I’m sure you’ve all heard of her by now, but for those in the cheap seats here’s a quick recap. Anastasia Steele is the heroine of the Fifty Shades trilogy, a series of books about an innocent young woman who falls in love with a billionaire who likes BDSM. I could go into more detail but that’s pretty much all the plot there is.
The series started out as Twilight fanfiction, but a hop, skip and a quick name change later, Anastasia – or AnaBella, as she’s more widely known – was thrust (heh heh) into the public consciousness. This series was absolutely everywhere and it’s still refusing to die. Fifty Shades of Grey has been credited with bringing erotica into the mainstream, making BDSM cool, revitalising the publishing industry and spicing up millions of marriages. The story was nothing new – ‘innocent young virgin meets broody hottie with dark secret’ is not exactly original – but for some reason this trilogy completely dominated bookshops for a solid three years. And yes, by some reason I mean E.L. James’s pre-exisiting Twilight fan base and lots of explicit sex.
You just couldn’t get away from it – and in fact it’s still pretty tricky to escape it, because E.L. James is rewriting the entire trilogy from her rapey hero’s point of view. You don’t have to go too far to find an article about how Fifty Shades is a new kind of feminism, gave women permission to enjoy sex, and probably did the washing-up on its way out. At the height of the series’ popularity it spawned enough merchandise to sink a ship, and it wasn’t all sex toys – you can still buy Fifty Shades baby clothes, although presumably you’re going to have to wait until you’ve stopped vomiting before you hand over your credit card.
But most of the hype around the series focused on its hero – the dark, brooding sexpot that is Christian Grey. This kind of makes sense – whether you love him or want to set him on fire, you have to admit that Christian is what really draws people into the series. Next to him and his helicopter, Ana tends to fade into the background.
Well, not any more. Anastasia Ridiculous Name Steele is under my microscope because it turns out I’m just as much of a glutton for punishment as she is. Let’s get cracking – and watch out for spoilers!
NOTE: Since I’m talking about Fifty Shades of Grey, this post is likely going to be NSFW. Don’t say I didn’t warn you if your boss starts looking over your shoulder.
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Here’s the thing: when you boil down Fifty Shades of Grey to its most basic components, it’s pretty much rigged against Ana from the start. She meets Christian Grey, who pursues her romantically until they get married. It’s made explicitly clear that he is the one pursuing her, not the other way around. That is not exactly a plotline which will allow a woman to take her destiny into her own hands.
Even when you take her boyfriend out of the equation, she’s still not in control over her own life. The interview she conducts at the beginning of the first book isn’t something she arranged herself – it was set up by a friend, who conveniently got sick and made Ana go instead. At the end of the last book she lies to Christian in an attempt to save his sister – by doing exactly what she’s told when his sister Mia is kidnapped, complying with the kidnappers’ demands instead of calling the police. Ana is set up to be a passive character from the start, and this continues all through the trilogy. This is largely because the Fifty Shades trilogy draws on some pretty old themes from romance novels: namely that the man must do the pursuing, and that the woman must sit around, look attractive, and be pursued.
And this is exactly what happens. Ana is not in control of her own life – Christian is. When she stumbles into his office, she’s so attractive that he shows up at her workplace to see if she’s interested in dating him. Kate gets Ana to organise a photoshoot to go with the interview she conducted, and he insists on taking her out for coffee. She drunk-dials him, so he decides to whisk her off to a hotel room where she can sleep off her drink – by tracing her phone and showing up at the bar.
He’s the one who pushes her into signing the NDA, and tries to get her to sign the contract. He’s the one who insists on taking her virginity before they have any kind of proper arrangement or relationship. He’s the one who introduces Ana to BDSM, as she’s never had any kind of sexual experience before – and yes, that apparently includes using Google. He’s the one who pushes her too far, which leads to her calling it quits – and he pursues her again until she agrees to get back with him. He buys the company she works at after she refuses to work for him, he fires her boss when he starts coming onto Ana, and he’s the one who decides to take their relationship to the next level by proposing. He gets her to stop using her maiden name at work. He tries to stop her from going out for drinks with her friends. She says she needs some space from his intensity and flies across the US to visit her mother; he follows her.
That’s just a bare-bones overview of the things Christian controls. It’s not even mentioning what she eats, how much she drinks and what she wears, but all of it is subject to Christian’s approval. He literally writes it into their sex contract. There’s a scene from their honeymoon where Christian decides he doesn’t want Ana sunbathing topless, so gives her hickeys all over her chest so she’ll be too embarrassed to go through with it. Everything about her life is under his control.
The key argument that fans of the series use to defend this is that Ana apparently agreed to this – but she doesn’t. In their BDSM contract, Christian includes a clause about a Total Power Exchange, or TPE. This is exactly what it sounds like – Ana would agree to do absolutely everything Christian tells her to all the time. This is a reasonably well-known choice that some couples in the BDSM community make. It may seem a bit controlling, but a TPE relationship is based on consent, and would only take place with both partners having a thorough understanding of each other’s limits. According to a quick Google it can be quite a serious arrangement, and something that long-term BDSM couples do as a mark of trust.
But Ana does not consent to this, because she does not sign that contract.
She signs an NDA, which prohibits her from talking about Christian’s extensive collection of sex toys, but she does not sign the contract agreeing to TPE. What’s more, she does not want to sign the contract. She’s uncomfortable with Christian’s insistence that a BDSM relationship is the only thing he is willing to offer her. She tries it, but when she asks him to show her how intense it can get she’s traumatised and realises that it’s not for her. She leaves him over it – but then he wins her back with a few choice gifts and Ana soon finds herself having to – in her own words – “put up with” Christian’s sexual preferences.
Ana wants a traditional, ‘hearts and flowers’ romantic relationship. She wants to have her own career. She wants to decide what she eats, drinks and wears. She doesn’t get to do any of these things. In every single aspect of her life, Christian’s thoughts and wishes take precedence over hers. No matter what she thinks of his decisions, or what she wants for herself, she fundamentally views his opinions and goals as more important than her own.
