How liberating. (50 Shades of Gray, Universal Films)

June 8, 2021   5 mins

Sometime in 2009, Erika Mitchell seems to have had the most profitable wank in history. After reading Stephanie Meyer’s YA vampire romance Twilight series, Mitchell began writing a fanfiction called Master of the Universe under the pen name “Snowqueens Icedragon”; Master of the Universe eventually became the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy of erotic novels, and Snowqueens Icedragon became E. L. James.

Since signing on with a mainstream publisher in 2012, she’s sold over 150 million copies of her books worldwide. Last week, she released Freed, the final part of a retelling of the original Fifty Shades novels from the male love interest’s perspective. Again, James is following Meyer here, whose Midnight Sun (leaked in 2008 though not officially published until 2020) is the masculine take on the Twilight story.

Following, and, as usual, going further. Where Meyer contented herself with one volume of perspective-shifting, James has gone for a do-over on all three of hers; and where Meyer’s books sustained an atmosphere of age-appropriate repression and Mormon-appropriate sexual repulsion (Meyer is LDS), James went the whole hog-tied way into BDSM. James took the characters and relationships from Twilight, and rewrote the story to suit herself. “All my fantasies in there, and that’s it,” she said in 2012.

Edward Cullen still met Bella Swan, only now he wasn’t a 103-year-old vampire, and she wasn’t a depressed high-school virgin with a maddening tendency to bleed. He became an emotionally repressed (and very handsome) billionaire; she became a shy, klutzy (but beautiful!) student. In Twilight, Bella’s love helps Edward learn to control his instinct to suck her like a Capri-Sun; in Master of the Universe, Bella teaches Edward that there’s more to sex than trussing a woman up with cable ties and lovelessly banging her senseless.

Eventually Edward was renamed “Christian Grey” and Bella turned into “Anastasia Steele”; the whole thing was reworked and presented as an original fiction, and the cultural phenomenon we all know and masturbate to/hold in contempt was born. And there is so much contempt for James. Deriding her is as much of a compulsion for large chunks of the public as paddling Ana’s pert behind is for Christian. Feminists said she glorified abuse; BDSM-ers said she made BDSM look bad; conservatives said she was corrupting public decency; the sneery tag “mommy porn” was invented to describe her work.

And everyone, but everyone, said she couldn’t write. “In fact, if I were a member of the Christian Right, sitting on my front porch decrying the decadent morals of working American women, what would be most alarming about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomena… is that millions of otherwise intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this level,” wrote Katie Roiphe in a 2012 article for Newsweek asking why the collective female libido seemed to have achieved a consensus around submission.

Part of the strangeness of the reaction to Fifty Shades — both the passion of its fans, and the dismay of its detractors — is that it’s nothing very new, and nor would James ever pretend it was. As much as it owes to Twilight, and to the collaborative inventions of fanfiction, it’s also part of the grand tradition of the bonkbuster, which dates back to the 1970s. And the bonkbuster has always loved a bad boy: the caddish Rupert Campbell-Black, of Jilly Cooper’s Rutshire Chronicles, would make no better of a boyfriend than Christian Grey.

But bonkbusters also tended to celebrate variety and adventure for their heroines, not only sexually but professionally. Anastasia Steele is a retreat from that: a one-man woman whose eventual career is a gift of her wealthy husband (he buys a publisher for her run) and who gives up her surname when she marries him. After all the benefits of second-wave feminism, it seemed like what straight women really wanted was not to have it all but to give it all up; and they wanted it enough to buy James’s fantasies not just once but twice over.

Retelling might, in fact, be too strong a word for what James has done in her Christian-narrated novels. Comparisons of Master of the Universe and Fifty Shades suggest the shift from one to the other was not that extensive after all (Master of the Universe has been almost totally erased from the internet now); similarly, when you look at the original trilogy and the new one side-by-side, there’s often very little difference to detect.

For example, the first time Christian gets Ana off, he does it by playing with her breasts in a “slow, sensual assault”. This continues until her “whole body sings with sweet agony”, at which point she tells us: “He kisses me, deeply, his tongue in my mouth absorbing my cries.” From his perspective, this is a “lascivious assault”, which ends when “I move quickly to kiss her, capturing her cries in my mouth.”

Where we do get new information from the Grey version, it’s mostly reassuring confirmation that he was always secretly concerned about Anastasia’s consent (take that, feminists worried about BDSM/BDSMers worried about being confused with rapists!), and childhood memories of his mother that help to explain his emotional remoteness. It’s not exactly Rashomon, but then, being Rashomon would be very much against the spirit of Fifty Shades. Nobody came here for the fracturing of reality into multiple perspectives, thank you very much.

The grand fantasy of Fifty Shades isn’t really the spanking or the restraints or any of the other delightful perversions that Christian introduces Ana to. It’s that a woman could know a (billionaire, handsome) man completely and, by loving him, redeem him. Through all the business in the Red Room of Pain, Ana achieves the ultimate in vanilla: straight, monogamous intimacy. To that end, nothing could be hotter than the revelation that Christian and Ana were having almost the exact same subjective experiences all along.

I don’t share a lot of the moral concerns about Fifty Shades. Yes, much of what occurs between Christian and Ana would be deeply alarming if it happened in a real relationship, but prissy fussing about how it misrepresents consent overlooks the fact that this is happening in a fiction. People who enjoy submission are also enjoying a fiction: it’s necessary to believe in your own resistance in order to extract the pleasure of being possessed.

So however careless Christian appears to be about Ana’s boundaries, readers know that she ultimately wants to be totally his; and they know also that her surrender becomes a way of mastering him. Even writing as infelicitous as James’s has a huge advantage over visual pornography when it comes to sex, in that it can show us its characters from the inside, and fulfil the part of the fantasy which is about feeling rather than simply doing (or being done to). If there’s danger in Fifty Shades, it’s not the sex so much as the romance.

To love someone is always to be slightly at the mercy of the unknowability of the other. Ana is able to overcome that with what the rewrite trilogy now confirms is perfect understanding. But in the real world, there is much that women are never going to comprehend about the men they love, however much they prostrate themselves in the effort — and much that men never make any effort to understand about the women who love them. More than horsewhips and hemp ropes, it’s that gulf of sympathy that leaves real-life people hurt.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.