Casual Racism and Retail Hell: Chapter 3 of EL James’s “Grey”

fifty

Previous Post.

Chapter 2 left us with Christian Grey musing about how best to objectify and commodify his prospective lover after having stalked and harassed her at work. But look: this is meant to be a story about a man who has never truly let anyone in; a man who has always treated sex like some kind of business exchange — or worse — as a way for him to exert power over another person while hiding behind the pretence of kinkiness. And now, for the first time, he’s learning to love.

So maybe — just maybe — James will manage to rebuild her original story into a believable narrative in which Christian starts out the book as a largely insecure, manipulative, controlling, and socially tone-deaf abuser who then “transforms” into the loving, sensitive, and generous man that Ana knows he must be deep-down… despite all of the evidence to the contrary.

The thing is, glib as I am, and as much as I have fun pointing out EL James’s shit house writing, I want her to prove me wrong. I want to see in Grey what I didn’t see in its predecessors: namely how or why these books could be seen as anything but a cautionary tale of domestic abuse in which an abuser slowly coerces a naive girl into putting up with more and more of his bullshit until she resigns herself to a violent and controlling relationship — particularly while the abuser himself acts as though any compromise on his part would be unfair.

But before I get too far with my unrealistic hopes and dreams, I have some bad news: this re-write only covers the first book of the original trilogy, which means that there will definitely be at least two more. So what Grey’s defenders are certain to do is argue that we won’t really see “The Change” in him by the end of this book anyway, and that really he’s meant to be an asshole at this point — because Ana hasn’t worked enough virginal vagina magic yet. In any event, this is only the third chapter where no one can argue that he’s not an asshole, so let’s explore stunning scenes like “that time Jose photographed Christian while he stared at Ana for half an hour,” and “that time Christian took her for coffee and then saved her from a deranged cyclist.” Because — and I cannot stress this enough — it is literally the same fucking book with a different inner monologue.

Do not spend money on this book.

Do not suffer as I have suffered.

Instead, enjoy the following excerpts for free:

Breakfast has been delivered and I’m famished. It’s not a feeling I tolerate — ever. Sitting down to breakfast in my sweats, I decide to eat before I shower.

Even when telling the story from Christian’s perspective, EL James still makes no attempt to explain why being hungry as a toddler means that Christian has an intense phobia about unfinished food. I would genuinely love it if the book took the time to explore or explain that issue — especially because it’s one of the most insidious ways that Christian manipulates Ana throughout the original series. Instead, we get a clunkingly obvious first-person narrative that lays out everything but the central concern:

I am hungry.

I do not like being hungry.

I must shower, but I am hungry.

Thus I will eat, and then I will shower.

This tells you literally everything — down to what he’s wearing as he sits down to eat, but not to shower — except the one thing you might actually want to know about, namely his food obsession.

Anyway, I did promise that I was going to take this a little more seriously and focus on the larger and more problematic themes of these books, but before I really start to get into the 1001 ways that this book promotes and advocates domestic violence, let’s revel in a real Jamesian master class in narration:

My hair is wet from my shower, but I don’t give a shit. One glance at the louche fucker in the mirror and I exit to follow Taylor to the elevator.

Fucking water thinks it can fuck with me? Fucking think again, water. You fucking jack-off prick; You won’t fuck Christian Grey, self-hating commander of the skies!

Then Christian goes to the totally plausible university newspaper photo shoot where we’re given another description of Ana who is definitely not just Kristen Stewart:

She’s wearing tight jeans and chucks with a short-sleeved navy jacket and a white T-shirt beneath. Are jeans and chucks her signature look? While not very convenient, they do flatter her shapely legs.

kristen

First of all, the jacket doesn’t even have short sleeves, so.

In case you’re wondering what he means by “convenient,” Christian explains later in the chapter that he prefers women in skirts and dresses because they’re more “accessible.”

You know what makes women accessible? Consent. That way you don’t have to worry about how hard it’ll be to force them out of their clothes — with consent, they can take off their own clothes, or consent to having you remove them with their willing help. It’s fun. You should try it.

