-to-riches fairy-tale life as a rip-off of someone else’s fairy-tale life. Because of that, it’s impossible not to draw a few comparisons. They’ll pop up. I had to be educated.
The fact remains, 50 Shades of Grey was once a humble, smutty, Twilight fan fiction titled Masters of the Universe and I can’t begin to tell you how pissed I was when searching for He-Man/Fisto slash stories and coming across this bullshit.
Fuck with the universe, the universe fucks back.
Now fan fiction is not a new thing. If you don’t believe me, Google it! Actually, maybe don’t. There’s a lot of dark shit on the Internet. But while it’s not uncommon, the attention this one got was insane. What’s more surprising is that it hasn’t happened before. There have been thousands of stories at least of Harry Potter getting Bunghole Expanidicus’d and none of them have come close to drilling the oil of Hell and making the author a veritable tycoon.
But it happened with this. 50 Shades of Grey got kick-started by Edward dark-fucking Bella and thousands of people liking it. It’s like a porn parody that doesn’t know it’s a parody.
But it’s not so bad because…
Once Stephanie Meyer’s people started shoving Cease and Desists so far up E.L. James’ ass that her off-brand Wheaties tasted like law, she took down Masters, took a second to reflect, and overhauled the whole damn thing.
Seriously. 50 Shades is almost completely different. All you need to do is read them both to see. There are some similarities. Edward and Christian both get their Elton John on with their own pianos and serenades. They’re both abrasive, distant and thrumming with danger. They both rescue their loves from a speeding vehicle (Anastasia’s was an eager cyclist; Bella only had to worry about a truck).
I vampired the shit out of that truck with my glitter-pecs.
And that’s about it. The relationship is different, save for the “I’m not right for you, so pick someone else, but I won’t really let you” cliché that exists in every romance with a “bad boy”. But in Twilight, you have Edward, a 107-year old vampire who’s been hanging out in high schools because… who the fuck knows? He’s like the Van Wilder of statuatory rape. On the other hand: Christian Grey, a mid-twenties ridiculously rich entrepreneur who has equally questionable tastes but is far from an undead confessed murderer. Their relationship is not predator-prey, but master-servant. There’s no real danger, unlike Edward’s overt threat that he will murder his lady friend and ditch her body in a different state. (Page 214. And 255. Romance!)
And unlike Bella’s repeated carelessness and indifference in the face of danger, Ana feels, recognizes and addresses her fear. There’s no super-nature, there is thinking characters, and a mostly private romance with a public figure as opposed to a public relationship with a mostly private figure. At most, it’s close to a total opposite, like a picture negative. The same, but different, and that’s no worse than anything already being vomited and re-digested in all forms of media.
2) The Pacing
The cadence of this book is more bi-polar than a sexually confused penguin. It starts out at a pretty speedy pace, devolves into sexy hijinks that are… dubious… and then it fucking draaags for a good third of the book. My god, once you get to the banging, how can you just write a hundred pages of, uh, not banging?
The most egregious example of Rapidash-level plot advancement is our opening. After Anastasia Steel interviews Christian Grey, we’re met with a “the rest of the week” style fast-forward. Using context clues, we can deduce that, at the earliest, Ana interviewed Grey on a Sunday. Assuming that’s the case and following the narrative from there, it is twelve days at the most before 21-year old Anastasia- who has never wanted to kiss a man before in her life – lets Grey be her first sexual partner.
The only things that could drop a virgin’s panties faster than Christian Grey are gamma hydroxybutyric and the Rapture. Maybe the Flash, but he’s a real hero… and the friction burn would be terrible.
But it’s not so bad because…
E. L. James wanted to leave her mushroom print on literature, so she introduced us to naïve but willful Anastaia and cold-but-sexy-hot boner owner Christian quickly, a little faster than we’re used to. It felt wrong at first, but… so, so right. Then she blew our minds, hard and enthusiastically, with the sex. Then sure, it went slower, but we knew it’s because she was going deeper.
See, the pacing is a little jarring at first only because James hooked us by jumping right into the deep end with no floaties. We got our characters, our basic set-up, our hard sex, all at once. We’re not used to it happening so quickly with anything that doesn’t have “co-ed” or “turkey baster” in the title. But once it’s out of the way, we can slow our thudding hearts, take our hands away from our parts and get to the juicy meat of the story.
3) The Story
But the story fucking sucks. We’re not just talking about the plot, though we doubt the verisimilitude behind a prudish virgin rocketing towards nymphomania at a speed so fast Mr. Fahrenheit would finally let someone stop him. The book is essentially the film Eros zip-tying Never Been Kissed and taking her to Pound Town.
But more than that, the writing style is atrocious. It just hammered home phrases like “Don’t bite your lip”, “inner goddess” and “baby. Oh, baby.” I haven’t seen so many unconvincing usages of the word ‘baby’ since Little Man, most memorably after he romantically removes her tampon, slips it in and says, “That’s right, baby.”
No it’s not ‘right’, baby.