Her life isn’t hers. It’s his.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
First let’s look at Ana’s hobbies. She’s supposed to be a great reader with a particular fondness for ‘classic’ literature – which really only means the 19th century novels with great romantic heroines in. But we never actually see her read anything that isn’t directly related to the plot, and even those are few and far between. She mentions that her stepfather taught her how to shoot when she was growing up, but this only comes up when it’s relevant to the plot – we don’t see her head down to the gun range on a weekend or anything else that suggests she actually enjoys shooting.
Now, let’s look at her beliefs. She’s clearly pro-gun as she and Christian clash over it, but this belief doesn’t extend to telling Christian to keep the gun in a safe place instead of in his drawer. After this scene it doesn’t really come up again. She has issues with Christian maintaining contact with the woman who sexually abused him as a teenager (Mrs Lincoln) – but weirdly, this is more because she thinks he’ll cheat on her, rather than because she has a moral objection to her boyfriend hanging around with a paedophile. She’s a bit of a literary snob about anything written after the nineteenth century – but this is something that’s told to the reader, rather than shown. Most of Ana’s beliefs seem to come up as and when they’re relevant to the plot, rather than being woven into her character. The upshot of all this is that they don’t really seem realistic.
However, Ana has a few beliefs that the trilogy doesn’t really acknowledge: namely, her weird attitude to other women. She’s constantly judging them based on their looks and how much they try and flirt with Christian. Her internal narration is peppered with snide little comments about how desperate they act and look. Sometimes, this even extends to her friends and Christian’s family. It’s pretty clear that this was intended to illustrate Ana’s insecurities, but it comes off as some serious internalised misogyny – something which the book just doesn’t address.
And now we come to her goals. Before she meets Christian she doesn’t seem to have any. We don’t hear anything about her plans for her life without Christian – no travel, no career, nothing. It’s only when she meets Christian that we start to find out what she actually wants, but in a shocking turn of events that will surprise literally everyone, all her goals revolve around him.
These are at least made a little bit clearer. She wants a more traditionally romantic relationship with Christian, she doesn’t want him to interfere with her career, and she doesn’t want to be subject to Christian’s various restrictions. These are all pretty clearly stated and provide a lot of the conflict in the trilogy, as Christian tends to want the opposite of what Ana wants.
And this is where the problem with Ana’s goals really lies. Christian steamrolls all over them, as I’ve already laid out: he insists that he ‘doesn’t do romance’, he makes her one of his employees when he buys her employer’s company, and he forces her to submit to his restrictions anyway, by tracking her phone and having his bodyguards follow her around. This would be fine from a narrative standpoint if Ana – or at least, the trilogy – acknowledged that this was not acceptable behaviour. But this isn’t what happens. When Christian stomps all over the things Ana wants, she either puts up a token protest and promptly forgets about it, or decides that Christian’s way of doing things is better and what she really wanted all along. This leaves the reader feeling that Ana’s goals don’t really matter to her if they’re brushed aside so easily.
Add all of this up and what do you get? A character who says one thing and does another. A character whose goals, hobbies and beliefs are slapped on them like Post-It notes, and come off just as easily. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
I’ll start this one by talking about Ana’s skills. It should be easy, because she doesn’t have any. We’re told that Ana has been taught how to handle a gun, use tools and to defend herself, but we don’t really see her act like these are parts of her personality. I’ve already talked about her lack of knowledge of gun safety in the section above – for someone who’s been taught to shoot she doesn’t know much about caring for a gun, and doesn’t even have any opinions on it either. We also don’t see her fix anything and we don’t really see her defend herself. That’s mainly because Christian has a bodyguard follow her around everywhere she goes, although we do see her manage to get away from creepy Jack Hyde when he corners her. However, I’m inclined to put this down to luck rather than skill: a huge part of self-defence is about learning to recognise unsafe situations, and Ana doesn’t seem to pick up on this. To be perfectly honest, Ana’s skills only seem to pop up when it’s convenient to the plot.
Let’s move on to Ana’s personality. Like so many other characters I’ve looked at on this blog, Ana has a massive informed personality. Quick recap for those of you that can’t be bothered with the link: an informed personality is where the reader is told that a character is, for example, flirty, cowardly, or bossy – but we never actually see the character do anything flirty, cowardly, or bossy. In Ana’s case we’re told that she’s kind, insecure about her appearance, stubborn, shy, intelligent and innocent.
I think you already know what’s coming.
- Kind: I don’t think so. Ana’s internal monologue is incredibly bitchy, especially when she’s talking about other women. She never does anything nice for her friends without complaining about it and keeps up a running commentary on other people’s looks in her head. Here’s an example: she meets Christian’s grandmother for the first time in Fifty Shades Darker, and when she greets her warmly Ana describes Grandma Grey as being “all over [Ana] like a rash”. Tell me how that’s kind.
- Insecure about her appearance: Eh, not really. At the start of the series you could say that this applies, but even then the nastiest thing she has to say about the way she looks is that her “eyes are too big for [her] face” – not exactly believable for someone who is apparently so insecure that she can’t even fathom that someone could fancy her. As the series goes on, and Christian starts putting her in fancy clothes, this vanishes, and we’re treated to long descriptions of her hair, her outfits, and how gosh-darned pretty she is now that her clothes cost so much more.
- Stubborn: Absolutely not. No way. Ana tries to be stubborn, but then Christian “quirks a brow” at her or whatever and she just crumbles.
- Shy: This is another one where you could just about get away with it. Ana is constantly the centre of attention and she says she hates it. The thing is, she doesn’t hate it enough to actually ask her boyfriend and his family to stop putting her in these positions, or have any trouble speaking to new people, or even to just leave when she finds the attention too overwhelming. She makes a couple of token protests but sometimes she doesn’t even say them out loud – she’ll just think “Jeez, how embarrassing” and will carry on as normal. She doesn’t struggle with interviews, or taking phone calls, or even – in Fifty Shades Darker – being put on a stage and having the right to dance with her auctioned off to a bunch of strangers. For someone who is just soooo shy, being the centre of attention doesn’t seem to bother her.
- Intelligent: She gets good grades but we don’t see her work for them. We see her misinterpret a quote from Tess of the D’Urbervilles and never see her think or discuss the books she claims to love so much. We never see her use any kind of common sense, we rarely see her question things, we hardly ever see her reflect on things – not really the behaviour of an intelligent person.
