Oh yeah. It continues. MMCs and gaslighting the reader and things that are supposed to be hot but aren’t and DIAF FSOG.
Let’s keep scrutinizing tropes and cliches and character elements and things and stuff and all that.
Acts that are supposed to show he’s sensitive but HOLY FUCK, SELFISH ASSHOLE, PARTY OF ONE
- “I can feel your pain like it’s my own!”
- “If you hurt, I hurt.”
- His eyes travel over my cuts and bruises. “I guess I’m just really shaken up by all that’s happened,” he says, his voice raw and anguished.
It’s possible to do this kind of thing effectively. Passionately. Supportively.
However, too often, a text shows the MMC going further, to the point that he’s actually appropriating the FMC’s traumas for his own. We’re meant to think that the MMC is sensitive, and cares, that he really loves the FMC. Sometimes this happens in the Big Awakening scene, where he never realized how much he loved her until he almost lost her. It’s meant to show the emotional stakes for the MMC, to make us feel the intensity of his anguish-
But if he makes her trauma about his manpain, and sidelines her actual lived experience and pain in the process? He’s an asshole.
It’s not that she was in labor for 18 hours before delivering their baby without any painkillers at all, in excruciating pain the whole time… it’s really that he had to stand by and watch! Do you not understand that this was agony for him?!
It’s not that she was kidnapped, sold into slavery, brutally gang-raped, and suffered for almost two years before managing to escape and find her way home to him… it’s really that he had to suffer back at home, worrying about where she was! He was tormented!
It isn’t that she was held hostage at knifepoint, stabbed twice, almost died, and still managed to call the cops and get the perps arrested… it’s really that he had a horrible nightmare that she actually did die, and now he’s all shaken up!
This crap is clumsy at best, and an indication that the MMC is a manipulative abuser in most cases. Again, it gets rationalized as his sensitivity. He cares soooo much that-
That his feewings always matter more than hers, even when she is the one who has experienced the actual Bad Thing?
It’s like that time my mom tearfully said to me that I would never, ever know the agony of having my own daughter tell me that she’d been sexually abused as a child. Because, you know, my twelve years, my entire childhood, of actual sexual abuse was nothing compared to what my mom went through as a parent being told about it.
So sure, the FMC’s hurt can be hard and hurtful and painful for the MMC too… but not if it disenfranchises her in the process. Not if it diminishes the one who actually experienced the thing, the actual victim/survivor. Not if she ends up comforting HIM over the fact that she was raped, kidnapped, in danger, almost died. No.
It can get even worse with the whole his-pain-is-more-than-hers when he turns introspective about it, when it’s augmented by the MMC’s selfishness/cluelessness that the FMC has every reason to think/feel something. Like dudebros who get mad when women walking on street carry keys, or look uncomfortable, “Why does she think I’m a rapist, that bitch?!”
Is the MMC getting mad about a reaction that is totally normal, even warranted, given his behavior?
- “I don’t understand why you can’t trust me. It breaks my heart.”
- She was the first woman with whom he’d ever wanted more. Why did she not understand that? he thought, clenching his jaw. What was wrong with her?
- “Oh. She doesn’t want this. She doesn’t want me.”
- His eyes darkened. “You really think I’d do that?” What kind of an animal did she think I was?
- She darted into the other room, away from him. She couldn’t get away fast enough, he noticed, and the anger–and pain–in his belly continued to burn.
How dare she ask if I have a girlfriend or boyfriend? She thinks I’m gay?! She thinks I’m celibate?!
- “Why is she so pissed at me?” stormed Blaine. “I took her to dinner! I brought her flowers! I’ve played the game by her rules! Why isn’t it enough for her?”
His feelings are not more, or more important than, hers. The MMC has to learn to manage his feelings, his hurt, his anger, his disappointment, like a grown up. If he doesn’t at first, then it has to be part of the plot. (I did this with Hal in A Scandalous Reputation; it’s part of the point of his maturity that he has to understand that he must deal with the hurt of Margaret’s rejection, and that she had every right to say no.)
This mindset of “this totally normal thing everyone does or this thing I feel is bad and wrong, because it upsets/hurts/scares HIM!” is not just bad writing, it’s bad, period. The FMC can’t say no, or maintain independence, or express a preference, or even just slow things down, because it hurts the super-sensitive Alpha MMC who has made himself vulnerable for the first time. She can’t go on a trip, drive to normal destinations, have a male boss, or meet new people because the MMC, who has experienced painful infidelity in the past, finds such things triggering.
The MMC has nightmares, so he somehow has the right to get into bed with her for comfort, despite the fact that she’s unconscious, and has not consented to any of this, and they’ve only seen each other three times in their lives and barely know each other at all. It’s okay because it’s all about how HE feels safe. She’s not actually safe, mind, but HE FEELS SAFE SO NEVER MIND, FMC! TAKE IT AS A COMPLIMENT!
She has to put aside her own feelings, even her own traumas and stresses and safety, and comfort him.
His feelings are prioritized over everything, even her feelings, her wants and needs, her privacy, her boundaries. This bad thing he does is actually okay because it makes HIM feel better, so let’s dismiss her rights, or autonomy, or discomfort.
It gets worse-er when the MMC himself is the cause of the FMC’s pain, when he’s the one hurting her. (Sometimes the MMC is all apologetic. But sometimes even the text seems oblivious of the fact that the MMC is the one causing the FMC’s problems.) The fact that he heroically and manfully comforts her afterwards is not a sign that he’s loving, kind, gentle, and caring. It’s a sign that he’s a fucked-up abusive shithead. If she is broken and crying because he hurt her, or dumped her, or raped her, or cheated on her, his passionate embraces and humble declarations of love afterwards are a crock of shit.
This is textbook abuse: he tormented her and hurt her, and now that she’s completely broken, emotionally and mentally, even if not physically, his coming to her rescue and comforting her, framing himself as her heroic savior and the one who really loves her?! IS ABUSE.
This is not a sign that he’s sensitive. This is a sign of control and manipulation. This is domestic violence. This is gaslighting. This is wrong.
This is not romance.
The MMC NOT DOING A BAD THING is not the same thing as him doing a good thing.
- I leave before I do something I’ll regret.