I haven’t swooned so hard since The Notebook. And by “swooned”, I mean “recoiled” and by “The Notebook”, I mean “Ichi the Killer”.
The crowning achievement of this masterpiece comes after Grey gives Anastasia Steele a laptop so they can e-mail each other and she’s flustered when the first one arrives. “I got an e-mail from Christian Grey.” Gasp. First off: Lady, you deep-throated the man in his bathtub after less than two weeks of knowing him, you can stop being surprised. Secondly, here are what some of those e-mails entail:
CG: I do hope you had a good day at work.
AS: I had a very good day at work.
CG: Delighted you had a good day.
Fuck you, E.L. James!
But it’s not so bad because…
Like a Rubik’s Cube with Asperger’s, the characters and underlying plot are surprisingly complex. Christian Grey’s disposition and predilection for rough sex are a result of his being seduced (read: statuatory raped/dominated) by an older person at the ripe age of fifteen. No, it wasn’t Edward Cullen.
A big chunk of the book focuses on Anastasia’s sexual curiosity, the chances she takes and her growing experience all while wrestling with the commanding nature of aggressive sex and Christian’s mood swings. They talk to each other, a lot, and in those conversations, they learn about each other and begin to build a connection that starts the crumbling of Christian’s walls. Ultimately, the book even closes on a downer, which is a little unconventional, even for the first book in a trilogy.
And yeah, some lines are groaners, but let’s look at some other romance novels:
Lora Leigh’s Nauti Deceptions: “…sent a shard of sensation tugging at the forbidden entrance to her lower body.”
Roxanne St. Claire’s Barefoot In the Sand: “Still looking up, still holding him with her eyes and her mouth… and her heart.”
Laurell K. Hamilton’s Narcissus In Chains: “It was tight, thick, like he plugged a hole with his body…”
Compared to Twilight, which reads like a blind spastic was flailing frantically at a keyboard, 50 Shades is fucking Shakespeare. Plus it has the term “just-fucked pigtails” and the sentences, “I don’t remember reading about nipple clamps in the Bible. Perhaps you were taught from a modern translation,” and that shit is gold.
4) The Misogyny
Do a search in any engine asking if 50 Shades of Grey is misogynistic and the results will come back as an overwhelming “Fucking Duh”.
Christian Grey’s whole thing, his schtick, is that he likes to dominate and control women. He orders them around, refers to them as his property and physically abuses them. He wants to make Anastasia sign a strict contract on what she can and can’t do with her own body, including her diet, sleep regiment and masturabatory practices, like the Hitler of handjobs.
He makes Anastasia cry on multiple occasions, spanks her – one time with a belt! – chastises and demeans her. And she takes it. And she doesn’t tell anyone about it because he made her sign a non-disclosure agreement, meaning she has to ask permission before she can ask her best friend all the new sex questions she’s got running through her mind. Anastasia is Reverse Rosie the Riveter, a stunning sample of alliteration that will stir the loins of any chauvinist readers.
But it’s not so bad because…
Misogyny: noun: hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women.
Hatred is a… pretty harsh word. And while Christian Grey mistrusts women, he mistrusts everybody, but there is little in the book to support a claim that he hates Anastaia or even dislikes her or even likes her discomfort and distress.
And as far as the distrust goes, the entire book is about how he learns to love and trust her while she trusts in him as he frees her of her sexual inhibitions. So it’s more about the removal of misogyny, if anything.
Shit, if we’re definining misogyny as being wary around people or making them cry, any man who’s ever hurt his girlfriend’s feelings (or vice-versa, you femisogynists) is guilty!
If it’s about the fact that he likes to control and smack her around… I can see how that can be taken the wrong way. But while I would never condone domestic abuse (except in the case of the Muppets and the Flintstones), that’s not what’s going on here. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s analyze the book a bit.
Christian Grey’s got the personality of sexy sandpaper, probably because his mom was a crackhead and he was burned by cigarettes as a kid. But beneath that uncaring visage is something more humane, something that makes him protect Ana from her would-be date-rapist/friend Jose, take care of her when she’s black-out, Exorcist-expulsion drunk, bends over backwards to provide for her, frets for her safety, showers her with gifts, confides in her and makes exceptions with his lifestyle that he’s never made with anyone. Hell, I want to have sex with him now.
The abusive stuff, the debasement and bondage and spanking? The only things that happen outside of her contract signing are asked for and verbally encouraged. The non-disclosure agreement was only to protect Christian Grey’s image, probably because – for some reason – he doesn’t want everyone to know he’s got Marquis de Sade’s wet dream in his penthouse.
The sex contract on the other hand is detailed in pages 165-175. Ten pages. The thing reads like a dissertation and outlines their relationship, the length (a three month trial period) and everything else that will be involved. Anything she doesn’t like or feel comfortable with, she negotiates away. And the debasement and abuse she’s agreeing to? Here’s a list: spanking, whipping, biting, genital clamps, hot wax, paddling, caning, nipple clamps, ice.
