JOSH LEE considers the darker shades of Christian Grey.
Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho caused considerable controversy following its 1991 publication. Whilst the selling and marketing of the book was severely restricted, many original copies were sold shrink wrapped, and Ellis himself received death threats. Twenty years later, E.L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey experienced a rather different reception, achieving the accolade of selling 100 million copies and the subsequent box office success of a film adaptation.
Ellis’s overwhelmingly detailed novel features Patrick Bateman as the protagonist: a wealthy narcissist whose obsession, besides Huey Lewis and the News, is the violent massacre of acquaintances and strangers. The paranoid and egotistical Bateman was considered the antithesis of a woman’s (or a man’s) fantasy. Christian Grey, however, has been perceived as some kind of dangerously daring sex-pioneer. His inclination towards BDSM, and James’ explicit recounting thereof, has been the driving force behind the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey saga, resulting in its being labelled everything from ‘mommy porn’ to a proponent of domestic abuse. But by simply taking a wider look at the ‘romance’ of E.L James’ novels, it’s clear that to fantasise about Mr Grey whilst condemning Patrick Bateman is absurd.
The basic parallels between the two characters are clear. What we find in American Psycho is a complex, fragmented figure who’s engrossed with the manipulation his vast wealth affords him, and meticulous attention to detail – any reader of Ellis’s novel will know the intricacies of every garment and grooming tool that Bateman uses. Such traits are also evident within Christian Grey, from his meticulously aligned pencils to his purchasing of Thomas Hardy originals for Anastasia Steele (not to mention that helicopter).
The similarities extend to the bedroom, where both relish a manipulating role. Bateman exerts his dominance during sex by telling women what they’ll be called, what to do, and where to do it (with an accompanying camcorder). Quite awkwardly, he even poses and admires himself in the mirror mid-intercourse. Grey’s contract prescribing how waxed or otherwise Anastasia should be and which birth control she uses is just one indicator of how he doesn’t just use cuffs and a tie to establish control. Our aversion to Bateman’s sexual manipulation only arises because we know of his psychopathic tendencies; similar behaviour seen in Grey is deemed sexy and adventurous. In reality, however, both are just different variants of each other. Mr Grey’s red room of pain just façades his similarities to Mr. Bateman. For both men, women are their subjects.
And this is where the issue lies. The general consensus is that Bateman’s controlling, aggressive attitude displayed in sex extends outside of the bedroom and into the realm of coldblooded murder; this is why he isn’t the subject of fantasies the world over. But in fact both characters’ compulsion to control extends beyond the confines of a sexual environment. Drugging one of his dinner-dates, taking her to a restaurant and ordering her food (whilst semi-conscious) is just one example of the controversial acts that Bateman carries out in American Psycho. The cold Christian Grey is just as obsessed with playing puppet master. He locates which bar Anastasia is in through nothing other than somewhat sophisticated stalking, condemns her for drinking whilst celebrating with friends, and displays clear vexation when he finds out that she intends to leave him for a weekend away with her mother. The contract he presents to Anastasia is a clear symbol of the type of manipulation he wishes to exert over her: as well as the aforementioned sexual requirements, he sets rules for her diet, her drinking patterns and inserts a clause that states the submissive shall accept disciplinary action without question. The use of Ellie Goulding’s ‘Love Me Like You Do’ as the film’s anthem is enormously far-fetched, as Grey’s thirst for authority extends far beyond whipping and chaining a submissive. He wants to orchestrate Anastasia’s behaviour and psychology. Fifty Shades is the story of a submissive and a dominant in both sex and in the mind.
Despite being a poorly written book and a badly executed film, it cannot be denied that the BDSM factor in Fifty Shades has provided a platform for female sexual liberation and exploration that mainstream pornography has not yet been able to offer. And this is, undeniably, a major feat – which is why it’s such a shame that it also idolises a controlling, manipulative, abusive man, especially when Bateman’s character, who is in so many ways similar to Grey, is condemned as socially immoral. Grey’s desire for control is not limited to his worryingly clean red room of pain, contrary to what those trying to find the ‘romance’ in the story may think. His sex toys, his contracts and his adventurous use of ties are all simply a clever mask for his alarming similarities to one of the most villainous and repugnant characters in modern literature.