50 Shades of Grey Depression and Your Sex Life
Back to 50 Shades of Grey, Ana, Christian, and your sex life. (What? You didn’t know your sex life was in this book? Well… it inadvertently is.) I was talking with my friend, let’s call her Kay*, and she mention that she was depressed after reading 50 Shades of Grey. “Oh,” I said. “Like you miss the characters and being ensconced in the story? You can visit them again, you know. I mean, I’m on my 103rd read-through of Harry Potter.”
No, Kay explained. She was depressed because her relationship wasn’t smokin’ hot like Ana and Christian’s. She loves her husband, he loves her, they still have sex. They also have kids and jobs and family obligations and volunteer work, and all of that adds up to a relationship which looks a little like a reusable grocery bag life vs. Ana’s Prada purse life. You know reusable grocery bags: dependable, does its job, nothing flashy, you can ball it up on the floor of your car for a bit and it’s barely worse for wear. Whereas Ana’s relationship is a Prada bag; albeit one in the shape of a pair of nipple clamps, but a Prada bag nonetheless.
My end of the conversation came from how I feel about the cross-over of fiction into real life to the admiration of abusive relationships, and we had a half hour conversation while I ate through a box of Special K (the cereal… not ketamine). I come at this not as a therapist who knows anything about relationships but as a writer who has examined countless fictional relationships and knows how writers construct them so the reader is not only attracted to what the fictional couple has but covets it for themselves. There’s no greater interest-inducing drug than jealousy. And no, this isn’t just about 50 Shades of Grey. Substitute in whatever book you’ve read that has made you feel like shit about your relationship.
I also preface this with the fact that Kay is done with the three books, and I am still reading 50 Shades Darker**, but I don’t think I’m overshooting here by writing this now because everything I needed to know about how I feel about their relationship came from their first few interactions in the first book. And because we’ve seen this story play out with different characters numerous times before. It’s a little bit of weak storytelling that is still totally enjoyable as long as you consume it rather than having it consume you. Books like this are like candy; the problem comes when you start trying to restructure your totally healthy, nutritious life to have the caloric-emptiness of a fictional, candy relationship. The book isn’t the problem; inviting the book into your life is.
In fact, let’s go back to the original text — Twilight — since 50 Shades of Grey is just Twilight fanfiction. Edward approaches Bella, whom he picks out because he likes her smell (it makes him hungry, and he wants to drain her), and pretty much tells her that he fantasizes about killing her. And Bella gives him a chance. Because that’s what teenagers do. I found this more excusable in the characters of Bella and Edward since they’re teenagers (I mean, a 111-year-old teenager) vs. Ana and Christian who are both adults. Real life is somewhat like Twilight in that teenagers see danger signs in a relationship and they ignore them because they either don’t believe that the danger will come to fruition or because they’ve read too many books like this and mistake Edward and Bella’s relationship as epically romantic.
Did it end in a good place; I mean, good insofar as being part of the walking dead? Sure. But real relationships aren’t about the end point.
They’re about the beginning and middle too. And Edward and Bella, as well as Ana and Christian, have a pretty fucked up beginning and middle. Both girls were chosen because they fulfilled the need of the male character. Twilight’s sometimes I think about killing you becomes Grey’s sometimes I think about beating you for my pleasure. In both cases, we’re celebrating someone sticking in there (you know, staying in an unhealthy relationship) to get to the happy ending where they’re cherished.
And please don’t mistake me for saying dom-sub relationships aren’t healthy. They can be, and certainly, if that’s how you get your rocks off, go get your rocks off. But a healthy dom-sub relationship doesn’t include berating, cajoling, or overpowering; especially prior to the relationship starting.
In both stories, the action, the objective, is all provided by the male. It’s about the man seeking his personal gain, and the woman providing it by being inactive and non-goal-oriented. See, not so admirable, right? Sure, he ends up getting all entangled in real feelings for the woman, sort of in a romantic, two-way Stockholm Syndrome sort of way, but that’s not where the roots of their relationship stem. This isn’t about two people coming together because they’re seeking companionship or have a mutual attraction. In both cases, if Bella hadn’t seemed so mouth-watering and Ana hadn’t seemed so klutzy and weak, they wouldn’t have been attractive to Edward and Christian. Doesn’t look that romantic when you discover that’s the reason someone wanted to be with you in the first place.
It’s about as romantic as learning that someone only likes you for your fame or money or whatever else you can do for them, and then having them learn along the way that they actually aren’t the star-fucker/gold-digger they thought they were but they honestly have feelings for you. Is it an enjoyable story to read? Sure. But is it a healthy relationship to live through? Uh… no.
