by: J.C. Johnson
Note: This post contains spoilers for the Fifty Shades Trilogy by E.L. James
I must make a confession. I love trashy romance novels.
Don’t get me wrong, I like good books too. But, here’s the deal- sometimes you want to eat Goat Cheese Cheesecake with Blood Orange Coulis and Candied Ginger. Other times, you want to eat an entire row of marshmallow Peeps. This is the story of the rise and fall of my affair with the sugary, fluffy goodness of trashy romance novels.
In my tweens I became hooked on “historical” fiction via a princess novel about Mary Tudor, which I procured though a Scholastic Book Club order (in retrospect, this was my gateway book). I couldn’t get enough of the stories of the young women in these books. They were wealthy and glamorous, but ill-fated for being born into history’s most inconvenient time to have a vagina. One day, I was browsing the book section of the grocery store while my mother shopped and I spied a book titled The Marine and the Princess. Surely, modern day was a more carefree and fulfilling time to be a princess, I thought! My hesitation about the book’s racy cover art inspired me to slip the book, cover down, onto the checkout belt while my mother fished her debit card out of her wallet. Ladies and gentlemen, I was in business.
Why my mother allowed this I will never know, but shortly after turning the last page of the Marine and the Princesses’ happily ever after story, I joined a mail-order book club that sent me one Harlequin Romance novel a month. Soon, my bookshelf was filling up with glossy paperbacks complete with Fabio-types on the cover and titles like The Billionaire’s Mistress and The Italian’s Cinderella Bride. On that bookshelf in my childhood bedroom, the chronicle of my sex education continues to live out its trashy tenure. The collection is intact (except for when my grandma comes to visit and a few mysteriously go missing), and the racy parts remain dog-eared.
I read romance novels because I love “love” and I love instant gratification. Sure, I could read Pride and Prejudice and meander about the English countryside for weeks until I reach a hard-won, lukewarm climax, and sometimes I do. But sometimes I want a quick and dirty bodice ripper with princesses and billionaires and sexual tension and a consequence-free happily ever after, okay?
I am very annoyed to report that the Fifty Shades Trilogy, current darling of the romance/erotica novel world, has me questioning all of this.
Heralded as “mommy porn” because of its appeal to the 30+ female crowd, the trilogy promises everything one could possibly desire in a romance novel; an emotionally guarded billionaire, an awkward and naïve (but beautiful, duh) young woman, a male best friend who suffers from her unrequited love, romance, danger, deep-seated psychological issues, and naturally no erotica novel is complete without a healthy dose of sexual intercourse of the BDSM variety!
Born of Twilight series fan fiction, Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James begins with Anastasia Steele, a gawky 21 year-old, stumbling into the office of 27 year-old, powerful enterprise tycoon Christian Grey. Christian, by virtue of his money, charm, and good looks, could sleep with anyone he damn well pleased, but is intrigued by Miss Steele and basically stalks her until agrees to go on a date with him. Incredibly long story short, Christian is involved in the world of BDSM and identifies as a dominant seeking a submissive for regular sexual contact. Ana falls for him and agrees, but as it turns out is a virgin and knows she will be a terrible submissive. He divests her of her virginity in a fairly “vanilla” fashion, allowing her to sleep in his bed afterwards, breaking several of his key relationship rules. Trying to turn her into a model submissive, he rewards and punishes her regularly for her behavior in a way that is barely consensual. Sex is both a reward and a punishment, and she is often too intimidated to say no.
Much to Christian’s chagrin, he begins to fall for Ana. This is complicated by the fact that Christian has never been in a relationship without a contract that explicitly demands that his partner submit entirely to his will. Due to his history of childhood abuse, he hates to be touched (thus why he likes to tie women up) and has the emotional capacity of a thirteen year old. Because he is “concerned” for her “safety” he has her followed constantly by his staff. His penchant for control compels him to dictate her choice of outfits, when she is allowed to see her friends and when/what she eats. He even buys the company that she works for. She comes to appreciate the BDSM lifestyle, but fears its consequences. When she “disobeys” he “punishes” her in a variety of ways including, but not limited to, spanking, orgasm denial and submission via a variety of BDSM implements in his “playroom.”
The book is told from Ana’s perspective; so, readers experience her transformation from an intelligent, independent, British-literature-obsessed college graduate into an unrecognizable puddle at Christian Grey’s feet. By the end of the series, the reader may contend that Christian Grey has grown from his experiences, but only at great cost to the oblivious Anastasia Steele.
My concerns about this book stem from the positive attention that Christian Grey is receiving from readers. Tweeters, Facebook friends, and radio callers alike, agree on the inherent sexiness of the character in question. Sure, there is sex on every third page or so, but Christian Grey is a bad nut, and that is not sexy. Stalker control freaks are not sexy. Men who are twenty-seven going on thirteen are not sexy. Sex with a sex-addicted partner that occasionally errs on the side of rape is definitely not sexy.
Also, much of the story is just outrageous. Christian frequently orders Ana to stop biting her lip because of the “effect” is has on him (as if he will spontaneously get off every time she does it). Ana, who was a virgin when they met, has at least sixty orgasms in half as many days. Not even Cosmo would pretend that was real. No matter how upset Ana becomes, one smoldering look can make her pant for his touch. Christian’s vocabulary is that of a 18th century aristocrat. Later in the series, Ana plays it totally cool and accepts his proposal of marriage after two months of “dating” and approves plans for a palatial mansion on the Puget Sound well before their four month anniversary. All the while, he is physically and emotionally terrorizing her and disguising it as the trappings of a loving relationship.
Most grievously, the series ends with the good-old happily-ever-after ending without any further discussion of the trauma that was potentially caused by the tumultuous beginning of their relationship. Anastasia trades her cherished independence for the “love” of a jealous, controlling man, and she never looks back.
This kind of nonsense is not good for fourteen year olds like me who were learning the ways of the world by reading romance novels under the covers late into the night, and it is not good for the 30+ set who are finding themselves wishing their partner that cared about them as much as Christian Grey “cares about” Ana.
We deserve to be in a relationship with more substance than 50% hot sex, 50% arguing. We deserve better than the abusive, control-obsessed, emotionally troubled billionaire! We do!
We deserve someone who lets us be us, who will sleep with us when we want to, who will not pressure us when we don’t want to, and who will respect the space and time we need with ourselves. Most importantly we need partners who will enter into a mutually beneficial and loving relationship with us while we are on the path to becoming who we are. Women melting at the feet of rugged cowboys, Greek oil tycoons, and most importantly assholes like Christian Grey in the romance novels are not helping us believe that. Most are poorly written and they all end their stories with a conclusive happily-ever-after. Smart readers like us know that there is more to it than that.
So with that, I would like to announce that the Fifty Shades trilogy, while a riveting read (no really, I’m embarrassed by how riveted I was), has convinced me that romance novels are ruining our lives. Christian Grey, I will miss you, but you are a jerk and you are bad for my psyche. There may be relapse, but I’m going to try to quit romance novels like the bad habit they are. With a world full of delicious books at my fingertips (thank you technology), I see no sense in consuming books with less nutritional value than a marshmallow.
J.C. Johnson is a graduate of DePaul University with a B.A. in Communication Studies. She found that this degree left her highly qualified to find work as a nanny or a receptionist. Choosing the former, she is a nanny-by-day, Jill-of-all-trades by night. Jillian has been working on being an ally to the LGBTQ community ever since her best friend came out to her in the 9th grade. In the near-ish future, she would like to pursue an advanced degree in Social Work and dreams of working in an agency that supports pregnant teenagers.