Fifty Shades of Jane
By now, you may have heard that the filmed adaptation of a pop-culture work with a legion of breathless fans is coming to a multiplex near you this weekend.
I refer, of course, to Kingsman: The Secret Service.
Yes, the wait is finally over for the cinematic translation of Fifty Shades of Grey, the most successful fanfic since. . . well, pretty much since the Aeneid inaugurated the genre in 19 BCE. And just because the original reads like something written in purple gel pen on the pages of a spiral-bound notebook covered with unicorns and rainbows doesn’t mean the movie won’t be worth seeing. (Or so I told my husband when I pre-ordered the tickets for our Valentine’s Day dinner-and-movie date. We are a couple united by a shared sense of irony. At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.)
Because Fifty Shades tells the tale of a virginal young woman and a rich, powerful, slightly older man whom she finds both attractive and repulsive, the Pride and Prejudice comparisons have appeared irresistible from Minute One, especially for people hoping to elevate E.L. James’s potboiler into something more respectable than mommy porn. (For instance, the film’s producer Michael De Luca draws the parallel in this Vanity Fair story.)
Personally, I don’t buy it. P&P is the original prototype of the she-hates-him-then-she-loves-him plot, now a staple of half the romantic comedies on the planet, but Fifty Shades doesn’t fit this template. For one thing, Anastasia Steele is hot for Christian Grey from the minute she lays eyes on him. And who can blame her? It’s not every day that you meet a single, show-stoppingly handsome, super-buff, twenty-something billionaire who spends his spare cash on shipments to Darfur.
Fifty Shades is an exemplar of a different plot: the rake-redeemed-by-the-love-of-a-good-woman story, whose progenitress is not Jane Austen but Charlotte Brontë, in Jane Eyre.* This particular fantasy has a potent hold on the female imagination, as anyone who has ever wept over a loser boyfriend she hoped to change can attest. Men may choose to believe that all women secretly yearn to be rescued by a dashing Prince Charming on a white horse, but I think many women prefer to imagine themselves doing the rescuing. “In the very limited time that you’ve known him, you’ve made more progress with my patient than I have in the last two years,” Christian’s therapist tells Ana in Book Two of the trilogy. Talk about sexual healing! Christian may wield the flogger, but Ana is the one with the power to whip him into shape.
Female-driven rake-redemption is not a Jane Austen trope. Mr. Darcy changes, but not because Elizabeth listens empathetically to the story of his bad childhood. Captain Wentworth changes, but not because Anne Elliot refuses to dump him no matter how badly he behaves. Austen’s heroes change because they engage in a painful process of introspection and self-criticism, undertaken with no guarantee that the women they love will be there for them at the end. They do the work of moral improvement for its own sake, not in hope of a reward, and they do it alone – as do Elizabeth and Emma, humbled and redeemed by hard-won insight into their own arrogance.
I suspect Austen would find the Jane Eyre/Ana Steele plot to be sentimental and improbable. Her most complicated rakes remain stubbornly unredeemed by novel’s end. Henry Crawford, accustomed to instant sexual gratification, can’t muster the patience required to prove himself worthy of Fanny Price; John Willoughby, addicted to unaffordable luxuries, won’t give up his hunters even for the love of a woman as good as Marianne Dashwood. These men cannot change, because they lack the strength of character change requires, and no woman can supply that strength when it’s lacking.
Jane Austen is probably right about the improbability of the female rescue fantasy. Nevertheless, I adore Jane Eyre, and I will admit to a sneaking semi-fondness for Fifty Shades. The plotting is amateurish and the writing is horrible, but the book has that indefinable thing that keeps you turning the pages, and as a writer, I do not disdain that quality – far from it. I’m looking forward to my Valentine’s Day date, with or without a side order of irony.
* Or, arguably, Samuel Richardson, in Pamela.