Fifty Shades of Late Capitalism

[from The Baffler No. 22, 2013]

While we are still recovering from the trauma that finance capital has inflicted on our public world, a late-capitalist fairy tale manages the pain in the more private and intimate reaches of the sexual daydream. In one version of the story, a wide-eyed mermaid cleverly disguises her essential self in order to win the heart of a prince (The Little Mermaid). In another, a hooker with a heart of gold navigates her way to a happy ending by offering some happy endings of her own (Pretty Woman). Or there’s the sassy secretary who shakes her moneymaker all the way to the corner office (Working Girl).

Fifty Shades of Grey follows this long history of class ascendancy via feminine wiles, but does so cleverly disguised as an edgy modern bodice-ripper. Forget that E. L. James’s three-book series captures the intricacies of BDSM about as effectively as a “Whip Me!” Barbie doll decked out in a ball gag, dog collar, and assless leather chaps. Although admirers of the series sometimes credit it with liberating female desire by reimagining pornography for ordinary women (and introducing them to the unmatched thrills of leather riding crops and hard spankings), the story of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey isn’t really about dominance or bondage or even sex or love, despite all the Harlequin Romance–worthy character names. No, what Fifty Shades of Grey offers is an extreme vision of late-capitalist deliverance, the American (wet) dream on performance-enhancing drugs. Just as magazines such as Penthouse, Playboy, Chic, and Oui (speaking of aspirational names) have effectively equated the moment of erotic indulgence with the ultimate consumer release, a totem of the final elevation into amoral privilege, James’s trilogy represents the latest installment in the commodified sex genre. The money shot is just that: the moment when our heroine realizes she’s been ushered into the hallowed realm of the 1 percent, once and for all.

So Brazen

The fantasy life of Fifty Shades certainly isn’t focused on the sublime erotic encounter. The sex becomes hopelessly repetitive sometime around the third or fourth of the novels’ countless, monotonously naughty encounters. Each dalliance begins with the same provocative come-on: the naive college graduate Anastasia and the dashing mogul Christian describe their desire to each other with all of the charmless unpredictability of servers mouthing their prescribed scripts at an Australian-themed steakhouse. Awkward openers (“I think we’ve done enough talking for now,” “Now let’s get you inside and naked”) conjure the raw provocation of “How about a Bloomin’ Onion to get you started?” Even tougher to take are the coy responses (“Oh my!” “Why, Mrs. Grey, you have a dirty, dirty mouth!” “You’re insatiable and so brazen”), repeated with gusto despite a total lack of shock value in evidence. Readerly expectations tick up ever so slightly as Grey issues some bossy commands—Stand here! Undress! Bend over! Spread your legs!—which seem at first blush to foretell a curve in the carnal road. But no such luck. Give or take a blindfold here or a butt plug there, the same hands explore the same places in the same ways with the same results. After the fifteenth or sixteenth time Anastasia and Christian “find [their] release together,” they start to resemble tourists with no short-term memory, repeating the same docented visit to Graceland over and over again, drooling over the claustrophobic upholstered pool room and the mirrored wall and the fourteen-foot-long white leather couch afresh each time. By the third volume in the series, as every word out of Christian’s mouth (“I see you’re very wet, Anastasia”) still triggers an overheated response from his paramour (“Holy shit!”), readers may find themselves hissing, “Mix it up a little, for fuck’s sake!”

What Fifty Shades of Grey offers is an extreme vision of late-capitalist deliverance, the American (wet) dream on performance-enhancing drugs.

But let’s not mistake sex for the main event. The endless manual jimmying and ripped foil packets and escalating rhythms and release-findings are just foreplay for the real climax, in which Anastasia recognizes that she’s destined to abandon her ordinary, middle-class life in favor of the rarefied veal pen of the modern power elite. Until then, like a swooning female contestant on The Bachelor, Anastasia is offered breathtaking helicopter and glider rides, heady spins in luxury sports cars, and windswept passages on swift catamarans. She is made to gasp at Christian’s plush office, with its sandstone desk and white leather chairs and its stunning vista, or his spacious, immaculate penthouse apartment, with its endless rooms filled with pricey furniture. She is treated to Bollinger pink champagne and grilled sea bass. She is offered a brand new wardrobe replete with stylish heels and gorgeous gowns and designer bras. She is lavished with diamond jewelry and flowers and a new luxury car of her own.