- “You’re lucky that all I’m doing is yelling at you, Kate!” Joshua shouted even louder, his face twisted in rage. “You were drunk. I could have done anything I wanted to you! Any man might’ve, but luckily, I kept you safe!”
- His cock twitched and strained. He wanted to take her hard and thoroughly, to cancel out all the space and time between them, and he only barely restrained himself.
- I could have done it then, if I wanted to, but I managed to control myself, even though all I could picture was her, hot and naked and ready for me….
- “I expected him to explode in a fury. Instead he regarded me coldly, but, thankfully, this time, calmly.”
Or, to quote a certain horror-show of an MMC: “It takes all my self-control not to go barging through the front door of her apartment to check that she’s there and on her own.” Um. Explain how not breaking-and-entering your ex-girlfriend’s house is supposed to be something praiseworthy?
What all of this adds up to is not just Unintentional Christian Grey, but an intentional one. And that is not a positive, affirming, powerful, beautiful, sexy thing. Christian Grey is a lie. A big, fat, poorly-written and badly-developed lie of love and passion wrapped up in shiny abuse-paper. Christian Grey is the lie that is everything wrong with contemporary society.
How does it get rationalized by others? I’ve already dealt with the bullshit excuse that “it’s just FICTION!” or “I don’t want to think about it that much!” does not fly, because fiction/fantasy or not, it normalizes, even romanticizes, abuse. You have responsibility as an adult to at least recognize that, even if you can suspend disbelief yourself while reading.
But what else do people say in order to avoid scrutinizing a truly problematic element of the genre, of pop culture, of our society?
“BDSM IS NOT ABUSE!”
I agree. When done in a safe, sane, consensual environment by two equal, adult partners, BDSM is not abuse.
However, what Christian does is not BDSM. What is portrayed in the books is not SS&C sex. Ana is not an equal, adult partner who makes independent, conscious decisions to explore her own kinks and sexuality.
“But he’s empowering HER because she’s really the strong one!”
Christian Grey is expecting to get away with shit, just like he does as a rich, powerful white man in every other aspect of his life.
He’s manipulating her. All you have to do is read the actual books. It’s all right there in the text, from multiple characters’ perspectives. They demonstrate it constantly.
Is Ana Steele really strong? If she is, is that strength valued? By Christian? Is that what’s going on?
Look at the series. Define “strength” in the work. Loving someone or trusting someone is not something that automatically makes someone a strong person, a strong woman, no matter what the characters “mewl” or “bleat” or “murmur.” Repeatedly, the text shows us how loving and (sometimes, depending on the day) trusting Christian makes Ana powerless, restricted, isolated. It changes her.
For the better? Really?
What does the text show us? What do we see as readers? What do the characters tell us? What do they show us? Is it the same thing?
Again, all you have to do is look at the actual words written, at what the characters tell us and the text and their actions show us, how it all combines, to see that this is not a romantic, passionate, sexy MMC who reforms and “gets so much better!” at the end. This is an abuser, and what makes him an abuser never changes. The Christian-POV version, Grey, only makes it more obvious. In it, Christian pays some lip service to power, saying things to Ana like “I’m at your mercy” or thinking I’m all hers. But telling isn’t showing. THE ACTIONS HAVE TO ACTUALLY SHOW IT. (Also, please see “strong, empowered FMCs”) But more often, well into the third book when he supposedly is “all better,” he talks even more about owning her, wanting to rape her, her quitting her job to be at home all the time so he knows where she is, needing and thinking he should control her every action. He’s still exploding into anger, controlling and manipulating her, abusing her, and, yes, cheating on her (at the very least, emotionally, if not physically) when he runs off to his ex-Domme when Ana announces her pregnancy.
Readers thinks that Christian loves that Ana is a strong, smart woman who stands up to him…? Bullshit. How often does he mention wanting her “smart mouth” gagged or with his dick shoved in it?
Love? Strength? Consent? Power?
I’ll use a quote from Grey, to make my point:
“The power is in the hands of Anastasia Steele. I want her submission.”
At first glance, doesn’t it sound like he’s empowering her, that she’s in control? I’ve seen the fans arguing that this is what indicates Ana has all the power in their relationship. However, this is one of the most massive cases of saying one thing, and showing another (and often just outright lying about things), and it only makes Christian look like more of an abusive, manipulative, selfish cockstick.
He is not empowering her, or respecting her, or loving her. He’s making a specific power-based demand of her, based on what he wants. He demonstrates repeatedly that he doesn’t give a fuck about what she wants.
Furthermore, he does not want her “submission” in the BDSM sense. He wants her to think she’s empowered by being powerless in every way, in letting him control her.
Because he is not loving her.
He is grooming her.
First off, Ana has no sexuality at all without/before Christian. Her sexuality is defined by him, and controlled by him. So where in a real BDSM relationship, when the Dom says to the sub, “I want all of your pleasure,” that’s one thing. When a billionaire says it to a shy virgin who has literally never had a tingling in her vagina before encountering him, when he claims all of her orgasms, all of her sexual pleasure, as HIS, this demand, and her capitulating to it, is not an act of power. Ana never had her own autonomous sexuality to give up to him in the first place.
But even more, Ana has already indicated several times that she has no interest in being his submissive, or in BDSM at all. She wants a traditional “hearts and flowers” dating relationship. She says it all the time, to him, and to the readers.
AND CHRISTIAN KNOWS ALL OF THIS. She has told him outright, multiple times. And she has only been scared and/or put off by [what he is telling her is] BDSM. She describes these acts to him as him being “mean” to her, and as “beating” and “hitting” her. She even calls it “assault” more than once, and flat-out tells him: “Christian. You use sex as a weapon. It really isn’t fair.” She does not like the idea of being trained or punished, and she has already said, and continues to say, “I don’t want to obey you” and “I don’t want you telling me what to do and controlling every aspect of my life.” He even acknowledged repeatedly that she is not a “good” submissive, that she is not a submissive or submissive material at all.
Of course, he frames it that it’s because she’s so darned stubborn and disobedient. But he overlooks the obvious, and what any actual Dom or BDSM participant would know:
Ana is not a submissive because she does not like pain, discipline, or being controlled.