- Innocent: I’ll be fair. You can actually say that Ana is innocent – but it’s taken to such ridiculous extents that it just isn’t believable. This is a woman who, at the age of twenty-one, refers to her genitals as “down there” for an entire trilogy. This is set in the twenty-first century – so porn is always just a Google away – and Ana is so clueless she doesn’t really know it’s there, and she certainly doesn’t know about BDSM. Ana is supposed to be an average, twenty-first century woman who’s a little on the bookish side, but she’s so innocent she has absolutely no idea what to do with her own body. It’s not because of any religious convictions or any personal choice, either – it’s just so that Christian can be her first in every possible way. Once that bridge is crossed, all of these inhibitions disappear – she doesn’t have to work through anything psychologically after denying sex exists for twenty-one years of her life. Taken to these limits, it’s ridiculous.
What we do see of Ana’s personality is pretty much the opposite of the list above – she’s innocent, yes, but she’s also unkind to the point of cruelty, has little to no backbone and seems to care way more about the way things look than the way things are. But there’s one other element of her personality I haven’t discussed: the compartmentalization of various bits of her mind into her ‘inner goddess’ and her ‘subconscious’.
These are stupid and annoying. Ana’s ‘inner goddess’ is supposed to be the representation of all her suppressed desires, but is basically just a hyperactive idiot with too many props. Ana’s ‘subconscious’ is basically the personification of Marge Simpson making this noise:
The ‘subconscious’ and the ‘inner goddess’ provide a constant commentary on everything Ana does. They’re essentially the angel and the demon on her shoulder – the ‘inner goddess’ eggs her on, the ‘subconscious’ tells her to save our sanity and pack it in. If handled properly this could be really interesting – a good writer could talk about how Ana uses these to distance herself from her own feelings of guilt or desire, for example – but this is mostly played for laughs. To be perfectly honest they undermine Ana’s reaction to stuff – their reactions are so stereotypical and twee that it’s much easier to roll your eyes at them than to think about what Ana’s actually going through. They add nothing of value whatsoever and I want to punch them off the face of the earth.
So what does this all add up to? An inconsistent, flaky character who says one thing and does another. This is never acknowledged – not by the characters or by the narration. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
It should. Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fanfiction. It was picked up by a publishing house after E.L. James changed the names and self-published, and was apparently edited in the process. I don’t believe this. Jane Little of Dear Author ran the original fanfic and the text of the books through plagiarism software and there was an 89% similarity – it’s highly unlikely that any substantial changes were made with a rate that high.
Ultimately, I think this is why Ana’s characterization is so poor. She started out as fanfic of another character – one that E.L. James’s original readers were already very familiar with. There was already an established bank of material for her to draw on and Bella’s personality was already set up (but don’t worry, there’s a whole other post on that trainwreck). E.L. James didn’t need to establish Ana’s personality because she already had one: Bella’s. When you take that support away and make her an original character it becomes clear that she can’t stand up on her own. What’s left behind is insubstantial – it depends on our already knowing a character we’re supposed to be meeting for the first time.
That’s never going to work.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
You really can’t describe Ana without referencing her love life because that’s all her story is. If you take Christian Grey out of the story there’s absolutely nothing left to it. Neither her story arc nor her development as a character can be separated from her love life, so there’s absolutely no way she’ll pass this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Fifty Shades is ostensibly a love story, so it’s a given that most of the plot is going to revolve around Ana’s love life. You might think that the deck is somewhat stacked against her here, but that doesn’t have to be the case. As I’ve shown in other blog posts, good love stories are perfectly capable of having well-developed female leads – the key thing is to make sure that sitting around obsessing over Mr Right isn’t the only thing our heroine does.
Unfortunately, that is the only thing Ana does.
All of Ana’s decisions are motivated by her feelings for Christian. When she decides to call him, or flirt with him, or spend the night with him, she’s doing it because she wants a relationship with him. When she’s pushing for him to open up about his past, to let her meet his family, or to do more traditionally ‘romantic’ things with her, it’s because she wants to have a more conventional relationship with him. When she agrees to some of his demands in the bedroom, even though she’s not really comfortable with some of them, she does it because she doesn’t want to lose him. She doesn’t do these things because she’s realised that she wants to explore her own sexuality; she’d rather explore his.
Even the decisions she makes to show what a Strong Independent Woman™ she is are actually motivated by Christian. She decides to visit her mother in Georgia not because she wants to see her, but because she wants time away to think about Christian. She decides to work in publishing not because she really wants to, but because she doesn’t want to work for Christian. When his sister Mia is kidnapped, she decides to go along with their demands because she wants to protect Christian and his family.
Whatever she decides to do, Christian is what motivates her to make that decision. Even her choice of food and clothing ends up being influenced by him. He’s such a pervasive presence in her life that he influences literally everything she does. She ends up dressing the way he wants, working for him like he wants, and doing all the freaky bedroom things that he wants.
This is really where Fifty Shades starts to veer off the path of a standard trashy romance novel and into some really dark, messy stuff. I’m not talking about the fact that Christian Grey is into some pretty kinky things – as long as it’s between consenting adults I don’t really care what they get up to. Frankly, he could be super into dressing up like a unicorn and getting Ana to tell him he’s been a naughty little pony and I still couldn’t care less.
But here’s the thing. Ana doesn’t actually get to make many decisions of her own, and when you bring that into the bedroom that’s when it crosses the line. I’ve already talked about how Christian ends up making all of Ana’s decisions for her in the first question, and all of that definitely still applies in my answer to this one. Ana is constantly being pushed into things she doesn’t want to do because Christian makes the decisions for her – and that happens in the bedroom, too.
I’ll talk about this in more detail later on, so get ready for question nine. But for now I’ll say this: Ana’s love life undercuts every single decision she makes – it’s the focus of her entire being. But most of the time, her decisions are made for her by her terrible, awful boyfriend – and that’s a whole other can of worms just waiting to be opened.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Characters that change as a result their experiences are one of the hallmarks of a good story – it shows that they’re not static, and much more like real people. Obviously, some characters go through a lot more than others. You might think that Ana’s story – which is essentially about finding true love with a guy who’s rich enough to stop you from worrying about anything, ever – doesn’t really have enough happening in it to allow her to learn or grow. This is something that’s often used to criticise romance novels, as it’s easy to assume that the emotional side of stuff doesn’t have the same kind of impact.