Soon the numbing parade of luxe brands—Cartier, Cristal, Omega, iPad, iPod, Audi, Gucci—takes on the same dulled impact as endlessly tweaked nipples and repeatedly bound wrists. Curiously (but perhaps not surprisingly), our heroine’s responses to these artifacts of her ascendance are eerily similar to her sexual responses: “Oh, my!” “Yes.” “Holy shit!” After that, the superior quality and enormous cost of each item are mulled in excruciating detail. Just as traditional, male-centered pornography seems to feature a particularly clumsy, childish notion of sexiness, the concept of luxury on offer in Fifty Shades is remarkably callow. Like an update of the ostentatious, faux-tasteful wealth of Dynasty, Christian’s penthouse, with its abstract art and dark wood and leather, represents the modern version of enormous flower arrangements and white marble and a house staff trussed up in cartoon-butler regalia. No detail of the environment feels organic or specific to Christian himself; instead, it reflects a prescribed corporate aesthetic of enormous wealth that for some reason James approaches with reverence rather than repulsion or dread. By the time this compulsive lifestyle voyeurism starts invading our narrator’s routine visits to the bathroom (“The restrooms are the height of modern design—all dark wood, black granite, and pools of light from strategically placed halogens”), the author’s veneration of arbitrary signifiers of class has begun to take on grotesque, faintly comedic proportions.

E. L. James’s three-book series captures the intricacies of BDSM about as effectively as a “Whip Me!” Barbie doll decked out in a ball gag, dog collar, and assless leather chaps.

Against this backdrop of gleeful consumption, Anastasia’s total life makeover takes shape. Having just graduated from college, she scales the corporate ladder from assistant to book editor in a matter of weeks, since Christian has thoughtfully purchased the publishing company where she works. When her boss bullies and sexually harasses her, Christian confronts him, has him fired, and installs Anastasia in his place. Her mild protests over this creepy, control-freak show of power—now that’s some hard-core domination play—are just for show, of course. The underlying message is that Prince Charming swooped in and saved her from the indignities of the underclass. As if that’s not enough, in the third book, Fifty Shades Freed, Christian announces that he’s going to give the publishing company to his new wife, telling her, “This is my wedding present to you.” Sounds just like a wildly successful, ultra-competitive entrepreneur, doesn’t it, to give an entire business to his inexperienced inamorata, so that she can play make-believe at the office all day, while he adds a red mark in the “failures” column of his imperial spreadsheet?

Of Quasi-human Bondage

There’s nothing that money can’t buy in this world, whether it’s respect, dignity, or imaginary political correctness. When Christian leads Anastasia to a palatial Mediterranean house with an expansive view of Puget Sound, then explains that he wants to demolish it so he can build a house for the two of them, Anastasia balks. “Why do you want to demolish it?” she asks. “I’d like to make a more sustainable home, using the latest ecological techniques,” he replies. “Using the latest ecological techniques” is just another prescribed lifestyle choice, of course—a matter of image over substance, implying that, in the great march of progress, wrecking and discarding a massive old building is somehow more responsible than working with what’s there.

When it comes to wasted resources, though, nothing is quite as indulgent as real live humans who are at your beck and call around the clock. Maybe this is why hundreds of pages in the Fifty Shades trilogy are dedicated to outlining even the most minor exchanges between this privileged couple and their army of handservants:

“This is a Bolognese sauce. It can be eaten anytime. I’ll freeze it.” She [the cook Mrs. Jones] smiles warmly and turns the heat right down.

Once we’re airborne, Natalia serves us yet more champagne and prepares our wedding feast. And what a feast it is—smoked salmon, followed by roast partridge with a green bean salad and dauphinoise potatoes, all cooked and served by the ever-efficient Natalia.

The waiter has returned with the champagne, which he proceeds to open with an understated flourish.

Sawyer reenters, bearing a paper cup of hot water and a separate tea bag. He knows how I take my tea!

Taylor opens the door and I slide out. He gives me a warm, avuncular smile that makes me feel safe. I smile back.

Like the most loyal and dedicated refugees from Downton Abbey, every one of the series’ cooks and chauffeurs and security guards and assistants demonstrates polite restraint and obedient discretion in Christian and Anastasia’s presence. Every careful movement and gesture, each bland remark and well-timed retreat into the background, evokes the ultimate service-economy fantasy. These interchangeable, faceless humans, whose ubiquity and professionalism we’re meant to marvel over repeatedly, represent luxury possessions. They are warm but impassive, friendly but reserved, omnipresent but invisible. They register no disputes, no grudges, no rolled eyes, no missed days of work. Nothing seems to bring these strange, shadowy figures more satisfaction than serving Lord Grey and his Lady. Like the growing pile of high-end watches and cars and bracelets that the mildly transgressive power couple accumulates, these humans start to melt into an idealized mass of blindly loyal subservience, bestowing upon their masters an oversized sense of power. And in the midst of these deferential encounters, the long-suffering reader of the series finds some bitter and fugitive consolation in recalling that Anastasia’s Russian royal namesake was exiled by the Bolsheviks.