SHE DOES NOT LIKE PAIN. Pain does not turn her on in any way. She does not get off on pain. She does not obtain pleasure from receiving or giving pain.
In fact, considering how she reacts to her own orgasming or arousal with fear and/or shame, it doesn’t even seem like she likes or understands sex, or knows how to feel about it without cues from Christian. Ana often feels ashamed, sad, confused, and used after sexual/kinky encounters with him, crying helplessly more than once. She thinks of kink as something she “has” to “let” him do to her, and when she does, she is “happy that he is happy” … but is pointedly not happy herself. Absolutely nothing about these sexual/physical/hitting encounters is appealing to her but being with Christian, and she states this several times, states that what she wants most is to “please him.” This is also something of which he is well aware. And he also knows that women, in general, fall all over themselves around him, and that Ana has been consistently overwhelmed and intimidated by him. It is something he has already noted in his interior monologues, something he does regularly to her on purpose, and used knowingly to his advantage. He says to her:
“If you were my sub, you wouldn’t have to think about this. It would be easy. All those decisions–all the wearying thought processes behind them. … You wouldn’t have to worry about any of that detail. That’s what I’d do as your Dom.”
He literally says, “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that.” About not just sex, but everything, every decision-making thing in her life.
He doesn’t want her empowered. He doesn’t want her sexually fulfilled or in control of anything. He doesn’t even want her to enjoy submitting to him or being spanked, which not only does he tell her outright, but, hello, which is the whole point of BDSM!
He wants to hurt her against her will. He wants to get off on hurting her this way.
He wants to control everything about her. And, worse, he wants her thoughtless and uncritical. Unquestioning. That way, he can get away with all of this without her silly “defiance,” her “wearying thought processes.”
He does not want her to think. He wants to think for her, so he can abuse her, and she will accept it. He conflates things and frames it as something he should be doing, making her unquestioningly obey him no matter what to supposedly keep her safe: “I need to know she’s safe and will do anything for me.” And as Snark Squad points out, “Those … are not the same thing.” They aren’t even in the same general neighborhood.
Christian Grey is not a Dom. He is not kinky or “tragically flawed” or nontraditional or “complex.” He is a criminal.
We also know what he does to her is full-fledged domestic abuse because of Christian’s big reveal: he does this to women who look like his crack-whore mother, to punish her by proxy. So, either he has sexual feelings for his mother and is acting out on them, or he is abusing the women who are mommy-stand-ins for him, including Ana. Neither option is healthy. Neither option is empowering to the women involved with him. And even if she was a consenting sub, it’s still fucking sick as hell. Even more, it shows us that he blames his mother, never the men around her, for her own abuse, her own lack of power. This is Christian Grey’s outlook on women, and it has nothing to do with safe, sane, consensual kinky sex, and everything to do with misogyny and abuse. This is the position Ana is put in by him: that if he abuses her, it is her fault, and she deserves it. The fact that he supposedly falls in love with Ana does not make it “not abuse,” because he still wants to hit her, because he wants to hit his mommy. From the very first second, he was attracted to Ana and wants to fuck her and hit her because she looks like his dead mother who he hates for being abused herself.
He knows from the beginning that if Ana knows this, she will leave him. This is why he hides this information, all while muttering about how “fifty shades of fucked up” he is.
Again, this is what he (eventually) say to her… and what the text tells us repeatedly. This is what the plot is about.
“Ana doesn’t ever do anything she doesn’t want to do!” “Everything that happens in the books is consensual!” “Ana consents willingly to everything they do!”
Yeah, no. No. No, it really isn’t. Not even close.
From the beginning, Christian pays lip service to consent… and then steamrollers right over it because he is sooooo attracted to Ana (because she looks like his mother who he wants to beat/fuck, remember). We are presented with his constant disregard for boundaries and her consent and told that it’s sexy and hot. Remember, what happens after he assures her that he is not going to touch her until he has her “written consent” to touch her…?
Telling us it is love or passion, and that Christian really respects Ana and that she is totally in control because hey, he used the words “control” and “consent” means fuck-all when you look at what the text shows, what the characters do and think, and everything that happens over the entire series.
Ana murmuring that she “trusts” him also means fuck-all because her actions and her interior monologues tell us over and over that she doesn’t trust him, often in those very words. She contradicts herself about this multiple times. Importantly and tellingly, she doesn’t feel she can talk to him or be herself with him. She doesn’t trust herself around him, and doesn’t even trust him sexually. Often she feels she can’t even look directly at him because she’s so overwhelmed and afraid of him. She doesn’t want to talk with him about sex, and even thinks, “I can’t ask you. I’ll get your biased, kinky-as-hell distorted world-view regarding sex.” Word of wisdom, Ana? If you can’t talk about it with him, you shouldn’t be doing it with him, whether it’s vanilla or kink.
And we can’t trust you as a FMC, either, because we’re getting your biased, insecure, abused, distorted world-view regarding love.
Ana claims that she “would never do anything she doesn’t want to do” multiple times, but, as Jenny Trout demonstrates, despite saying it, Ana actually does things she doesn’t want to do ALL THE FUCKING TIME, and often regarding sex and BDSM. Gosh, another one of those magical utterances that don’t actually do or show or prove anything, huh?
Ana also constantly feels like she is a child with Christian, thinking of herself and behaving in childlike terms, which is not just squicky, but deeply psychologically troubling.
This isn’t Ana being in control of anything.
Ana has zero power here, because the only thing she wants is Christian, and the only way she’ll get him is by doing what he wants, when he wants it, to his specifications.
THAT MEANS CHRISTIAN HAS ALL THE POWER IN THEIR RELATIONSHIP.
Christian tells her outright that the only way she’ll get him is by doing what he wants, when he wants it, to his specifications, from the very beginning, too. When she asks him what will she get out of their arrangement where he gets to do whatever he wants to her and call it BDSM, he tells her “Me.” Even more, he makes clear she only has this one opportunity to do so: “No. Second. Chances. Ever.”