So let’s look at what Ana goes through in the Fifty Shades trilogy. She meets and falls in love with a reclusive billionaire, graduates, has her first ever sexual experience, is showered with a bunch of gifts, has a bunch of pretty intense BDSM sex that she’s not completely on board with, finds out her boyfriend was sexually abused, is overwhelmed by a spanking session and breaks up with Christian. In the second book she gets back with Christian, gets a job where she’s sexually harassed by her boss, meets her boyfriend’s childhood abuser, is stalked by one of Christian’s exes who threatens her with a gun, is blackmailed by her creepy boss who wants her to sleep with him, thinks her boyfriend has died in a helicopter crash for eight hours, and gets engaged. In the third book, she marries Christian and goes on honeymoon, finds out her boss is stalking them, almost gets kidnapped, her stepfather almost dies, she gets pregnant and Christian storms off, saves her sister-in-law when she’s kidnapped by Ana’s former boss, goes into a coma, then wakes up and resolves the baby argument with Christian.
All of this happens over the space of about four months.
That’s a hell of a lot of stuff to go through – you could write a book about any one of those things. Ana’s life drastically changes over an incredibly short amount of time. She goes from poor college student to the wife of the richest man ever, which is a huge change in circumstances – that alone would be enough to make her change as a result of her experiences. Then, add in the intense BDSM stuff that she’s not completely on board with, the creepy boss, the kidnap attempts, and her boyfriend and stepfather’s brushes with death, and it becomes clear that she has a lot on her probably golden plate.
So how does this affect her?
She doesn’t change as a result of her experiences at all. She’s exactly the same person at the end of the series as she is at the beginning. She reacts in the same ways, she has the same problems, she shares the same opinions. It’s as if all this stuff has just bounced off her.
This is particularly awkward for the sexual side of her story. This is really what draws the fans in, and it’s an important part of her relationship with Christian. He’s supposed to be her sexual awakening, introducing her to all sorts of stuff that she never even dreamt of, and make her aware of her own sexual desires, power and appeal. She starts the story as an aggressively innocent virgin with no idea about sex at all – and she remains that way.
Obviously, Christian sorts out the virginity business pretty quickly, but even though Ana is supposed to become aware of herself and her sexual desires through their relationship, she still comes across as just as naïve as she was when they met. All through the novel she doesn’t even refer to her own genitals by name – she just says ‘down there’, even when they’re in the middle of sexy times. She’s so utterly embarrassed about sex that she can’t even call a spade a vagina spade – even after they marry and have a child together.
The upshot of all this is that Ana seems so painfully naïve that you have to wonder if Christian has really been her sexual awakening. She never articulates what she wants, or suggests that they try new things, and rarely comes on to him at all. She’s always the shy, retiring virgin, he’s always the dominant man who seduces her, and given the massive power imbalance in their relationship I sometimes wonder if she really wants any of his attentions. You’d think that if Christian was as good if he says he is, Ana would be a lot more enthusiastic.
All in all, she’s an unresponsive character. She goes through a lot in a short amount of time and it doesn’t really make her change or grow as a person – and personal drama (whether that’s an intense relationship, a change in circumstances, or a kidnap attempt) always does. Nothing she goes through seems to have any real impact on her, including her relationship with Christian, so you have to wonder if it really means as much as she says it does. This is a fatal flaw for any romance story, because if you can’t believe the characters’ feelings for each other, the whole thing falls apart.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she have a weakness?
Ana doesn’t really have a weakness, and she certainly doesn’t have one that actually causes problems for her. She’s supposed to be very shy and insecure – but as I discussed in question two, when you look at her actions and opinions in greater detail, it’s difficult to actually find any shy or insecure behaviour that she displays. As I said in my post about Bella Swan, I’m not going to count clumsiness as a weakness. It’s not a personality trait; most experts agree it’s the result of poor co-ordination.
Of course, Ana does have downsides to her personality – the trouble is that the rest of the characters are completely oblivious to them. She’s incredibly superficial: if you really look at the things she says about Christian, it becomes clear her attraction to him is based on his looks and his wealth. This is also reflected in the things she buys, and the details she picks up on – she never gushes over older things which might be more valuable; she goes for flashy, shiny things that aren’t so much good as new. She’s also incredibly spiteful – I still haven’t forgotten the rash comment she made about her boyfriend’s grandma – and spends most of her time complaining.
If these flaws were actually acknowledged in the text then Fifty Shades would be a better series. If Ana’s behaviour had consequences, she might actually develop, and then she might have scored points in the last round, too. But the trouble is that nobody else seems to even notice that this is how she behaves. The rest of the characters don’t treat her as though she is being superficial or spiteful; they treat her as though she is shy and insecure. As I discussed in question two, I don’t think she’s either.
Even if you disagree with my opinion of Ana’s personality, and think that she does exhibit shyness and insecurity, there’s no getting away from the fact that they don’t actually hold her back. Her supposed shyness and insecurity don’t actually stop her from finding happiness. She doesn’t refuse to appear in front of crowds, she doesn’t wind up damaging her relationships because she wants to avoid being the centre of attention, and she doesn’t embarrass herself or panic in a way that alienates other people. Her insecurity about her looks doesn’t lead her to refuse nice clothes because she feels she doesn’t deserve them, it doesn’t make her nasty to her friends (out loud), and although she is suspicious of other women she never turns that suspicion toward Christian.
If anything, her supposed shyness and insecurity actually make her life better. Her blushing, demure behaviour is something that Christian finds incredibly attractive – he sees her as ‘naturally submissive’ because of this, and it makes him want her more. Her shyness doesn’t stop him from pursuing her, and it doesn’t stop her from asking for the things she wants.
This is a hallmark of that dreaded beast – the Mary Sue.
