Fifty Shades of Grey: A Provocative Tale In More Ways Than You’d Think

E. L. James’ racy bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey has been called an amusing, romantic tale of a woman’s (Ana Steele) exploration of sexual desire that has captured the interest and imagination of over 19 million readers. But, is there something more to the subject matter of this racy novel that has led to its huge success and the making of a movie? On the surface, its success suggests that despite women’s social advance, they still fantasize about being swept off their feet by a powerful, handsome and wealthy man (knight in shining armor) who makes all their dreams come true. This fantasy, along with the novel’s raciness,  and also the complicated relationship between heroine Ana Steele and Fifty Shade’s hero Christian Grey, seems to tap into an archetype of women that persists no matter their social advancement.

From the book’s huge success, we might think that this was the first racy novel ever written. But, racy novels have existed for hundreds of years. They are called sensation novels. Their themes often consist of women longing to be rescued from their dreary lives by powerful men who promise them access to pleasures, rights and freedoms typically enjoyed by men.

Sensation novels surfaced at the end of the Victorian era. Social changes going on at the time, such as reform in divorce procedures, tabloid journalism, public education and social anxiety over women’s sexuality and emancipation led to the popularity of these novels. Sensation novelists penned stories that made penetrating observations about an ongoing social or psychological problem of the time. The great disparity between men’s and women’s rights often took center stage. The stories often involved strong, daring women who rebelled against a repressive society by exploring their sexuality. Sadly, the stories always end in the woman’s downfall and public shame for having stepped outside of her social role. The fallen woman as the moral of the story was used to suggest the need for a new cultural standard that gave women the same rights as men, especially in the sense of self-expression.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a contemporary sensation novel. And, as such, it can be likened to the sensation novels of the past, even though I cringe to make this comparison with the great classics, like  D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Nathanial Hawthorne’s Scarlett Letter of the day. And, just like Hester Prinn, Lady Chatterley and Emma Bovary, Ana Steele is seeking unbridled self-expression of body, heart, and mind through powerful men. But, sadly, these heroines usually end up with a frog who turns out to be quite dangerous to their mental and physical health. These fantasy lovers have a chink or two in their armor. Certainly, this is  the case with Christian Grey, who no doubt the author has fashioned after the corrupt, beautiful, worldly, and rich young man of the 1945 film, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Christian Grey has fifty shades of a singular sado-masochistic character flaw to sexually possess, control, dominate, and debase women. And, whom does such a man go after to fulfill his warped, sociopathic version of romance? He seeks impressionable, unworldly, insecure and submissive women like Ana Steele. She’s an unassuming beauty of indistinct personal agency. She doesn’t even know there’s an underside to her, until she meets up with it through Christian Grey. Ana is unable to resist being pulled into a passionate, physical relationship of control, submission and domination with him.

There’s little difference in the emotional makeup between the Victorian women of the classic sensation novels and Fifty Shade’s Ana Steele. For the most part, these women are passive-dependent (codependent) women who need men to justify their existence.

Beneath the racy story line, Fifty Shades of Grey seems to make a social and psychological statement about women’s conflicts about their emancipation thus far. We can surmise from the passive-dependent prototype of woman (Ana Steele) who 19 billion women are connecting with that women feel ambivalent, at the least, about their sexual freedom and social advance. This intrapsychic conflict doesn’t surprise me, as women’s emancipation was bound to come with some anxiety about now having the same stresses of men. This by no means suggests women want to go back to the Victoria era, only that the pressures of sexual and social freedom bring new problems for which they may have been unprepared.

What troubles me most about Fifty Shades of Grey is the pathological character of its hero and heroine, and E. L. Jame’s immature prototype of gender relations (sado-masochism). I’ve treated many women like Ana Steele throughout the years, and they rarely leave such relationships mentally and physically unharmed. In fact, most of them are so emotionally wounded that they are unable to trust that healthy love can exist. Additionally, the Ana Steele of our day is often eating-disordered, suffers very low self-esteem and her self-defeating behavior makes her vulnerable to becoming an object of other people’s desires. Hence, the fantasies engendered by the glamorizing of the relationship between Grey and Steele should not fool us as to their psycho-pathology. No matter how you look at it, Christian Grey is a textbook malignant narcissist with sociopathic tendencies and Ana Steele is a passive dependent, masochistic personality.

