For Who Could Ever Learn to Love a Beast
This was written in 2015. With the third and final film in the franchise coming next month, I thought it worth a re-post.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have been bombarded with all things Fifty Shades of Grey (Taylor-Johnson, Marcel, & James, 2015). The buzz has been unavoidable as has the debate about whether or not the film and the books (James, 2011) are “good” for women and girls. I find myself in a very strange place within this conversation. I am a person who is clearly in the target market for the books and the film; the term poster child might be appropriate. I am white, middle-class, female, heterosexual, and well over thirty. People like me have bought millions and millions of copies of the Fifty Shades books (there are 3) and the film version of the first book in the series seems poised to redefine the term blockbuster. I am also a parent of two girls, 16 and 12, who I want to see grow up independent, strong, and capable. I also hope they fall in love and have wonderful, fulfilling relationships defined on their own terms. Finally, I unashamedly self-identify as a feminist with clearly feminist values.
Have I read all the books? Yes. Quite some time ago, a colleague said something on the order of, “No woman who respects herself would be caught dead reading that shit”. As a grown woman who does respect herself, I don’t like to be told what I should and should not do so I read the books. I read a lot of escapist detective fiction (I’ve read all of the In Death books by J. D. Robb aka Nora Roberts) to get out of my own head and avoid any and all critical thinking, so it wasn’t that big a stretch for me. Have I seen the film? No. None of my friends are interested. I’m not likely to take my husband either because I would probably embarrass him by drooling over Jamie Dornan’s Irish deliciousness despite my being old enough to be his mother.
Am I going to allow anyone to put me in their shame box for reading the books? No. And I won’t let anyone say I can’t be a “real” feminist for consuming such material. Did I like the books? Sometimes, but I think that’s because I kept imagining a film version being shown Rocky Horror style with a live cast on stage and loads of audience participation. The writing is truly awful. It began as Twilight (Meyer, 2005) fan fiction after all. I found the story arc across the books familiar and predictable although at times the conversations between main characters were funny (especially the emails). Like a lot of low quality, written porn/erotica, the sex is vividly unrealistic in quality and quantity but the descriptions could, for some people, be entertaining … or instructive. I found the scenes involving the use of restraints, toys, and other BDSM (Bondage and Discipline; Sadism and Masochism) objects occasionally troubling but not shocking. I know enough about BDSM in the real world (I taught a human sexuality course for many years so I am essentially unshockable) to know that the story is not an accurate reflection of people in that community and that it is in many ways very misleading particularly with respect to who participates (the stereotype that only broken, traumatized, neurotic people would do it is inaccurate) and how consent is managed in BDSM sex.
The story is very, very old: damaged, dangerous, wealthy young man traumatized by abuse, neglect and abandonment meets young, innocent, book-loving, introverted girl who is barely scraping by. Christian admits he’s completely screwed up (“fifty shades of fucked up” is his self-description) and he has been working with his current psychiatrist for two years. His birth mother was a drug addict and prostitute whose pimp brutally abused him leaving him scarred and unable to tolerate being touched. His mother died when he was 4 and he was found by police after spending several days with her corpse. He has nightmares reliving this experience. While his adoptive family was loving and supportive, he was introduced to sex and BDSM in a completely inappropriate way at 15 by an adult woman who used him as a submissive for several years and later allowed him to be a dominant. For most of the story, he doesn’t think there was anything wrong with their sexual relationship which only ended when her husband found out. Essentially, Christian’s strategy for dealing with his past has been to have highly structured, contractual, “relationships” with experienced women who have chosen to be submissive to him. He sees himself as depraved, undeserving of the love of others, and incapable of giving love in return. At the same time, he is obsessively protective of the women with whom he’s been involved taking care of some of them after their sexual involvement has ended. Eventually, Christian, who has never been with anyone who challenged him before, becomes desperate to fundamentally change who he is so he can be with Ana. He’s willing to go straight vanilla if that’s what it takes.