Shyness, insecurity and naïveté are one of the first things writers will use to try and justify a Mary Sue character. It usually manifests itself like this: we’ll be told that the character is innocent, shy and naïve, but everyone treats it as part of the character’s charm, or a sign of their inherent ‘goodness’. This is especially prevalent in female Mary Sues, as it’s often used as a way to keep the character pure and virginal before she meets her ~*Twu Wuv*~ and rides off into the sunset.
Ana is a classic example of this. Her supposed shyness and insecurity is appealing to pretty much everyone she meets. She has no idea just how beautiful she really is – which is a trope that makes me want to throw up – but of course she would never even dream of so much as kissing a boy because gosh, who could ever want plain ol’ Ana? What we’re supposed to take from this isn’t that Ana struggles with shyness and insecurity: it’s that she’s modest, demure, and virginal – just as every proper, pure heroine should be.
This is something that romance fiction is notorious for. It’s a way of making the story easier. In making the heroine so shy that she’s barely spoken to a man before the story starts, you kill two birds with one stone. You get to tap into all the appeal of first love, and you also get to sweep aside any complicated stuff you might have to deal with when you have to reconcile any past relationships with the idea of true love. This sounds pretty old-fashioned, but it’s very much a feature of romance fiction: some people are just uncomfortable with the idea of heroines having relationships with people who aren’t the hero. Of course, this doesn’t really ring true for the hero – sleeping with a bunch of people tends to be a mark of the ‘alpha male’, which is still a pretty big draw in romance fiction – but that’s gender bias for you.
This is exactly what’s going on in Fifty Shades. It’s essentially an old-fashioned Mills & Boon novel with much more sex in it, and Ana’s lack of flaws ties directly into that. She isn’t a properly fleshed-out character in her own right, with flaws and weaknesses she has to work against. She’s a blank canvas – and any flaw would spoil people’s ability to project themselves onto her.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
This question kind of links back to question one, so apologies if I sound a bit repetitive here. We’ve already established that Ana is a character who barely does anything for herself. Much of the plot of the series is driven forward by things outside her control – whether that’s Kate getting sick and asking her to interview Christian, or Christian stalking her up and down the country.
We’ve already seen that Ana’s decisions don’t have an impact, because Christian is the one who’s calling the shots. That still applies here. When she does decide to do things for herself, it’s always in the context of her relationship with Christian – whether she’s trying to please him or trying to get away from him. What’s more, it’s not Ana’s actions that actually generate the tension that drives the (for want of a better word) plot forward – it’s Christian’s reactions to what she’s done. For example, when she gets herself a job working for someone else, Christian buys the company, thereby giving them something to argue about. She doesn’t find herself with more demands on her time, or meet a new group of people who make assumptions about her relationship, or start to get a different set of priorities from Christian’s. These aren’t what generates enough conflict to move the story forward – it’s Christian’s reactions, Christian’s opinions, and Christian’s actions. Essentially, what this is telling the reader is that Ana’s actions don’t really matter – the most important thing is what Christian thinks of them.
No matter how much you try and avoid talking about Christian Grey, he keeps coming back, like a really stubborn rash. This is exactly what happens with Ana’s decisions and actions. They don’t have an effect on the plot, but Christian’s response to them does.
But when you put all that aside, does she have an influence on the plot? To a certain extent, yes – but it’s certainly not because of her actions. Ana is another one of those characters who can influence the plot just by being in it. It’s like that old joke about sopranos screwing in a light bulb – she just has to stand still and the world revolves around her. I’ve talked about these characters before, and usually, they’re in this position either because of the circumstances they were born into – such as being royalty in a dangerous kingdom, or the last surviving heir to a bunch of money – or because they are ~*destined*~ for something really special, which is usually saving the world.
In Ana’s case, it’s because she’s hot.
I’m not joking. A good proportion of the plot is the result of Ana being just soooo attractive that she drives men to create enough dramatic tension to pad out a trilogy. This is what drives Christian to pursue her in the first place, and all throughout the novel. It’s what drives her friend José to put the moves on her when she’s drunk enough for Christian to justify ‘rescuing’ her. It’s what drives her boss to start sexually harassing her at work – and if that sounds like victim-blaming, it’s because it is. It’s made explicitly clear that her boss only hired her because he thought she was hot and fancied his chances – and the really worrying thing is that after Ana escapes from him, Christian gets angry at her for having the temerity to be attractive in the workplace.
This is really the only influence Ana has. Her actions and decisions are overruled at every turn. Her experiences don’t make up the plot – it’s Christian’s response to those experiences, or just the experiences he allows her to have. That’s nowhere near enough to let her pass this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
OK, here we go.
Fans of Fifty Shades tend to jump straight to the Bella Swan defence when discussing whether their heroine is feminist or a massive step backwards for all women ever. I’ll recap it quickly here: the crux of the argument is that if feminism is all about a woman’s right to choose what she wants from her life, it is therefore feminist if she chooses to follow a very traditional path. I agree with this.
But the thing is, Ana doesn’t get to choose this for herself.
I’ve already gone into some detail about how Christian is the one who really makes Ana’s life choices for her. He ends up telling her how to act, how to dress, and even what to call herself, because at first she doesn’t want to use her married name at work. Christian listens to all of these objections, acknowledges them – and then ignores them in favour of forcing Ana to do what he wants. Then, after they’ve had a token argument, Ana accepts all of the changes Christian made her make, never brings them up again, and is actually happier for it. This isn’t Ana choosing her own path. This is Christian putting Ana on a path that he deems better than the one she chose – and the worst part is, she ends up agreeing with him.
This is passed off as a part of Christian’s ‘dominant’ personality. Let’s put aside the fact that he clearly can’t leave the sexy stuff in the bedroom for one goddamn minute and look at the implications. Ana wants to do something, Christian makes her do something else, and Ana agrees that gee, Christian was right all along!
Sound familiar? It should. It’s the 1950s.
This interaction – which is repeated all throughout the series like variations on a theme – is the distilled version of every single argument they have. Ana caves to Christian on pretty much every single topic. The things she wants are undermined at every turn. She has nothing for herself. What Christian has, and what Christian wants, are much more important – not just to her, but to the series as a wider whole. Christian knows best.
