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The Sixth Year: American Sigh Story

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Fifty Shades of Grey Recaps: Chapter Seventeen

So, I’m back, no matter how hard you’ve been trying to avoid me (and I know some of you have turned that pastime into a sport). Exams and other mundane life bollocks has been in the way of me writing these recaps but, buoyed up by the fact my blog hits have gone up from around thirty a day to around five hundred, I’m plowing forward. I can see the end; it’s so close to being over. Let’s get this shit on the go.

One more thing: if you’re new to the recaps or just want to remind yourself what’s been happening, I’ve added a Blog Directory (up at the top there) where I’ve organised a bunch of different articles into sections so you can find them quicker, and all the Fifty Shades recaps are there, so get on up on that shit. Make a drinking game when you do a shot every time I despair for humanity. You’ll be slammed by lunchtime.

Chapter seventeen opens with Ana having yet another stupidly metaphorical dream about being Icarus flying too close to the sun, then wakes I’m to find Christian wiggling his eyebrows at her and gesturing to his morning wood. Once again, I’m struck by how pointedly unsexy every sentence of this is. In between recaps, I wrote a piece about my own experiences writing erotica, and this passage comes as a reminder that I basically just tack a post-it note with “The opposite of EL James” on my laptop and bash on. Ooh, yeah, tell me you slept well except for the last hour when you were a little warm!

Jane Lynch tho

Christian hoicks her out of bed after promising to meet up on Sunday, and Ana and him exchanges emails about the spanking that left Ana sobbing and upset the night before. Here are some of the words Ana uses to describe the experience: Punished. Beat. Assaulted. Demeaned. Debased. Abused. Uncomfortable. Guilty. Confused. If you could see me now, I’d be waving my hands in front of my head like a fucking windmill and shouting “THESE ARE NOT WORDS YOU SHOULD BE APPLYING TO A BDSM SCENE WITH YOUR PARTNER”. These are words that, once again, show us that Ana doesn’t understand what she’s getting herself into, and isn’t really enjoying it when she does. These are not words generally applied to pleasant, squicky-in-the-pants feelings. Luckily, Christian is on hand to sort things out;

“Do you think you could just try to embrace these feelings, deal with them, for me?”

Oh yeah, sure, sorry you felt like shit after I spanked you and abandoned you, but you know, just kind of deal with it, babe. I wonder if Christian would feel the same way if Ana told him to “just deal” with his feelings about being touched? Everyone can fuck off. I’d forgotten how painful recapping this book was. No-one in the entire world has it worse than I do right now.

Ana emails him back, saying that if she was actually listening to her feelings she’d be in Alaska by now. Then we get this doozy:

“Alaska is very cold and no place to run. I would find you. I can track your cellphone, remember?”

Look, I’m sure lots of couples joke about being freaked out by their partner enough to run to some ridiculously distant part of the globe to escape them. And it’s funny and it’s cute because that partner probably hasn’t stalked them obsessively- acquiring their home address, tracking their cellphone, turning up places uninvited, etc-up till then. What Christian is saying isn’t a harmless joke. Because he’s stalking Ana.

Ana goes to her last day at work before she moves, and while she’s there, a Blackberry arrives, courtesy of Christian, because he wants to be able to reach her at all times. She endures a hideous emotional speech from the people she’s worked for for three years (which we don’t actually hear because that would require a modicum of writing skill), then goes home to pack.

Jose turns up to bring Kate and Ana takeaway, and then Elliot (Christian’s brother, who’s now fucking Kate) arrives. Ana practically implodes with horror as Kate and Elliot smooch in the doorway  (“I’m appalled by their lack of modesty”), and I remember that time a friend of mine was dating someone who was really physical with them all the time, and how even then I managed not to stare in outright disgust because I have a modicum of respect for my friends and who they choose to date. Also, Christian and Ana were humping in a fucking elevator, but, you know, kissing your boyfriend in your own house is so much more disgusting than dry-humping a creepy murder freak in a lift. Remember, folks: if you’re expressing your sexuality and you’re not Ana or Christian, you should be ashamed of yourself.