It doesn’t matter that they have a “second chance” later, because this is still the information Ana (who has no experience with sex or with relationships) is given, and upon which she is expected to make some sort of “empowered” decision about entering into a contractual submissive sexual relationship with him. She thinks she has no real options, it’s either what he wants or nothing at all, and Ana even states this multiple times in the text. Even more, she does not think she is “worthy” of him and his sexual attention, in part because she is not kinky and does not like D/s. She says she will “have to change” to be with Christian, and promises him she will. (Later, he’s furious with her because she doesn’t change enough, even while claiming she’s everything he wants and loves. If we’re confused by this shit, imagine how it would feel to hear this bullshit from your first romantic and sexual partner, who intimidates the hell out of you?) So Ana can either give Christian what he wants, even though it scares her, or, so she thinks, she will be unloved and forever alone and will lose Christian and spend the rest of her life in abject misery:
“I am going to lose him. He won’t want to be with me if I can’t give him this.”
So she better learn to want it, or at least tolerate it.
Ana does not give informed consent because she CANNOT give informed consent.
Ana does not understand BDSM and M/s, much less sex, and Christian knows she does not understand… but he pushes her into it anyway, even after finding out she’s a virgin. She shows no interest in understanding or learning about it, either; she immediately freaks out and stops “researching.” Ana does not understand that being a sexual submissive is not the same as, in her own words, letting others “bully” her. Which, by the way, she admits she does. She by her own admission “lets” others manipulate her and does not understand the power to articulate her own limits.
Which is the opposite of what a BDSM sub should be able to do.
An abused domestic partner, however…?
Ana and Christian do not communicate with each other, and a huge chunk of the plot is about ways that they fear talking to each other about important things, which is not a safe or sane framework for D/s. Ana does not want pain/kink/BDSM. She does not enjoy it until she has been manipulated and trained to associate it with, I quote Ana, “making Christian happy,” and therefore making him need/want/love her. She tells us this at the very beginning, too, that she is afraid “because I know I’m going to say yes. And part of me doesn’t want to.” Later, she announces that she knows “that if I do this thing with him, I will get hurt” and that she has “ignored warning signs” because she only wants to be with him.
That is in no way empowering. That is coercion.
Coerced consent is not consent, and it is not power.
A powerless woman submitting to a powerful man with all the control in their relationship, when she has no real desire to do so and doesn’t understand most of what they’re doing, is not empowering. (Even if she does have a desire to do so, unless she’s had sexual feelings and kinky desires prior to meeting the MMC, it just comes across as psychologically problematic.) If he is rich and buys her things, or she moves up the social and financial ladder by being with him, or he sends her a balloon and flowers and electronics, or he gives her her first orgasms, or others are jealous because she got him, or she has cute kids with him, that still does not make it empowering.
Empowered? Happy? In love? Romantic? Ana cries all the time (which her roommate notes, and even her mother picks up on) and is only sometimes-happy when Christian is fucking her. She has nothing in her life except Christian and what he allows her, and she feels she has no other options… and that the particulars of this option aren’t great. She wants something different, something (in her own words) normal. She doesn’t trust Christian, she is afraid of him, and she feels helpless. She is resentful about the way he curtails her and tries to control her, but the few times she attempts autonomy, he punishes her and hurts her, so she capitulates.
She in no way is interested in BDSM, and, yes, I’ll keep repeating the actual text, she tells us things like:
“What if I do say yes, and in three month’s time he says no, he’s had enough of trying to mold me into something I’m not. How will I feel? I’ll have emotionally invested three months, doing things that I’m not sure I want to do. And if he says no, agreement over, how could I cope with that level of rejection? Perhaps it’s best to back away now with what self-esteem I have reasonably intact.”
Ana’s decision to try because “this is all I know, too” is not an act of agency and empowerment.
This is no world-altering and life- and love-affirming Molly Bloom and her “Yes I say yes I will yes.”
This is the antithesis of that.
It is capitulation and fear. It is unhealthy obsession. It’s a lack of experience. It’s a lack of everything she should need to enter a BDSM relationship, get married, and/or reproduce with someone.
Christian also claims a couple times that Ana can “say no” if/whenever she wants. But what happens when she does? He ignores it, and manipulates her to get what he wants anyway. Every. Single. Time. Sometimes it’s even when he’s in the process of doing the things she said no to several times already. Whether it’s the color of a car, if she eats, her own name, or whether or not she will be his sub, he debates every fucking thing she does with her until she does it his way. Especially sexually. He communicates this directly, too, telling Ana that he knows “you’ll say no. I’ll have to find a way to persuade you.” He even purports to be “confused” or is furious when she tells him no, because consent be damned, she has “defied” him! So she can totally say no whenever she wants… as long as she doesn’t say no to him and defy him.
Therefore, whenever Ana says “yes,” it is not a powerful act of consent, but rather, a layered, even evasive act resulting from Christian’s emotional and sexual manipulation, and Ana’s fears and insecurity. If she thinks the only other option is “lose him forever and ever” and/or “incur his terrifying wrath,” of COURSE she’s going to say yes. She says “yes” because he makes her “yes” conditional and intimate: if she lets him hit her, he’ll tell her about his past, or will make her feel like she’s giving him something no other woman can because he “needs to hurt” her, or it will prevent him from leaving her for one of his ex-subs or his ex-Domme. She says yes because she feels guilty or scared or ashamed for who she is and what she wants or doesn’t want. She says yes because she “doesn’t want to cross him, ever” and “would do anything for this man” after a few hours of fucking. She says yes because she’s testing herself, because she’s insecure, not because she really wants the acts that he wants for her own sake.
She says yes because she can’t say no. He makes it impossible in every way for her to say no.
“It’s right for Christian. It’s what he wants – and after the last few days… after all he’s done, I have to man up and take whatever he decides he wants, whatever he thinks he needs.”
(BRB, screaming into the void….)
And she’s going to say “yes” because Christian has shown her that when she says “no,” he’ll push and push and push, until she finally says “yes” anyway.
As the story goes on, even without Christian’s POV via Grey, we see that Ana has no power, and Christian exploits that. (It’s even worse when we can see this shit from his POV and he confirms multiple times that this is what he’s doing. Again, this is what the text and the MMC says, consistently.) He forces elements of BDSM (or abuse masked as “BDSM”) on her, even when she doesn’t want it. He manipulates her, with sex and with affection, bestowing and withholding at his whims… all “love bomb” techniques of abusers.
