Fifty Shades of Gilded Cages: The Luxury Branding of Domestic Abuse

Strip Christian Grey of his wealth and trappings of nobility and he’s just a misogynistic jerk who beats his girlfriends.

02.16.15 11:55 AM ET

So I’ve been very cautious about airing my dislike of Fifty Shades of Grey, since as a self-identifiedly feminist dude I have to deal with the fact that I’m not at all the book or film’s target audience and a lot of the dudes who are ragging on Fifty Shades of Grey, with the sneering about “bored housewives” and “mommy porn,” are being pretty not-so-subtly misogynistic. It was the same way with Twilight (which Fifty Shades started as fanfiction of) and how Twilight bashers—like me—eventually jumped the shark and became themselves as insufferable as the Twilight fangirls they lampooned.

But there’s a ton of smart, necessary critiques of Fifty Shades out there, talking about how, like his spiritual father Edward Cullen, Christian Grey is an abusive stalker packaged as a romantic hero. There are also plenty of folks from the BDSM community talking about how E.L. James is an outsider with a warped view of what healthy BDSM relationships look like, promoting dangerous and possibly illegal behavior under the guise of the “BDSM lifestyle,” and ultimately throws the real BDSM community completely under the bus by portraying Christian’s kinks damage from an abusive childhood, from which Anastasia eventually rescues him. (The ending of the Fifty Shades trilogy is a celebration of happy conventional monogamy—Christian even gives Ana an ice cream cone charm to commemorate his newfound love of vanilla.)

And then, of course, there’s the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey is just terribly written, with sex scenes as mockworthy as the dialogue (which, as with Twilight, professional screenwriters had to grit their teeth and preserve for the sake of the author and the fans). There’s the looming signs of the movie being a trainwreck, right down to the male lead pretty clearly hating the material (as, again, happened with Twilight).

There’s an angle I haven’t seen covered much, though, that I only realized when explaining to a friend that I felt weird criticizing Fifty Shades of Grey for the same reason I felt weird criticizing Sex and the City, which I also deeply hated but felt sexist for saying I hated in public.

And then I realized that both my reluctance to talk about my hate for Fifty Shades and Sex and the City and the hate itself stemmed from the same source. I hate them for the same reason, because on some level, despite their many, many superficial differences, they’re kind of the same thing.

Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t about sex. It’s about class.

Or, rather, the way it’s about sex is also inextricably about class. It’s lifestyle porn as much as it is actual porn—it’s just another entry in the long, long history of films and TV shows that serve as one long commercial for the American Dream of achieving one-percenter-hood.

Nor is Fifty Shades of Grey particularly subtle about it—E.L. James is, again, as open about her drooling consumer lust as her actual lust. The commerce around the book/film franchise has been substantial, and hasn’t really been about the BDSM—Seattle hoteliers are making bank providing “Fifty Shades tours” where you and your sweetheart provide the sex but pay top dollar for the limo, fancy dinner, luxury suite, and helicopter ride.

And just as Manolo Blahnik arguably owed Candace Bushnell for millions’ worth of free product placement over the years, James’s narration pays careful attention to branding when it comes to the gifts Christian gives Ana. We are insistently reminded which brand names signify success from James’s middle-class perspective, from the iMac that serves as Christian’s first gift (to look up BDSM porn on, natch) to the Grey family’s almost comical loyalty to Audi. (Deciding Ana’s VW Bug is too dangerous for her to drive, Christian gives her an Audi A3, which Ana notes he gives all his submissives because “it’s the safest car on the market” as she suddenly morphs into the wife from a formulaic TV commercial.)

I, like many others, had wondered how a book that was pretty much hardcore porn would survive when translated to an R-rated film with the graphic sex scenes cut. The answer is an abundance of that other kind of porn. Just as the Sex and the City movie revolved around the walk-in closet Mr. Big builds for Carrie (which drew spontaneous applause at screenings), Universal is enticing moviegoers with a virtual tour of Christian Grey’s penthouse apartment. Even with the infamous “Red Room” locked, the artwork, furniture, wet bar, grand piano, fresh flowers delivered every three days, etc., seem to be titillating enough for the marketing team’s purposes.

And look. I don’t have a problem with liking nice things. I deeply dislike the sexist double standard where guys lusting after sweet cars is an authentic expression of self but girls lusting after nice furniture is everything wrong with American materialism.

But the relentless consumerist machine that is American media is deeply gendered in the way it packages consumption and has been for decades. (I wrote my undergrad thesis on “Mrs. Consumer,” a phrase 1920s advertisers actually used to describe how they wanted to reinvent the American housewife’s “job” as buying stuff—yes, women of America, the “shopaholic” stereotype is something Mad Ave invented and pushed on you.)

Ana doesn’t just like nice things as a background to her life, a reward for working hard and succeeding at her career. Being given nice things is her life—whether it’s cash, cars or, yes, overwrought-adjective-laden orgasms, Christian is constantly giving Ana stuff in return for having the right to control her life and make her “his” (to the point of demanding with shocking insistence and petulance that she change her maiden name once they get married).

When Anastasia makes a token effort at not being totally financially dependent on a man by finally getting an actual decent job on her own at the end of Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker reveals Christian going into full-on stalker mode and buying the company she works at.

Why? Because in his jealousy-addled mind, her financial independence is an illusion and her supposed job is just a way for the boss of her company to buy her as a sex toy.

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And this is the kind of book where the crazy stalker logic turns out to be true, and Ana’s boss Jack turns out to be a mustache-twirling villain, and Ana’s attempt at having her own career turns out to be as symbolically disastrous as it was in Die Hard (let go of the watch, Holly!), and the choice turns out to never have been between slavery and freedom but between Good Master and Bad Master.

