50 Shades of Grey Week
As Anastasia Steele gathers up her courage to interview Christian Grey, the word “steel” is said again and again during the first few pages. We see it in the use of the heroine’s name (which is oft repeated by the main character, Grey’s secretaries, and Grey himself.) We see it more in Ana’s attempts to “steel herself” and also when she makes self-directed commands (“Get a grip, Steele”). Finally, we see it in multiple descriptions of the building (which we are told repeatedly is “intimidating glass and steel”). In the first chapter alone, the words steel and steele are a cacophony of repitition.
While the overuse of words is not subtle, it clearly establishes a motif: a motif that most critics and fans of 50 Shades are missing. James’ use of Ana’s first name offers a similar effect. Can you see it?
If not, hang tight. I’ll come back to it. I promise. But before that I would like to share with you the kind of comments that generated this post (and a good deal of JW fury): In a recent post on Huffington Books, Pastor Douglas Wilson, a minister of Christ Church in Idaho weighed in on the 50 Shades issue with “50 Shades of Prey.” In the post he criticizes 50 Shades and its literary ancestor Twilight:
A central problem I had with the book [Twilight] was how it encouraged young women to think in such low terms about themselves. The book functioned, in its fictional setting, as a sort of training manual for young girls on how to become an abused woman.
The two publishing phenomena are using the same basic device — women who learn to view themselves as prey. And it’s working (like crazy) this time around as well.
This Fifty Shades phenomenon has been called “Mommy porn.” Sure — Mommy porn for women with daddy issues, for women already trained or currently training, to view themselves as prey.
Call me crazy. Say I have daddy issues. Tell all you know that I view myself as prey… Go right ahead. But I am going to say it now, for all to hear: I enjoyed reading 50 Shades of Grey. I wanted Anastasia and Christian to work out their problems, and I still do.
While I’m no Pastor–and I am certainly not male–you might just have to take my word for it. I have a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature. I have taught at universities and in private high schools. My specialty is in the Novel as a genre in general and in domestic fiction (literature written by and for women) specifically. In two months, my first novel will be published, and in the next few weeks, a video I created with TED will release which discusses how the books we read generate popular culture. I hope you’ll give my thoughts a little of your time.
Here’s what I have to say:
It’s time get real. Women ARE prey. Look at police records for sexual assault, murder, and other violent crimes. Women are terrifyingly more targeted. To act as though women’s fiction should ignore this aspect of female life is ridiculous. It makes Pastor Wilson uncomfortable. It makes most of us uncomfortable. But, it’s true. So women’s fiction talks about it. And it isn’t always pretty.
However, major theorists in both literature and sociology have repeatedly explained that while romance fiction–Twilight, 50 Shades, etc.–feature troubling tropes they do so in order to train women how NOT to be prey. Women’s fiction often places women at the center of danger and then shows them transforming themselves into someone stronger, braver, someone capable of saving herself.
Let’s not forget that in Twilight it is Bella who is truly powerful, not Edward. It is Bella who saves her friends, her family, and herself. She is not prey. She never really was. She just didn’t know it…
The same is true of Ana. Ana (and all submissives) have the power of yes, of no, of silence. In a sense, submissives lay claim to the exact power that women have called their own for the last few centuries. At some point, while reading one of Ana’s many refusals, I was reminded of Lizzy Bennet rejecting Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Ana’s journey (like Lizzy’s) is one where she realizes that although she is “beneath” her suitor in age, size, strength, class, and means, she has the right and the power to refuse him. She has the right to make her own choices about her body and her future. Yet, Ana, very much like Bella, does not recognize her own value at first.
Is this so terrible?
Most girls have problems with self-esteem. That, of course, is news to no one. Part of the cause of this phenomenon is idealized portrayals of women on TV, in film, in magazines etc. From hot-body pics to heroic heroines, perfect women are every where. And guess what? Most women are nothing like that. We all have insecurities, anxieties, and awkwardness. To deny it, to feature only perfection, is to doom women to see no one like themselves.
On the other hand, to have a heroine who does not recognize her own power, but grows into it… that is helpful and healthy fiction.
Anastasia Steele, for example, begins the novel with power, control, and value, but she herself fails to see it. She believes she is not strong, so she thinks she needs to “steel herself” or tell herself to “Get a grip, Steele.” And she feels, too, that she doesn’t belong in Grey’s “intimidating steel and glass building.” Yet her strength and belonging are built right into her name– Steele… (See? I promised I would come back to it).
What do you think? Is 50 Shades bad for women? Or is grey the new shade of romance? Is Anastasia Steele the new Steel Magnolia or the new ball and chain around our feminine heels?