A few years ago, I wrote a book review of the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy for HerCircle from a feminist perspective. It’s getting a lot of interesting comments there, heated rebuttals, really, but on my own blog, I want to write about how I personally reacted to the main characters.
Perhaps most women were able to relate to the virginal protagonist, Anastasia Steele, who falls in love with a man she is willing to change. Aside from the virgin in her twenties and the single-minded reliance on school and literature for escape and function, I couldn’t really relate to her.
Anastasia Steele is what I consider a weak literary heroine. She doesn’t know what she wants, or what she’s into. She’s not decisive or put together well. I preferred the strength and intelligence of her best friend, Kathryn, who would never sign a BDSM contract in hopes that she could make a man love her. Kathryn would have laughed in his face, but I guess this is why Anastasia Steele had to be a twenty-four-year-old virgin. She didn’t have a sexual identity to begin with, let alone a strong sense of self or the determination needed to walk away from a BDSM contract and its volatile owner.
Anastasia Steele’s character is annoying, to say the least. She accepts a job with a pariah, a loser who hires her because he desires her, is obviously trying to get friendly with her, and even attempts to rape her. The reason he hires her as an editorial assistant, despite her inexperience in the field, is apparent to everyone reading the book, and it is obvious to Anastasia. But she takes the job anyway because we need some conflict. James needed to ruffle Christian Grey’s jealous feathers and provide us with an antagonist that would show us how strong the sweet and innocent Anastasia really is behind her demure persona.
Anastasia’s annoying traits include sending sexy messages to Christian while at work via her work computer, even though he keeps insisting that she stop. Her emails are hacked by her boss, the one who is vexed with desire for her and agitated by her evident longings for another man — a younger, better-looking, and more successful man. Her immaturity here is frustrating to any reader with a palate for good writing, mature writing, and the existence of serious and complex characters. Anastasia Steele does not qualify for this job.
And let’s not forget falling asleep under the rays of the hot sun, topless, on her honeymoon, and acting like a schoolgirl when Christian chastises her for her immaturity. Here is where the submissive/dominant relationship really exists — not in the Red Room, but in their relationship as husband and wife. Even though she begins as a serious, inexperienced, and innocent young woman, Steele somehow manages to regress as the story progresses.
Anastasia Steele just doesn’t suit me as a reader, and I found her personality trite, flat, and irritating. Christian Grey, on the other hand, was worth getting to know as a reader.
It’s not his use of BDSM as a fortified wall that detaches him from being loved and loving in return that appeals to me; it’s not his good looks or his wealth that made me turn the pages; and it wasn’t the sex scenes that kept me reading the two books and less than half of the third. (I’m sorry, E. L. James, but you lost me after the topless scene and Anastasia Steele’s wishy-washy and immature behavior. I’m an adult, and I want to read about adults, not adults acting like teenagers. And if I had to read one more drivel about “my inner goddess” from her thoughts, I was going to gag and scream indiscriminately.)
What moved me about Christian Grey was the fact that I could relate to his childhood, and I understood his pain — emotional and physical. Although my biological mother was not an addict, Christian Grey and I shared a similar childhood. We both had mothers who prostituted themselves, often in front of us; we both lived with one particular pimp that grounded our childhood in violence, debauchery, and abuse; and we both lived into adulthood, remembering the guilt, the dejectedness, the shame, the horrible feelings associated with feeling worthless and desperate for something deep and satisfying we couldn’t actually name. Christian Grey and I both taught ourselves to do without love, home, or emotional attachment. And, I suppose, we both found someone to love us fully, wholly, gently, without wanting anything in return. Anastasia Steele redeems herself here for a short while.
It is Christian Grey’s character that moves the storyline forward for female readers, not Anastasia Steele. And it is his childhood, his scarred memories, and his insistence on finding ways with which to survive his abusive experiences with the pimp that make me feel pity, compassion, and emotionally invested as a reader, hoping that he gets it all together in the end.
As ridiculously facile and trivial as Fifty Shades of Grey is, Christian Grey is the kind of character that draws readers in, even if E. L. James only provides us with a limited exploration of childhood trauma and its effects on human relationships.