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Fifty Shades of Grey

A comment about women's sexual and social freedom.

E. L. James' racy bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey has been called an amusing, romantic tale of a woman's (Ana Steele) exploration of sexual desire that has captured the interest and imagination of over 19 million readers. But, is there something more to the subject matter of this racy novel that has led to its huge success and the making of a movie? On the surface, its success suggests that despite women's social advance, they still fantasize about being swept off their feet by a powerful, handsome and wealthy man (knight in shining armor) who makes all their dreams come true. This fantasy, along with the novel's raciness, and also the complicated relationship between heroine Ana Steele and Fifty Shade's hero Christian Grey, seems to tap into an archetype of women that persists, no matter their social advancement.

From the book's huge success, we might think that this was the first racy novel ever written. But, racy novels that stimulate the senses have existed for hundreds of years. They are called sensation novels. Their themes often consist of women longing to be rescued from their dreary lives by powerful men who promise them access to pleasures, rights and freedoms typically enjoyed by men.

Sensation novels surfaced at the end of the Victorian era. Social changes going on at the time, such as reform in divorce procedures, tabloid journalism, public education and social anxiety over women's sexuality and emancipation led to their popularity. Sensation novelists penned stories that made penetrating observations about an ongoing social dilemma of the time. The great disparity between men’s and women’s rights often took center stage. The stories often involved daring women who rebelled against a repressive society by exploring their sexuality. Sadly, the stories always end in the woman's downfall and public shame for having stepped outside of her social status. The fallen woman as the moral of the story was used to suggest the need for a new cultural standard that gave women the same rights as men, especially in the sense of self-expression.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a contemporary sensation novel. And, as such, it can be likened to the sensation novels of the past, even though I cringe to make this comparison with the great classics, like D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley's Lover, Gustav Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Nathanial Hawthorne’s Scarlett Letter of the day. And, just like Hester Prinn, Lady Chatterley and Emma Bovary, Ana Steele is seeking unbridled self-expression of body, heart, and mind through powerful men. But, sadly, these heroines usually end up with a frog who turns out to be quite dangerous to their mental and physical health. These fantasy lovers have a chink or two in their armor. Certainly, this is the case with Christian Grey, who no doubt the author has fashioned after the corrupt, beautiful, worldly, and rich young man of the 1945 film, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

Christian Grey has 50 shades of a sadistic character flaw to sexually possess, control, dominate, and debase women. And, whom does such a man go after to fulfill his warped, sociopathic version of love and romance? He seeks impressionable, unworldly, insecure and submissive women like Ana Steele; an unassuming beauty of indistinct personal agency. She doesn’t even know there’s an underside to her, until she meets up with it through Christian Grey. Grey's sadism brings out latent sadomasochistic features of Ana that makes it hard for her to resist being pulled into a passionate, physical relationship of control, submission and domination with him.

Beneath the racy storyline, Fifty Shades of Grey seems to make a statement about women's conflicts around their emancipation thus far. We can surmise from the passive-dependent prototype of woman, that 19 million women are connecting with, that women feel ambivalent, at the least, about their sexual freedom and social advance. This intrapsychic conflict doesn't surprise me, as women's emancipation was bound to come with some anxiety about now having the same stresses of men. This by no means suggests women want to go back to the Victorian era, only that the pressures of sexual and social freedom bring new problems for which they may have been unprepared.

What troubles me most about Fifty Shades of Grey is the pathological character of its hero and heroine, and E. L. Jame's immature prototype of gender relations (sadomasochism). I’ve treated many women like Ana Steele throughout the years, and they rarely leave such relationships mentally and physically unharmed. In fact, most of them are so emotionally wounded that they are unable to trust that healthy love can exist.

Additionally, the Ana Steele of our day is often eating-disordered, suffers very low self-esteem, and her self-defeating behaviors make her vulnerable to becoming an object of other people's desires. She's a passive-dependent (codependent) woman who uses a powerful man to explore power and sexuality. Hence, the fantasies engendered by the glamorizing of the relationship between Grey and Steele should not fool us as to the extent of their psychopathology. No matter how you look at it, Christian Grey is a textbook malignant narcissist with sociopathic tendencies, and Ana Steele is a passive dependent, masochistic personality.

All that being said, the extraordinary public appeal of the complex, sadomasochistic relationship between Grey and Steele may be more a subconscious expression of culture's anxiety about women's sexual and social freedom than it is a romantic tale of a woman's exploration of sexual desire. The fantasy of being controlled and dominated by a man suggests, at the least, women still have strong psychological conflicts around freedom and domination.