Fifty Shades of Misinterpretation: Using Fifty Shades of Grey as a Metaphor for Capitalism

It’s all well and fine to draw analogies between works of fiction and fact, fantasy and reality, but if you go there, it is important to go there accurately, having read the fiction and understanding the reality. In an article yesterday on AlterNet, both fact and fiction suffered a terrible blow Lynn Parramore, who clearly did not read E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” misrepresents the relationship between it and capitalism.

In Fifty Shades of Capitalism: Pain and Bondage in the American Workplace (the first in her Capitalism Unmasked series), Lynn Parramore claims to expose the myths and lies of unbridled capitalism and show the way to a better future” by saying such things asThe symbol of capitalism was lately a vampire. Enter the CEO with nipple clamps.”

Striking! And it might work – if it was only true. And that is the problem: it’s not.

Let me explain: according to Parramore, “If the ghost of Ayn Rand were to suddenly manifest in your local bookstore, the Dominatrix of Capitalism would certainly get a thrill thumbing through the pages of E.L. James’ blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey.” She claims that “Rand, whose own novels bristle with sadomasochist sexy-time and praise for the male hero’s pursuit of domination, would instantly approve of Christian Grey, the handsome young billionaire CEO who bends the universe to his will.”

Not so fast. Ayn Rand would do no such thing and Parramore is quick to reveal that she did not actually read Fifty Shades of Grey herself, but probably heard about it from someone who also either didn’t read it themselves or heard about it at the water cooler:

“Ingénue Anastasia Steele stumbles into his world — literally — when she trips into his sleek Seattle office for an interview for the college paper…” With “quivering” trepidation, Parramore tells us, “Anastasia signs a contract to become Christian’s submissive sex partner” and “surrenders herself to his arbitrary rules on what to eat, what to wear, and above all, how to please him sexually. Which frequently involves getting handcuffed and spanked. “Discipline,” as Christian likes to say.”

I’m afraid it’s not that simple. Grey does not simply hand Anastasia a contract as a done deal. The two, submissive and dominant, sit down over several sessions and negotiate the contract so that it becomes a bit more acceptable to both of them, editing the “hard” and “soft” limits.

The “eat this” and “wear that” was completely negotiated OUT of the contract because she refused to be told how to live on that level. The handcuffing and spanking became part of the relationship that came into existence without the contract. As a further point, this was in fact the first relationship Grey had that existed without a contract: surrender by capitalism and not to it, to use Parramore’s framework.

And clearly, capitalism does not willingly negotiate with either consumers or laborers, let alone surrender, creating a problem for Parramore’s analogy, which glosses over these details and goes right for capitalism’s throat:

Quoting industrial tycoon Andrew Carnegie, Christian justifies his proclivities like an acolyte of Randian Superman ideology: “A man who acquires the ability to take possession of his own mind may take possession of anything else to which he is justly entitled.” (Rand’s worship of the Superman obliged to nothing but his intellect is well-known and imbued with dark passions; she once expressed her admiration for a child murderer’s credo, “What is good for me is right,” as “the best and strongest expression of a real man’s psychology I have heard” in a 1928 diary.)

She goes on to state that “The market has become a monster, demanding that we fit its constraints. As long as we ignore this, the strength of the U.S. economy will continue to erode.” Here too Parramore stumbles as she seeks to draw capitalism and Fifty Shades together:

For now, many working people have unconsciously accepted the conditions that exist as somehow natural, unaware of how the machine is constructed and manipulated to favor elites. Fear and frustration can even make us crave authority. We collaborate in our own oppression.

“Just ask Anastasia Steele, whose slave contract spells out her duties with business-like efficiency” writes Parramore.

Yes! She consents. The hypnotic consumption Christian offers in a world replete with fancy dinners and helicopter rides – goodies that will be revoked if she fails to obey — overturns her natural desire for free will. Once Anastasia has signed on the dotted line, her master rewards her with a telling gift that is often the first “present” an office employee receives: “I need to be able to contact you at all times…I figured you needed a BlackBerry.”

Her first note to him on her new gadget asks a question: “Why do you do this?”

“I do this,” Christian answers, “because I can.”

Until we can link ourselves together to change this oppressive system, the Christian Greys will remain fully in control.

Again, not so fast: while a Blackberry may be the first gift an office employee receives it is not the first gift Asastasia receives – and the Blackberry is not a gift at all but an “indefinite” loan by Anastasia’s insistence. Capitalism, by contrast, doesn’t offer us indefinite loans. Indeed, it doesn’t offer us anything.

Indeed, the reason Anastasia made it a point to say that it was on indefinite loan was because she kept accusing him of rampant consumerism that was left unchecked. His saying “because I can” is hardly as straightforward a proposition as Perramore implies.

So let’s look at some of the problems with Parramore’s carefully constructed scenario:

  • Anastasia doesn’t consent to the things the article makes out she does;
  • she NEVER actually signs the contract… THAT is the point of the contention in the whole series;
  • They GET MARRIED because of LOVE;
  • She RESISTS the “Gifts” because it is rampant consumerism gone wild without constraint and she rejects this as healthy or good for any person to do so. She even goes so far as to threaten to quit her job and find another when she finds out that Christian Grey has purchased the very company that has offered her an internship because of his need to know she is “safe”.

It is clear that Parramore has no for love in capitalism or Fifty Shades, giving the impression that she’s intentionally being unfair to both.  It’s understandable that somebody might not like capitalism (many people do not). It’s understandable a woman might disapprove of a book that puts a woman in a submissive position to a man. But let’s not create straw men to bash; take on capitalism, take on Fifty Shades of Gray, on their merits.

Parramore does not make the claim that the market shows concern for the consumer or the capitalist or the participants in the machine. And yet that is the entire CORE of the Fifty Shades series. The relationship between the two main characters starts out intending to be one kind of relationship but in fact turns out to be something quite different because it doesn’t work under the guise of pain, abuse and extremes that are unacceptable to one of the two parties. He is not doing any of this “because I can” (even though he can) but because he is obsessed with her safety. He is obsessed with her.

It must further be understood that Fifty Shades does not seem to be trying to defend BDSM; in fact it paints “the lifestyle” in a fairly poor light overall, as dysfunctional without being still somewhat attractive, but the book wasn’t really about “the lifestyle” as much as the relationship between two people and how they worked through their differences and found a way to be together.

Fifty Shades of Gray is a love story. Capitalism is not unless it is a love story of consumption; it is not a love story of the consumer. There is a difference.

(This article was written with Lofnheidr)

Water cooler image from Taiga Company

BlackBerry image from Wikimedia Commons

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