If she expresses ___, he wants/does the opposite. He constantly says X, but then does Y. He tells her over and over that he won’t be her boyfriend, all while acting like a potential boyfriend, because, as he announces his own fucking damned self, it’s a means to his end.
Christian promises to give Ana space when she demands/begs for it… then promptly ignores that boundary and keeps contacting her and/or showing up uninvited and sending her expensive gifts. He repeatedly isolates her from others, and even tells her outright that he does not want her spending time with or even talking to her own friends… and he punishes her when she does (even when it’s saved her life). He likes embarrassing her or making her uncomfortable, keeping her off-guard (or, as EL astutely nails American idioms that her American characters would totally use, “keeps her on the back foot”).
Christian assures Ana they’ll “take things slow,” but, in less than a month, they’ve broken up, gotten back together, established a sexual relationship with pseudo-BDSM elements, and he’s pushing her to marry him so she can be “his” forever. They are engaged six weeks after he was aroused by the thought of beating and fucking the shy, easily-intimidated virgin who tripped and fell into his office, aroused by thoughts of beating and fucking her because she looked like his mommy, who he still hates for having the temerity to… be abused and poor and powerless herself.
Christian regularly withholds information from Ana, like how the contract he wants her to sign is not legally binding (and how it’s a M/s TPE contract, not a BDSM one), and, especially, the pertinent information about how he is a sadist (which she asks him point blank at the start, and he lies about it for multiple books all while telling her he has such a deep, dark, tortured secret that she’ll leave him. Hello, false pretenses and entrapment?). He threatens often to hit her or punish her in ways that have nothing to do with her sexual enjoyment and everything to do with his anger at her… and then presents it as “BDSM.”
He purposefully gets her drunk when discussing the contract and limits, claiming it “makes her brave,” which is a whole pile of “not safe” red flags right there, even before we get to the fact that Ana (who does not drink before meeting Christian) says her brain is “foggy” while trying to negotiate her own sexuality with this guy who intimidates her.
Christian does not make sure she understands consent, and, in fact, he often knows ahead of time that she does not understand consent/safewords/the Lifestyle/sex. No real Dom, no decent human being, no non-sociopath would behave like this.
He gets upset when she doesn’t safeword because she’s too rattled and inexperienced. He gets upset when she does safeword, and makes it all about himself, appropriating her legitimate trauma as his own far worser angstypants. He accuses her of “topping from the bottom,” which is ridiculous, because she has no idea what it means or how to do it.
Without real knowledge and understanding, Ana has no power.
He’s just a terrible Dom, never providing care or safety, but, again, he also keeps insisting that he is not her Dom and she’s not his sub, so… I guess that makes what he does to her just shitty and abusive, since he’s doing it without the safe structure of a formal D/s arrangement. She does not agree with the terms in the contract, and, especially, never signs the contract, yet he still insists she keep to the “spirit” of it… but then insists that they’re lovers, not kink-partners, so-
Ana is not empowered because she looooves him or because she “wins” and gets the hot, rich guy that other women wanted and everyone is sooooo jealous. She is not empowered because he marries her. She is not empowered because she has a baby with him. Rather, all this means she has been completely disempowered socially, legally, biologically, as well as sexually and emotionally. Not only is she is less empowered at the end of the books than the beginning, but, despite ostensibly falling in love with Ana, Christian has not changed at all. He still berates and punishes Ana for “defying” him by not unquestioningly doing everything he tells her to… even when it saves her life more than once as a result in Book Three, in particular. Even in the series epilogue, he bosses her around, wants her to quit her job (that he got for her, at the company he bought and still controls), continues to monitor her food and her weight, and now they have a bossy little Mini-Christian who does the same thing, but she thinks it’s totes adorbs.
That is not a happy ending. That is Ana accepting a whole bunch of conditions and behaviors that a strong, healthy woman would reject.
So go on.
I fucking mean it.
Explain to me how Ana is empowered. Tell me how Christian is so romantic and loving, and not abusive and sick as fuck.
Tell me how this is a positive, life-affirming love story.
It’s clear what Eel and her fans thought she was doing, and, if like many, you skim the text without thinking about it, you can convince yourself that’s the story it tells.
But the sad thing is that this stupid fucking story actually could have worked with a little bit of effort and thought and responsibility.
Making Fifty Shades Work
Instead of the characters/author/fans gaslighting the readers with its asshole MMC and disempowered FMC, all the while insisting that those of us that see the abuse as abuse are REALLY the awful abusive ones sex- and kink-shaming and la-dee-da and fiddle-dee-dee, it’s possible that FSOG actually might have been the sexy, exciting, empowering, erotic romp that Erika and her fans still think it is, with only a few minor plot- and character tweaks. Take away some of the tired tropes and overused devices (I won’t get into the writing, but we’re all thinking it, right? Okay), fix the worst glitches and stupid things, and there might be something… well, something that wasn’t American Psycho dressed up as “what all women totally want!”
What would make Fifty Shades passible? I’ve mentioned it before, but it is crucial: first off, if Ana had some sense of her own sexuality, even if she was a virgin (although that trope needs to be examined, too). If she had her own “dark desires” before she met Christian. She could have been secretly reading eighteenth- and nineteenth-century erotica, heavy on the flagellation, and found it arousing, and worried that she couldn’t explain these “dark desires” to anyone because they wouldn’t understand. She could find herself sexually aroused by the idea of pain and pleasure in sex. Then, when she met Christian and his playroom, it would be something she was actually interested in on her own. Or at least intrigued by.
And then BDSM wouldn’t be presented as a character flaw that Ana needs to cure him of, by “bringing him to the light,” which is, in fact, NOT BDSM-positive.
She would be in control of, in possession of, her own sexuality and body, so that when she “gives him all her pleasure,” she might actually have some power and autonomy in that exchange. ← Again, that is the point of BDSM. And then maybe Christian wouldn’t read like a spoiled, insecure little man-child screaming “MINE MINE MINE” as he Pygmalions Ana into his own RealDoll.
