This week, author E. L. James announced that she would be releasing a new book to add to her bestselling Fifty Shades series. Darker: Fifty Shades Darker as Told by Christian will re-tell her second novel from the viewpoint of Christian Grey rather than protoganist Ana.
Here, freelance journalist Helen Pye argues why the publication of such a potentially damaging book is unnecessary – especially now.
Just in time for Christmas, E. L. James has announced she’s milking another book out of her retelling of the Fifty Shades series from Christian Grey’s point of view.
Darker: Fifty Shades Darker as Told by Christian – a mouthful to say, let alone read – rehashes her second novel, which (*spoiler alert*) sees Christian reach new levels of sordid behaviour.
He buys the company that the book’s protagonist Ana works for in order to control her career, he allows one of his ex-submissives to stalk her until she’s threatened at gunpoint, he proposes when he fears she’s about to leave him, and he entangles them all in his business dealings with the woman who seduced and raped him when he was only 15.
If Christian’s internal monologue on all of that isn’t the perfect thing for Grandma to leave you under the Christmas tree, then what is?
Now, full disclosure, I was actually a huge fan of the series when it first came out. I was 20 years old and suddenly had my mind opened to a world of pegging and Ben Wa balls. I devoured the books brazenly in Starbucks like a cross between a sexually-frustrated woman and a teenage boy who’d got his hands on a copy of Zoo, misjudging them as being both empowering for Ana and also for me as the reader.
It wasn’t until a year later when I interviewed dominatrices and escorts who specialise in dominance and submission for an article about the power exchange when one party is paying, that I saw Ana and Christian's relationship for what it really was: domestic abuse and emotional manipulation, topped off with a series of violent threats.
BDSM by nature, said one dominatrix, relies on communication, mutual trust and respect for boundaries: there are safe words, and there is aftercare. More power to you if you find hot sex goes hand-in-hand with pain, but Fifty Shades’ presentation was a troubling sexual fantasy that associated it primarily with non-consensual violence.
A hell of a lot of critics have written about how James’ depiction of the sub/dom scene is everything from worrying, to twee, to laughably inaccurate, but Darker is about to go gob-smackingly offensive. James said in a statement that Darker will go deeper into what makes Christian tick, “into his most painful memories and the encounters that made him the damaged, demanding man Ana falls in love with”. That she equates Christian’s childhood abuse with the reason he’s into BDSM, planting the idea that people who indulge in it are “damaged”, is abhorrent and frankly just wrong.
I can only imagine what cod-psychology she’s going to concoct to justify his complex web of abuse, and here’s why I think James is doing a disservice to all women by publishing such trash: it’s dangerous. It’s an insult to the kink-loving community to suggest that they’re “damaged” in some way, but to write a defence of the behaviour of a controlling, predatory abuser and pitch it as a love story is indefensible.
However much you want to shake Ana and ask why she’s with someone who tracks her phone, dictates what she eats and isolates her from her friends, at least being inside her head gives her agency. She holds the power, in the narrative at least, because we understand why she acts like she does: she’s naïve, yes, but she isn’t a silent victim. But in writing Darker, James takes the narrative away from the woman and puts all the power into the hands of her abuser.
According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, one in four women will experience domestic abuse in their life and one in six men. Two women are killed by their current or ex-partner every week.
And here is James, making money from what could arguably be seen as the tale of an abuser, spun as titillating and romantic.
The truth is that Darker, with millions of copies expected to shift and the wearisome potential of a film adaptation, has the power to shape public opinion too. Every book James publishes has the influence to alter sexual norms and impact on the already volatile benchmark that demarcates “abusive behavior”. With great power comes great responsibility, and James has proved as useless at wielding it as a leather whip.
So let’s leave Darker on the shelves when it comes out this Christmas and maybe she’ll get the message: Christian Grey’s side of the story is neither wanted nor warranted.
Images: Universal Pictures / Focus Features