Fifty Shades of Grey’s reputation precedes it, and passionate critics and defenders rush to add their voices to the chatter whenever the topic surfaces. We defame the books as pornographic and dismiss them as horrendous literature that wreaks havoc on the intellectual welfare of the general population. I too originally dismissed the series as a plotless joke, and it was not until I actually read the series and gave it a chance to defend itself that I began to realize how wrong I was to commit to such a strong opinion about a book I had never read before.
In this essay, I address the critics of Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. I do not argue that these wildly popular books are, or should be considered, good literature. They are not. The writing is repetitive, and the main character is dull and possesses little personality. My point is simply this: there is more to investigate in these books than simple immoral activity, and perhaps we are failing as readers by prematurely judging them. While Fifty Shades of Grey is not inherently valuable, there is more inside than mindless sex, and we are falling short in our inability to look beyond the manifest content and see more. We don’t have to love the books, or even like them, but we do need to understand the content before making final judgements, so we can see how these books might show the problems with the lifestyle they depict. We must be better readers and not sit back and dismiss something before we have even read it. These books are very widely read and simply dismissing their content as destructive and unethical blinds us to what about the books is so successful, and what they can tell us about the world that made them popular.
Perhaps the most popular criticism of the books is that they should be considered pornography. But as hard as it might be to hear, some of the sex is necessary to understanding the characters. The porn industry has its own market base. If these books were just porn, they would not be nearly as publically popular. There are plenty of other examples in popular culture of over-sexualization and sexual depravity. A few examples come to mind: Game of Thrones, Gossip Girl, Grey’s Anatomy, and How I Met Your Mother, all of which are better-crafted entertainment but still revolve around what many of Fifty Shades’ critics would call immoral sexual relationships. Somehow these series have just as much sexual content, but are not classified under porn. While they might not be as graphic (with the exception of Game of Thrones), the same amount of pre- or extramarital sex remains, often driving the plot. These shows glorify sexual promiscuity, but never examine the lives and motives behind it. Christian Grey has an unhealthy view of sex, a fact acknowledged by the characters themselves, but there is an active fight to change his view.
Contrary to popular belief, Fifty Shades of Grey also has a plot—not a stellar one, but a plot nonetheless. Beneath all the sex and dirty talk there are real characters with story lines and motivations. There are two main characters in the story: Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. The more moving of the two, for several reasons, is the egomaniacal billionaire Grey. Readers of the first book soon find out that in addition to his public persona, there is a far darker, more private side of Christian Grey. He belongs to a subset of the sexual world that partakes in Dominant and Submissive relationships. In short, women submit themselves entirely to him for his as well as her own pleasure. This domination is open to negotiation but includes diet, wardrobe, and sexual limitations on the woman. This is usually where the book, understandably, loses readers. However, what people fail to realize is that there is much more to Christian Grey than this, because of his tragic past.
Christian was born to a crack-addicted prostitute and lived with her and her abusive pimp in the slums. She died when he was four years old, and Christian was locked in a room with her for two days, starving, before he was eventually found. He was then adopted by the doctors who helped care for him after her death. Growing up he acted out, got into fights, and rebelled against the rules of his “perfect” family. It seemed that he was headed toward a route similar to his birth mother until he met a woman much older than him who became his Dominant for six years. This was the 15-year-old’s first sexual experience. Eventually set loose, Christian began building his business empire.
This broken childhood explains why Grey doesn’t engage in ordinary “relationships”. The only sexual relationship he has ever known is what his mistress taught him when he was fifteen. He is entirely sexually broken and has no idea what real intimacy looks or feels like. This story is the story of his healing. He finds a woman who makes him want to change, who makes him want a real relationship. He starts out as a Dominant and ends up as a husband. Christian finds healing and an understanding of what it means to be intimately broken. Anastasia puts it perfectly when she says, “The image of a powerful man who’s really still a little boy, who was horrifically abused and neglected, who feels unworthy of love from his perfect family and his much-less-than-perfect girlfriend . . . my lost boy . . . it’s heartbreaking” (Fifty Shades Darker).
Why doesn’t anyone seem to notice or care about these answers to critics of the books? Simple: it’s because we can’t get past the sex of it all. We are failing as readers in that we are quite literally judging a book by its cover. We miss the broken pieces and the story of healing because we are obsessed with the scandal of a sexual lifestyle. There is more beyond what is right in front of us, and I am often shocked to hear that many of the critics who are the most passionate about this series have never read the books. Readers sit on their thrones and arrogantly condemn that which is different from them and that which they do not understand. Any claim of redemption in the novels is simply brushed off as stupid or ridiculous. Society has become foolish enough to assume that hearing about something or reading excerpts online is the same as actually reading it.
Still, these books are not for everyone, and not everyone should read them. But before condemning something as satanic or pornographic, people should give it the chance to defend itself. Opinions about books, good or bad, are necessary. They are what separate the bad from the good, and the good from the great. So while I have just laid out a few of my own personal opinions concerning the books, I do understand that mine is not the only one that exists. But we must be better readers. Fifty Shades of Grey, while not good literature, is more than mindless sex, and we are falling short in our inability to look beyond the manifest content and see more. We don’t have to love the books, or even like them, but we do need to understand the content before writing them off.
Megan Polston is a senior studying English.