So, first off, the very tongue-in-cheek acknowledgements (“For Niall, the master of my universe”) irk me. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t. It’s just a phrase, overused and hyperbolic, I know. Buuut, she’s writing a book about kink. Specifically, about power dynamics and Dom/sub relationships. That means the word “Master,” joke or not, carries more weight. It means something that she doesn’t mean. And, for a writer, that is the highest crime. Not a great way to kick start your novel.
Now to the actual story. Let’s set aside that the names all sound like they come out of a bad ‘80s soap opera (Kate Kavanagh, Anastasia Steele, Christian Grey, etc.) and the hokey expressions like "monkey's uncle," which turns the novel into an instant and automatic cheese factory, I hate that James starts the novel with Ana’s inadequacies. It starts the story and its main character off in the weakest sense possible. From her fighting with her frizzy hair to her doormat personality, it makes it hard to like Ana from the get-go. I get wanting to start characters off in a position to grow, but she sounds pathetic and whiny and, well, weak.
I get that Ana is doing something nice for her sick friend, by agreeing to substitute in for the interview with Grey, but James doesn’t make it sound like she’s doing a nice thing. Ana doesn’t do it out of the goodness of her heart, she does it because she’s too passive of a person to tell her friend that she’s got her own shit to do—like study for her own finals—and then resents her friend for the fact that she can’t say no.
Add into that, I really hate the stereotype that tops are rich, powerful, well-put-together gods among men while bottoms are poor, helpless, struggling waifs in need of rescuing. When in actuality, tops and bottoms are just people. Normal, everyday, commonplace people with very little about them that would ping “kinky.” More times out of none, like gay people, you need pretty good kink-dar to pick them out of a crowd. Probably better radar than gay-dar, because our outlying sexual preferences are pretty reserved for the bedroom. A gay person’s eye can drift to the nice ass of a same-sex person. It’s really hard for a kinky person’s eye to drift to the everyday, normal kink activity happening in their neighborhood because there’s really no such thing as an everyday, normal kink activity in your neighborhood.
If there is, I want to move to your area.
So while, yes, there are business execs who are tops and shy college co-eds who are bottoms, I hate that those are really the only pictures we get in popular fiction. And, certainly of the kink tropes running around, those are the most flattering and least offensive. In truth, there’s just about every profession, from unemployed to lawyer, from trucker to doctor, from office grunt to tech support, in kinkland. Studies—and my own anecdotal experiences—show that there is no correlation between professional status/ success and kink. Tops are as likely to be low-paid grunts as bottoms. Bottoms are as likely to be high-powered execs as tops.
In fact, if profession said as much about sexuality as people assume it does for kinksters, exactly what would be said for those in veterinary or mortuary science jobs? What about those in child or geriatric care? Clearly, what we do rarely ties into what turns us on; why should that be different in kinkland?
Beyond the inaccuracy of it, this trope of professionally powerful Dom/ economically disenfranchised sub makes for terrible fiction. It discredits both characters as terribly unrealistic and just plain terrible people. Ana, as the poor, shy, unworldly, uncouth, clumsy sub, comes off as not really good at anything and not really good for much. I don’t see anything attractive about her. She’s not witty. Not smart. Not capable or confident. Even in James’s own descriptions, she isn’t terribly pretty or skilled or even coordinated. Her first introduction to Grey is having Ana trip face-first onto the floor of his office in frumpy, “unsmart” clothes and no confidence. She then proceedes to stumble and stammer her way through an interview that has all but been laid out for her with easy to follow bullet points.
Exactly who would find this attractive?
Apparently, Mr. Grey does. Deity—in this world, James—only knows why. Which makes Grey an idiot. Or at least a man of bad tastes. Even in the hyperbolic, overdramatized world of kink where power dynamics of super alpha strength and bowing deference are strong, social ineptitude and basic incompetence aren’t assets highly sought. In fact, an idiotic klutz can make for a very messy, unsatisfactory, unsafe scene; I can’t imagine a Dom who would play with, much less pursue, someone like that.