The more you think about it, the uglier it gets. Much like the twisted, not-really-all-that-consensual parody of BDSM in Fifty Shades, it’s only a “liberating” fantasy if liberation means giving up all your freedom to someone who knows better than you.

Classism is baked into the plot and the backstory of Fifty Shades from beginning to end. Christian’s emotional damage is blamed on being born to a woman in poverty, a biological mom he callously blows off as a “crack whore.” Conversely, said damage is softened, made palatable and even romantic, by his current incredible wealth. His controlling, abusive behavior to his lovers is softened by the language of corporate America, expressed through respectable, legally binding NDAs and contracts. His emotional cruelty to Ana is constantly balanced against all the nice stuff he buys her, the “protection” he offers her from an even crueler world with his money—money that he capriciously uses as a weapon to literally buy the company of anyone who threatens her.

Strip all that away—take away whatever magical talent (never named or described in any way so as not to distract from the plot) made Christian a billionaire, and what do you have? Put Christian Grey in a dull average suburb, or a trailer park, and what is he?

Strip a byronic hero of his wealth and trappings of nobility—take the lordship away from Lord Byron—and he’s just a misogynistic jerk. Without the army of lawyers to make his contracts ironclad and his gifts to buy his lovers’ compliance, Christian is just a prick who beats his girlfriends.

It’s possible to see all of this as one giant metaphor for what capitalism and consumer culture does to us all—we’re all Anastasia Steele, seduced into forgiving the monstrous actions of corporate America by official-sounding legalese, respectable suits and ties, and most of all the fancy toys we get as rewards for our silence.

But it’s also depressingly literal. Being rich and respectable lets a lot of men get away with a lot of horrible shit against women. It reaches the absurd point where folks like Ben Stein will literally argue you can’t be a rapist if you have a respectable enough job title.

It was only 50 years ago that feminists wrote about the entire cultural role created for postwar middle-class American women as one big elaborately gilded cage. We’ve done a lot of work since then to break the locks and bend the bars of that cage, but the economic power men as a class have over women as a class is still very real, in the New Economy as much as in the Old.

And sure, when you’re doing a dollar’s worth of work for 77 cents of pay, the gilded cage is an appealing fantasy. The “liberating” happy ending of the Sex and the City movie is a gilded cage fantasy—Carrie, beset by her consumerist addictions, hitting up her friend Charlotte for tens of thousands of dollars for housing after realizing she’s spent tens of thousands of dollars on shoes, now has the answer to all her problems in the form of a marriage proposal from her on-again off-again billionaire boyfriend.

The only problem is that Mr. Big has always been an emotionally distant insensitive douchebag who kind of treats Carrie like crap, he really treats her like crap at their abortive wedding, and Carrie has to make the heartbreaking decision to abandon their gorgeous penthouse apartment in return for not being treated like crap.

But then a miracle happens—Mr. Big comes around! He doesn’t treat her like crap anymore! She gets showered with all the expensive swag from the first part of the movie and she gets true love. Lingering shot on the $885 pair of shoes, cue music, roll credits.

The Fifty Shades trilogy has this exact arc, only replace the emotionally distant insensitive douchebag with an abusive controlling violent psychopath.

Well, I’m sorry. It’s bad enough to feed women aspirational consumerism intended to generate credit card debt and call it self-help; it’s even worse to call it romance; it’s worst of all to use it to glamorize and normalize the classic pattern of an abusive relationship.

I don’t want to attack E.L. James or the makers and stars of the Fifty Shades movie or the franchise’s many, many female fans. I hardly have room to talk—the “guilty pleasure” fantasies they market to me frequently involve the same nasty patterns, except the materialism is more crass, the violence more brutal, and no one has to have a change of heart at the end.

The women who really like Fifty Shades as a guilty escapist pleasure benefit from that pleasure, sure, and in that sense it benefits women. Fine.

But let’s just look at who else benefits. Capitalism benefits. Audi benefits, Apple benefits, Seattle-area upscale hotels benefit. Benefit accrues to anyone who trades on the whole concept of “aspirational marketing” and “luxury branding” and the debt-fueled rat-race bullshit that it feeds.

Affluent kinksters benefit—the visible contingent of white rich kinksters who think BDSM, polyamory, and other non-traditional sexual practices are just an extension of their class privilege letting them buy whatever experiences they want. To say nothing of the small but dangerous minority of those kinksters who use kink as their shield to abuse people and get away with it because their class privilege buys them absolution—they really benefit.

So yes, Fifty Shades of Grey may be good for many of its female fans. It’s also good for a whole ton of exploitative assholes.

Me? Whether it be murder or theft or general assholishness I’m getting tired of the kind of “guilty pleasure” fantasy that puts the “pleasure” in the “guilty” by dressing up the “guilty” in a nice suit and putting it in a penthouse suite.

Whether you wallow in kinky depravity or vanilla wholesomeness, good sex should still be good regardless of whether you put it in a penthouse suite or a dull suburb or a trailer park. Healthy sex, no matter how kinky, doesn’t need a sugar-coating of luxury brands and corporate respectability to make it somehow not be abuse.

Because real, healthy BDSM—real, healthy romance, real, healthy love—involves everyone really wanting to be where they are, in that moment, without transactions or trades.

That feeling—that unburdened, uncomplicated, unshackled feeling—is what we’re really looking for in sex, what erotic art is striving to capture. It’s a feeling we could capture far more easily if our ideas about fucking weren’t so fucked up.

And it says a lot that even now, in 2015, the closest thing to that freedom women can get from the media is a spacious, well-appointed cage with a walk-in closet and a gorgeous view.