This is the kind of nonsense that has kept women in the kitchen for decades. Christian gets vindicated at every turn. He’s the expert on everything – from wine, to cars, to sex – and this includes Ana herself. He knows what’s best for her, even if she doesn’t. Why should Ana worry her pretty little head about anything, when Christian can sort it all out for her?
This is just one example of the way that some of the most backwards gender stereotypes you can think of influence Ana’s character. Here’s some more:
- As I discussed in the last question, Ana’s only real ability to influence the plot is through her looks. Her ability to appeal to men is the only way she gets to have any control over her life. Women have been reduced to being ‘just a pretty face’ for centuries, and that’s what happening here.
- Let me refresh your memory of question five. Ana’s love life influences every single decision she makes. She’s nothing without it. For something that’s supposed to be feminist, this sure does reinforce the stereotype that all women really want is a man.
- Look at her personality. She’s the stereotypically good, pure, innocent virgin, who’s never even thought about a man until she met her One True Love™ – because girls who date men they aren’t going to marry are just throwing away their virtue! Oh, someone fetch my smelling salts while I reinforce the idea that an intact hymen is the only part of a woman that actually matters!
I could go on, but I’ve got a lot of ground to cover and I’d probably cry. Let’s just agree that Ana is nowhere near as feminist as she’s held up to be. However, we should also acknowledge that ‘not very feminist’ is not the same thing as ‘the absolute worst thing ever, why haven’t you set this on fire yet’. Romance novels often get it in the neck as far as gender roles are concerned, as they do tend to use some pretty old-fashioned tropes, but that doesn’t always mean that they’re actively damaging.
But that’s not the case with Fifty Shades.
It’s time to acknowledge the leather-clad elephant in the room: BDSM. Ana and Christian’s kinky sex life is a massive part of the series, and quite probably the reason why so many people picked up the books in the first place. When it was first published, people were quick to hail the series as the bastion of a new and sexy wave of feminism, where women just like Ana were free to explore their inner freakiness with all the billionaires they could find.
On the surface, you might think there’d be something to this. BDSM has been stigmatised for a very long time. It still occupies a weird legal grey area (heh heh) in many countries around the world. In fiction, it’s often been used as shorthand to indicate how kinky and evil the villain is, although in recent years this has started to fade out. The interplay between sex and violence understandably makes people pretty uncomfortable, and even today it’s still seen as slightly sinister – just think of how many times you’ve seen a villain get a little too into a fight scene. So, to show a quite clearly ‘good’ character in a BDSM relationship is, in some ways, a step forwards.
Or it would be, if it wasn’t for Christian Grey.
Remember how I’ve been harping on about how Christian stomps all over Ana’s boundaries? Well, he doesn’t just do that with clothes, or food, or jobs – he does it sexually, too. I’m going to have to talk about things in pretty explicit detail here, so if you don’t want to read about this then skip ahead to the picture of Tom Hiddleston blowing a kiss.
Christian is constantly pushing Ana’s boundaries in the bedroom. He insists that she sign a non-disclosure agreement which forbids her from talking about any of the stuff he’s into. What this means in practice is that a very inexperienced, naïve young woman can’t talk to her friends or family about what a much more powerful man is trying to get her to do. When they’re discussing the submissive contract (which, by the way, is not legally binding), Ana says she doesn’t want to do anything involving physical punishment or anal sex – but Christian refuses to take those off the contract because that’s what he wants to do. Later in the book he does end up physically punishing her, despite the fact that a) she didn’t even sign the contract and b) he knows that she didn’t want to be punished in the first place.
This is not acceptable behaviour for any kind of relationship. It’s certainly not acceptable behaviour for a BDSM relationship, despite the power exchange involved. A few minutes’ research (which I definitely wouldn’t recommend doing at work) will show you that just like any other relationship, Dom/sub partnerships are supposed to be based on mutual trust, respect and consent. What separates BDSM from abuse is that the submissive partner enjoys all this, and actively consents to it. If the dominant partner does something that the submissive doesn’t enjoy, or tries to coerce the submissive into doing something they don’t want to do, that counts as abuse.
And that’s what Christian is doing here.
Ana explicitly says that she does not want to do half the things that Christian wants her to do. She makes it clear she wants a more traditional relationship, with a more traditional sex life. She constantly worries about not being able to give him ‘what he needs’ – i.e. someone who actively wants to be in a BDSM relationship.
But she lets him do it anyway.
Look at the way Ana talks about the kinky sex with Christian. These quotes are all taken from a spanking scene in Chapter Sixteen, which Ana is supposed to be enjoying. When he spanks her she describes herself as “afraid”. She describes it as a “merciless assault”. She tries to “wriggle away from the blows”. She says she wants to “beg him to stop”. This is what she says when he’s preparing to spank her:
“Oh, how demeaning is this, demeaning and scary… My heart is in my mouth. I can barely breathe. … is this going to hurt?”
Does that sound like someone enjoying herself to you? Does it sound like someone who’s excited about trying something new? Does it sound like someone who wants to be there? No – it sounds like someone who’s afraid. And not just afraid of the pain, but of her partner too. She genuinely does not feel like she can use her safe word, stop the scene and tell Christian that she’s not enjoying this.
This is exactly where Fifty Shades gets BDSM completely wrong. Ana feels like she has to do what Christian wants. She thinks that she must endure all the kinky stuff he wants to do with her if she wants a relationship with him. It hurts her, it frightens her and she doesn’t want to do it.
The worst part is, Christian knows all this, and he carries on anyway.
In the spanking scene I described above, Ana tries to get away. She’s sprawled across Christian’s lap, so there’s no way he couldn’t notice this. But he carries on spanking her anyway. A responsible Dom (especially one with an inexperienced partner) would stop at the sight of this, because it’s quite clearly a sign that the sub doesn’t want to be there and isn’t enjoying themselves. But Christian doesn’t do this. He can see that Ana is actively trying to get away from him while he’s hitting her, and he keeps on doing it.
This is abuse.