All that being said, I’m led to ponder the relevance of Fifty Shades as today’s sensation novel and how it relates to the classics of the past. It may be that, as in the Victorian era, we too are socially anxious about women’s sexuality and emancipation that has led to the book’s huge popularity. At the least, James taps into women’s strong psychological conflicts about freedom versus domination.

I hope you liked today’s post. If so, please let me know by selecting the Like Icon that immediately follows. You can also Tweet or Google +1 today’s post to let your friends know about it. Warm regards, Deborah.


20 Responses to “Fifty Shades of Grey: A Provocative Tale In More Ways Than You’d Think”

  1. This is great, Deborah. You are so right, and yet supportive of what is best for women.

  2. avatar Chuck Briggs says:


    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Thank you Chuck. How nice to say hello to you. I hope all is well. As always, thank you for stopping by to see what I’m doing and to say hello. Warm regards, Deborah.

  3. avatar Rev. Dr. Frankie L. Perdue, D. Min. says:

    I’m so glad you put your finger on the pulse of genuine and honest love and love making and how that frees one in ways that simply consenting to debase oneself for your or some one else’s sexual gratification cannot nor ever do. It is a cheap imitation at the very best. Trying to be cynical today I kept saying to myself, as a white middle aged male, why should I care about this discussion at all? Yet it got me thinking about so many women I’ve tried to help over the span of my life and ministry and that a genuine and positive authenticity is never a waste of time. Good insights Dr. Deb. 🙂

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Rev., Dr. Perdue, (Frankie). I had the same thought as you did, when I first heard about this book. It offended my sensibilities. But, I couldn’t stop thinking about the large numbers of people (mostly women) reading this book, and needed to make some sense of it, at least for myself. However, understanding the book’s cultural context did little to put me at ease over its suggestion that this is love.

      Well, enough for my philosophizing. Simply to say—thank you as always for your care and dedication to everything authentic and uplifting. I know your ministry must benefit much from the vision that you hold for them. I value your support, as always. Warm regards, Deborah.

  4. avatar Marion Facey says:

    Hi Dr. Deborah and all,I just read this and understood this to my best ability. I can remember when I let myself become a thing for the what I thought was love. Only to surcumb to the realization I was not loved but only used for there sexual gradification. It took me longer to grow up then the natural due to not having any males in my life, need I say more. I needed approval from any male. I married for love and he married for show. I had children because I wanted to be a loving caring parent, he didn’t want chidren although gave me permission two times. I had no controll over most all parts of my life. I eventually left him and left him with my heart. Years to proscess, I did get what I wanted, a dad so my relationship allways felt incestual I didnt know why untill years later. In the mean time I kept hurting myself over and over. I was touched by the feedback about fifty shades of grey. I have been a soul supporter of women and children thru county/city agecies and my schooling and personal experience and my spiritual healing. It took me years to realize men had emotions also. I had a rude awakining/ how sad they didnt have a chance to express there feelings. I can idenify my feelings now and empathize with men. What a gift I got that took me years to acompplish. My dream is to write and publish a book. Thank you, marion

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Marion, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. Marion, you are so right. You do leave your heart at the end of these types of controlling relationships. They are so damaging to one’s body, mind, and spirit. I hear your deep insights into your process and life journey. You have not been sleeping in this life. You dared to be present to your pain and to the reasons that went into the decision to marry him, in the spirit of understanding and growth. Although you most likely felt it was a matter of survival, there are still women out there who don’t leave. They don’t have the strength or have enough support around them to help them to leave.

      I love that you have used your life lessons and your spiritual healing to support the soul of women and children. I hear you! This is why books like Fifty Shades of Grey assaults our sensibilities. How can sexual play that destroys the human spirit be considered romantic on any level?

      What a compassionate sentiment you say here: “How sad that they (men) didn’t have a chance to express their feelings.” There is no greater sign of healing than compassion for all the players involved in our life stories. It is a gift that your deep understanding brought forth to you. Also, I love that you connect up being able to identify your own feelings with the ability to empathize with men. You are very wise.

      I am so happy to get to know you Marion through your authentic presence in our communications. The people who you help must value you deeply. I know I do. Write that book. Make that dream come true. Share your wisdom with others. Warmly, Deborah.

