For all its notoriety as a racy envelope pusher, E.L. James’ novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, is anything but cutting edge. It’s standard bawdy romance boilerplate, even down to the language. The novel tends to describe the male anatomy’s “considerable length”; or, more hideously, as a “Christian Grey flavor popsicle.” It reads like an old Penthouse Forum letter with the unpleasant slang removed, offering instead a more clinical examination of sexual process, for instance, “He shifts so he’s between my legs, pressed against my back, and his hand travels up my thigh to my behind. He caresses my cheek slowly, and then trails his fingers down between my legs.”
Such staid prose extends to descriptions of the story’s BDSM elements — these push the book into an apparently shocking lasciviousness, which has in turn propelled its popularity. For many readers, it’s something like the literary equivalent of a lemon Atomic Warhead, those hard candies sprayed with a layer of extremely tart flavor that your seven-year-old self must prove to your friends you can endure. For other readers, the book works ironically, with James’ fantastically artless and clumsy prose perfectly matching the story’s trashy virtues.
That story is essentially Pretty Woman: a rich, callous, vaguely damaged playboy takes in a young tabula rasa of a waif, teaches her the ways she can best sexually please him, and, after a few dips, tumbles, and just enough of the man’s emotional bloodletting, the two fall in love, never to return to their previous incarnations. But even given this strict formula, and by the loathsome standard set by Hollywood precedent, Christian Grey is infuriating, a stalking, humorless control freak who disregards everything demure Anastasia says in order to follow his own unerring instinct about what it is she really wants, implementing his every whim as he sees fit.
In Fifty Shades of Grey the movie, Christian Grey (played by former underwear model Jamie Dornan) is a dreary cypher. A billionaire 27-year-old, the CEO of his massive empire, he was born to an abusive “crack whore” and suffered through a brutal infancy and early childhood before he was adopted into a fantastically wealthy family and a life of privilege and power.
The question he embodies, the one that eventually comes to the well-bitten lips of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), is why it is he’s so hell bent on making everyone and everything in his life follow his strict rules. This is a man so rigid, he has his legal team draft a multi-page, legally binding sexual contract with Ana, so as to ensure the dominant and submissive roles will be played to the hilt and to his complete satisfaction. To her credit, perhaps, Ana refuses to sign this document, even after a protracted negotiation results in Christian striking out such lurid possibilities as “anal fisting” and “genital clamps”.
To entice Ana toward signing, Mr. Grey spends most of his time on screen stalking her, breaking in to her Seattle apartment, and later, “surprising” her by interrupting her already far-too-brief visit home to Savannah by showing up at the country club where she is enjoying a drink with her mother (Jennifer Ehle). He goes on to snatch drinks out of Ana’s hand just before she’s about to sip. Exasperatingly condescending, he insists that she takes pleasure in nothing else, save him, while offering her absolutely nothing gratifying in return, reminding her over and over again that he doesn’t “do romance” or, in fact, anything whatever to reassure her that he’s not an emotionless cad.
We’ve seen Christian Grey before, of course, and that is part of his appeal as well as his offensiveness. Like Richard Gere’s Edward Lewis, Jack Nicholson’s Melvin Udall (in As Good As It Gets), and, at least by aspiration, every man in Game of Thrones, the forceful, cruel, emotionally distant male can seemingly always find a willing, comely victim to dominate.
But still, even as Christian Grey introduces Ana to the trappings of wealth and BDSM, she instructs him as well, bringing him into the world of emotional expression. While this familiar story is set up to seem as if each player receives something essential from the other, his share involves a certain materiality (money, manners, leather straps), while hers is all about the so-called feminine realm. She helps her man to share feelings he first ridicules, then grudgingly accepts. Still, his evolution is limited: we can’t help but think that Christian is doing what it takes to keep Ana obediently by his side.
Like his predecessors, Christian is seductive and twisted in mundane ways even as he might imagine himself special. The trick in the tale is that Ana and viewers who identify with her imagine he’s special too, before she sees something else. Where her new insight will take her is left open here, as Fifty Shades of Grey ends with the promise that it’s the first film in a trilogy: Christian has two more installments to take full possession of her soul.