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Fifty Shades and the Beggar-Maid

By Mika Kasuga, writer

Recently, I was re-reading Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and I found myself struck by a sentence uttered by the protagonist, Maurice Bendrix, as he tries to explain his obsession with his former lover, the beautiful and hapless Sarah Miles:

I don’t know whether psychologists have yet named the Cophetua complex, but I have always found it hard to feel sexual desire without some sense of superiority, mental or physical.

Greene is referencing a fairy tale commonly known as “The King and the Beggar-Maid,” where the proud King Cophetua falls hopelessly in love with a beggar and decides to make her his queen.

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The king bestows; the beggar-maid bows her head and accepts the necklace, the love, and her new role as queen.

Maurice Bendrix’s troubling attitude turns this story into a male fantasy of power and domination.  What took my breath away was the realization that, in the 21st century, the fairy-tale has become a female fantasy as well, with the explosive success of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. Fifty Shades of Grey, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is an erotic novel about the beautiful, virginal Anastasia Steele and her relationship with the impossibly handsome, fantastically rich businessman Christian Grey: a relationship, given Grey’s sexual peccadilloes, that revolves around bondage, dominance and sadism/masochism.

A typical Greyism runs thusly: “‘I have rules, and I want you to comply with them.  They are for your benefit and for my pleasure. If you follow these rules to my satisfaction, I shall reward you. If you don’t, I shall punish you, and you will learn,’ he whispers.”

When Fifty Shades first hit bookstores, I remember being surprised at how many women seemed enthralled and shocked by the novel. After all, stories involving BDSM are hardly new: sadism traces its roots to the Marquis de Sade, an 18th century French aristocrat and prolific author, and masochism to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus in Furs.  Yet when I googled “Why is Fifty Shades so popular,” all of the proffered explanations – Grey is another moody, Byronic hero; he endlessly caters to Ana; he’s fabulously wealthy – seemed almost as lackluster as E.L. James’ prose.

These explanations reiterate what is obviously desirable about Grey while sidestepping why his dominant attitude has struck such a chord with so many women. All the attention given to Grey’s massive bank account and his array of toys (which, by the way, you can now buy), obscures the question of why Ana’s submission and compliance is considered sexy. What does this fantasy speak to; and why now?

First of all, I think E.L. James’ lack of literary talent is absolutely crucial to the book’s success.  Although James often reminds the reader of Ana’s intelligence, our lovely heroine has all the depth and self-reflection of a ham sandwich:

“What is your thing, Anastasia?” he asks, his voice soft and his secret smile is back.  I gaze at him, unable to express myself. I’m on shifting tectonic plates. Try and be cool, Ana, my tortured subconscious begs on bended knee. “Books,” I whisper, but inside, my subconscious is screaming: You! You are my thing! I slap it down instantly, mortified that my psyche is having ideas above its station.

By farming out any internal conflict to the sub-character of Ana’s subconscious, E.L. James creates an unwittingly materialist mindset. Dilemmas are played out as dialogue between Ana, her subconscious and her “inner goddess”: and all three of these selves are subject to being slapped and manhandled into submission. There is no division between Grey’s physical and emotional hold on Ana because she herself is unable to distinguish between physical submission and submissive thought.  When he trusses her up like a chicken for the roast, her mind is effectively shackled along with it.

This flatness and lack of self-awareness then becomes a characteristic and intrinsic part of Ana’s appeal. Like Bella Swan of Twilight– E.L. James’ admitted inspiration – this blandness means that Ana barely exists beyond her body, even for the reader.

Contrast this with how John Milton’s short play Comus deals with bondage: when the heroine is tied up by the magician Comus, she mocks her captor for conflating a captive mind with a restrained body:

Comus.     Nay, Lady sit; if I but wave this wand,

Your nervs are all chain’d up in Alabaster,

And you a statue; or as Daphne was

Root-bound, that fled Apollo,

Lady.                      Fool, do not boast,

Thou canst not touch the freedom of my minde

With all thy charms, although this corporeal rinde

Thou has immancl’d (659-665).[1]

Comus has tied the anonymous Lady up in order to tempt her and win her love, but without the power to bend her will, he remains frustrated and she remains aloof. Milton may not have given his heroine a name, but he did grant her an acute awareness that being physically overpowered was not a surrender, or even an admission of weakness.

Even other erotic novels depict more vivid emotional landscapes: the 1954 novel Story of O was a sharp, elegantly written erotic novel where the heroine, introduced to BDSM by her lover Rene, ends up as a sexual plaything for a variety of masters. Still, O existed beyond her own physicality because she was exquisitely aware that physical restraints could not bind her: “The chains and the silence, which should have bound her deep within herself, which should have smothered her, strangled her, on the contrary freed her from herself.” O is capable of distinguishing between inner and outer worlds, and part of the frisson of Story of O comes from her awareness that her reduction into a sexual object is what she desires. Her desires are the story.

