The Goddess of Patriarchal Workplace Exploitation: A Review of E.L. James’ ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

shadescoverFifty Shades of Grey is a fantasy e-book by author E. L. James. It tells the story of a British sex goddess who speaks through the body of an American student named Anastasia Steele. As a result of her possession by this goddess, Ms. Steele is afflicted with OCD, sociopathy, British  usage, occasional bursts of alliteration (“cold, clean, and clinical”), profound confusion over the usage of hyphens (“mega successful”), and uncontrollable sexual urges. Over the course of the novel, the goddess who inhabits Anastasia Steele will attempt, repeatedly, to push her frame beyond its earthly limits, sometimes through BDSM sex. The book is a surrealist, psychologically disorienting fantasia, so don’t worry if you miss certain telltale signs in the opening pages.

The first indication that the novel operates on a plane of reality set askew from our own is the dedication. “For Niall,” it reads, “the master of my universe.” Actually: let’s take a step back. The British goddess appears to have entered through the doorway of the e-book’s title: Fifty Shades of Grey. Note the Commonwealth spelling.

Either way, it is clear from the first that Anastasia Steele is wrestling with the goddess. The struggle betrays itself straight away, in a scene ripped from the Lacanian mirror stage:

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave… I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet…Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control… and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up.

There is a lot going on here. Note the word “submission.” The obsessive-compulsive “mantra.” Ms. Steele cannot bring her bedeviled hair “under control.” Who can, I wonder?

Ms. Steele quickly assumes the journalistic responsibilities of her sickly roommate, Kate, who is supposed to interview the “exceptional” and “enigmatic” Mr. Grey — the CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. [etc.]. If Steele was not tipped off by the fact that Grey’s offices are called Grey House, or that he has gray eyes, maybe she could have noticed that his name is “Christian.” In any case, the repetition of the words grey/gray may leave you wondering: are we in an abyss of pure language? Remember that this is the first book in a trilogy.

The goddess who inhabits Anastasia Steele manifests itself through subconscious utterances that gurgle to the surface in the form of hundreds of italicized clauses and the refrain “holy crap”:

Get a grip, Steele.

Not for what he has in mind.

you look fabulous Kate

Do I trust him?

Holy crap.

Holy shit… how?

Will I ever meet this damned woman?

Goddess or not, many will come to enjoy the surprising number of sex scenes in the Fifty Shades e-book. I myself was put into the mind of D.H. Lawrence — I took the profusion of references to Thomas Hardy to be an allusion of sorts. In any case, it’s during these sex scenes — I don’t want to give too much away — that Anastasia somehow makes peace with the spirit inside her. It turns out that the goddess likes to dance:

I pull him deeper into my mouth so I can feel him at the back of my throat and then to the front again. My tongue swirls around the end. He’s my very own Christian Grey-flavored popsicle. I suck harder and harder… Hmm… My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves.

These sex scenes are strong, almost overpowering. “Spot on the money,” as E. L. James might say. But I was often distracted by the (aforementioned) repetition of phrases. It makes one beg, even moan, for data analysis.

In any case, Fifty Shades of Grey is about a British goddess who gets released from a woman’s body through light-BDSM sex. It’s definitely not about the exploitation felt by women in the Western workplace at the hands of perfect and perfectionist businessmen, men who quote Firestone and Carnegie, capitalized consciousnesses who must possess and control and master those who feel like their only freedom is to be possessed, controlled, and mastered…

“So you want to possess things? You are a control freak.

“I want to deserve to possess them, but yes, bottom line, I do.”

“You sound like the ultimate consumer.”

“I am.” He smiles, but the smile doesn’t touch his eyes.

Or maybe it is about the exploitation women feel in the workplace, about being commoditized and consumed. “I wasn’t wrong when I said you were the ultimate consumer,” Anastasia says again, later in her sexual relationship with Christian Grey. The question with Fifty Shades of Grey is whether the reader ultimately feels like the novel is a safe place for the expression of these feelings, even if the sexuality expressed relies on a patriarchal asymmetry. But if we can’t ask the reader, or Anastasia, maybe we can ask her inner goddess, who gets the last word in the novel’s final moments:

Deep down, a nasty, unbidden thought comes from my inner goddess, her lip curled in a snarl… the physical pain from the bite of a belt is nothing, nothing compared to this devastation. I curl up, desperately clutching the flat foil balloon and Taylor’s handkerchief, and surrender myself to my grief.