Tuesday, October 22, 2013

50 Shades of the Complainist: Chapter 24

Ana and Christian fly around in a glider.

I'm going to spend a long time right at the top talking more about the sex from the previous chapter. Skip ahead to the jump if you want to miss out on that. Later on, I'm going to spend a lot of time wishing that Ana and Christian would hurry up and have breakfast-sex at IHOP, but that's just wishful thinking on my part. They don't actually do it. 

Those of you who read my take on Chapter 23 may be asking the same question I'm asking:

Wait, so this is supposed to be sexy? 

It is, right? Isn't that the whole idea? People using the phrase "mommy porn" are all idiots--there's nothing about this mess that suggests that it's aimed at mothers in any way. But, it is decidedly pornographic. Or, if that's too strong a term, it's supposed to be erotic at least, right? Isn't "erotica" just like, porn for snobs?

Here's what I'm stuck on: nothing happened in Chapter 23 at all, like usual. Pretty much it was just about Christian meeting Ana's mom, Carla, and Carla insisting that Ana head upstairs and have sex with CG, despite CG's obvious stalker tendencies.

And then they did have sex. And the first thing about that sex scene that's striking is Ana's absolute dependence on Christian. She's oddly removed from her own body--only enjoying herself when she cedes control to Christian and then takes things one step further, essentially experiencing her own sexuality exclusively through Christian's eyes. You're familiar with the concept of the male gaze? Shorthand for the way that art (visual art most obviously but the idea can be applied more generally) on the whole presumes a male audience--and to go further, a straight, white, male audience. Ana is portrayed in Chapter 23 as essentially needing to adopt this male gaze as her own and use it to perceive herself.

Part of what fascinates me about this terrible book and its popularity is this sort of contradiction. Here we have what is ostensively pornography for women, written by a woman, but a scenario that is completely geared toward a man's experience of sex.

This makes me think Bic's "Cristal" [sic] ballpoint pens. Finally! A pen for women! The listing on Amazon for Cristal is one of those delightful community satire projects that crop up on Amazon from time to time. Most of the reviews are, as you would expect, bitterly sarcastic. And they should be! Because it's just a mutterblushing pen! My understanding is that ladies have managed to write with the same pens as men for quite some time. At least as far back as Title 9, right?

And that's my question with 50 Shades. It's all the same ideas, the same scenarios you'd expect if this thing were aimed at men, instead. There's some pseudoscience that will tell you that men and women's brains are wired differently or have different bumps or whatever and that's why men like porn and women "don't" but it seemed intuitive to me (even pre-50 Shades) that maybe if someone tried to sell porn to women that actually presumed that perhaps women were human beings with opinions and desires, there just might be a market!

50 Shades proves this. . . . sort of. Millions of women have read it! But also EL's portrayal of Ana Steele is endlessly degrading. Ana is a complete doofus. She lacks any agency, any subjectivity. She requires a man's instruction in order to derive any pleasure from the body that she quite literally drags around with her everywhere she goes.

So what I'm saying is, it turns out that it wasn't even necessary to adjust the sexist assumptions of pornography in order to sell a commodity tailored for straight men to straight women. You just have to package it differently, and distribute it through different channels. That's the real difference here, right? 50 Shades found an audience through networks of Twilight fans and through internet fanfic sites and then exploded via Amazon and Kindle. These are not places that straight men are venturing when they're feeling horny, I expect. So maybe that's the lesson. The way to sell porn to women is just to sell it out a different door. Good job, capitalism!

Here's what I'm really trying to figure out, though:
Why was it so important for EL James to stage a sex scene while Ana was menstruating?

The Complainist's resident medical advisor offered, unsolicited, her take:

"Can I offer a lady person's perspective on the last published 50 Shades chapter? Gross. Yeah, mostly gross."

This is reassuring to me in two ways. First, I work from the assumption that men and women aren't nearly as different as our popular entertainments, lazy comedians, and so on would have us believe. But despite this assumption, I do recognize that there's something potentially offensive about a man (me!) heaping such clever insults at a book marketed as entertainment for women. (Editor's note: and here we are excluding EL James herself, whom we actively seek to offend.) There's that chance that someone will try to convince me that I simply don't get it, because I'm a dude. So! I am always particularly reassured when women agree with me. Because some of my best friends are women! I swear!