Second, Ana could have had more going on in her life than Christian, and they could have been more than token mentions. It would have made her a much stronger character if, instead of the Inner Goddess/Subconscious-that-isn’t-subconscious, the plot and Ana’s development of a character was tied (*crash cymbal*) to what was going on in her life when she met Christian. She was finishing college, and going out into the real, adult world, which is a scary thing. Graduating, taking her first job, moving… all of these things could have been places for Ana to explore her own independence, facing her own insecurities, testing and discovering new strengths. Instead, it was just set dressing, so that Eel could put Ana in a pencil skirt for work and have Christian threaten to fuck her over a desk, or intimidate her while handing out diplomas at her graduation. Oh, and so someone/her boss could want to rape her, because that’s how physical attraction works and it proves how sexy and desirable Ana is.
PS? Ana could also be a for reals “smart, strong woman” so that her getting turned on by things like Christian announcing he wanting to kidnap and rape her didn’t feel like she is too dumb to live.
Other little alterations would make a world of difference, too. CHRISTIAN COULD NOT STALK HER, for one. They could know each other longer instead of him going from introduction to “Be my BDSM sub and sign this paperwork” in a matter of days; there could be both sexual tension and real trust built that way. And they could really communicate with each other, instead all of the “whispers” and “murmurs” about secrets they can’t tell, and a whole lot of game-playing and evasion. Ana could have achieved all of her work success on her own, with actual effort; when she tells Christian “no, don’t interfere,” he could, you know, not interfere, and maybe we’d see him actually grow from a spoiled man-child into a healthy partner. The few times Ana shows real bravery or is active in protecting herself, Christian could be supportive, proud, and impressed instead of getting angry at her or subverting it. All of the “childlike” references, especially in sexual contexts, could be taken out so it read like two adults, not two over-eager and petulant 8-year-olds. All of Ana’s sad-sack “I’m not worthy of his dick” crap could be removed. They could wait to get married, and they could not have a baby, regardless of FanficRenesmee. Or at least not have one right away. The “everyone is jealous and wants to fuck Christian/Ana because they’re sooo hot” thing could be removed. And, oh, God, FFS, all of Christian’s food control and comments about Ana’s weight needs to go.
Then, with those changes, it maybe it might seem like Ana had some sort of agency over her own body, sexuality, and life. Then she might seem trustworthy to make big decisions about her sexuality and autonomy. Then her submission to Christian would actually be the way it should be in SS&C activities, where she genuinely wants the pain and has all control over how much. Christian might actually show real character development of his own, real growth, instead of Ana just accepting all of his flaws as okay.
The one good thing about this book is that it does not back down from the fact that Christian’s ex-Domme was a pedophile. No matter how horny he was or how much he thought he needed it, what she did was wrong. Criminally. Psychologically.
What would have been more effective, however, is if that idea had been linked more explicitly to consent overall, since a fifteen-year-old boy, no matter how horny, cannot consent to sex with an adult. Therefore, a tipsy virgin might not be able to consent to a billionaire.
If Christian actually has some sort of character development other than falling in love with Ana (which is NOT character development), if he actually became somewhat more self-aware as a person, then the “He gets SO much better in the end!” might be believable. He is a selfish, narcissistic, and controlling at the end of Book Three as he is in the beginning of Book One. He still hates his mommy. About the only development, if it could even be called that, is that he seems to understand that Elena abused him… but it still feels like he’d absolutely go running to her in another crisis, given the chance. And any real interrogation of this, of how she met his sexual needs but not his emotional ones, is missing. If Christian had some real inner shift about women, power, sex, and himself, and came to some new understandings about abuse, if he thought about Leila and Elena and his mother and Ana and actually CHANGED THE WAY HE THOUGHT ABOUT WOMEN, then maybe that would work. Instead, he’s exactly the same, except he tells Ana he loves her… which, based on everything Christian has shown us, is just more of his manipulative control tactics.
Then you might actually have a story that explores love, passion, and erotic desires along with two characters who mature and learn about themselves.
Or, OTOH, Mrs. Leonard could’ve gone the other way and just proudly owned up to what she was actually doing. She could’ve been responsible and aware, instead of trying to convince everyone that she had written a powerful love story for the ages about a strong, smart, tough woman and the tender, vulnerable, amazing Alpha who cherishes her. If she and her marketing team/PR and fans weren’t insisting “This is what every woman really wants from men, so go ahead and grab her and throw her up against the wall and take charge of every aspect of her life,” I actually might’ve had respect for Mrs. Leonard. It might’ve worked on some level if she’d just said, “Guys! All I did was write my mid-life-crisis fap-fantasy based on Twilight, just for the fun of it! It’s just a fairy tale-like thing, not realistic at all.” “I just wanted to play with the whole bad-boy love interest! I know that Christian Grey doesn’t work IRL! Believe me, you don’t really want this!” Even with all the domestic violence triggers, if Erika had made it clear that she was just having fun and that it wasn’t supposed to have any links to reality at all, she might’ve been able to pass.
Instead, she gave us the most abusive, twisted, horrible MMC, knowingly drawn from other abusive MMCs in literature, with zero awareness about what her text actually says and does. And keeps insisting that if we don’t unquestioningly fall for him like Ana does, we are not only wrong, we are prudes, anti-feminist, kink-shaming, and don’t understand great romance or great literature.
But I am ever grateful to her for providing an amazing handbook for what not to do in fiction, and, especially, how not to craft a MMC.
So re: our own MMCs, how do we not fall into Unintentional Christian Grey territory? How about a basic that Fifty Shades completely misses:
LOOK AT A TEXT, AT THE MMC, AND ASK HOW AND WHY ___ IS SUPPOSED TO BE SEXY.
Articulate it. Be able to explore it. Be willing to interrogate it.
Play the Why? Game.
We’ve heard the fans make the claims about what is so wonderful about Christian Grey and Alpha heroes like him: “He’s the ideal man, in control of everything!” “He’s a sex god!” “He know what she wants and gives it to her!” “He’s a fantasy!”
He is? He does? Really? Why?
Why do you think “being in control of everything” = “ideal man”? Why do you think it makes him a sex god when he ___? What is “a fantasy” about this, him or his wealth? Does he really “know what she wants and gives it to her”? Why do you think that, based on what happens in the books?
