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 Grey will see you now” has been replaced by choice passages from the books).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.

Fifty Shades of Grey, BDSM, and the unreliable narrator

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?

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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.

Fifty Shades of Grey, BDSM, and the unreliable narrator

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.

Fifty Shades of Grey, BDSM, and the unreliable narrator

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.

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  • Jonathan Campbell

    Well, its…an idea, I’ll give you that.

  • Thomas Stockel

    I honestly don’t get why this book is so popular.

    • Marc Baker

      Because women are retards.

      • You must be fun at parties.

      • Hex

        I highly doubt all women everywhere are born with a serious genetic disorder

        • Jonathan Campbell

          Neurodevelopmental disorder.

          I mean, genetics can SOMETIMES be the problem, but malnutrition, problems during pregnancy, in labour or during birth, iodine deficiency, or exposure to certain types of toxins or diseases, or basically anything that can affect the development or health of the brain of the child, are as or more likely to be the cause of a child suffering a mental handicap.


          • Hex

            I stand correct, thank you for the info =D

      • jjramsey

        I think I found an old video of yours:

    • Because its audience has been brought up to believe that porn is evil, but their lack of experience with it causes them to miss it when it’s right under their nose, and the marketers are telling them it’s romance.

      • Greenhornet

        BAD porn, like bad comedy is PAINFUL!

        • But if it’s all you’ve ever know you don’t realise it’s bad. Most Fifty Shades fans are like twelve-year-old boys who just found an old swimwear catalogue in a hedge, and think it’s the hottest thing ever.

    • Alexa

      Well don’t look at me. I may be a woman who has read erotica from time to time, but I could barely get through the excerpt of the book on Amazon. Christian Grey is so goddamn creepy! XP

      • Hex

        I feel ya sister girl. I have no problem reading smut, but I kept having to pause when I read this series because it is terrifying sometimes. He is attracted to her because she looks like his dead mother.

        • Alexa

          Not to mention in the beginning (the only part I read) when he’s getting supplies from Ana makes him seem like a potential serial killing…

          • Hex

            Just add some overalls and he is ready for some night digging.

            “Hey, Christian. What’s in that wet red sack that you’re burying?”

            “Raspberries. Lots of raspberries.”

          • Alexa

            But this weird and creepy behavior is totes okay, cause he’s got a nice jawline or whatever :P

          • Sofie Liv

            I’m with you two girls!

            I admit it, I have read some errotica stories and enjoyed them.

            But this… Nope-nope-nope-nope-nope.

            I enjoy romantic tales, I have even written some romances (Not errotic though.)
            And I kind of figured what I like in my own romances and how I would write it… this is just SO far away from what I would ever want to read or write… ergh blargh!

          • friendly reader

            Going to throw out the recommendation that’s been passed around my group of friends: go watch 2002’s “Secretary” instead of this crap. You can nitpick the consent issues in comparison to real life, but in that film the characters both obviously enjoy what they’re doing, are having fun, and care about each other. Also, they are actual characters, with personalities and arcs. And they’re played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, which helps a ton.

    • There is a large number of people in the world who are taught that “sex = evil” and by extension “pleasure = evil”. They cannot reconcile these social forces with a biological drive for sex/pleasure.


      Therefore they must reconcile the two drives, by punishing themselves for having those needs for pleasure.


      Make the pleasure unpleasant and painful. To on some level validate the social force.

      It is having their cake and eating it too. For instance I knew a very conservative girl who would give and accept oral sex, but would insist that the guy would have to stop before she had an orgasm because she considered it sinful to have that kind of pleasure outside of marriage, so you have a woman running up to the line and stopping every time… Which would drive most people pretty nuts.

  • Well, the author has flat-out stated that the books are her romantic and sexual fantasies put on the page in interviews (it’s her standard defence against ‘your book is shit’). As she also displays a lack of self-awareness with regards to her work that puts GamerGaters to shame, I sincerely doubt she even knows what ‘unreliable narrator’ means.

  • MichaelANovelli

    So, the book attempts to depict con-non-con and fails miserably? That’s not much of a shock, really…

    • It doesn’t know what con-non-con is. It doesn’t know what anything BDSM-related is (several scenes violate the laws of physics). The guy just forces himself on her with no warning or discussion or hint that she’s into it, and she goes ‘well, that was fun’ afterward, with no hint she was enjoying it during the act.

      • MichaelANovelli

        Con-non-con: Consensual Non-Consent. Rape Fantasy.

        • I know what it is (I think I told you, actually), I meant that the book doesn’t.

          • MichaelANovelli

            Ah, I misread what you wrote. Sorry.

          • tcorp

            Well, I’m glad you did because I had no idea what it meant.

    • Hex

      The sad part is that it is not supposed to be a non-con fantasy. No where in the text do they talk about that kind of play. They really don’t discuss any kind of play actually. It’s mostly Christian telling Ana that he will have graphic and violent sex with her. It reminds me of a dog humping a pillow.

      But yeah, Film Runner is right about James diva-like behavior. I get that the books were written with one hand down her pants but I don’t get how she could write a pitch perfect abuse narrative and not be aware enough to know it.

      • The same way its fans read a pitch-perfect abuse narrative and not know it: they’ve grown up in an environment where types of ‘romance’ like this get presented as true love all the time. Fifty Shades is really the work of a culture, rather than a writer. She just wrote everything she’d internalised as sexy and romantic, did fuck-all research into her subject matter and unleashed her subconscious upon the page.

        • Hex

          Better her subconscious than her inner goddess…I’m sorry I couldn’t resist.

      • MichaelANovelli

        Maybe she repressed her fantasies until they became completely warped and tragic…

  • So it’s Stockholme Syndrome, like geeks that profess to enjoy Big Bang Theory?

  • Anon

    Whatever Christian is supposed to be, he’s pathetic. If he’s supposed to be a romantic hero, he’s a terrible one because he’s an awful person who treats his girlfriend appallingly. If he’s supposed to be a tortured soul, he doesn’t work either because he’s too unlikable to be sympathetic. And if he’s supposed to be a villainous sadist, he’s still not a very good one because he’s not even that scary, Ramsay Bolton kicks his arse to the moon and back.
    The only thing these books are any good for is a study-aid in how not to write.

    • Greenhornet

      “Naked Came The Stranger” comes to mind. Written by several authors who meant to create the WORST novel ever (They succeeded), it was on the NY Times’ best seller list for two years.
      There’s another explanation for this mess: it all happened in the “heroine’s” head! I’ve seen two or three movies where this was the big reveal.

  • Zurn

    This crap seems to come around every decade or so and it’s worse every time. 50 Shades makes Story Of O sound like Dostoyevsky…

  • Blue Basilisk

    As a person who’s actually into BDSM, I positively loathe this series for its glorification of abuse and the horrible misconceptions it spreads about the lifestyle. I fear it’s only going to get worse after this turkey of a movie comes out.

    • Hex

      If it makes you feel better, the upsurge of BDSM erotica is mostly ok. I haven’t read anything super impressive, but most of it is not bad.