I want to stop and talk about what an obvious and horrific predator Christian is, but I feel like I have to keep moving because there are so many instances where he talks about sex or women’s bodies or women’s clothing choices with such a strong overtone of sexual violence that it all weaves together into one big rape-y tapestry. But just know that Christian seems incapable of imagining sexual scenarios that aren’t at least a little “forced,” and where the woman’s express consent is secondary to how quickly and easily he can access her vagina at any given moment.

Anyway, Christian meets Kate. He doesn’t like her because he — the upper-class, privately-educated rich kid turned billionaire — is turned off by someone who seems to have been raised with wealth and who radiates self-confidence. Again, in case that wasn’t clear: Christian Grey finds confident women unattractive and off-putting. So that brings us to this gem:

Maybe that’s why [Ana] and Kavanagh are friends; she’s content to be in the background and let Katherine take center stage.

Hmm…a natural submissive.

I know, I know — he enjoys BDSM sex, he enjoys being a dominant. Even ignoring the fact that plenty of people who actually practice BDSM have come out against 50 Shades‘ portrayal of their lifestyle, it does seem unnervingly clear that Christian enjoys seducing shy, self-conscious women — to the point where it is creepy. That’s not kink-shaming, that’s questioning why a very powerful grown man needs a relationship with a woman who appears to possess very little self-worth, and constantly talks about how sexual he finds that. People can enjoy a wide spectrum of personality traits, and shy people can be confident in private, but Christian seems to prefer meek and submissive women because he’s so incredibly annoyed and “emasculated” by literally everyone else who doesn’t immediately kneal before him — literally and figuratively.

So keeping in mind that this is purported to be the story about a truly good man who just needs to learn to love, let’s skip forward to the coffee scene where Christian has gone to the counter to order drinks:

I have to wait in line while the two matronly women behind the counter exchange inane pleasantries with all their customers. It’s frustrating and keeping me from my objective: Anastasia.

“Hey handsome, what can I get you?” the older woman asks with a twinkle in her eye. It’s just a pretty face, sweetheart.

“I’ll have a coffee with steamed milk. English Breakfast tea.. Teabag on the side. And a blueberry muffin.

Anastasia might change her mind and eat.

“You visiting Portland?”

“Yes.”

“The weekend?”

“Yes.”

“The weather sure has picked up today.”

“Yes.”

“I hope you get out to enjoy some sunshine.”

Please stop talking and hurry the fuck up. 

“Yes,” I hiss through my teeth and glance over at Ana, who quickly looks away.

She’s watching me. Is she checking me out?

A bubble of hope swells in my chest.

“There you go.” The woman winks and places the drinks on my tray. “Pay at the register, honey, and you have a nice day, now.”

I manage a cordial response. “Thank you.”

First of all: does Christian think that if leaves Ana alone for more than a minute she’ll immediately hop on the next available dick? I think she understands that ordering coffee takes more than thirty seconds, and will not immediately run from the table if Christian answers some small-talk question about the weather posed by some women who — believe me — does not actually give a shit about his day and is likely not all that dazzled by his breathtaking gorgeousness.

But what’s especially irksome about the way that this scene is set up is that this mindless, unnecessary dialogue is everywhere in the book. So while it seems mildly relevant in this scene, where he’s already explained that the barristas engage in “inane pleasantries,” it’s still a moment that any capable writer could have scooted over in a sentence or two. Instead, nearly every conversation in this book — even the “sexy” ones — seem to aim for a kind of Tarantino-esque slice of life dialogue, but instead sounds like Zooey Deschanel trying to charm Siri into getting her some soup.

Finally, I’m going to go ahead and say it — you just know from the way that EL James writes this scene that she is the kind of person who talks on her cell phone when she gets to the front of the coffee line and then acts like it’s a chore to have to find her credit card to pay. And then makes everyone wait while she finds that punch card they gave her that one time.

Taking #dank #selfies.