Jose and Ana go out for a drink, and when she gets back, there’s a terse email from Christian in which he threatens to call Elliot unless she contacts him. Oh, and five missed calls and a voicemail. With “a deep, curling” dread, Ana calls him back, because it’s definetly healthy to fear a conversation with your partner! After he gets monotone thanks to her not calling him, they literally do the “no, YOU hang up thing” for seventeen lines because, well, you’re not going to stretch this out into a trilogy without some space filler! Did I mention this was the fastest-selling book of all time OH NO WHERE DID THIS NOOSE COME FROM

We cut to the next morning, with Ana and Kate installed in their new apartment. Over dinner, a package arrives from Christian, and Ana explains that he must have acquired their new address thanks to his “stalker-like” tendencies. Kate says she’s worried, and no fucking shit, because if some creep who made my best friend cry every time she saw him had acquired my address without talking to me or my roomate, I’d be freaking the fuck out and demanding he back off. But Kate is fine with it, because Christian sent good champage. So basically, get Kate good booze and she’ll forgive you for anything. I’d like to criticize her for this, but it’s way to close to the way I live my life, so…

Ana prepares to go see Christian, and when she gets there, she’s informed that the ob-gyn will be there the following day to get her on her new contraception. PSA: Don’t let anyone push you into changing your contraception. Sure, talk about it with your partner, but anyone who thinks it’s way cool to just inform their sex partner that they don’t like using condoms so they WILL go on the pill can suck an (unprotected) dick. Seriously, this creeps me out so much I can’t really articulate it.

She’s hungry, but not for food, and he gets angry at her for not eating, whatever whatever whatever, the ob-gyn arrives and Christian tells he he can’t way to see her naked. Oh, Fifty Shades of Grey, how I’ve missed you.

“It’s Just a Book!”: Examining the Influence of Fifty Shades of Grey and After

So, my apologies for the lack of posting in the last week- I’ve been snowed under with university stuff and computer problems, so the blog had to take a back foot while I caught myself up. But I’m back, bitches, and this week’s Friday discussion is about the classic defence for problematic literature- “It’s just a book!”

I was thinking about this earlier today when I came across the #SuspendAnnaTodd hashtag on Twitter. For those who don’t know, Anna Todd published a wildly successful One Direction fanfiction on Wattpad, which was later purchased by Simon and Schuester and turned into a real-life book series. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s pretty much the same path as that EL James wound up on when she published Fifty Shades of Grey. And that’s not the only thing the books have in common- they both depict seriously abusive relationship, presented to the reader as romance. You only have to jump on Twitter to see the scores of fans starry-eyed over the thought of their favourite romantic hero, with hundreds of tweets about how they want their own Christian Grey, or how they envy and want the relationship depicted in After.

Let’s make it clear: I’ve already done numerous breakdowns on the abuse in Fifty Shades, and read the first book of After, in which Hardin Styles terrorises heroine Tessa with his violent posessiveness, bargaining with her virginity, and dangerous levels of jealousy. These are the kind of relationships which would be undeniably abusive if they existed in real life, the kind of relationships you hope no-one you know ever ends up in.

But it’s okay, though, because they’re just fiction, right? And the defence that gets thrown my way more than any other? “It’s just a book.” “It’s just a book.” “IT’S JUST A BOOK”. And on the surface, that’s a pretty good defence; after all, I watch the Saw and Human Centipede movies, but it doesn’t mean that I’m more likely to go rip someone’s head open in a bear trap or sew someone’s mouth to someone’s, um, moving on.

But the difference between violent media and books like After and Fifty Shades is that they’re not being sold as romance. These novels are being marketed as books depicting an enviable, if fantastical, romantic relationship. Here, we’re encouraging readers to read these books and go “yeah, that’s something I want for myself!”. We’re training them to see obvious signs of abuse as signals that someone loves you, which is fine in the world of the story where a writer makes it so the heroine comes to no real harm. In these books, the author has it so when the heroine loves the hero as passionately and meaningfully as they can, the hero loves them back (often not actually changing their abusive behaviour) and they all live happily ever after. Anna Todd and EL James direct the action from behind the scenes, making sure Ana and Tessa don’t end up getting physically assaulted or killed; in real life, where two women in Britain are killed per week by a partner or ex-partner, we’re not so lucky.