The only person who I could even fathom might like someone like Ana is a predator. Grey finds Ana’s weakness, her less-than status attractive. He is well-established, wealthy, self-possessed, self-aware, intelligent, savvy, and successful. That he would find Ana, who is awkward, poor, unemployed, directionless, clumsy, impertinent, ineloquent, and unconfident, attractive smacks a little too close to something akin to statutory rape to me.
Under normal, healthy, realistic conditions, these two people shouldn’t be considered equals. They should have nothing in common and should be ill-fitted for a relationship. For the paltry years separating them in age, they are at completely different points in their lives. He is clearly an autonomous, independent adult. And she is still teetering with unsteady wishy-washiness of youth.
In real world conditions, it’s a recipe for abuse in which the less powerful person in the relationship is completely dependent on the person in power, from money to opinion. Often in these relationships, nothing belongs to the less-than partner that the more-than didn’t give. The less-than’s survival and well-being depends on their partner’s approval and whim. The fact that this would appeal to Grey, not just in an easily donned-then-discarded sexual game of, as Dan Savage calls, pretend cops and robbers with your pants off but in a real life, day-to-day, day-in-day-out capacity, is sick.
Okay, really nit-picky, but the author makes a huge point of pointing it out. What’s with the all-blond staff at Grey House? Is Grey a neo-nazi starting his own little Aryan nation? It really irritates me because it’s perpetuating this idea of blonds as ideal beauty. As the epitome of feminine allure and sophistication. What the hell? It’s really clichéd and out of date. And pointless to boot. The only thing it does is highlight how unattractive, unsophisticated, and un-blond Ana is. Really didn’t need help with that. Thanks, James, but I got it. Ana’s a loser. She’s the chick who sat by herself at lunch in school. She’s the girl all the other girls picked on. I get it. Did we need to make Grey an Aryan soldier for that?
Okay, now for some stuff I actually liked—I know, betcha didn’t see THAT one coming. I actually like some of the stuff Grey says and some of the subtleties of Grey. For one, I like his taste in art. I like the phrase “raising the ordinary to extraordinary.” I feel like that’s a metaphor for kink. Seeing something mundane or even horrific like spanking or flogging and seeing something else, something unexpected, something beautiful. It’s a very subtle, clever way of saying that Grey is a man who sees the world differently. And I like that Ana picks up on that.
I like that Grey is—or claims to be—a good judge of character. It's a defense mechanism that those who are kinky should have. With all the roles that are often played, with the overdramatic lifestyle, it helps to have a good bullshit detector. Particularly to be a good Dom, one should know how to read people—body language, personality, strengths, weaknesses—and be able to put them to good use.
I also like that, alongside his arrogant, controlling, dominant personality, Grey has a nurturing side, in that he cares about and takes care of his employees and in his philanthropic interests. As he says, he likes to own things. But he takes care of the things he owns. I think that that’s a sign of a good Dom.
So often Doms—and to a lesser extent Dommes—are portrayed as people who like to treat people like toys that they’ll play with until they break, then they’ll discard them for the next victim. Which isn’t the goal or the role of a Dom. Not a good one. Like most things sexual, it’s about fulfilling a need, your own as well as your partner’s. However the activity may look on the outside—spanking, flogging, humiliation—the act itself is always and already about pleasure.
It’s a hard concept for a lot of vanilla people to wrap their heads around. It’s hard for a lot of kinky people too. The idea that you can hurt a person by not hurting them. That you can care for a person by causing them pain. If it’s pain and hurt that pleases them, as a partner, isn’t it your duty and your pleasure to give them that?
Tops and Doms are, when done right, almost always in a service role. It may turn them on to wield the whip and force someone to lick their shoes, but the vast majority of pleasure—from the Dom(me)s I’ve talked to—comes from the pleasure they give. Subs and bottoms are vastly more selfish creatures than Doms and tops (said as a bottom). So I like that Grey has that capacity to nurture; it makes him feel very real to me.
