“This is a contract. Read it carefully, then sign.”
-Fifty Shades of Grey
“I present to you, a Relationship agreement. A binding covenant, that in its 51 pages enumerates, iterates and codifies the rights and responsibilities of Sheldon Lee Cooper, here and after known as ‘the Boyfriend’ and Amy Farrah Fowler, here and after known as ‘the Girlfriend’ ”
“It’s so romantic!”
-The Big Bang Theory
Christian Grey drafted a BDSM contract for Anastasia Steele, but the contract was not exclusive to their relationship. Many real life Dominants and Submissives have been writing long agreements or at least verbally discussing them long before Fifty Shades of Grey came out. However, these contracts are far more explicit and painfully detailed than the one we see in Fifty Shades of Grey. While it is easy to dismiss these dominant submissive relationships as “slavery” and “anti feminist”, this seems as though we are allowing a much-too-easy reading of the relationship. However, after collecting information, it is more convoluted than it seems. First, the contract, which seems embarrassing and demeaning, is still very much a confident assertion of consent by both parties to enter this relationship. If you are consenting to have this relationship and are taking the time to explain your likes and dislikes to each other while participating in this activity (this includes nicknames for each, punishment and limits), then the assumption of this kind of connection being slavery at all becomes problematic. There is no such thing as consensual slavery. Slavery implies you belong to someone against your will. The element of sado- masochism is definitely a major part of this relationship. However, willing, understanding and intelligent individuals agree to this with eyes open. This means we have entered a society that even has a space for consensual sadism and masochism, without marginalizing or shunning. In a world where such fantasies which are passed off as humiliating by many, some can find titillating. They can be carried out in safe circumstances, without any actual rape or abuse. This only means that we have created a place in society, which is becoming mainstream, for this sexual behavior.
Fifty Shades of Grey problematizes this subculture, as it simultaneously both brings it to the mainstream, and is responsible for the “sex slavery” notions regarding it. There is a somewhat scandalous contract in the book; however, this contract is never signed. This means that all the sexual activity that occurs between Christian and Anastasia, where he “takes her” can be seen as abuse rather than BDSM, and is actual slavery as he stalks her, limits her movements and controls her food intake without her consent. Ironically, Anastasia sees a written acknowledgement of her consent as a subversion of her freedom, and feels that she withholds her freedom by not signing, believing it will make her his “sex slave”, while submitting to him and his every whim anyhow, a glaring contradiction. At this point, the novel becomes little more than a lengthy kinky rape fantasy. She does exactly what he wants, while not mentioning any of her desires. In almost demeaning fashion, she lets him force himself on her before she gives him consent to do anything to her. Perhaps the only empowering moment is the contract negotiation, where Anastasia takes on an assertive role, recognizes she wants this relationship and decides to go forward with it. After research, she comes to informed decisions about what she would like or not like. However, this is instantly subverted after, when Christian attempts to seduce her.
Another factor is that Anastasia is a virgin; this shouldn’t be a problem, but the author assumes lack of sexual experience equals non-existent sexual knowledge. Anastasia has never heard of BDSM, doesn’t know what sex toys are and has no idea about sex. All this, despite being a young woman in her twenties, with a college degree and apparently of high intellect. She is also often downright naïve and foolish. For instance, she signed an NDA without reading it. She doesn’t question the man who finds her in her place of work and can track her movements. In response to Fifty Shades, many real-life Submissives wrote out in protest about Grey controlling every facet of Anastasia’s life, her movements, her food or drink, thus treating her not even like a slave, but like a child.
The contract for their relationship provides an uncomfortable juxtaposition between the sexual and the rational. Every painstaking detail of their forthcoming relationship is etched out in detail. However, Anastasia being a newcomer to this kind of relationship is handed this lengthy formality without any former context by Christian, and instead of feeling any kind of understanding and questioning of her motives, of whether she wants this relationship, the contract evokes shock, humor and ridicule, at best, from the audience. The contract in the book and the movie exists to be redundant. The only form of consent that can save their relationship is left to evoke horror and comedy, and to be consequently ignored in favor of Steele’s natural need to please Grey.