I have a fantasy of my own. I meet Erika Leonard. EL James. And when I do, I treat her exactly like Christian treats Ana. I grab her by the wrist, I lean too close, I stare at her. I try to “disarm” her. If she does a nervous tic thing, like biting her lip or flipping her hair, I can respond by either threatening her to not do it again because it turns me on, or by pushing her up against the wall, pinning her hands up, and kissing her. I can follow her to work, to her office, because I want to see her again. It’s okay, because it’s sexy, right? I’m just overwhelmed and in awe of the strong, smart Mrs. Leonard. I’ve never wanted to do this to a woman before, until I met her. I’m completely captivated by her. But I have a need for control because I was abused as a child, so….
Now, I’m guessing, just going out on a limb here, that neither she nor her fans would think my treating Erika exactly how Christian treats Ana is okay. (I’m also guessing the gender-flipped version wouldn’t be as “sexy” to fans.)
Why not? How can you claim it’s the sexiest, most romantic thing ever that every woman wants… and then argue with me that Erika wouldn’t want it? What excuses are you making in your head to cover the “But this is different because-”
Why do you think it’s sexy in FSOG? When a guy does it to a woman? (Or, in some of our cases, as I’ve demonstrated in millions and millions of words, why do we think it is the opposite of sexy?)
A lot of the fan-comments include things like “It’s exciting,” “It would never happen in real life” (I’m assuming they mean the billionaire part, because the abuse part happens all the time IRL), “It made reading about BDSM okay,” “I could relate to Ana,” “I want a man who takes care of everything for me like Christian does for Ana.” Those are all fairly vague elements that can be picked up and demonstrated in healthy, non-abusive situations.
Those are all things that we can think about as writers.
Have you either depicted consent, or put in enough distancing framework so that you are not normalizing abusive behavior IRL situations?
How to show the possessive stuff without it being disempowering?
Because is our society, it’s soooo empowering for a man to completely possess a woman, and for a woman to give up everything to him. (But hey, he’ll pay the rent on the Fifth Ave. penthouse, so it’s okay, right, Melania?)
It’s not my thing, I fully admit that. I spent too many years fighting to the breaking point to be able to possess and control myself instead of letting men do it. It was a lifelong battle to get myself back. To even feel like I had a right to be the primary power over myself in the first place. So the idea of giving up all control to a man under almost any circumstance to me is the most terrifying, threatening, un-sexy, disrespectful thing I can imagine. I would not want a partner who thought that was okay, either.
However, I know lots of Romance readers love the fantasy, and think they would even love the reality of giving up everything for a hot, rich lover. I get that this can be an intrinsic part of Romance (although I will also fight to emphasize that it should not be the main part, the only part, of Romance. Because, you know, not all women.)
How do you as a writer walk that line of possession and power?
Know the differences. The nuances. It doesn’t have to be all TPE, all the time. When contextualized into a mutual, trusting relationship, it is entirely possible to “give yourself up” to your lover without losing your own self. Show it with the MC if you think that’s what the plot should be.
Also, have some balance. If we’re supposed to believe it’s soooo empowering for her to “give up all her power” to her man, then she has to have power to begin with. If a character is in a high-power work environment, or a stressful home situation where everything feels out of control, then entering into a sexual situation where one “gives up power” to someone else who will take all control can be a release, a kind of control in itself, a healthy outlet for some.
If she just “gives up all power” because it’s so awesome to not have to worry about all of the daily elements of grown-up responsibilities, then that feels… less healthy. And really fucking sexist.
The “I have to own her, body and soul” “I must give myself up to him completely” crap in the genre has gotten so tired, and also tends to skew unhealthy. But that’s another place to ask “Why”? I’ve heard tons of readers and writers say that a man claiming her as “his” is the sexiest, most romantic thing ever.
Why? What is sexy about this? Can you identify it?
I’m guessing readers don’t mean that if a man identifies a woman as “his” that they mean that, like, he’s physically branded or tattooed her like a side of beef on a ranch. Or that he’s registered ownership papers with the Kennel Club on the Breed Register for her. Or that he physically disrupts all of her public, daily interactions by jumping between her and the server at the doughnut place or the cashier, screaming “Do not talk to her! She is MINE!”
At least, I really hope not, but sometimes, I have my doubts.
But there are ways to show the whole possession and “you are mine!” stuff without it sounding like-
Don’t just declare “MINE!” and call it the heights of sexy passion and love. Instead, show importance. Respect. Value. Make it mutual. Instead of the MMC being all “I have to own her, body and soul” with the FMC, instead they own/claim/protect each other equally, demonstrably. Instead of the virgin-fetishy-slut-shaming “I claim her, triumphant, knowing no one else has been here before,” it can have real emotional meaning instead. Instead of him owning her bodily and sexuality by giving her orgasms on command with his powerful, giant cock, it can be framed as something other than his huge schlong and sexual prowess and good looks. Something that has to do with his actual character, not random acts of DNA: “I feel at ease.” “I can be myself.” “For the first time, Marissa relaxed completely with a man.”
- “I love knowing that no one else has made her feel this good before. I love knowing that she trusts me and is comfortable enough to sleep in my arms/walk around the room naked/let me lick her to orgasm with three fingers deep inside her.”
- She was his, and he was hers. No matter what had happened to either of them before, now, here, they were together, and that was all that mattered.
- No one can own another person’s soul. But, I think, as I sink into her, this is as close to it as one might get.
- “He was on a stage, bathed in bright spotlights, surrounded by screaming fans. But as he looked up at her, with a hint of a smile, she knew–and knew that he knew, too–that they belonged to each other in ways that had nothing to do with an image in a photograph, a performed song, or even the rarest limited-edition vinyl promo single.”
How to show the fantasy stuff without it being creepy?
I’ve mentioned before the “if it’s fantasy, where are the female billionaire CEOs?” Why does every fantasy have to come from and be fulfilled by the MMC? Why does it all happen because of the MMC? Why can’t the amazing shopping spree happen because the FMC wins a contest, and she can be pleased that she has a stunning new dress and sexy underclothing to wear on their next date? Why can’t she get that job or promotion on her own, and then he celebrates it with her? She could just as easily have a relative who wills her money, if you want the fantasy windfall without the FMC (as that one reader told me) “having to do all the work.”