  5. avatar Joana says:

    Hello, thank you so much for posting this article Dr.
    I did not understand why I felt so bad after reading this book. The concept of love and passion is so unrealistic and yet women believe it! And the happy ending made me sad because we know that relationships like that are actually bad for your spirit and mind.
    I’ve read Women who love too much by Robin Norwood which made me change my concept about love and that made me dream about having a relationship with a mature adult, really intimate who wants to stay together not for the drama but for the peace of mind it gives.
    But the characters of the book, typical misogynist and emotionally dependent, offended me deep.
    Anyway, I hope women don’t take it so seriously as to feel frustrated with their real life or actually believe that being innocent, completely passive and submissive will change a dominant man neither accept the history’s concepts as true love.
    Thanks for reading me, I really needed to express my feelings.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Joana, what you say is so important. I’m sure there are many women who felt unsettled after reading this book. Your response is so healthy. Your gut was telling you, something’s wrong here, especially after reading the book Women Who Love Too Much(great book). How wonderful that you opened yourself to desiring a mature, intimate relationship instead of relationships that may be exciting at first, but are full of future drama. I was offended as well Joana, which prompted me to write this article. Once women get on the path to desiring true intimacy, this type of relationship will offend them. Also, you are right; these types of relationships never end happily.

      Joana, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I’m sure glad you had a place to express what you were feeling. I’m sure readers of this article will appreciate what you say here. Come visit again. Warmly, Deborah.

  6. avatar Linda says:

    Thank you for putting words to my thoughts. I have only read a few “romances” in the past for this very reason. I would love for women to get excited about men who are truly loving.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hi Linda, you are welcome. Isn’t that the truth—women getting excited about men who are truly loving. Wonderful. I think I follow you on Twitter. I will check it out. Warm regards to you Linda, thanks for stopping by. Deborah.

  7. avatar Manju says:

    Hi Dr. Khoshaba,

    I was talking to my brother last night about the 1st book of this trilogy and my reaction to it. He said that you had written something on it and urged me to take a look. I enjoyed reading your posting. I think I follow what you said about the book objectifying women. I only read the book (just the first one) because one of my friends suggested it contained a really good story. However, I couldn’t help but find myself angered though as I read it, because to me, it seemed quite demeaning to women. I felt like the book washed away all that women have accomplished in regards to equality with men. I also found the plot a bit sick and twisted (a young twenty something man who was a submissive when he was 15 to an older married woman is now a dominant)…yikes! While it was sort of interesting to understand Ana’s mind and thoughts, I think the book was written poorly in the sense that every other page was filled with explicit details about very kinky sex. Honestly, there was a point at which I even thought perhaps this book was written by a teenager or young adult; however, that clearly isn’t the case. Needless to say, I think I will not be reading the remaining two books in the trilogy. I think my time can be better spent and enriched elsewhere.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Manju, thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. I’m glad your brother invited you to read my post on Fifty Shades. I agree with you Manju. Fifty Shades does undermine women’s growth and emancipation. I understand your reaction to the book. I too had an adverse reaction, but wanted to understand why millions of readers of buying it. Many agree with you on the poor writing.

      I like what you say about spending your time being enriched elsewhere. I wrote this post because I wanted to say that this type of book does little to enrich our hearts, minds, and spirits. In fact, although I show how it’s a social commentary on our times, it is far, very far, from the high-quality literature that I mention in this post.

      Thank you so much for stopping by. Please visit again. Warm regards, Deborah.

  8. avatar Deanna Solodko says:

    Dear Dr. Koshaba, you were my most loved teacher at Pepperdine, and I have followed your progress ever since I have stepped my foot into your classroom.

    What saddens me the most about the fame of Fifty Shades is the utterly poor quality of Shades as a piece of literature. That people thoroughly enjoy, and are even hooked on, the inauthentic sexual experiences is half the problem, but another half is accepting this piece of writing as exciting non-fiction. In my view, this is an example of inauthentic writing; it is too sad that so many have embraced it as genuine literature…

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Deanna, i remember you so well. You sat about the third seat from the front, on the right side of the room. I remember most you intlligence and lovely smile and sincereity. So glad to say hello. What a pleasure this is.

      Well, your reactions to Fifty Shades is so well said. Thank you. Yes, it is unbelievable that it is taken as good literature, if we are to believe that book sales says quality, which we know it does not. A sad comment about what culture expects for themselves. Inauthentic; true.

