“I don’t have nightmares when you’re with me.”
— Christian, Fifty Shades Darker, p234
Living in a state of death
Redemption stories start with a fall and the Fall brings a curse. Usually the effects of this curse are so severe they represent a state of death. After all, the story is mimicking the curse(s) in the Genesis narrative where all death, sickness and destruction come into the world.
This state of ‘living death’ is one of the reasons why redemption in particular is needed. After all, redemption involves a good saviour stepping into the dark place and bringing a fallen, wretched, broken person out of it. I’ll talk more on this in my next post, but for now, let’s just note that life is meant to be pretty bad after the Fall.
Because I want to compare Christian’s state of ‘living death’ with Beast’s.
(Content note: This post makes general references to parts of the plot of Fifty Shades of Grey, including sexual violence. I’ve written separately on why I write about Fifty Shades and why I write about BDSM. If you’re unfamiliar with Fifty Shades, and need a brief introduction, try my bare basics page.)
Christian’s curse – the impact on him
Christian’s troubled state means that he frequently has nightmares. He also doesn’t like to be touched on his chest. And he gets angry very easily.
I struggle to think of any other symptoms Christian suffers as a result of his traumatic childhood (this is what Fifty Shades considers to be his Fall; more on that in my previous post).
He has the self-management skills and confidence to be:
- financially literate and able to make good business deals,
- able to incentivise and lead people,
- able to fly a helicopter, steer a glider, and sail a boat,
- well-versed in music, literature, fashion, food and wine.
He’s also physically very able and sexually attractive. (To all women. Everywhere. All the time.)
Some state of living death.
What I – and others – find offensive about this premise, is the simple fact that people who’ve actually suffered the kinds of traumas described in Fifty Shades have a lot more symptoms than Christian does. You don’t need to go far to learn about attachment disorder and how hard it is to deal with. And that’s not the only problem that can manifest.
Now, Christian was adopted by intelligent, privileged and medically-informed parents; I could believe a story where they helped him get a grip on his life. But that’s not the story in Fifty Shades. There, the story is that an older woman physically and sexually assaulted him (FSF, p503) and brought him into a BDSM lifestyle when he was too young to consent to sex.
And that was what made him able to build his own business empire.
Pull the other one.
Christian’s curse – the impact on others
The plot of Fifty Shades hinges on the idea that Christian’s fallen state means he takes out his pain on other people:
“I’m a sadist, Ana. I like to whip little brown-haired girls like you because you all look like that crack whore—my birth mother.”
— Christian, Fifty Shades Darker, p329
His fallen state also means he acts in a controlling way with people – often being extremely curt. “I exercise control in all things” is Christian’s famous statement right at the beginning of Fifty Shades of Grey (p10).
And he directs his bouts of anger at people.
But for all this, Christian is held up as the businessman to work with and work for. Those closest to the brunt of his anger, particularly his on-call chauffeur, don’t mind his manner. And Christian doesn’t apologise for it even when Ana challenges him.
Moreover, even Christian’s sadism has a limited impact. The narrative holds that Christian understands negotiation and consent because he talked about the idea of negotiation. The narrative holds that he respected the women he had sex with, because he sugared them. According to the narrative, Christian’s problem is his motivation, not his actions.
This means his anger and controlling tendencies don’t really harm his business relationships or his personal relationships. Instead, the badly-motivated sadism is presented as Christian’s shame and – importantly – it exists in isolation from Christian’s wider life.
From this perspective, Christian’s world doesn’t seem very cursed to me.
On the other hand, if Christian’s curse is the self-righteousness in his temper, his coerciveness, and his profligate use of money, then his world is very dark. And it’s not one that changes much by the end.
Yes, I know he eventually says he’s left the BDSM lifestyle behind (FSF, p507), but he still sees fit to control Ana’s body and how she should give birth (FSF, p547) and Ana still has to plead for him not to be angry with her after she suggests a name for their unborn daughter (FSF, p541).
I’ll come back to this later. Meanwhile…
Beast’s curse – the impact on him
The prince’s body becomes that of a monstrous animal. He loses his face and even his name (we never find out what it is). This is a savage assault on his humanity and identity.
And he’s isolated.
Yeah, I’d call that a state of living death.
Beast’s curse – the impact on others
All the servants become objects.
They are cursed. They know they are cursed. They long to be free. They are not free.
They didn’t do anything to deserve their state, but that’s what happens when someone does something bad: other people get hurt.
And it’s not just people who are affected: the castle decorations become gargoyles and the surrounding woodland becomes a wasteland.
Beast’s world is very cursed. In the opening scene the narrator refers to the spell as a ‘powerful enchantment’ – but that’s because it’s Disney appealing to children.
It’s a curse, really.
The curse should illustrate an underlying reality
Where Fifty Shades should be illustrating Christian’s fallen state, the narrative is incoherent.
He is controlling and moody, but his employees are happy. He is trying to exorcise the demons of his past, but is ultra hot and unfailingly sexy. In reality, people don’t feel free working in environments where the person at the top is impatient, exacting and brusque. In reality, people with unhealthy coping mechanisms hinder themselves and hurt other people.
On the flip side, Christian’s actions are very illustrative of an underlying sense of entitlement. For example, when he takes Ana back to his apartment and undresses her while she’s unconscious. Or when he gives her welts on her arms as a punishment for accidentally sunbathing topless on – get this – a nudist beach. Or when he sells her car without her consent. Or when she tells him to stay away but he rocks up anyway. Or when he repeatedly blames her for his actions. Or when he… you get the idea.
He makes sense if seen as a very privileged person making excuses for the ways he tries to control Ana. If a misplaced sense of entitlement was his curse, his actions would certainly illustrate his condition and make a coherent plot. Except it wouldn’t be a redemption story, it would be one where he snares a naive young woman into a life where she has virtually no autonomy.
There is, I think, a very simple reason for why the narrative is so confused:
Christian’s curse serves the plot.
This is one of the reasons why Fifty Shades fails so badly at being a redemption story: it’s not about Christian being brought out of his cursed and fallen state – it’s about Ana’s suffering. That’s why Christian’s foibles and Ana’s circumstances contrive again and again to repeat the same conflicts over and over in slightly different ways. That’s why Ana’s innocence gets emphasised so much. Because, supposedly, the more she suffers, the more she’s saving Christian. And it’s that act of ‘saving suffering’ that matters, not what he might be saved for.
In Beauty and the Beast, however:
Beast’s curse illustrates his condition.
He is in a state of living death, from which he cannot hope to escape on his own. He is affected by it wholesale. And so is everyone and everything around him.
And all of them want it to end.
LUMIERE: Uh, master. Have you thought that, perhaps, this girl could be the one to break the spell?
BEAST: Of course I have. I’m not a fool.
— Beauty and the Beast (1991)
 If you want to know more on why the negotiation in Fifty Shades isn’t consensual, search for the world ‘rape’ in Das Sporking’s summing up of FSOG; or for the word ‘consent’ in Jenny Trout’s Grey recap for 25 May 2011; or the word ‘negotiation’ in Pervocracy’s analysis of FSOG chapter 7. Content note: All these links have strong language, discuss sexual violence and discussion of BDSM.)
This is the third and final post in a series on redemption, comparing Beauty and the Beast with Fifty Shades. You can find an index of all the posts here.