The whole trilogy is full of moments like this. Ana outright says that Christian uses sex as a weapon, and this is actually a really accurate description of his behaviour. When she does something he doesn’t like, he uses sex to punish her. In Fifty Shades of Grey she ‘jokingly’ breaks things off with him – so he shows up at her house, unannounced, and tells her that he’s going to have sex with her. After she’s just told him that it was ‘nice knowing him’. He then pins her down on the bed and starts undressing her, and when he tries taking off her shoes she kicks at him and tells him no. He doesn’t stop. She tells him that she sent him the break-up email as a joke. He asks her if she’s laughing now, spanks her, and has sex with her – all without stopping to ask if this is what she actually wants.
This is rape.
In any other series this would be the behaviour of someone we’re meant to despise. But in Fifty Shades this is the behaviour of our romantic hero. This is someone who we’re supposed to want for ourselves. This is a relationship we’re supposed to idealise – and it’s a relationship where the hero can rape the heroine and she’ll end up enjoying it. Fans of the series often say that this scene doesn’t count as rape because Ana wanted it, but that doesn’t excuse Christian’s actions. He still came to her apartment – broke in, actually, because her roommate says later that she thought Ana had let him in when she didn’t – thinking that she’d broken things off with him and intending to punish her for it. He doesn’t know if Ana wants it because he doesn’t ask – and frankly, he doesn’t care. He never stops to ask her if she meant what she said. He never asks her if this is what she wants. He doesn’t get her consent. Instead, he pins her down so she can’t escape, gets her naked and vulnerable and forces her to take back what she said.
THIS MAN IS A PSYCHOPATH.
And this isn’t the only time something like this happens in the series. Christian spanks Ana so hard it leaves her in tears – and while she does ask him to show her how ‘intense’ his relationships can get, he straight-up tells her that he’s doing it because she ran off from him when they were playing around in the kitchen. This is the exact opposite of how BDSM is supposed to work – a Dom isn’t supposed to actually take out real anger on a sub, and especially not for things that happen outside the bedroom. But Christian isn’t a Dom, he’s an abuser. He gets angry at her for using safe words, when they’re there to make sure she doesn’t get hurt. When she tells him she doesn’t want to have sex, he tells her not to ‘overthink this’, and has sex with her anyway.
AND THAT’S NOT EVEN HALF OF THE STUFF HE DOES.
Let’s take the bedroom stuff out of the equation and look at his behaviour without it. He finds out where she works and where she lives, and shows up there uninvited. He tracks her phone. He follows her halfway across the country after she explicitly tells him she needs some time away from him. When she leaves him, he showers her with gives and turns up at an event he knows she’ll be at, so she can’t ignore him. He forbids her from seeing her friends because he thinks it’s too dangerous. He frequently gets angry enough to scare her. He distrusts all of Ana’s friends. He sells her stuff without permission and doesn’t give her the money until it’s convenient for him. He refuses to listen to Ana when she tells him she doesn’t want him to do something, blames her for stuff that isn’t her fault, and does stuff he knows she’ll hate as a way of punishing her – like going out drinking with the woman who abused him as a child.
There’s no way that Ana could ever pass this round while Fifty Shades portrays this dumpster fire of a relationship as a positive thing. This is not romance. This is the textbook definition of an abuser. This isn’t BDSM either; Christian quite clearly doesn’t care whether Ana is enjoying herself or not. This is a man who wants to hit women, who uses his wealth, power and sexual appeal to get away with it. And this is held up as a modern fairy tale, the type of relationship we should all aspire to, and a modern, feminist romance.
This is a lie. In real life, relationships like this don’t end happily ever after. They end in bruises, blood and broken bones – if you’re lucky enough to survive them.
Some women aren’t that lucky.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Even a casual flick through the Fifty Shades trilogy will show you that most of Ana’s interactions with other women are largely the same. She’s often jealous, keeps up a catty internal monologue, and lives in a state of constant terror that one of them will try and ‘steal her man’. The result of all this is that she doesn’t really have relationships with these women, even though there are plenty of other female characters in the trilogy. Ana doesn’t see these women as individual people, but as cardboard cut-outs with boobs who might turn Christian’s head – because, y’know, boobs.
The series has quite a few female characters, but when they’re all painted with the same brush you can’t really distinguish between the different relationships. This is particularly evident in Ana’s relationships with background characters. Instead of just buying a dress, or accepting a meal from a waitress, Ana can easily spend a whole paragraph complaining about how the sales girl is wearing too much lip gloss, or about how the waitress is pouting at Christian. She doesn’t even bother to learn these women’s names – although we know she knows what their names are, she gives them disparaging little nicknames, like ‘Ms. Lip Gloss’, or ‘Little Miss European Pigtails’.
These kinds of comments are spread all through the book, and no female character is immune. In some cases, this is a bit more understandable – such as when Ana’s interacting with the woman who abused Christian as a child, Mrs Lincoln. Christian doesn’t see Mrs Lincoln as an abuser, as he was a teenager when it happened, and keeps going to see her for advice. Often, her advice isn’t good, and he goes to see her when Ana and Christian are going through a rough patch. It’s completely understandable that Ana wouldn’t like her and would see her as a threat – particularly after she tells Christian that she considers Mrs Lincoln a child molester and doesn’t want him to see her any more.
But the thing is, this doesn’t just happen with characters like Mrs Lincoln – it happens with all of them. When Christian first meets Ana’s mother, Carla, Ana spends their interaction scowling, complaining that her mother is staring at him, and says that her mother’s “lower jaw practically hits the table” at the mere sight of him. At her graduation, when Kate is giving a speech, all Ana can think about is that it could’ve been Kate who interviewed Christian. Kate and Christian don’t like each other for most of the series, but that doesn’t stop Ana from spending a good paragraph thinking about “beautiful Kate and beautiful Christian, together” – a relationship that doesn’t exist. This is taken to ridiculous extents when Ana confronts the architect who’s working on her and Christian’s new house. All this poor woman has done is touch Christian’s arm and look at him a couple of times, but apparently that’s enough for Ana to take her aside and threaten to have her fired.
