Warning: This is not a post about gender, sex, or towering rage. It’s basically a piece of literary criticism. Also, some spoilers follow.
So, as Charles creepily informed you, we’ve been reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Presently, we’re actually a bit of the way into sequel Fifty Shades Darker. Once we finish the trilogy, we’re going to write, like, a million pages of super awesome feminist and kinky criticism on it, but we’re not prepared to do that yet. What we are prepared to do is to answer the question “Why the hell is this book the way that it is?”
Fifty Shades is a romance novel in which kink and kinky sex figure very heavily. There is a contract, a dungeon (sensibly referred to as a “playroom”), there are floggers, spankings, sensory deprivation, and bondage. There are rules and a cold, hard man who demands submission at the pain of punishment. It’s a kink novel.
But it also really hates kink. It’s explicitly the case that Hero, Love Interest, and CEO Christian Grey’s affection for perversion comes from his abuse and neglect at the hands of his “crack whore” mother and her pimps. He’s kinky because he’s damaged (a trope that’ll probably get its own entry later). And the main arc of the plot seem to be Narrator, Heroine, and Person I’d Like to Swear At Anastasia Steele showing up in his life, healing his trauma through her love in a way that years of therapy never could, and, thereby, alleviating his need to cause pain to his partners. Allegedly, by the end of the novels, light, sensual spankings and some bondage are enough to satisfy a man who had previously demanded that his sexual partners obey him without question in all things and never meet his eyes without permission. Also, he can feel love, so that’s nice, too. For her part, Ana cannot stand and will not tolerate the rules Christian attempts to impress on her, and finds spanking for punishment only just bearable.
So, why is a kinky novel about kinky sex only okay with fairly light kink? Why does EL James neither embrace kink, nor condemn it outright? I don’t think the text will ever give that answer. Inside of it, there is no explanation for this, no clear motivation, and it makes the novel tonally discordant.
But there is an answer. And that answer, like the answer to so many questions on the internet, is “because fan fiction.”
Fifty Shades was originally an alternate universe Twilight fanfiction hilariously titled Master of the Universe. And for all that the character names have been filed off and replaced with new ones, Fifty Shades remains a fan fiction. This explains why Fifty Shades is a kinky novel that hates kinky sex. It’s not a novel about characters, but an exploration of characters under new circumstances. Kink is a means to some ends: experimentation, suffering, and making it so that Bella Swan and Edward Cullen can have spanky sex.
Fan fiction allows writers and readers to explore characters in situations that the canon narrative would never put them in. It also allows for experimentation with themes not found in the canon narrative. It’s sort of the mix and match of storytelling. You get to choose characters, themes, and settings. When you throw them all together, you get a story that answers a “what if” question about another story. In this case, “What if Edward Cullen, instead of being a vampire, were some sort of S&M freak?” This doesn’t mean that James thinks that BDSM is good, or appealing, but perhaps merely that she finds it something interesting to engage with in the safe storytelling environment that is fan fiction.
Fairly famously, Kurt Vonnegut once advised writers to “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” This is good advice, but fan fiction has another reason to be a sadist to characters: it’s fun. It’s indulgent. Writers can have characters wallow in every kind of extreme and horrible emotional pain with the full knowledge that everything can be okay at the end. Fan fiction allows writers to put characters in unusual and painful situations, calling on them to deal with things that they’d never have to deal with in the canon narrative. In this case, it’s Edward Cullen experiencing child abuse and becoming strange and warped on account of that fact, and then Bella Swan having to deal with this version of Edward and his perversions.
Fan fiction allows authors to interfere with the canon narrative and rewrite it how they please. If authors think that two characters should be doing it, they can make it so. My theory is that author EL James is probably down with light kink, or at least she thinks it’d be cool if Bella Swan and Edward Cullen were to participate in it. Canonically, however, those characters are just never gonna do that. Edward is way too whiny, protective, and weird to ever spank his partner and Bella is so not a top. Making Edward into a gigantic pervert who is downgraded into an acceptable pervert gets these characters into an end state that EL James likes.
Fifty Shades of Grey’s relationship to kink is always kind of weird and not quite coherent, no matter how you look at it. But the only way that I can remotely make sense of the way that this novel is about BDSM, hates BDSM, but is not some sort of S&M dungeon horror story is to remind myself that it’s a fanfiction.