Anastasia (“Ana”) is bright, open-minded, shy, and quick-witted. She loves reading Brit-lit and wants to work in publishing. She is compassionate and forgiving. She is also strong, stubborn, resilient, and courageous. Still, she does not see herself as attractive, certainly not attractive enough for someone like Christian. There are several male characters other than Christian who are presented as being very attracted to her but she is uninterested in anything but friendships with them. She is inexperienced in life and has never had sex. She willingly has sex with Christian but his vast repertoire and atypical lifestyle leaves her always one down in power in their sexual interactions. Despite this, she is very open to sexual experimentation and genuinely enjoys rough sex. She doesn’t want to be punished for disobedience, however. Ana routinely stands up to Christian never becoming his submissive. She doesn’t sign either the original or modified contract and they eventually dispense with the rules entirely. Nevertheless, she remains fearful of his anger and hopelessly enraptured. Ultimately, she wants romance and love and she gets it in the end.
Am I oblivious to the misogynistic aspects of the Fifty Shades story? No. Do the books romanticize and legitimize violence against women? In some very obvious and troubling ways, yes. Christian is at times verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive to Ana. He threatens to punish her constantly but she falls in love with him anyway. He stalks her, he invades her privacy in egregious and sometimes illegal ways, and he wants to control her every move ostensibly for her protection and pleasure. Most importantly, he wants to dominate her sexually and punish her physically when she defies him or breaks his rules. To be clear, Christian originally pursues his bizarre version of a contractual Dom/Sub relationship with Ana as the submissive who consents to being obedient and willingly accepts punishment when she’s not. That contractual relationship never happens and his abusiveness slowly diminishes across the series.
In some ways Christian is downright progressive. To be blunt, in the books at least, Christian asks Ana for affirmative verbal consent to sex and specific sex acts more times than any man has ever asked me. She is not restrained or struck without giving broad consent although she usually doesn’t fully understand what she is consenting to. For example, she consents to going into the Red Room in a submissive role but doesn’t know exactly what Christian is going to do to her. To make matters worse, she does not fully comprehend the concept of safewords and her responsibility for using them when they start engaging in more intense BDSM sex. Her lack of experience leaves her vulnerable and the fact that Christian has never been with anyone without at least an equivalent level of experience to his own means he over-assumes her competency to consent. The issue of Christian punishing her when she defies him causes Ana to leave him after she agrees to try being punished (he hits her with a leather belt six times making her count aloud) and finds the experience and Christian’s role in it horrifying. After they reunite in Fifty Shades Darker, he works toward changing himself for her and she commits to making him love himself. Everyone, including Christian’s psychiatrist thinks she is the one who is healing his tortured soul and Ana refers repeatedly to bringing Christian into the light. It makes me wonder if the E. L. James knew that the name Anastasia comes from the Greek for “resurrection” (Anastasia, 2015).
The critical issue is Christian’s desire/need/compulsion to punish Ana when she’s disobedient, why he thinks he needs to do so (because he wants to punish women who look like his dead, neglectful mother), and the sexual gratification he gets from the act (I know, I know. It’s so nauseatingly Oedipal). That is only one of many offensive elements in the story for me as a psychologist. It’s also offensive to those who choose for healthy and fully appropriate reasons to engage in ethical BDSM sexual interactions and relationships. Not surprisingly, his need to punish her and his refusal in the first book to tell her why is the thing that Ana can’t ignore. Unfortunately, the main reason she’s bothered by it isn’t that she thinks what he wants to do to her is wrong (she does think it’s wrong, by the way). Instead, her biggest issue is that she believes he will eventually leave her because she can’t fulfill his sexual needs. She laments not being able to be what she thinks he needs and that he can’t give her what she wants (love and romance). Yes, we should all be very, very bothered by the fact that through most of the book series she sees herself as not good enough for him because she doesn’t want him to cane or whip her when she misbehaves.