It’s reflective of the society we’re in that books like these could achieve such astronomical fame and fortune. And the thing is, I’m not saying that they should be censored or banned or that everyone who likes them MUST STOP READING IMMEDIATELY. The problem is that these books are fantasy being sold as reality. You’ve probably heard a lot about the romanticizing of abuse in books like these, and that might sound like a lot of hot air; after all, most people are smart enough to tell the difference between what they enjoy reading on the page and what they want in real life. But when you’re being screamed at from all sides that this book will save your marriage, fix your sex life, sweep you away on a romantic journey-by publishers, film companies, and every scrap of advertising that has leapt on these books (which includes, lest we forget, washing powder)– that line can get blurred. So it’s important that we keep shouting about the problematic elements these books have from the rooftops, not because people shouldn’t be reading them, but because we’re living in society where emotional and verbal abuse is swept under the carpet with a “well, he/she should have just left”.

It’s not just a book. They’re books so popular that they begin to influence marketing decisions, popular culture, and, yes, real people. Books like these, whose stains seep into every corner of the media (lest we forget, Fifty Shades of Grey is the fastest selling book of all time), start to instill the idea that if we or someone we know is being treated like the heroines in this book, then they’re lucky. If someone stalks us, acquires personal information about us, lies to us, manipulates us, ignores our boundaries and deliberately makes us uncomfortable, that’s love. The effects of abuse, whether emotional, physical, sexual, or an combination of the above, are long-reaching and sometimes devastating- and if we can convince just one less person that that’s the way they should expect to be treated by someone they love, then we’ve succeeded.

 

Shelters and Graveyards: Abuse, BDSM and Love Stories in Fifty Shades of Grey

The Fifty Shades of Grey film hits cinemas later this week, and I think it’s time we take a bloody good look at why Fifty Shades is a story about an abusive relationship. Hundreds of people are defending EL James’ best-selling novel as a depiction of a love story. but it’s time to add to the maelstrom of people arguing that no, it fucking doesn’t.

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Fifty Shades, as people who’ve been keeping up with my shouty recaps will know, follows the story of Christian Grey, mysterious multi-millionaire wanker and dominant, and his relationship with Ana Steele, mousy, pretentious college student. And, right from the off, their relationship is abusive. Because Christian has an inability to respect boundaries, he travels cross-country to pick a drunk Ana up from a party, takes her home, undresses her, and sleeps next to her, without once asking if it’s okay. Christian gets angry at Ana for being a virgin. He stalks her with tracking devices on her phone. She never signs the infamous sex contract he presents her with in order to establish their boundaries as dominant and submissive, but he uses it against her when he decides that she shouldn’t see her mother. He buys her place of work so he can exert more control over her life. He grabs her and pulls her at several times throughout the novel. Christian occasionally outright threatens Ana with violence for doing things he doesn’t like- describing himself as “palm-twitchingly mad” when she visits a male friend.  He pulls Ana away from her friends and locks her in a room with him until she tells him why she won’t return his calls. He admits to getting her drunk in order to get her to agree to what he wants. At the end of the first book, Ana explains to Christian that she doesn’t like the idea of getting punished- he manipulates her saying that she said she’d never leave in her sleep, and Ana asks just how painful things could get. With no discussion of boundaries, Christian beats Ana with a belt so hard she finds herself unable to speak through the pain and thus unable to use her safeword.  When she does manage to count the blows out loud, her voice is a “strangled sob”, so pretty safe to say that things had gone too far; Christian doesn’t even stop to check she’s okay. Read this breakdown of Fifty Shades with regards to an emotional abuse checklist if you don’t believe me; throughout the first book alone and the whole series by extension, Fifty Shades is peppered with emotional abuse, manipulation and emotional blackmail. That’s a fact. Trust me, I know.