But this is so common; looking at a fictional relationship that is inherently unhealthy and using it as the measuring stick for a healthy, real relationship and believing ours is the relationship that comes up short. For our generation, I pin all of this back on Pretty Woman***. Other generations have their own bad lesson fiction; but this one is ours.
Vivian (Julia Robert’s) is clueless, especially when it comes to anything other than sex. Which isn’t really fair because she’s a sex worker, so she should feel confident about sex, in the same way as I’m a writer, and I should feel confident with words. So taking sex out of the picture, Vivian is our empty vessel who will be used to advance the objectives of the male character (Edward Lewis). She’s got a touch of “who me?” She’s uncomfortable in that rich world and moreover doesn’t really believe she deserves to be there (which is mirrored in Bella and Ana’s “I can’t believe he chose me and what if I’m not enough for him” mentality). Vivian admits at the beginning of the film: she dreamed she was a princess trapped in a tower and she’s waiting for the knight to come to rescue her. In other words, this isn’t a woman who is going to write her own ending to her story. She’s waiting for the knight to do that. She even tells Edward Lewis as such: she “wants the fairy tale.”
The problem with the traditional fairy tale is that it isn’t predicated on the notion that the man and the woman are equally writing the story. And while we may draw certain ideas from that fairy tale that we look for in our love life — for instance, that concept that we want someone who will take care of us, will ease the burden that comes with living — we don’t really want the whole thing: the woman who just sits around and waits for the man to come and save her. Because while it does workout for Vivian, Bella, and Ana, the vast majority of women who actually try this will end up waiting indefinitely. Healthy relationships have a give and take; have a see-saw motion where sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down and sometimes you’re balanced evenly in between. But hopefully you’re both agreeing to the same objectives and working together toward them; or you both have objectives and you’re supporting each other on your individual objectives. And hopefully you don’t live a Bella/Ana/Vivian sort of life where you are an empty vessel, waiting to help your man fulfill his goals without any of your own.
This works in fiction. You can have a strong character with an objective, and all other characters help that character fulfill his objective. But it doesn’t work well in real life. You can’t live your life for someone else.
As for the hot sex that Ana and Christian have; that combustible passion? It’s part of that whole, and even if some people have it in real life, in this case, it’s wholly fictional. All the reader sees is that the sex is hot, the passion is hot, that level of commitment is hot, that I’d die without you now is hot. And they’re forgetting that if the main character had a shred of self-esteem and confidence, she wouldn’t have been chosen by the man as their target. That real world waiting can go either way for real world humans, whereas fictional characters can feel pretty comfortable knowing that if they’re waiting, their love will come around by the final page.
If you’re sad because you think you might have missed out on a technicolour relationship somewhere along the way, you need to take that step back and remember that you don’t live inside a book. You live in the real world where you need to make very real choices, and you can’t sit around fulfilling someone else’s objectives even if they bring you hot sex. And if hot sex is what you’re really coveting, well, there might be ways of getting you hot sex (and I’m sorry, but not having hot sex is also a fact of life sometimes. Not everyone is going to run a five-minute mile or memorize Pi or achieve any of those things that we’d like to achieve that are sort of innate abilities but are also things you can work on). But hopefully you see that your relationship is better than these fictional ones.
And if you need to look at a fictional relationship and feel like crap, look at something more like Pride and Prejudice, which has multiple characters with multiple objectives. Sure, the women need to operate within the confines of their time period, but at least Elizabeth Bennett knows what she wants and strives to get it. A more interesting relationship to consider as a yardstick.
I hope that if you are experiencing 50 Shades of Grey depression that this has reframed the story somewhat. And helped you untangle yourself from fiction. Now go have hot, passionate sex. Or go have no sex and do the laundry because those t-shirts aren’t going to fold themselves.
* She gave me permission to write about our conversation as long as she got to wear a figurative paper bag over her head.
** I know. I’m aware of how slowly I’m getting through these books. The friend who asked me read them said she would have never asked me to start them if she knew I was going to read like a fucking snail. In my defense, I’ve been trying to finish up my own manuscript, work on an edit of another, practice guitar, attend yoga class, and coo at Cozy Jackson for enormous intervals of time every single evening. The cooing and blueberry feeding of the hamster cuts into my ability to devour porn.
*** It was such a popular movie for our generation, and I heard the same thing said after that movie came out (people thinking their relationship didn’t measure up). Everything is pretty interchangeable: Vivian is Ana. Instead of asking for directions, they conduct an interview. In both cases, he’s rich and she’s poor. She is asked to come into his world and doesn’t fit in, and he never really comes to her world where he has to discover how it feels to not fit in. In both stories, he dresses her up like a doll and makes her feel like a princess. And there’s lots of sex. Hey… is 50 Shades of Grey Twilight fan fiction or is it Pretty Woman in disguise?