All of this offends my feminist sensibilities and my need to raise my daughters without delusional beliefs about re-socializing violent, psychologically damaged men. That’s hard to do when we, as a culture, continue to encourage girls and women to see themselves as the emotional saviors of troubled men and we persist in encouraging boys and men to see themselves as dominant protectors who keep girls and women safe by controlling them. All this teaches girls/women is that they need to put up with abusive, controlling, emotionally immature men until they get them to reveal their secrets (usually by trading sex or marriage for them) which will free them from their demons. All it teaches boys/men is that their sexual and other needs have primacy over those of women, that they need girls/women to be their emotional surrogates, and that they are solely responsible for protecting their partners by force if necessary.
But Fifty Shades is not the problem nor is it a new problem; we are the problem because we are complicit in the story’s perpetual retelling. Complicit? Is that what I just said? Yes. Because the problem isn’t Fifty Shades; Fifty Shades just makes it painfully obvious that the “love” stories we tell and have been telling ourselves and our children for hundreds and hundreds of years have been cut from the same cloth. Like most women in American culture, I have been fed a steady diet of idealized, stereotype-laden, sexist romance stories from the start. Like me, my girls, whether I want them to or not, have been exposed to their own banquet of demeaning romantic narratives. So, what am I trying to say about our collective complicity? Specifically, I believe that, if we choose to criticize and reject Fifty Shades of Grey for its misogyny and glorification of the abuse and subjugation of women, we should do the same for other books and films built on the very same skeleton, many of which have been written for and aggressively marketed to our very, very young daughters.
Take, for example, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (Trousdale & Wise, 1991) which follows a root narrative with which we are all very comfortable and which is the template for Fifty Shades. Beauty and the Beast is based on a traditional French fairy tale (La Belle et la Bête by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont) which dates back to the 1700s. Beauty and the Beast premiered in 1991 was immediately successful. It was recently announced that UN Women Goodwill Ambassador (ironic, no?) and Harry Potter heroine Emma Watson has been cast as Belle in the Disney live-action version scheduled to begin filming some time later this year (McNary, 2015). Waston’s announcement on her Facebook page shows her affection for the story and its place in her childhood:
I’m finally able to tell you… that I will be playing Belle in Disney’s new live-action Beauty and the Beast! It was such a big part of my growing up, it almost feels surreal that I’ll get to dance to ‘Be Our Guest’ and sing ‘Something There.’ My six year old self is on the ceiling – heart bursting. (McNary, 2015, ¶ 4)
Obviously, Beauty and the Beast is a story that we value and my suggesting that it is the framework on which Fifty Shades was constructed will likely get me labeled some kind of culture-terrorist (my 16-year-old became apoplectic when I made the comparison). That’s never stopped me before so here goes. The Beast is a man who was cursed by an enchantress as a child because he refused to give her shelter in his castle. He is to remain a horrible beast until he is loved by and loves another selflessly. He is wealthy and has a magical castle and a loyal staff. He is immature, brutish, and very, very angry. He has no problem locking people up for minor transgressions and using them to get what he wants. Belle is a kind, beautiful, book-loving, young woman who values her independence and is committed to her eccentric father. Belle’s father is imprisoned by the Beast and Belle trades herself for his release. She attempts to adjust to her situation and works to understand her captor. She disobeys him at times and stands up to him despite being afraid of his anger. Over time, Belle warms to Beast and he is transformed into a prince when she declares her love for him.