Another thing I liked was Grey was portrayed—or at least described—as very polite. Even a little cold and aloof. It’s one of those stereotypes that exist because it’s true. As a people, kinksters tend to be overly polite and clique-ey. Because we’re a fairly closeted sexual minority with a lot to lose should we be outed, we tend to be cautious around new people; it takes a while for kinky folks to warm up to newbies, to build enough trust to let that person in. Plus, I think part of us knows that the world as a whole views us as dirty, deviant delinquents, so we tend to reflexively play against that type. A very, “See, see, we’re not ALL like that” kind of mentality. So I like that Grey is portrayed that way. Again, another level of realism, even if James isn’t quite as aware of the whys as I’d like.
Particularly, when it comes to how intimate Grey gets with Ana so quickly. With all the personal questions—though that could be retaliation for all the personal questions she asks him—the job offer, and the weird, creepy exit at the elevators.
Grey is, like, 26 to 29 years old and owns his own business, which would mean that he's a pretty savvy in his field, right? He says that he’s a good judge of character and owes a lot of his success to that.
So what the hell does he see in Ana?
Why is he offering her a job? She’s given him no reason to think that she’s “good people.” In fact, she’s revealed herself to be woefully inadequate in almost every way. Untactful, uncoordinated, unworldly, not terribly intelligent, not terribly motivated, unqualified, uninformed, unresearched, unprepared; how does any of this make her a good candidate for an internship at his company? A position, I’m sure, that has other more deserving applicants vying for that spot. What is his motivation?
Beyond sex, of course. Which makes him even more unethical and predatory. Seeking to start off any relationship, much less a Dom/sub relationship, while he is her professional superior and employer is unquestionably and monstrously unethical. Not to mention, makes him a shit businessman for essentially employing an under-duress sex worker on his staff. It’s utterly illogical. Wouldn’t it have been far easier and more logical and infinitely more ethical to just ask Ana out on a date?
However, my biggest complaint, has to be that, for all James’s effort to build Grey up as a Dom, Ana is no sub. She’s passive and weak and helpless and stupid and definitely needs someone to fix the hot mess that she is. But she’s not a sub. For all her less-than status and intrigue with Grey’s power and affluence, she’s repelled and put off by his need to take control. She sees his dominance as being a “control freak,” hardly the most flattering of descriptions. And James repeatedly writes this in italics, emphasizing the sneering tone of this phrase. Clearly, Ana doesn’t like this about him.
And when he tries to use words or body language to dominate her, it makes her more uncomfortable than anything. When he challenges her about the recorder and about stumbling earlier, it upsets her. When he uses his body to essentially coral her while putting on her jacket and at the elevators, it seems to creep her out. Understandably. It’s creepy. But this is James’s way of Grey asserting his dominance. And Ana is not having any of it. It does not turn her on.
And to be fair, it's creepy because James writes it as creepy. Not that I want to, but if you compare this cute-meet next to Kat & Peter's cute-meet in my novel, they look outwardly fairly similar. Peter uses many of the same techniques as Grey. The difference is Kat likes it. She responds favorably to it. She gets off on it. While Ana, on the otherhand, is creeped out.
It's that joke I've heard a lot of guys whine: What's the difference between a creeper and a guy with game? How hot/wealthy is he. Grey's looks and his power and his wealth all turn Ana on, sure. But his mode of dominance doesn’t. She finds it arrogant, mean, and creepy.
This isn't even a good example of someone going through the motions of kink so they can be with the kinkster—which happens. But, usually then, the person just isn't terribly turned on by kink, but does it for the sake of their partner. Ana flat out hates it. No one is hot and rich and powerful enough to put up with that for long. It'd be like someone who hated sex staying with someone and agreeing to have sex because they find that person so hot and rich and powerful. Very few people do that. And when they do, they're usually miserable and unhealthy.
If we’re saying Grey is a Dom (which he almost is), Ana clearly isn’t a good candidate for his sub.