The other occasion when any such contract for a relationship was drawn was in “The Big Bang Theory”, where Sheldon Cooper attempts to enter into a relationship with Amy. Juxtapose “Fifty Shades of Grey” ’s contract with Sheldon Cooper’s Relationship Agreement with Amy Farrah Fowler and we can draw some interesting conclusions. He is a brilliant scientist who cannot negotiate the emotional and romantic without intellectualizing it. On surface, this too seems simple, he is attempting to enter a relationship the only way he knows how: logically, by planning every single detail about it in advance. His Asperger’s makes him emotionally incapable of spontaneity. He is someone we can sympathize with. He has never had a romantic experience in his life, and is approaching on solid ground. Unlike Grey, he is an innocent; in the sense the he does not understand sexual overtones in his adult relationship. In fact, seeing Amy’s repeated attempts for physical proximity, he is the only innocent in the relationship. If he is ever kinky, it is unknowingly. Unlike Christian Grey, his only explanation for a relationship of this kind is not a somewhat traumatic formative life and the famous and utterly meaningless “fifty shades of fucked up”. Grey takes undue advantage of Steele, but Sheldon does not know how to take advantage. Additionally, “The Big Bang Theory” is a comedy show from the outset, which means that the contract is meant to evoke humor, unlike the contract from “Fifty Shades of Grey”, which is meant to be scandalous, but evokes humor unwittingly. However, it not all black and white here either. He writes the Agreement, but he has it in his favor. Sheldon in his own way does not relinquish control either. He accommodates all his needs and wants, telling Amy she is free to find a lawyer if she disagrees with anything. Sheldon is decidedly asexual, while Christian Grey (clear from the recent novel “Grey”) seems to think of nothing else but kinky sex. However, these two men approach relationships in similar ways- through iron clad legal contracts where they hold all the strings.
Again we sympathize more with Sheldon as we understand that he would never abuse Amy. However, Grey does not think he is abusing Steele, any more than Sheldon is accommodating Amy’s desires. Furthermore, Steele only tells him (or maybe only realizes) at the end of the first book that he is abusing her. We might say that Sheldon changes over time; he becomes more human, and Amy has incredible influence over him and manages to make him more sympathetic and understanding to those around him. However, cannot the same be said for Grey? He too understands by the end of the tedious trilogy that Anastasia is willing to continue only some of the activity they used to do and not others, and he accepts it. The physical proximity that Anastasia too covets (to sleep next to him, kiss him or to touch him outside of his playroom) is something she manages to get from Christian. Similarly, in recent episodes, Amy finally sleeps with Sheldon. Grey negotiates his relationship the way he knows how, by abusing and stalking his love interest. He has been the victim of a pedophile, in a kind of relationship that sounds horrific to everyone but himself. Even Anastasia notices how frightening it sounds, and says so multiple times, though the author attempts to write this off mere sexual jealousy. This is what distorts his understanding of a romantic relationship. He thinks caring is controlling and obsession, because he has never had a healthy relationship. Counter to this, Sheldon’s fight is more internal, he has a mental acumen, a genius, which will always be a burden to him and mar his interactions with everyone else.
While the contract in The Big Bang Theory is the backbone of their romantic relationship that only gets healthier and healthier, despite taking numerous years to do so, the contract in Fifty Shades serves as a nod to the BDSM subculture. Their relationship, some might believe, becomes healthy after they marry one another, but this is somewhat reminiscent of the patriarchal idea of forgiving and marrying a man who has hurt you simply because he “loves” you. How can Anastasia’s journey from novice in BDSM to wife of dominant be seen as acceptable when the only aspect of consent is forsaken to give an illusion of romance to their relationship? And when the narrative tries at every turn to deny equality between the two characters. Conversely, Sheldon Cooper draws a contract to attempt a healthy normal relationship and does not move forward in it until Amy has signed. Sheldon shows an endearing streak of nobility here and we can’t help but be in his corner, as he has found a woman who will surely be his equal in this relationship and who he attempts to be more normal for.