Monday, February 16, 2015

Fifty Shades of Gross: a Feminist Confrontation of the Story's Adoption and Foster Care Themes

I read the Fifty Shades of Grey books at the suggestion of my sister-in-law who has dual degrees in communications and English and is a popular books maven of sorts. She has the uncanny ability to predict whenever any bit of media will become relevant in pop culture. If you want to look like a pop culture genius at your book club, you ask her for a title to recommend to the group. If you want to know what basically unknown lit is going to explode into everyday conversations tomorrow, she can tell you that too. Her suggestion regarding Fifty Shades fell into the latter category.

"I'll apologize in advance," she said. It's the worst thing I think I've read in a long time."

Indeed, it was so bad that I hesitated to write about it at all.

I originally wrote this piece years ago to address the book trilogy. With the release of the movie grossing over $81 million dollars in its first three days, it's time to update the piece and release it anew. Although some herald the franchise as a victory for women in media, my piece joins a chorus of others across the web calling out the Fifty Shades franchise for marketing child sexual abuse, rape, stalking, coercion and other forms of violence as "romance." To add, I ask the chorus, "Why isn't the use of adoption and foster care in the trilogy-turned-franchise included in these critiques?"

Fifty Shades is far more more disturbing than most people realize. This is evidenced by what little discussion--or perhaps little notice--there is regarding why the abusive male protagonist, Christian Grey, stalks, harasses, and rapes his supposed "love interest," Anastasia Steele. According to E.L. James, it's because he was adopted. Not just adopted, but he was adopted and born to an unknown woman whom he labels "the crack whore."

A young and naive Anastasia Steele is smitten when she meets this handsome, disturbed man. Christian Grey, who is written as earning a totally believable $100,000 per hour, is billed by the world around him as an intensely mysterious yet very eligible bachelor. After several scenes of Christian engaging in stalking, harassing, violent, and intrusive behaviors, the trilogy finds him and Anastasia married. In the process of becoming his girlfriend, then fiance, then wife, Anastasia learns the origin of Christian's intense interest in pursuing and controlling her. 

Anastasia looks like Christian's "birth mother." 

Under the guise of what Christian professes to be BDSM, he discloses a lengthy history of targeting and forcing himself on women who remind him of his birth mother. He explains to Anastasia that he discovered BDSM  when sexually assaulted as a child by an older female friend of his family. 

Few adoption stereotypes were missed in Fifty Shades. Christian harbors a deep anger at his first mother; his early life experiences leave him devoid of empathy and with a strong propensity to harm others. His mother is described as a drug addict who neglected him. In contrast, his adoptive parents serve the roles as his saviors who lavish him with love, wealth, and privilege. The final book reveals that the other man stalking--and who finally attempts to murder--Anastasia is fueled by jealousy that he was not adopted from foster care as was Christian, his former foster brother.

This, all of it, was a painful read. Yet I don't regret reading the books to a certain extent because doing so allows me to add to the feminist chorus pushing back against its praise. Reading them has allowed me to call attention to the adoption and foster care "subplots" (if you can identify the story as having any real plot let alone subplots) and implore readers to notice that being adopted and fostered is harmfully and unquestioningly used to explain one man's desire to obsess and rape and another's desire to obsess and murder.

There are few subtleties in Fifty Shades. Words and phrases, such as "oh my" are repeated dozens, even hundreds, of times across the three texts. The male protagonist's eyes are grey, his tie is grey, his last name is "Grey." In the book, "Fifty Shades" is a nickname Anastasia gives to Christian to indicate just how disturbed he is. Although Ms. James might now, on her Twitter bio, boast in all caps that Fifty Shades is "A LOVE story," it was arguably crafted to both disturb readers and leave them unsure of where lines are crossed.

Don't be fooled, Fifty Shades crosses all the lines. Rape is rape. Child sexual abuse is child sexual abuse. Violence is violence. Touching someone after they say "no" is violence. Coercion is not consent. Stalking is stalking. None of these areas are "grey" nor are they romance nor love. Advised by an individual I presume to be an attorney and by a physician who graduated from Yale Medical School,  E.L. James saw fit to develop two characters who would cross these lines and offered both characters' adoption and foster care experiences and mental health issues as explanation. This is beyond relevant in our critiques as feminists and we must not leave it out.

To the people that loved this book or the movie, look into my eyes for a moment. I don't intend to alienate you or make you feel badly. Let the survivor of an abusive relationship speak to your soul. I was in a relationship with a wealthy, gorgeous man who was controlling, entitled, coercive, and abusive. Here's what I know. Your partner should not need to know your whereabouts at all times; nor should you require their permission to be without them. You should not be tasked with "fixing" your partner. "No" means "no." Your partner should never eliminate your resources to force you to depend on them. They may replace what they take, but these are not "gifts" no matter what the expense. What an abuser takes from you, your safety, your sense of self, your innocence, are priceless. No one owns your body but you. This wasn't love. There's nothing thrilling about being scared all the time. My experience was not exciting or entertaining. These behaviors are not romance; they are abuse.

Now let an adoptee speak to your heart. The stereotypes about my community shouldn't be used for entertainment. Adopted and fostered people, and our families, should not repeatedly be used as literary examples of deranged, dangerous people. We cannot simultaneously say that rape and abuse passing in our culture as romance is harmful to women without also acknowledging that using the stigmas of adoption, foster care, and mental health to explain that behavior isn't also harmful to the adoption, foster care, and mental health communities. Critics, including feminists, for the sake of the human beings who live adoption each day, let's no longer let their pathologization in media escape our awareness or our criticism.