One Disney wiki contributor describes their situation this way:
All seems hopeless until fate brings Belle into his world. Angry and despairing due to his long enchantment, the Beast tries to capture Belle’s love with fear, not kindness. Then slowly, through her courage and compassion, he begins to discover the secrets of his own heart and learns that even a beast can be loved. (Beast, n.d., ¶ 1)
Beauty is described on her official Disney princess page in this way:
Belle’s name means beauty, but she often stands out in town because she loves to read. She dreams of adventure in the great wide somewhere and believes there is good in everyone, even the Beast. (Belle, n.d., ¶ 1)
Try reading those paragraphs after replacing Beast with Christian, Belle with Ana, enchantment with abuse, and beauty with resurrection or rebirth. Sound familiar? It should. In fact, when you put the stories side by side, they are disturbingly similar. I found 22 obvious similarities (see obsessive Table 1 and equally obsessive images in Figure 1). Frankly, it’s not that hard to imagine the Beast with a flogger and a Red Room of Pain instead of a magic rose and a West Wing given that he has taken a 17-year-old girl into servitude against her will in exchange for her father’s freedom. By chance, I found the image to the right when searching for screenshots from both films to identify parallel images (Rees, 2015). It was posted on the Cosmopolitan webpage on February 11, 2015 during the Fifty Shades of Grey run up before Valentine’s Day. It seems I’m not the only one who noticed the parallel story. Maybe that’s one reason why so many middle-aged women have bought the books. The story reminded them of the Disney classic their daughters made them watch a thousand times in the 1990s, the musicals their high schools put on, and all the other films and books they’ve watched and read that are based on the same archetypal structure. Hang some kinky sex on the fairy tale and it is gold.
Many organizations and individuals have been highly critical of Fifty Shades (e.g., Katz, 2015). I don’t disagree with most of their arguments. At the same time, denying our collective attraction to the base narrative is at best naïve. As Jonathan Gottschall (2013) put it, “[w]e are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories” (Preface, ¶ 9). Until we own our cultural obsession with pretty young women subjecting themselves to dangerous situations to save damaged violent men (make no mistake; that is exactly what Belle did), we will get nowhere. While exquisitely vile in her own right, Cersei Lanister said it quite well, “[e]verywhere in the world, they hurt little girls” (MacLaren & Martin, 2014). If we want that to stop, we need to change the root narrative and start dreaming different dreams about boys and girls and falling in love.
Side by side comparison of plot points in Beauty and the Beast and Fifty Shades of Grey
|1||The Prince is young (21) and wealthy. He lives in a castle. He has lots of loyal staff.||Christian is young (27) and wealthy. He lives in the penthouse of an exclusive apartment building. He has lots of loyal staff.|
|2||A beautiful Enchantress goes to the castle in disguise asking the Prince, who is a child (11), for shelter. The Prince refuses and she punishes him for his unkindness by turning him into a Beast.||Beautiful, older Elena takes advantage of 15 year old, troubled Christian when he’s working for her after he is rude to her. She pulls him into an inappropriate, abusive sexual relationship. He becomes a monster.|
|3||Beast has to learn to love and receive love to be freed from the curse. He has never been in love.||Christian has to learn to love and accept love to be truly happy. He has never been in love.|
|4||Belle/Beauty loves books, is smart, and is close to her father. She is young (17), beautiful, and poor. She is sometimes lonely because she has few friends. She has never been in love.||Ana/Anastasia loves books, is smart, and is close to her step-father. She is young (21), beautiful, and not wealthy. She is sometimes lonely because she has few friends. She has never been in love.|
|5||Belle is confronted with the unwanted advances of the brutish Gaston. She refuses him and defends herself pushing him through a door.||Ana is confronted with the unwanted advances Hyde. She refuses him and defends herself by using a finger hold and kneeing him in the groin.|
|6||After imprisoning her father, Beast offers Belle a deal: her servitude for his freedom. There are rules including that she can never leave. He hopes to convince her to love him.||After he allows Ana to interview him for the school paper, Christian attempts to negotiate a contractual Dom/Sub relationship with her. There are lots and lots of creepy rules.|