Second, as readers who know me in real life understand, our resident medical advisor shares my actual residence. And so little would trouble me more than to learn that she found any of this book appealing. You, gentle reader, may have learned some troubling things about me as we've shared this time together, but I have not yet learned anything troubling about anyone else, and I do hope that remains unchanged.

But back to Ana and what is, perhaps, the bloodiest sex scene in popular fiction: why? Why, why, why? What did EL James seek to accomplish in Chapter 23, when she showed us so very much about Ana's uterus?

As I often find when trying to make sense of this dumb book, I can come up with a few plausible answers, but they all seem insufficient, so I don't trust any of them. Here are a few plausible answers, all of which fail under actual scrutiny:

  1. CG's willingness to do it every single day of the month means that he's particularly generous and considerate of Ana's desires. Interesting theory! It's too bad that it's contradicted by the whole rest of the book, since CG is not at all generous nor considerate. Besides, if he were really being considerate, he could've been like, "Oh, is this an awkward time? Why don't you tell me using words what sort of sex things you'd enjoy doing on this particular night, and we can do those things, and I won't be disappointed if the things on your list don't match up perfectly with the things I'd most like to do myself." You know--instead of acting totally unilaterally. (Side note: this draws attention to just how limited CG's actual sexual repertoire is. He's basically limited to missionary plus restraints. Yawn.)
  2. EL probably chose to talk about Ana's period because EL is such a stickler for realism. This is a real-life thing, so shouldn't it be part of this very realistic novel? It is true that EL does often overwhelm with pointless details that any other writer would skip, but come on. The pointless details are not because EL wants to be realistic. They're a result of EL's writing process, which mostly involves treading water in between arguments or sex scenes. Plus, the sex was already the least realistic part of the book. 
  3. The fact that Ana's on her period makes the scene extra sexy for the reader! This isn't true, is it? I'm pretty sure this isn't true. At least, that wasn't my experience, nor the experience of my medical advisor, but I suppose your opinion could vary? Seriously though: go ahead. Tell me if you think this is anything but the worst! You can even do it anonymously! I don't care! But don't lie to me. Only post anonymously that you enjoyed it if you did. I don't need a bunch of trolls, trolls!
  4. This is just more vampire shit, right? I guess this is most likely. The whole scene was just some vampire bullshit that got left over from a previous draft in which Christian was literally a vampire. Which, in a way, makes it worse, right? 
Seriously, though--if anybody wants to explain to me how any of this is hot, I promise to listen! Because it would be way more fun to read this mess if I found any of it hot. 

But where were we?

Our story thus far:

  1. Ana meets Christian, the dreamy billionaire, for an awkward interview
  2. She then encounters him a few days later when he buys supplies for his sex dungeon at the hardware store where she works. Ana gets his phone number and decides to help her friend Kate set up a photo shoot with CG because that somehow makes more sense than just seeing if he wants to hang out like a regular person. 
  3. Ana's admirer José joins Ana and Kate to photograph Christian, after which Christian takes Ana to a cafe, where they both act awkward. Christian starts to push Ana away, for reasons she does not understand. Then, Ana is nearly hit by a bike, but Christian yanks her out of harm's way.
  4. Christian tells Ana that they're incompatible and she gets sad. Ana drunk-dials Christian and he freaks out and traces her phone Batman-style, just in time to chase off José, who's acting rape-y. Ana passes out at the bar.
  5. Ana awakes in Christian's hotel room. Christian explains that he brought her there because he didn't want her to puke in his car. He says that they can't take things further until he's explained his secrets, so they arrange a helicopter ride together to Seattle and make out in an elevator.
  6. Ana and Christian fly to Seattle in a helicopter. Ana signs a non-disclosure agreement and then opens up the door to the sex dungeon.
  7. Ana and Christian tour the sex dungeon and we see some of his much-discussed paperwork, which is an agreement far more detailed than, say, a prenuptial agreement, even though they met less than two weeks ago. CG gets super angry when he learns that Ana is a virgin. 
  8. Ana and Christian have sex and later, when Ana wakes up, CG is playing a piano because he has a case of the feels.
  9. The next morning Ana cooks breakfast and then they have sex in the bath and then in the bed and then Christian hears his mom talking to his manservant, Taylor. 
  10. Ana and Christian drive back to Ana's house. 
  11. Ana reads the sex contract and gets a new computer from Christian and they exchange some emails and Ana reads about BDSM on wikipedia.
  12. Ana sends a "joke" email to Christian, telling him that she doesn't want to see him again, so he sneaks in and forces himself on her. 
  13. Ana and Christian meet for dinner to negotiate their sex contract, and CG largely accepts Ana's demands for cosmetic adjustments. 
  14. Christian speaks at Ana's graduation and also her stepdad is there and Ana agrees to CG's contract.
  15. Christian gives Ana a car. Ana and Christian talk about "soft limits" and then have sex
  16. Christian spanks Ana and then they have sex. Christian leaves and Ana sends him sad emails so he comes back and sleeps. 
  17. Christian gives Ana a Blackberry. Ana and Kate move to Seattle. Ana goes to Christian's apartment. 
  18. Ana has an appointment with a gynecologist at Christian's house. She's prescribed birth control, and then Ana and Christian have sex-dungeon sex.
  19. Ana joins Christian for dinner at his parents' house, along with Kate, Elliot, (who is Kate's boyfriend and Christian's brother) and Mia, Christian's sister. Christian gets mad because Ana says she wants to visit her mother in Georgia so he drags her off to the family boathouse for punishment and sex.
  20. Ana and Christian have boathouse sex and then go home for mild spanking and bed sex and then we are unsurprised when we learn that Christian's mom did drugs when he was a toddler. 
  21. Ana has an interview for an internship with a publishing company and then she goes to the airport.
  22. Ana goes to Georgia to visit her mom but mostly just sends emails to Christian. Then Christian appears unexpectedly right at the bar where Ana is having a drink with her mom.
  23. Ana introduces Christian to her mom, Carla, and then Ana joins Christian in his hotel room for sex. 

We join Ana in the middle of a sex dream that's not worth going into in much detail. Dream Christian is feeding Dream Ana strawberries. Fruit in the bedroom is one of those things that might seem sexy if you think about it for only one second. But if you think about it for any longer than that it gets way less interesting. I don't know about you but I'm perfectly capable of enjoying a strawberry with my clothes on. That's the great thing about fruit! You can even eat it in public. I don't know about the laws in your town, but here in Actual Seattle, the public consumption of fruit is completely sanctioned, and even celebrated at certain open-air markets. Which is why if I were offered strawberries while in a sex dungeon, I would just be irritated. 

CG wakes Ana up at 5:30 and says, "I want to chase the dawn with you," and also he's an asshole. Who does that to somebody on vacation? Outrageous. Dawn is the most overrated time of day. If dawn were a band, it would be U2. If dawn were a movie it'd be Shawshank Redemption. What I'm saying is that dawn is fine, if you're into that kind of thing, but you should really calm down about it and not wake up people in the middle of the night to experience it because seriously. 

CG is very excited about whatever nonsense he's got planned, though! Just listen to Ana's description of his excitement!

He's excited. Like a small boy, he's iridescent with anticipation and excitement. It makes me smile.
"What are we dong?"
"It's a surprise. I told you."
I can't help but grin up at him.

I just point this sentence out because it contains the sort of easy-to-catch sloppiness that this book inflicts on readers. Any effort at proofreading would've brought the excited / excitement repetition to EL's attention. But we long ago realized that no actual effort was involved. Same with smile / grin. Ugh. 