What distinguishes Ana in Fifty Shades of Grey: is her blandness. She is a virgin, a sexual tabula rasa. Her mind is her body, and her body is an object. This perception of her is something that she accepts, that is both a lure for Grey and the source of her pleasure. When pressed to explain his penchant for spanking, Grey says: “It’s the way I’m made, Anastasia. I need to control you. I need you to behave in a certain way, and if you don’t – I love to watch your beautiful alabaster skin pink and warm up under my hands.  It turns me on.” Fifty Shades is the story of a woman doing what she is told by the man she loves, being rewarded for it with trinkets and baubles, and loving her role as his consort.

To me, that is the ‘why’ of Fifty Shades; to appreciate the ‘why now’ requires an understanding of the gains that women have made in the past 50 years.  Consider some of popular feminist histories and ideologies which seek to empower women today. In Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (another bestseller), women are encouraged to “lean in,” to not close themselves off to their careers on the off-chance that they become mothers.  Hannah Rosin’s The End of Men: And the Rise of Women highlighted the trend of women as breadwinners, college graduates and individuals who preferred hooking up to taking a man seriously. Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs pointed out that many women were choosing to ‘empower’ themselves by embracing and enacting male chauvinist values.  These books cover a wide range of topics – and this was a very hasty summary – but what strikes me about all of these books is the total absence of the controlling male figure.  In all of them, women struggle to figure out what they want; and sometimes their decisions can be unexpectedly frightening.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz famously pointed out, “Freedom of choice is a two-edged sword, for just on the other side of liberation sits chaos and paralysis.  Thus, there is a price for freedom—danger. There is a price for enlightenment—uncertainty.” Schwartz wasn’t talking specifically about women, but consumers in general: when faced with a bewildering array of choices, we can be made unhappy by our own indecision. And Christian Grey is the bespoke, handsome counterbalance to a world where women can lean in, become female chauvinist pigs, and where we can compete with, and beat, men in domains that were once theirs alone.

Fifty Shades is not strictly anti-feminist; it is peculiarly, uniquely born from the strides that women have made. E.L. James has presented us with the erotic fantasy of King Cophetua’s beggar-maid, replete with the relative unimportance of the beggar-maid’s own wants and desires. Fifty Shades is the story of Grey’s desires, and thus for women it is the fantasy of not needing to discover your own wants: you need only submit to the Cophetua who will raise you up and mold you to his liking.

Ana is a consenting adult in an intimate relationship, and one who ultimately gets her happy ending. And yet, the popularity of this trilogy strikes me as essentially sad, because it is rooted in a wistful glance backwards, to a world where men held all the power, and all the choice.

This is why the King Cophetua comment in The End of the Affair stopped me cold. Because if women are willing to pretend that yielding is an unequivocal sign of lesser strength, that handcuffs alone can shackle our wills and suspend our ability to choose – then isn’t this fantasy of the beggar-maid the pretense of inferiority?

As Katherine Angel wrote in her book Unmastered:

I wonder: If a man—if My Man, if The Man—were enough, were big enough to contain me, for me to feel contained in him, in his largeness, the largeness of his person—would I need him to tie me up?

Would I need him to tie me down?

Sources/Reading List

Angel, Katherine. Unmastered: a book on desire, most difficult to tell. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013. Print.

Greene, Graham. The end of the affair. New York: Viking Press, 1951. Print.

James, E. L.. Fifty shades of Grey. New York: Vintage Books, 2012. Print.

Levy, Ariel. Female chauvinist pigs: women and the rise of raunch culture. New York: Free Press, 2005. Print.

Milton, John. “Milton Reading Room.” Milton: A Mask … at Ludlow. Dartmouth, n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2013. <http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/comus/&gt;.

Reage, Pauline. Story of O. New York: Grove Press, 1965. Print.

Rosin, Hanna. The end of men: and the rise of women. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012. Print.

Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean in: women, work, and the will to lead. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

Schwartz, Barry. “Self-determination: The Tyranny Of Freedom..” American Psychologist 55.1 (2000): 79-88. Print.


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One comment on “Fifty Shades and the Beggar-Maid

  1. emily
    May 2, 2014

    I don’t understand your point about how she farms out her thoughts to her subconscious. Isn’t that what all fantasy / dreams are about? You piece out yourself into different parts in order to find symbols through which to put yourself back together.

    I also think there’s a major problem in this essay that assumes that all sexuality is male and that women internalize the male desire, spitting it back out as some fake fantasy of their own. If we understand the male character in Fifty Shades as just another split off part of the main characters desire, then he is no more “male” then she is “female.” If we can’t learn to express our fantasy lives then how will we ever recognize all our parts?

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