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But what does that mean for people who like the book? If you are a fan of Fifty Shades, it doesn’t automatically mean that you support or condone abusive relationships. It means that you’re welcome to enjoy any kind of fantasy you want provided you’re able to draw the line between what you let happen in your head (or on the page) and what you would let happen to yourself or someone else in real life. As long as you’re able to accept the fact that the relationship depicted across the trilogy is a horrendously bad one, feel free to enjoy all the slightly kinky BDSM sex. No, seriously- go ahead and enjoy it. But stop counting yourself amongst fans who defend the book as a love story, or argue that those saying the book is abusive just don’t understand how BDSM works. Fifty Shades is often sold as the love story of a generation, with articles on Match.com and countless other websites giving readers tips on how to find their own Christian Grey. And therein lies the problem with the book- people aren’t satisfied with just the fantasy of a boring, emotionally manipulative manchild- they’re being encouraged to go after it in real life. The problem here arises from a worry that there are probably all too many people willing to become Christian Grey, and all too many people who, thanks to the books, might conflate romance and love with emotional abuse. Because at not one juncture in the book does EL James suggest what Christian is doing is abusive (similarly, the book steers mostly clear of labelling the sexual relationship Christian had as a young teenager with his mother’s manipulative friend as what it is – statutory rape). The reader is supposed to fall in love with him as much as Ana, when we should be encouraged to look out for the often tacit signs of emotional abuse (in our own relationships and in others) that Christian so perfectly epitomizes. Fans who defend this book are basically saying “LOOK! THIS CAMPAIGN OF EMOTIONAL AND BORDERLINE PHYSICAL ABUSE THAT CHRISTIAN CONDUCTS AGAINST ANA IS LOVE!” They are saying that they wouldn’t see a problem with this if it was happening to them or someone they knew. If that doesn’t worry anyone else, you’re probably less invested than me (lucky thing).

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EL James has spoken about how upsetting she finds people describing her book as abusive is, saying “”Bringing up my book in this context trivializes the issues, doing women who actually go through it a huge disservice. It also demonizes loads of women who enjoy this lifestyle.” The problem with that statement? A) Most people calling the book abusive aren’t only annoyed at the pathetically mild BDSM the book depicts, even though that’s it’s practiced in an inaccurate and unsafe way B) It’s everything that happens outside the bedroom that counts as abuse, as well as some aspects of the relationship within it. Countless people have run down the ways in which Fifty Shades depicts an abusive relationship, so I won’t reiterate them all here, but too many critics of the book are framed as prudes or those conflating a consensual BDSM relationship with abuse. We’re not. Defenders of the book are conflating abuse with a consensual BDSM relationship, and they’re wrong.

Hey, you know who else thinks they’re wrong? Hundreds of members of the BDSM community. Here’s a fascinating link to a blog post by someone from without the world of BDSM explaining that the dominant/submissive dynamic depicted in Fifty Shades just wouldn’t fly in most BDSM circles because of how irresponsibly Christian practices BDSM. Some people have voiced concern over the fact that readers, inspired to try out BDSM by Fifty Shades, might well engage in play that blurs the lines of consent. BDSM is a complex lifestyle that requires work in order to keep things safe, sane and consensual- Fifty Shades does not show the planning, the long discussions about boundaries, and the aftercare required to have a successful experience. And then there’s depiction of BDSM as a disease that’s curable by True Wuv, as Ana consistently characterises Christian’s kink as the scariest thing about him (it’s not).

So, with the mighty behemoth that is Fifty Shades rolling into cinemas this week, what can you do to take a stand against the movie (past just not seeing it at all)? Well, I’m donating the cost of my movie ticket to Broken Rainbow, a charity that supports LGBT victims of domestic abuse. Whether you donate or not, keep talking about Fifty Shades- read the books for yourself, and find the countless pieces of evidence that define this as an abusive relationship. You don’t have to shame people for reading it; you have to get people thinking about if this kind of thing is acceptable in real life. I was looking for the right quote to end this piece on, and I found it, courtesy of Gail Dines: “Battered women’s shelters and graveyards are full of women who had the misfortune to meet their Christian Grey.”

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