On the surface, Christian Grey is portrayed to be in possession of the largest amount of social capital possible. He is self made, rich, successful, handsome, charismatic, independent and strong. Which is why it is such a shock that he would choose a woman as plain as Ana.
In the shadow of this wealth however, it is of course made fairly clear that Christian Grey is emotionally detached and has a desire to punish women who look like his mother due to unresolved issues with his childhood and the person that his mother was.
Over the course of the trilogy, Christian starts to heal in order to have a healthy relationship with Ana. Despite seeing a very expensive psychiatrist, apparently all he needs is the love and devotion of a woman in order to cure him of his illness. This feeds into a terrible pattern of thought drummed into women that it is their role to fix men; that up until a man finds his soul mate, he wanders the earth broken and destructive to both himself and those around him. Then a delightful female with unwavering compassion comes along and flicks a switch that begins a path of healing.
Not only does it place unreasonable expectations on women and negatively portray men’s own capacity to function in society, it also promotes the idea that women should respond to men’s violence, abuse and mistreatment with love. After all, they are men and they are only treating you this way because of their broken childhood. Or they could only feel this level of anger and aggression due to their uncontrollable and unanticipated passion.
Fifty Shades of Grey follows the same kind of structure used in most romance novels written for women: the ones with Fabio on the front with a ripped white shirt standing on a cliff over looking the ocean and the sunset as his lover sprawls herself at his feet looking up at him dutifully whilst grasping at his thick, moist shin.
Women have been consuming this kind of content for decades about cliched passionate affairs. Typically the female protagonist will start from a position of weakness placed over her by patriarchal society and her arch will be defined by a process of healing through the act of nurturing the wild and untamed alfa-male. Its success comes from the ability of the female protagonist to affect change on patriarchal society through feminine associated behaviours of caring and nurturing, and in turn, the reassurance that is provided to the women who read them.
The problem is that in this case, Ana is affecting change in patriarchal society that does not follow a logical or practical pattern. It teaches women that we can solve domestic violence problems and the mental illness of our partners on our own from the position of victim or loving partner.
Christian Grey stalks her, breaks into her house, takes possession of her car without permission and ‘punishes’ her for any kind of act of defiance. In the real world, these would be major red flags that often lead to a relationship of domestic abuse. In the movie, they are framed as acts of thoughtful romance.
The whole movie is about eroticising men’s violence against women. This is a recurring theme in popular culture where acts of violence and aggression are explained away as acts of extreme passion. I often get the impression that women feel flattered by abusive acts of the men they are in a relationship with as they see their partners as broken and unable to express their true feelings of ‘love’ appropriately.
Similarly in Fifty Shades and for that matter, Twilight, women are drawn to characters like Ana and Bella, because the attractive male protagonists respond (remarkably) positively to their poor self esteem and plainness. I’m not saying that women who consume such content have poor self esteem and look plain, but women often have to battle against an omnipresent media that makes them feel inferior even if only on a subconscious level. Compared to celebrities and airbrushed images in advertising material, women can feel quite unattractive unless they have undertaken some serious self love training type exercise or they have somehow miraculously ignored the values placed on female beauty (of those women, I am extremely jealous). Because it can take a lot of retraining to rewrite mental pathways and associations with how you perceive yourself in relation to others and the importance you place on beauty.
Its extreme popularity with women can also be misinterpreted by men, particularly by young men who are still learning what a healthy relationship looks like. Men can come to learn that women by association with their fandom of Fifty Shades of Grey, will in turn want to be treated like Ana was.
Women want to feel as though they have a unique influence and power over ‘broken’ violent men through their inherent nurturing abilities (seemingly the only feminine attribute that society is willing to place value on beyond a woman’s flesh). They see through the physical behaviours and only see the inherent childhood associated problems. This defuses blame and agency away from the man, and the nurturing that the man has lacked in this form places responsibility on the woman.
This narrative has been fed to women their entire lives. Beauty and the Beast follows the same structure. Belle is a bookworm, misunderstood and under appreciated by her society. Then she is held hostage by monster who violates her human rights and in turn, she nurtures him until the curse of his dark past is removed and he is transformed into a handsome prince. This kind of narrative grooms women from childhood to hold responsibility for the emotional wellbeing and the actions of men they form relationships with. It teaches them that the only thing that will free men from the shackles of their monstrous alter-ego is the strength of the victim’s love.
Domestic violence and abusive relationships should not be portrayed in popular culture as romantic tales of fiction. The sad fact is that the narrative presented in Fifty Shades of Grey has been repeated throughout recent history and is ingrained in expectations of both men and women in terms of what constitutes a healthy relationship.