Even though Anastasia is flanked by a cook who stands over her steaming pot like an adoring mother and a security guard who’d happily lay down his life to keep her safe, she soon develops a haughty attitude toward the help. By the second book, she’s independently instructing Christian’s staff on how to fulfill her wishes. By the third, she’s fretting openly about her white-person problems. “I suppose it will be up to me to set the parameters by which Mrs. Jones and I will work together,” she muses, wondering how she’ll carry off the illusion of becoming the ultimate, dreamy wife fixing food for her man when there’s a skilled cook in the kitchen at all times. Although we’re meant to applaud Anastasia’s down-to-earth urges (She still wants to cook! How adorable!), her inevitable devolution into an utterly useless, pampered aristocrat is naturally assumed—indeed, her growing incapacities are arguably the chief source of titillation and suspense in the whole series. Late in the third book, we find Anastasia upbraiding Gia, the female architect redesigning their brand-new house, for making eyes at Christian. Apparently Gia is blissfully unaware that she’s just another faceless possession among many—but Anastasia is there to set her straight: “You’re right to be nervous, Gia, because right now your work on this project hangs in the balance. But I’m sure we’ll be fine as long as you keep your hands off my husband.”

Yes, Ladies, He’s Mine

Of course, Christian and Anastasia encounter each other as the most precious of high-end possessions. “You’re mine,” they tell each other over and over. Like a manicured update to Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, Anastasia imagines a world inhabited primarily by covetous rivals, from Gia (“Her isn’t-he-dreamily-gorgeous-wish-he-were-mine flush does not go unnoticed”), to a friend of Christian’s sister’s, to Christian’s “bitch troll” ex-girlfriend, to two random women in an elevator (“Yes, ladies, he’s mine”). Likewise, Christian panics at Anastasia’s smallest exchanges with her boss and male friends, even the coat-check guy at a club. (“Beside me Christian bristles and fixes Max with a back-off-now glare.”) After punching out a guy who gets grabby with Anastasia on the dance floor, Christian tells Anastasia, “No one touches what’s mine.” In case we can’t grasp that his woman is his most cherished commodity, jealously safeguarded with the mien of a bouncer, he spells it out for us: “You’re so precious to me,” he tells her in Fifty Shades Freed. “Like a priceless asset, like a child.” To Christian, every man alive wants Anastasia. To Anastasia, every woman alive wants Christian. They navigate the world like matching, customized, his-and-her luxury sports cars, outfitted with matching (if, alas, faulty) emotional GPS systems.

The numbing parade of luxe brands—Cartier, Cristal, Omega, iPad, iPod, Audi, Gucci—takes on the same dulled impact as endlessly tweaked nipples and repeatedly bound wrists.

In the real world, such severe possessiveness would create big problems for both parties. But in the fantasy world of Fifty Shades, pathology is recast as its own special kind of indulgence, a way of heightening the sensation of two superior humans looming over the mortal realm like demigods. The slow seduction that culminates in total possession and total power, which the first book sometimes depicts as a dark force to be escaped, is portrayed with accelerating breathlessness and adoration in the second and third volumes. Echoing the lawless privilege of girlie magazines, the so-called control freak within Christian (and subsequently, Anastasia) demonstrates not just that members of the moneyed class are above the law, but that they exist beyond ordinary ethical guidelines too. (This, by the way, is also the moral of the higher-brow forerunner of Fifty Shades: Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho—which is a much more self-aware, if also somewhat numbing, excursus into the nexus between high consumer capitalism and soulless bondage sex, with the significant and oddly more realistic difference that Ellis’s alpha-male protagonist is also a serial killer.)

Having complete and total control over every single aspect of your experience, including everyone around you, is the textbook definition of alienation—precisely how human beings are severed from each other and from their own humanity. Perversely, in Fifty Shades, this radical isolation is portrayed as a moment of transcendence rather than one of debasement. Armed with an apparently limitless will-to-commodification, our narrator recognizes that anything and everything in the world—objects, people, qualities one would like to appear to have—can be bought for a price. And the qualities of each owned thing reflect more glory back on the owner. “Six stallions, say, I can afford, / Is not their strength my property?” offers Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust. “I tear along, a sporting lord, / As if their legs belonged to me.”

Once you arrive at the tippity-top of the heap, you see, it’s only natural that you should have complete freedom to do as you please. There’s no need to apologize for bullying or throwing your weight around or expecting others to conform to your desires for them. You can wreck the house, or redesign it. You can shame the former submissive, or pay for her art school education and thereby keep her forever in your debt. And when there’s trouble, it’s your choice either to call the cops or take matters into your own hands. (Christian, predictably, likes to do the latter.) You are the master of all fates, including your own. You can run rampant over anything or anyone in your path.

Shakespeare captured this spirit of heedless oppression in Julius Caesar, when Brutus says of his friend and rival, “The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.” Anastasia, who’s been showered with priceless goods until she shares her paramour’s reckless sense of entitlement, puts it a little differently: “Maybe I need to be restrained.”


Heather Havrilesky writes Bookforum’s Best Seller List column and The Awl’s weekly existential advice column, Turning The Screw. She’s the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness.

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