Fifty Shades of Grey, BDSM, and the unreliable narrator
I hate Fifty Shades of Grey. This is not a controversial opinion, but it is an honest one. With the release of the film adaptation right around the corner, a lot of discussion about E.L. James’ series has been going on around the internet (often accompanied by poster images where the movie’s tagline of “Mr. Grey will see you now” has been replaced by choice passages from the books). Most of these discussions are focused on the nature of the relationship between its two lead characters, not-Bella (Anastasia) and not-Edward (Christian), with many arguing that the books glorify an abusive relationship, and calling for a boycott of the film.
I agree with all of this, but it made me wonder: what if Fifty Shades isn’t what it appears? What if it’s not really a “truthful” account of a BDSM relationship, but rather, an intentionally unreliable narrator trying to justify/cope with/cover up an abusive relationship by assuring us (and herself) that it’s all consensual?
Before I go any further down this rabbit hole, let’s talk about point of view. Most people are familiar with the concept of first, second, and third person narratives, but not everyone knows there are variations within these three categories as well. The one I want to talk about is the “unreliable narrator”.
This phrase was coined by Wayne C. Booth in his 1961 book The Rhetoric of Fiction, and describes a narrator whose credibility is compromised. It’s a narrative device designed to make the audience question the validity of events, and force them to consider the plot in a different way than it was originally presented. First person narratives are most often argued to fall under the unreliable narrator label due to the natural bias of the character telling the story, although there are arguments for unreliable second and third person narrators as well. There’s a lot more to this school of literary thought, but that’s the gist of it.
The Fifty Shades series is told in first person by Anastasia Steele, a 21 year old college graduate and pinnacle of naiveté and innocence. While the series has a lot of problems with suspension of disbelief, from the mundane (a woman graduates from college at 21 with no student debt, a three-bedroom apartment that she shares with only one other person, and quickly gets a job in her chosen field with little-to-no work experience) to the mind-boggling (the existence of non-disclosure agreements for romantic relationships), it still claims to operate in the real world. In actuality, these issues with suspension of disbelief, coupled with the fact that Ana carries on conversations with two different aspects of her personality in her head (the “inner goddess” who’s often described performing Latin dance moves whenever there’s the possibility of sexy times, and her “subconscious” who slut-shames her and yet still tells her to submit to Christian, almost like James thought The Emperor’s New Groove was reality and people actually have conversations like Kronk with their shoulder angels/devils) supports the idea that she’s an unreliable narrator, which in turn makes me question how the story is framed and the intent of the narrative.
Taken at face value, Fifty Shades of Grey is supposed to be an erotic romance complete with a Byronic hero (e.g., a brooding handsome man who’s saved by the love of an innocent). The problem is that most people who actually read the series quickly find the relationship to be less romantic and more abusive. To illustrate how, here’s a checklist of characteristics that all apply to their unhealthy relationship: abusive expectations, invalidation, constant chaos, denial/withdrawal, terrorizing, emotional blackmail, isolation, exploitation, aggression, minimization, unpredictable responses, rejection, and gaslighting. This causes a narrative problem.
Part of the job of any narrative is to convince the audience that the feelings and actions of the characters make sense. This is hard to do when the main character says in all seriousness, “Please don’t hit me” to her love interest. Or when that same love interest is then turned on by this request and proceeds to have sex with her without asking for consent, telling her it’s “for my pleasure, not yours”. This is not BDSM. This is rape, but Ana doesn’t know the difference, and it seems that Christian doesn’t either.
Christian never answers any of Ana’s questions about the lifestyle, instead insisting that she go look it up on Wikipedia. Christian gives her safe words, but discourages her from using them, and outright tells her that “my intention is not that you should use the safe word because you’re in pain.” He tells Ana he wants a submissive, but does not acknowledge that submissives don’t have to play if they don’t want to. He even talks her out of her hard and soft limits. There’s also a decided lack of aftercare. These are things that no real dom would ever do, but it would make sense if E.L. James added them knowing that they would remove more credibility from the story as BDSM erotica.
So Ana and Christian don’t have anything resembling a real world BDSM relationship. But what if they don’t have a BDSM relationship in-universe, either? Ana clearly has no interest in being a bottom. Christian does not act like a top. So maybe they aren’t.
What if all the plot holes and inconsistencies were hints that Ana cannot be trusted to tell us what’s really going on? The only moments of realism are when other characters realize the relationship between the two is bad, like when her friend Kate says, “Ana, if something is wrong, tell me, I won’t judge.” Ana herself says remarkably self-aware things too, but never goes anywhere. All other times, Ana is trying to pass off his bad behavior as signs of affection. Because, you know, tracing someone’s cell phone is totally normal when you’ve only known them a week. So is following them across the country when they tell you they need space. So is buying the company they work for when they break up with you. Maybe this whole series is really Ana lying to the reader as a means of coping with what’s actually an abusive relationship.
I realize that I am most likely giving these books far too much credit. As I said in the beginning, I hate this series. This article is not about justifying its existence, or rationalizing merit onto something so obviously terrible. No, this article is my coping mechanism. It’s how I’m rationalizing the popularity of a blatantly toxic series, because if I think people value these books for any other reason, it will depress and terrify me.