|7||Beast gives Belle her own room.||Christian gives Ana her own room.|
|8||Beast wants Belle to eat with him. Dinner and dancing happen.||Christian is obsessed with Ana eating. Dinner, drinking and dancing happen. Repeatedly.|
|9||Beast is easily enraged.||Christian is very easily enraged.|
|10||Belle breaks the rules and fears Beast’s reaction.||Ana breaks the rules and fears Christian’s reaction.|
|11||Both Beast and Belle are stubborn.||Both Christian and Ana are stubborn.|
|12||Beast loses control and Belle runs away.||Christian loses control and Ana breaks up with him.|
|13||Beast gives Belle a library filled with books.||Christian gives Ana the library at Escala plus access to a British Literature library on an iPad.|
|14||Belle warms to Beast despite fearing him and decides to help him.||Ana falls in love with Christian despite fearing him. She decides to help him.|
|15||Beast sees hope in Belle.||Christian says Ana gives him hope of something more.|
|16||Beast gives Belle magical gifts.||Christian gives Ana over the top gifts (helicopter ride, glider ride, iPad, BlackBerry, Audis, Mac…).|
|17||Beast limits Belle’s contact with people outside the castle but eventually gives her more access to her family.||Christian limits Ana’s time with friends but he eventually gives her more freedom to be with them (although he believes it endangers her).|
|18||Gaston goes after Beast intending to kill him.||Hyde goes after Christian and Ana intending to kill them.|
|19||Beast becomes hopeless and bereft when he thinks he has lost Belle forever.||Christian completely falls apart when Ana walks out on him.|
|20||Belle has a humanizing effect on Beast becoming more kind and giving him the ability to better control his temper even refraining from killing Gaston when he has the chance.||Ana humanizes/normalizes Christian. His family members repeatedly say that they have never seen him as he is with her. He starts to be able to control his temper even refraining from killing Hyde.|
|21||Belle’s declaration of love transforms Beast and frees him from the curse.||When Christian acknowledges that he truly is loved by Ana and his family, his belief that he is hopelessly depraved recedes.|
|22||They live happily ever after.||Christian and Ana marry and have children and lots of fantastic, kinky sex. Ana calls it her “happily ever after”.|
Figure 1. Parallel images in Beauty and the Beast and Fifty Shades of Grey
Anastasia. (2015). Retrieved February 20, 2015 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anastasia
Beast. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2015 from http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Beast
Belle. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2015 from http://princess.disney.com/belle
Gottschall, J. (2013). The storytelling animal: How stories make us human [Kindle edition]. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com
James, E. L. (2011). Fifty Shades of Grey: The fifty shades trilogy (Vintage eBook Edition). New York: Vintage Books.
Katz, J. (2015). Fifty Shades of Grey and the sexual (mis)education of boys. Huffington Post. Retrieved February 20, 2015 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jackson-katz/fifty-shades-of-grey-and-the-miseducation-of-boys_b_6700378.html
MacLaren, M. (Director), & Martin, G. R. R. (Writer). (2014). First of his name [Television series episode]. Game of Thrones. United States: HBO.
McNary, D. (2015). Emma Watson cast as Belle in Disney’s live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Variety. Retrieved February 20, 2015 from http://variety.com/2015/film/news/emma-watson-belle-beauty-beast-disney-live-action-1201415167/
Meyer, S. (2005). Twilight. New York: Little Brown and Company.
Rees, A. (2015). If Disney couples starred in “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Retrieved February 20, 2015 from http://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/movies/news/a36375/if-disney-couples-starred-in-fifty-shades-of-grey/
Taylor-Johnson, S. (Director), Marcel, K. (Screenwriter), & James, E. L. (Author). (2015). Fifty Shades of Grey [Motion picture]. United States: Focus Features.
Tousdale, G. (Director), & Wise, K. (Director). (1991). Beauty and the Beast [Motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney Pictures.
Posted on February 23, 2015, in Blog and tagged BDSM, Beauty and the Beast, Dakota Johnson, E. L. James, Emma Watson, Fifty Shades of Grey, Jamie Dornan, Jonathan Gottschall, psychology, Sex, Violence against women. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.