Taking #dank #selfies.

Even if she isn’t (but I mean she definitely is) Christian can call himself a dark soul all he wants, but it’s behaviour like this that lets me know he isn’t secretly good, deep-down. I do not believe that there’s an inherent goodness in someone who treats service workers this way — period. He’s just a shitty person who feels that all interactions that don’t end in him receiving sex or money are a waste of time.

Anyway, I’m getting heavily speculative and rant-y, so let’s all enjoy this absolute batshittery together:

As she tells me she likes her tea weak and black, for a moment I think she’s describing what she likes in a man.

Get a grip, Grey. She’s talking about tea.

tea

What.

What.

What.

What.

But seriously what.

I’m at a place with this line — which I had to re-read several times just to make absolutely sure I’d read it correctly — where I know what it means, and yet I keep trying to convince myself that I don’t. Because nobody could possibly have written something that stupid. It’s not even racist, it’s just… bizarre. Is it an attempt at humour, and would that make it racist — particularly in a series where a white girl acts like being pale is the absolute worst? I don’t have any answers, so we have to move on, but one more time:

WHAT.

Let’s skip past several pointless lines of dialogue we already heard the first time around to this not at all Red Flag exchange:

“I find you intimidating,” she says, and looks down, fidgeting once more with her fingers. On the one hand, she’s so submissive, but on the other she’s…challenging.

“You should find me intimidating.”

Yeah. She should. There aren’t many people brave enough to tell me that I intimidate them.

Maybe — just maybe, you arrogant prick — the reason most people don’t announce that they find you intimidating is because they don’t find you intimidating. Because maybe the kind of person who consciously preys on insecure, mousey, quiet women is compensating for his lack of confidence with other people.

And this leads me to perhaps one of my biggest suspensions of disbelief with this series: I cannot buy this guy as a self-made billionaire at 27. I just can’t. Because while EL James can tell us that that’s what he is, and can tell us that he’s amassed this great fortune doing whatever it is that he does, nothing about his behaviour, personality, work ethic, or blanket treatment of other people aligns with the kind of real-life people who are able to achieve the unfathomable level of wealth and success that he’s supposed to have — and particularly at his age.

Instead, he comes off as a deeply petulant, smug, nasty rich kid who delights in shitting on the little people. And this is why — even in a fantasy narrative — show don’t tell is so important. Don’t keep telling me that he’s a successful businessman and then have him behave like a frat boy spending Daddy’s money.

It would be like telling us that a character is an English major with a 4.0 grade average, but then showing us a girl with no computer skills who never actually reads anything, and instead just talks about a small handful of books that she read at some point in the past. Just… as a random example.

And with no clear segue, here’s this scene where Ana talks about her main passions in life:

Her face brightens with excitement. Miss Steele wants to travel. But why England? I ask her.

“It’s the home of Shakespeare, Austen, the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy. I’d like to see the places that inspired those people to write such wonderful books.” It’s obvious that this is her first love.

Books.

CHRIST.

See, this goes back to my rant from ages ago about books about book lovers. It’s sentences like these that make it hard for women who enjoy reading to be taken seriously. Because instead of portraying Ana as having something interesting to say about literature, these narratives reinforce the idea that we only really enjoy fiction on an airy-fairy, romantic nonsense level that’s all about dashing men in cravats and ladies who sit around knitting flowers and waiting for husbands.

And, because he’s the worst, Christian immediately draws that conclusion as well:

That means I’m competing with Darcy, Rochester, and Angel Clare: impossible romantic heroes. Here’s the proof I needed. She’s an incurable romantic, like her mother — and this isn’t going to work.

First of all, Rochester and Darcy are also smug, rich assholes — so it’s not as impossible a goal as you might think, Christian. But still, let me say this again: reading Jane Austen does not make someone an “incurable romantic,” and I do not buy that someone who studied English for four years came out of it with only the surface-level reaction of, “Gosh, it would’ve been so great to live in the Regency era with all of those fine clothes and manners” — without understanding that it also came with disease, rape, violence, pollution, poverty, and oppressive sexism. But you got to wear a bonnet, so really it all evens out.

