Friday, January 21, 2022

50 Shades of Grey: An Allegorical-Political Reading

Fifty Shades of Grey is a Marxist allegory, covering the development of the protagonist’s class consciousness, while tearing down, one by one, all non-revolutionary forms or resistance to capitalism generally, and in America particularly.  

Let’s start by looking at the names of our two main characters: Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey.  Anastasia is her given name, which is to say, the name her parents chose.  They gave her the name of a famous royal, a class to which they do not, and could not, ever belong, but nevertheless this is how they choose to think of themselves.  Yet the family name is Steele.  The associations between steel and infrastructure and manufacturing are obvious (she actually works at a hardware store), and we cannot forget that the labor movement in the United States grew in large part from the Pittsburgh steel workers.  Her name itself is an example of class unconsciousness, identifying with a class to which she cannot belong (further, it is a class which is not supposed to exist in America, and the particular royal was part of the family overthrown in the communist revolution).  Likewise, Christian’s given name presents a false front.  Obvious connections to the “protestant work ethic” and the prosperity gospel aside, Christianity promises a moral system, or some spiritual righteousness.  But his family name is Grey.  Shades of Grey refers to moral ambiguity, not certainty.  Grey is in fact unconcerned with morality, Christian or otherwise.  And of course the 50 Shades is a pun on 50 States.  Grey is the personification of American capitalism. (There is also some clever mirroring in the names.  Besides the obvious “steel grey” pun, Grey is the traditionally British spelling, which, if we consider America’s heritage as a royal colony, would mirror his family name with her given name.)

 The plot itself begins with Anastasia meeting Christian Grey for an interview on behalf of her university newspaper.  This is the first of a long line of examples of non-revolutionary means failing to prevent the exploitation of the workers.  Neither education nor journalism saved her.  Grey convinces her to sign a contract to be his submissive sex partner.  This contract dictates what she can eat, where she can go, etc. etc.  This may be so on the nose as to not need reiterating, but the capitalist convinces the worker to enter a relationship in which the worker is physically and emotionally degraded and has their basic life decisions curtailed.  Throughout the continuing degradation and domination, Grey insists that this is love, and the contract makes them equal partners, right?

Over time, Anastasia begins to doubt this parity, and Christian co-opts means of non-revolutionary dissent.  After the aforementioned failure of education and journalism, he woos her by buying her a first edition Thomas Hardy novel (thus co-opting art).  Christian breaks the contract without penalty (showing the futility of law). Perhaps the most dense example of this is the “Dom Jeans.” Blue jeans, invented by a Jewish immigrant for physical laborers during the California gold rush, became popular in counter-culture and youth movements in the post-war era.  As with much counter-culture, they were appropriated as a fashion commodity, eventually becoming banal and innocuous, becoming “Mom Jeans,” something suburban soccer moms would wear.  And thence “Dom Jeans.”  Even if it takes time, counter-culture just becomes another commodity for the capitalist class.

 Anastasia grows more and more uncomfortable with the relationship.  The novel ends with the two at an expensive and exclusive restaurant.  All food in the restaurant is made from locally foraged flora.  Food that was grown on public land with no effort or support from the restaurant is being harvested and commodified.  A public and private sphere cannot coexist without the latter ransacking the former.  It is at this meal that Anastasia breaks up with Christian.  In the allegory of the sexual relationship, she realizes that her devotion was unreciprocated and misplaced; their interests were fundamentally different.  She has developed class consciousness.

(If you find yourself taking the above seriously, please direct all comments to E.L James.)