Ever the gentleman, CG offers Ana a pair of his boxer briefs. This makes sense because all women are highly aroused by men's underwear. This is a fact! Look it up. Or, if you, dear reader, are yourself a woman, search your heart. Imagine yourself wearing men's underwear, and consider how delightfully baggy and weird they'd be to wear. Great, right? No but seriously--boxer briefs are super comfortable, and if Ana is into that kind of thing, great! But they're not sexy, and wearing your boyfriend's underwear isn't sexy. And also--Ana and Christian have the exact same size butts? That's weird, right? I guess that's good for CG though, since he can try on the stuff he plans to buy for Ana just to see if it fits right. 

At the beginning of this essay, where I was trying to figure out why EL decided to share with us more than we ever wanted to know about the state of Ana's endometrial lining, I thought about pointing out that EL doesn't share with us all Ana's bodily functions. But that's not true. We do hear about all Ana's bodily functions, and it's bizarre and I don't like it. 

Christian exits toward the living area, and I wander into the bathroom. I have needs to attend to, and I want a quick wash. Seven minutes later, I am in the living area, scrubbed, brushed, and dressed in my jeans, my camisole, and Christian Grey's underwear.

Ana is telling us that she's taking a shit, right? She has needs to attend to that are distinct from a quick wash. I see no other possible interpretation. Why is this passage in this book? What possible benefit is it to the reader to include this information? And Ana's timing this? Like she's in training or something? "Seven minutes! A new personal best!" 

Then CG hassles Ana about not eating and it's more annoying even than usual. It's the goddamn middle of the night. Let Ana eat breakfast at a reasonable hour like a regular person! There's a time and a place for breakfast. And that time is five minutes before you're supposed to be at work, while you park your car. Also it's probably from Dunkin Donuts. Christian Grey is pretty out of touch with real America! Feeding Ana tea? And a croissant? I bet he says it like an asshole too. "Kwa-zon?" Ugh. You know I'm right. 

Then they one of those "cute" conversations about whether or not Ana is going to get spanked. Delightful. Soon they're outside in some fancy rich-guy car CG rented, having an empty conversation about La Traviata. I will never stop being annoyed by the way EL seems so desperate to brag about her musical taste, even though her taste is pretty explicitly "adult contemporary with a handful of the most popular classics thrown in for the appearance of smarts." 

CG allows Ana to choose music on his Ipod, and we're supposed to be impressed by the fact that Ana can control it from a screen on the dashboard. Yay. She picks "Toxic" by Britney Spears, which is obvious, but I still kind of appreciate it. He is toxic! So it works!

CG is quick to tell Ana that an ex named Leila put that on his Ipod. This is one of three defense mechanisms hipsters will use to excuse the contents of their music collections. 
  1. "Oh, somebody else put that on there as a joke."
  2. "Oh, yeah, I put that on like, in high school and never bothered to get rid of it because what's the point, you know?"
  3. "Yeah I put that on just to laugh at it. Isn't it so terrible? It's great."
Just to be clear: I'm not saying Christian is a hipster. I kind of don't know what the word means anymore. I just enjoy his hipster-style response to Ana's discovery of a pop song on Ipod that's otherwise filled with the soundtrack of the world's most annoying coffee shop. 

Ana decides to ask about CG's former relationships and I decide to be bored. Wait--I didn't decide as such. It just happened. We know that CG has had Dom/sub relationships with fifteen women before Ana so Ana is all, tell me about all of them! Fortunately, we don'g get a whole list. We do learn that "Mrs. Robinson," the older, married woman who first introduced CG to BDSM, has a name, and that name is Elena. Ana's reaction to this trivial bit of data is predictably outrageous:

Elena! Holy fuck! The evil one has a name and it's all foreign sounding. A vision of a glorious, pale-skinned vamp with raven hair and ruby-red lips comes to mind, and I know that she's beautiful. I must not dwell. I must not dwell. 

Now I get to wonder wether or not Ana means "vampire" when she says "vamp" because it kind of seems like that's what she's saying, right? Vampire? Whatever. I remain uninterested in Ana's jealousy. Hard for me to work up any sympathy considering that I hate Christian, so I have a hard time being anything but bored when Ana worries about competitors for his affection. Using the word "affection" broadly.

CG chastises Ana for asking so many questions, and Ana quite rightly counters by complaining about CG's nosiness re: her period. CG's responser? "Anastasia--a man needs to know these things."