Now, while the genital and nipple clamps seem rough (she denies them and he agrees), the rest of that is pretty fucking tame…. wait a second…..
You sick bastard.
5) The Sex
Here it is. The most talked-about aspect of the book. That’s because when it comes, it is graphic. Believe it or not, that’s partly why it sucks. It’s not a book so much as literotica (from the ancient Celtic phrase “book porn”). And while it’s detailed, it stays just vague enough to be kind of bad.
There are a whole lot of “down there’s” that make it almost sound like she’s getting her ankles fucked, and the “babys” and “inner goddess” references keep on coming and kill the joy faster than John Wayne Gacy. That fucking inner goddess… she grates like Fran Drescher.
Imagine sex with her voice. You’re welcome.
And it’s all so… weird. Hell, Grey’s completely indifferent to de-flowering his new toy. He approaches taking Anastasia’s virginity in the same manner one would use when scraping the ice off of their windshield before sticking their dick in the car.
The bondage aspects are talked about but only weakly explored. Zip-tied, for God’s sakes? The guy who shoplifted a box of lamb-skin condoms got that far when security fucked the center of his back with a knee.
Dispassionate and unambitious, it’s a watered down Penthouse letter with a plot written by an angsty ninth-grader who sees it as the only way to get the senior prom king to fall for her… and she still imaginary-begs for it.
But it’s not so bad because…
Clumsy sex is still sex. That old phrase, “It’s like pizza: even when it’s bad, it’s still good”? It’s true here, too, if you’ve got the imagination for it. And there’s a reason soap operas have been around for decades. They’re addictive because there’s that dramatic relationship, and in 50 Shades, that same relationship makes each new sexual encounter more passionate, more exciting, especially as Ana’s inhibitions lessen. It’s “Shades of Our Lives”.
That’s actually why this book is so great with sex. Remember when we said earlier that it wasn’t misogyny but something else? That something is the BDSM fetish. It’s been around for a long, long time, and it stands for “bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism” and you should be able to gather from that it’s all about the master-slave thought process. And guess what? It goes both ways; plenty of men like to be “punished” as well.
BDSM has already been portrayed in plenty of movies (Pulp Fiction, Eurotrip, Secretary, to name a few), but the book has done tons for exposing the fetish on a mass scale simply by virtue of the millions of copies sold. And for those who like being spanked, choked, cuffed, scratched, bit or called filthy things (whore, shitheel, Tila Tequila) during sex… this is part of that. 50 Shades lets those people know, if they didn’t already, that it’s okay to have a fetish and it lets the inexperienced live a fantasy vicariously through Anastasia Steele.
Just don’t get carried away and kill someone.
6) The Lack of Vampires
Do you know why everyone’s writing about sexy vampires who learn to love? Because who doesn’t want that? Vampires are handsome, charismatic, dangerous, mysterious, like to bite and are powerful. Despite that last thing being the only quality separating vampires from Jeffrey Dahmer, the not-quite Draculas just open the goddamn flood gates. Hell, Anne Rice made a kajillion dollars off of it.
Lestat de Lioncourt. Edward Cullen. Eric Northman. Angelus. Jerry….you know, from Fright Night. What the fuck kind of vampire name is Jerry?
Whatever. The point is that they’re alluring. They’re surreal, something more than the average Jerry, er, Joe, and when they so gently nibble on your neck, it’s easy to forget they’re capturing your heart in a more literal sense as well.
50 Shades, despite being a Twilight rip-off, has no vampires. It’s just a handsome, mysterious, powerful, dangerous, charismatic guy who likes to bite but is ultimately just a man.
But it’s really okay, because…
Yeah, just a handsome, mysterious, powe… look, you get it. He’s all the great qualities that make vampires appealing, but his “danger” comes from his aggressive sex acts and not the fact that he’s trying to EAT you.
Romanticized vampires are done to death. Twilight was the worst offender when Stephanie Meyer wrote out the vulnerability to sunlight and added diamond sprinkles. That’s not even a fucking vampire! That’s a, a… a glampire!
Even having sex with them has grown stale. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake has been slutting up literature for ten years to the point that she’s not so much a vampire investigator anymore, or even a “fang-banger” as True Blooders would say, but a depository for the supernatural as a whole.
What happened to Nosferatu? Dracula? Dhampir? Do you remember the last movie that made vampires terrifying? No. No one does. Not even Josh Hartnett’s abs could save that movie from flopping so hard it snapped its own spine.
“’I can smell your blood.’-sexy when Edward says it, apparently.
By keeping Christian Grey human and giving him a whole different and completely regular fucked up mental issues, the story is more relatable and all-around better for it. And as a planet, we can start trying to inject some fear back into our kids with real monsters.
So does 50 Shades of Grey suck or not? I don’t know. I thought I did at first, and it’s certainly better than Twilight, and there is this:
A Christian Grey rendering, apparently. “Don’t bite your lip.”
But comparing the two is like comparing paraplegia to quadraplegia: you’re still not walking anywhere. What do I know, though? I’m fifty shades of fucked up.