Anyway, blah blah blah coffee and tea, then Christian and Ana walk back from the cafe, Ana nearly gets hit by a cyclist, Christian grabs her but doesn’t kiss her because he’s worried that she’s too darned romantical… it’s everything you already know from the original book. Except for this:

She has that fresh, wholesome fragrance that reminds me of my grandfather’s apple orchard. Closing my eyes, I inhale, committing her scent to memory.

Because nothing is quite as arousing as grandpa’s apples, but Christian manages to resist the enchanting allure of Granny Smith by reminding himself:

She wants hearts and flowers, and you don’t do that shit.

Can these two find love? Can they overcome their differences so she can completely succumb to his will and wishes? Can she learn to let him isolate her from her friends and family and focus on him full-time because he’s a giant man baby who needs a mother more than he needs a girlfriend?

I wish the answer was no, but we already know what’s going to happen next.

And so Christian, who’s bounced back to being a poet rather than some crude rendering of a “dude” who loves to use all the dank cusses, leaves us with this melancholy final image:

She disappears into the building, leaving in her wake a trace of regret, the memory of her beautiful blue eyes, the scent of an apple orchard in the fall.

Jesus. I only just got that the apple thing is both a Twilight reference and meant to be reminiscent of the temptation of Eve.

Seriously, fuck this book.

Next Post.

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3 thoughts on “Casual Racism and Retail Hell: Chapter 3 of EL James’s “Grey”

  1. Pingback: What Would You Like to #AskELJames? | Tea Leaves and Dog Ears

  2. “So keeping in mind that this is purported to be the story about a truly good man who just needs to learn to love”.

    LoL, Christian in “Grey” isn’t even *close* to being a good man. I don’t believe he’s intended to come across as one. I doubt even E L James is *that* oblivious a writer.

    We actually have the opposite problem – she’s gone too heavy-handed so Christian comes across as a cartoon supervillain like Lex Luthor, Darth Vader or Ebenezer Scrooge.

    “So what Grey’s defenders are certain to do is argue that we won’t really see “The Change” in him by the end of this book anyway, and that really he’s meant to be an asshole at this point”

    Pretty much, though I question the term “defenders”. Recognising that the overall character arc won’t be complete enough to fully evaluate until later in the trilogy hardly makes one a *defender* of this pile of drivel.

    (BTW, I read this post and your next one out of order, so when I pointed out in my other comment that “Grey” only covers pre-change Christian, I didn’t realise you’d already acknowledged that. Mea culpa.)

    Aside: I can’t believe E.L. James spent three whole books rewriting the first Twilight novel, and is now spending another three books rewriting her rewrite of the first Twilight novel. Seriously? :/

    “Even ignoring the fact that plenty of people who actually practice BDSM have come out against 50 Shades‘ portrayal of their lifestyle […] “.

    Oh, let’s not ignore it.  There’s no acknowledgement of a wider BDSM community in Fifty Shades so it’s hard to tell if James (or Christian himself) recognises what a truly terrible Dom he is. But he’s beyond appalling.  

    Mr Christian Grey is zero for three on Safe, Sane and Consensual. He *completely* fails to realise that submission is given by the sub not taken by the Dom. He also fails to grasp that a D/s relationship, like any relationship, is about meeting *both* parties’ needs (which, amazingly enough, requires acknowledging that subs are individual human beings rather than interchangeable commodities. :O).

    One of the many horrific things about Fifty Shades is that readers could walk away thinking it’s a good representation of how a BDSM relationship is supposed to be when, if you bump into a predator like Christian Grey in the BDSM community, you should run a freaking mile!

    “Fucking water thinks it can fuck with me? Fucking think again, water.”.

    That one made me literally laugh out loud. Nice. 😀

  3. Pingback: Expensive Books and the Stench of Poverty: Chapter 4 of EL James’s “Grey” | Tea Leaves and Dog Ears

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