      Wow, well the internet indeed has so many wonderful advantages to all of us, lime letting me say hello to you. I hope you stop by again. I think you now follow me on facebook, right? Warmregards, always, Deborah~~~Dr. K.

      Oh congrats on the Psy.D, i am so proud of you, doing with with children to boot.

  9. avatar Jenny says:

    Dr. Khoshaba,
    It was refreshing to see your take on this Trilogy. I have read all 3 books. I have always been interested in the psyche and relationships and maybe that is why I was intrigued as to why some women will enter into these types of relationships. Fantasy, maybe but not for me in real life. I just cannot see living with the constant mood changes, fear/trust issues, etc. – love or not, sexy or not, rich or not! Had he been a blue-collar guy with an ex-wife and kids and a mortgage, I doubt this trilogy would have been as well received. I think the fantasy of a rich, sexy man taking care of a woman (no matter how far we have come), and the eroticism of the books pulled so many in. I would be lying if I said the “fantasy” of reading the triology was not a turn-on at times, though also sickening at others!
    We all know there are adults out there who were abused as children and we know they have different coping (or not coping) mechanisms. I was sickened by the mother’s friend and how he supposedly had gotten into this. I hope this does not give people ideas as people like to blame video games, drugs, etc. for their behavior instead of being accountable.
    I do think many people can take the flirtation (emails between each other, text messages), surprising each other with things (although not nearly as pricely as “Mr. Grey” with our loved ones. My husband and I have done this for 13 years of our marriage and it works well for us.
    Finally, what’s wrong with being “comfortable” in a relationship? People seem to think comfortable equals boring – it does not. It’s great and you can still surprise your loved one and spice it up, without headgames!
    Sorry for my random thoughts – juggling work, took a break and saw your site. : )

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello, I’m so glad that you stopped by to read this post. I too have always wondered why women find degrading sexual fantasies stimulating. Is there anything better for us than being loved and respected?

      I love your wisdom (I just cannot see living with the constant mood changes, fear/trust issues, etc. – love or not, sexy or not, rich or not! Had he been a blue-collar guy with an ex-wife and kids and a mortgage, I doubt this trilogy would have been as well received.) I agree, very much, with you. It is a fantasy that has done more trouble for women than good. There is so much you say here that I like so much. Yes, there is surprise and enjoyment without “headgames”. Moreeover, as you say, this wreaks of domestic violence and sexual abuse and, indeed, leads to women and men who have less than healthy coping mechanisms. You sound like a therapist. Perhaps you are. I can spot a psychologically sensitive soul when I see one. Thank you again. And, I sure hope you stop by to read and comment again. Warm regards to you Deborah.

      • avatar Allison says:

        I am a RN, I’m not a psych nurse but in my line of work you deal with peoples psych issues everyday..I think this book should not be taken lightly, especially by the younger generation. I know I am behind on reading the books but since the movie was coming out I thought I would try to get the idea of what the book was about. I bought the first book about a year ago and started reading it and it surprised me that I got to the part were they first have sex and I couldn’t read any more…the reason being that I realized I had more in common with the characters than what I wanted to admit. My husband is not into all the sex games but he is on the overpowering mind games, the dominating,and the emotional ups and downs that the Mr. Grey goes through all through the book.. My husband is very successful and like Mr. Grey had mother issues also when he was young. It has made our marriage very difficult. Before even reading the book, I have said to him some of the lines from the book word for word and it scares me, especially the part were she says ” I’m not your mother and I’m not going to leave you”. My point being like her character I do love my husband and I believe he loves me too, I see the scared little boy that he once was and I want to help him to go beyond that and forget the bad memories and want to him to be happy and not be the moody, angry, jealous, scared man that he continues to’s took me a long time to realize that it’s not me that is making him so angry inside and what makes him do the things he does, it’s his past..
        So for me the book is a eye opener in the pschy since not for the forbidden sexual entertainment. But I’m 42, I don’t think that someone in there teens or 20s could understand other issues that the book has but they need too before get into any relationship.. Take it from me you don’t want to live with 50 Shades of Gray unless you take a psych course!

        • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

          Hi Allison, thank you so much for your insights and your knowledge. You add a very interesting point Allison that I think many women and men will appreciate. That books like Fifty Shades of Grey actually give some insight into the psyches of people with domination issues (sadist-masochist issues). Thank you again. Warm regards Deborah.


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