I feel like I can respond to this one, as a man or whatever. I'm going to go ahead and disagree! I know I am, on the whole, happier knowing as little as possible about the inner workings of other human beings. But of course--why is it that CG would want this intimate information? "Because I don't want you to get pregnant." Ah, yes. I suppose this fits--Christian thinks that you get sick from going outside with wet hair, so it makes sense to me that the rhythm method would seem to him a viable method of contraception. Anything to keep him from having to make the ultimate sacrifice! Wearing a condom!

Turns out they're headed to some gliding place to fly in a glider. Or, as CG calls it, "soaring." He has a special, dick-language word for everything. Like when some Alaskans tried to tell us that snowmobiles were called "snow machines." That's funny! Snow machines are the things they use to make fake snow. You can't ride around in snow on them! Sarah Palin's illiteracy is delightful. 

The phrasing is kind of confusing, but I'm not interested so I can't really work up any concern about how opaque EL's writing is. See, I assumed that they were hang-gliding because that's a thing I'm familiar with. But it seems more like they're in some kind of unpowered airplane thing that gets towed behind a regular airplane and then the regular airplane lets go and they glide for a little bit in this glider thing that has seats and everything. 

Anyway, this gliding part? I could not be more bored. I can barely make myself read this. It's so, so empty. No plot. No character development. No intrigue. No reason for this scene at all, except for EL to brag about how much internet research she did about hang-gliding. I mean, look at this shit:

We will be in a Blanki L-23, which is apparently better than the L-13, although this is open to debate. Benson will be flying a Piper Pawnee. He's been flying tail draggers for about five years now.

What the hell am I doing? I mean, srsly. Why am I reading this? It's so, so pointless. It could not be more pointless. This is like a "cute date" you'd see on a shitty MTV dating show fifteen years ago. 

We get some "cute" parts about CG strapping Ana into her harness or whatever and this is basically the same stupid scene as twenty chapters ago when Ana and CG flew to Seattle in his helicopter. When EL gets tired of plagiarizing from Twilight she plagiarizes from her own earlier chapters.

I guess the point is that this is supposed to be like a "boyfriend" thing, and that we're supposed to think that CG is acting boyfriendy and be happy for Ana but I'm just like zzzzzzz. 

An alarm goes off reminding Ana to take her pill. zzzzzz. They go to IHOP. zzzzzz. This feels like another one of those instances where EL fed two search terms into google and went with whatever came first. "America breakfast." Oh, IHOP. Great!

They seem at first like they're going to have IHOP sex, and I'm so ready. I mean, sex but like, there's pancakes and syrup and whatever? Hell to the yes, right??

But no. They order breakfast. Their server freaks out about Christian's sexiness, as do all women who ever they encounter him ever. CG orders "two portions of the original buttermilk pancakes" because he's one of those weird people who like to repeat a menu's pointless verbiage rather than just saying "pancakes" like a regular person. 

Then they talk about how they can maybe confine their whole Dom/sub thing to those times when they're literally in the sex dungeon and it feels like some kind of big moment but also I'm reading it and I'm like, wait, really? It took 450 pages to figure this out? That they could just do their kinky stuff sometimes, which is the way that all people who are interested in kinky stuff operate? And just be a normal / miserable couple the rest of the time? It feels like they're reached some kind of resolution, but I don't know how they did it. I guess CG changed his mind a little bit? Wow. Is that what this whole book is? Us waiting for Christian to change his mind a little bit? Riveting!

The scene is kind of offensive. It feels like the resolution of the plot's central conflict, but nothing has changed. Now, normally, the protagonist is the person who struggles to overcome some obstacle, and as she struggles, the obstacles temporarily worsen, resulting in a sense of heightened stakes and risk. But Ana hasn't done that at all. She's just moped around for several hundred pages, and so there's nothing at all satisfying about this apparent resolution. No sense of overcoming odds. Yawn.