This is pretty unstable behaviour by anybody’s standards. It’s made very clear that Ana sees every other woman in the world through the same prism: as someone who might steal Christian away from her. It doesn’t matter if they’re a stranger, or her best friend, or her own mother – they’re all attracted to Christian, and therefore she can’t trust any of them. This severely undermines any kind of relationship with another female character by making them all the same. It also reinforces some of the tired old gender stereotypes I talked about last question – namely the ideas that a man is all a woman really wants, and that women can’t really have real friendships because they’re all competing for male attention. With this kind of mindset running through all Ana’s relationships, it’s hard to take her seriously when she says she likes another female character. For example, she’ll tell the reader that she adores her best friend, Kate, but the things she does – like complain about Kate getting sick, borrowing her stuff and not giving it back, living rent-free off her parents’ generosity and constantly making disparaging comments about Kate’s hook-ups and appearance – don’t exactly reinforce their friendship.
But there’s another side of the coin I haven’t talked about yet. When you look at Ana’s interactions with other women, it’s clear that looks are what she’s focussing on. When she’s making these disparaging comments against other women, it’s often right next to a description of their figures, or their outfits, or their make-up, or the way they’re flirting. These are the things Ana notices, and these are the things that she hates about other women: the things that make up their sexual appeal.
I don’t think that Ana is quite as straight as she thinks she is.
Think about it. When she meets Mia, Christian’s sister, for the first time it’s her looks that she focuses on – describing her as “curvaceous” and “raven-haired” – and all her hugging, hand-holding and kissing on the cheek. When she’s being spiteful about Gia, the architect, she still stops to talk about how “well-groomed” she is, and even makes a point of dressing all sexy before Gia’s appointment. Ana spends half the series talking about how beautiful Kate is, describing her as “gorgeous” and “gamine” even while she’s complaining about her. You have to wonder if Ana’s running commentary against other women isn’t because she’s suppressing her own sexuality. It isn’t completely unheard of for people struggling with homosexual desires to channel them into homophobia, and perhaps that’s what’s happening here.
However, I’ll be the first to admit that’s all speculation on my part. It certainly isn’t acknowledged in the text – despite Ana being introduced to a whole new world of kink, the idea of a same-sex relationship never crosses her mind. But that is in itself the problem with all Ana’s relationships in Fifty Shades – they’re so inconsistent that it’s near-impossible to define any of them. Furthermore, they’re constantly undercut by the same litany of spiteful comments, so much so that they all start to blur into one. Ana may interact with many different female characters, but she treats them all in exactly the same way – with contempt, whether it’s her boyfriend’s former abuser, her best friend/possible crush, or her own mother. It’s impossible for her to pass this round when her relationships are all cast in the same mould – she may as well interact with only one other female character, ‘Potential Boyfriend Thief’.
FINAL SCORE: 0/10
Thank God that’s over. In a completely shocking turn of events, Anastasia Steele has completely failed my test.
It’s easy to see why. Ana isn’t really a proper character. She’s a blank space for the reader to step into. The vague attempts at a personality she exhibits are quite clearly picked at random from the Generic Female Character catalogue and draw on the worst kind of stereotypes. She has no value outside her role as ‘interestingly pale romantic heroine’, and doesn’t do anything that would put her outside this box. Frankly, she’s the most lazily-written character I’ve ever come across – and that’s including Bella Swan.
That is really the heart of all her problems as a character. As I’ve said before, Bella Swan was not the most well-written character – in fact, she’s the only other character I’ve looked at to completely fail my test. When you start with a character that’s already shaky and don’t put much effort into changing it, you’re never going to end up with something better. That’s exactly what’s happened here. Ana is essentially an even lazier version of Bella – which makes her so insubstantial that she may as well just blow away on the wind. They’re so similar that when I was writing this, I actually found myself typing Bella instead of Ana more times than I can count.
As you’d expect, Ana suffers from a lot of the same problems Bella does. She’s so inconsistent that she’s impossible to pin down. She’s passive and co-dependent to a dangerous extreme. She has a terrible, awful boyfriend who I would quite happily push off a cliff. All of these things have been dialled up to eleven because of Fifty Shades’ laser focus on Ana and Christian’s relationship. As much as I dislike Twilight, there was more to it that Edward and Bella mooning over each other. There was all the stuff with Jacob, the Volturi, and Bella’s introduction to the world of the supernatural – it was poorly done, but it was there. E.L. James cut all that so that Ana and Christian could focus on what’s really important: themselves. No wonder Ana doesn’t have anything in her life but Christian – it’s all been removed in favour of talking about Christian’s pants “hanging off his hips in that way”.
But Ana adds a whole other layer of depressingly awful nonsense that’s all her own, and that’s largely thanks to E.L. James’s hatchet job on BDSM relationships. For me, this is really where Twilight and Fifty Shades start to diverge. You could wave away some of the difficulties in Twilight by pointing to the power imbalance between a supernatural being and a human. You can’t do that in Fifty Shades. All you have is a rich man exploiting his power and wealth over a naïve young woman – and that’s a real-life story of abuse that is still playing out today.
Twilight made me angry. Fifty Shades just makes me sad. It’s an inside look at an abusive relationship that’s been packaged up as romance. No matter how much I dislike Ana as a character – and it’s a lot – I pity her. She tries to keep up with her controlling boyfriend, but can’t. She tries to have a life of her own, but can’t. She tries to stand up for the things she wants, but she’s ignored, and she soon finds it’s easier not to want those things at all than try and get them past her boyfriend. Reading about a relationship where a young woman is beaten and raped and told it’s BDSM is something that I can’t do without feeling incredibly sad.
And on that incredibly depressing note, I draw this post to a close. And not just this post; this is actually going to be the last entry in the Strong Female Characters series. Don’t worry, it’s not that Fifty Shades has broken me. I’ve been struggling to keep up this series alongside a full-time job and everything else I want to do for a long time now. The one hundredth post seems like a good place to bring things to an end.
So what’s next for Jo Writes Stuff? I don’t know. I guess I’ll write stuff. I might do a post or two to round off the series, but they won’t be looking at individual characters and they definitely won’t be until the New Year at the earliest. I’m thinking about experimenting with a new series, but that’ll be something for 2017, and I haven’t really narrowed it down yet.
All that remains for me to say is Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and thanks for all the fish.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.