If you really think all of the wonderful fantasy things have to come from the MMC for it to be Romance and fantasy and all that, please contact me for suggested book recommendations, and an accompanying playlist about female empowerment, because wow, no.
How to show the protective stuff without it being creepy?
The MMC doesn’t need to “protect” the FMC from every possible harm every time she stands upright. He doesn’t need to disempower her in the name of “chivalry” or “manners.” There are plenty of situations, contemporary and historical, where human beings, not just women, need protecting: wartime, dystopia, new worlds, medical emergencies, etc. Why not try one of those?
Or what about contemporary situations where women need genuine protection? Enough with the rape-rescues or usurping her role at work. How about political power? Standing up for her in face of systemic oppression? Fighting for and letting her make her own decision?
Why not show “protection” with new, exploratory angles?
How to show the sexy stuff with consent?
First, a personal example:
I’ve observed and participated in a Romance-related debate about a sex act that some say is the hottest thing ever, and others define as a clear case of rape: the FMC being fucked awake by the MMC.
Sleeping Beauty and Snow White have told us that men being so physically attracted to us that they’ll have us whether we’re awake, or even alive, is a sign of true love. It’s so beautiful that the prince sees the sleeping maiden and is overcome with love and desire for her that he cannot resist kissing her… or, in the case of some versions of Sleeping Beauty both archaic and modern, fucking her.
But doing something to an unresponsive, unconscious person without consent is assault.
In some discussion forums, this is the cue for several writers and readers to start with the “Well, I think it’s sexy if-” “Well, I’d love it if-” “It’s just a fantasy, so-” “So it would be rape if your husband touched you in your sleep and-”
And for me, that actually was an extremely personal angle.
One of the recurring things that happened when I was sexually abused as a child was my abusers sneaking into my room when I slept and fondling me, or getting into bed with me. I would pretend to be asleep in hopes they would go away, but….
So as an adult woman, being touched intimately when I was sleeping often scared me. My partner coping a feel or rolling on top of me while I slept as an ostensibly-sexy way of waking me up was actually traumatic and terrifying. An ex once got furious at me for “taking it the wrong way” when he tried it, and was then all hurt that I was decidedly not into having sex, because I was in the throes of molestation flashbacks.
So, when I was in a consensual, established, sexually-intimate relationship, I had to ask that my partners not do things like that. By the time my now-husband and I had moved in together, after a bunch of therapy and time, I was past a lot of it, so that things like feeling him get into bed with me was not triggering. In fact, it was wonderful and safe and intimate. Him holding me while we sleep is perfection. But for years, I still had to ask him to not touch me sexually in my sleep. (Unlike the previous asshole, his response was, “Of course I won’t!”)
With time, and a lot of other safe, consensual sexual activity, I am now okay with things like him caressing me in the middle of the night. We’ve talked about things ahead of time repeatedly over the years, and agreed that certain acts or things are acceptable. We have established consent. We have established trust. Him sliding his hand up my shirt or me waking him with a handy is acceptable to both of us. Because of the established boundaries and our experiences with each other, it would now absolutely be okay if he “fucked me awake” (and he has, usually after asking the night before if it sounded like a good way to start the morning, and making sure I’m actually awake before intercourse happens). But he also recognizes that there is the possibility that it might still not be okay in the moment, and I can and will say no.
I’ve written a fiction scene before where the FMC wakes the MMC with increasingly explicit caresses until he is hard, and then straddles him and fucks him… but I had to make sure that, even though he pretends to be asleep as part of the game between them, I still showed that both partners knew he was awake and into it. It was entirely consensual. They had already established sexual intimacy, for one, and which, in their case, is within the parameters of an experimental sexual relationship, so trying out things like this was already on the table. They were in bed together, had gone to sleep together. And she pays attention to his responses, only getting more explicit as he signals clearly to her that he wants it.
If the FMC had slipped into the MMC’s room while he was sleeping and crawled into his bed, had started fucking him while he slept soundly, and/or if she had done this before they’d had previous intimate/sexual contact, establishing that sex was okay in the first place, this would be all sorts of rape. If one partner has had too much to drink and passed out, or is delirious from fever, or is under an enchanted spell, they can’t consent, so fucking them awake or doing anything sexually intimate with them is assault.
There are ways to make things work, but they have to be contextualized.
Ways to address that might involve some of the following angles or ideas re: showing consent along with the sexy stuff instead of going full-on Creep or Rapey Asshole include:
- The FMC is interested in kink/poly/alt.sex/BDSM/whatever before she meets the MMC, even in a general way. It has to be something more than passing curiosity, or a desire to please him, or her nebulous longings for love and acceptance, but her own physical desires. Otherwise, it’s just “I have to give my man what he wants or he won’t love me.” And that’s not real consent. Or real healthy.
- It can be more vague, if you want to go the whole “discovery” route via the MMC, and then when they commence, she has that click of “Ah, yes, this is fulfilling my needs and wants! This is what I haven’t been able to put into words for so long!”
- The MC has already established overarching consent and/or a relationship before one of them does ___ to the other, or they try ___. What is assault or just squicky on a first date or before they’ve become intimate can be hot once they’re actually together and have established personal connections and communication.
- Teasing and flirting specifically to build up to it: “Wait until I get you alone.” “Oh yeah? What would you do?” “I want to sleep with you all night and wake with you naked in my arms.” “I want that, too”
- The MMC demonstrates awareness that ___ is wrong, and makes a real effort to successfully correct/change behavior. (In Breaking America, I show that Owen is shaken up and confronts his own inappropriateness for perving on Prudence. And in A Scandalous Reputation, Hal recognizes that his attempt to hook up with Margaret was wrong. They do not push, nor do they re-approach the FMCs until it is clear that the women truly want their sexual, romantic attentions.)
- The FMC demonstrates awareness that ___ is wrong, and it is accepted by the MMC in the text. She doesn’t hand-wave something that is a real threat or problem, like him claiming he’d kidnap her or that he has total control of her body, or just sighs “Ooooh, that’s soooo hot, I love him!”
I think I gotta stop now. But I look forward to continued dig-ins on these things, and seeing what some of you are coming up with to address issues and give nuance to your own works… and having mine challenged as well.