Also, they definitely don't fuck in an IHOP. Pancake sex was really the one thing that could've saved the book at this point. If they had pancake sex, I would be like, "Hey I don't recommend this book, but like, if you get a chance, skip to Chapter 24? Because that part where Ana and Christian eat original buttermilk pancakes off each other is actually pretty great. I mean, I am kind of a connoisseur of breakfast-themed porn, so trust me when I tell you that this is worth your time." 

Instead, there's no reason at all for them to be in an IHOP. It just happens to be where they have another annoying conversation. When that annoying conversation is done, CG drops Ana off at her mom's house, and then they exchange annoying emails instead. It's no surprise. Ana has no life outside of her relationship with CG so even when they're not in the same location, they must continue to talk. 

Ana gets a call. It's Seattle Independent Publishing or whatever SIP stands for. Every time before page 463 when Ana talked about her interviews she used the word "internship" but EL was never one for consistency. Seems more like Ana is being offered a job, since the phrase "salary details" is used. They tell her to come to work Monday at 8:30. Does England just start earlier than America? Everything that happens in Ana's life feels like it's hitting between an hour and two hours earlier than it ought. What the hell publishing company opens its office at 8:30?

CG calls next, to cancel dinner. "He sounds cold. Angry even. But for the first time, I don't immediately think it's me." So, some shit is going down in Seattle, I guess. Only about fifty pages left in the book, so it can't be anything too important, can it? So difficult to get a handle on this book's plotting. This couple seems to have "breakthroughs" every couple chapters, but then CG gets pissy again and the thing starts over. Just feels like an endless loop, so it's hard to know what to think when new bits of information get introduced, like Ana's new job, or CG's unplanned departure back to Seattle. 

CG's ex lover Elena is a pretty major character in this book, considering that she never appears in this book. Ana just won't stop freaking out about her though:

There seems to be a tidal shift in Christian's attitude. He denies it, but he admits he's trying for more. What could have changed? What has altered since he sent his long e-mail and when I saw him yesterday? What has he done? I sit up suddenly, almost spilling my soda. He had dinner with . . . Elena.
Holy fuck!
My scalp prickles at the realization.

I don't have anything to say about this. I'm losing steam here. I just can't handle reading a book with a narrator whose concerns I just can't share or understand. I mean, yeah--I think it's shitty that CG is so close to his ex, especially since this particular ex is guilty of, at a minimum, statutory rape. But what is Ana worried about? That Elena helped CG become a better boyfriend? Oh noes! I can't even really keep up with the complexities of her jealousy so I guess I'll keep reading and get through this chapter.

The final five pages are some more pointless emails. Yawn. Well, we do learn that whatever made CG hurry back to Seattle has not yet been resolved, so that's something. Or almost something. Whatever. I guess we'll learn more about that in Chapter 25? I can hardly wait another week for it! It's like trying to sleep on Christmas Eve!

I kind of wish I'd never started to read this book. Here's the thing: I consume a lot of trashy entertainment. Ask me about any Jason Statham movie. I've seen them all. I'll even defend some of them! So I am sympathetic to the idea that something can be entertaining and also super dumb. And when everybody was reading this thing, part of me thought maybe it would be like that. Dumb, sure. But dumb in a sexy way, with a simple but effective plot. That kind of thing makes sense to me! I thought this was a pulp. You know? I understand pulp! I love pulp!

But now I'm so close to the end, and there's just no way it can be redeemed. This thing is just garbage. Just absolute garbage. Way worse than I imagined, even. Doesn't have anything resembling a plot, and despite all the hype about the sex, the sex is boring too. Part of what I was trying to accomplish by examining this book in such detail was to gain some insight into it as a phenomenon. But the more I know about it, but less its popularity makes any sense to me. This is the worst book I've ever read. I feel really sad for the trees that got cut down to print it. And I feel more depressed than ever about going to grad school to be a writer. Because why bother? This book makes me feel like humanity gave literature a chance and was like, "Meh. We'll pass, thanks." 

Also: these essays take way longer to write when I'm drinking, but if I write them while drinking, I don't tend to end up quite this sad at the end. I'm pretty sad.

But at least I can be happy about the fact that I'm almost done!

2 Chapters to go!
44 pages to go!

We can do it!

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