Instead of a recap today, I wanted to share something that has been bothering me a lot. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Something someone probably already wrote about at length in the comments and then I got high and thought I had the idea myself. But I hope not.
If we were to rank the problems with E.L. James’s The Mister, the most outrageous offense would clearly be her xenophobic and stereotypical depictions of Albania. There’s nothing I can add to the condemnation of this that hasn’t already been covered by readers from Eastern Europe–or by the country of Albania itself. But the insidious, anti-feminist programming message runs through both the Fifty Shades of Grey books and The Mister would certainly come in second.
The core message of Fifty Shades of Grey was not “love conquers all,” despite the protestations of its most fervent defenders. The message to women everywhere was clear: if a man will stop at nothing to possess you, if he desires you so much that he will cross every boundary you set, that he will grossly violate your privacy and isolate you from family and friends as he carefully trains you to passively endure his explosive temper and selfish pursuit of his own sexual pleasure, that is proof of love. That is proof that Anastasia Steel and, by extension, you, are desirable, Reader. This is the ultimate fantasy and the ultimate, modern, intelligent young woman like Ana was rational enough to see that and abandon her own agency, as it was the only way she would truly find the happiness all woman must secretly want.
At first glance, The Mister seemed as though it would be objectively better than Fifty Shades of Grey. Alessia Demache is so different from Anastasia Steel in many respects. Over and over, Christian Grey praises Ana’s bravery and intellect, but as we never see her do anything particularly brave or intelligent until the climax of the final story, these fawning compliments read like emotional manipulation. Alessia is, by contrast, an actual survivor. Brave enough to escape from human traffickers, highly educated and musically talented, she starts out her narrative as a full-fledged person, rather than a sex doll waiting to be booted up. But that same idea, that love requires submission and passivity, moves from the forefront to become an inescapable background pattern in The Mister. A pattern that even a critical reader might not hear over the steady repetition of, “At least she knows what masturbation is,” running through their relieved brains.
We learn, in long conversations that describe Albania with the same level of dignity and fairness with which Bond movies portrayed the U.S.S.R., about Alessia’s father, a domestic abuser who prowls around their medieval village with a rifle, a man she fears will kill her should she dishonor his name. We know that her mother didn’t marry for love, and after Alessia is sold to a man she doesn’t want to marry, her mother sends her away to avoid the wedding–and the honor killing. Shortly after Alessia tearfully confesses parts of this to Maxim, she considers the coldness of her parents’ marriage and the true love of her grandparents.
Alessia’s Nana is described as nothing less than a political dissident. Know the danger of spreading the word of the Lord in then militarily secular communist Albania, she went to the country as a missionary. This is where she met Alessia’s grandfather and fell so in love that she abandoned the Free World to move to the Eastern Bloc. Even while living under state censorship, Nana smuggled contraband books from England. Nana was a rule-breaker living in a country that, according to James, is a harshly repressed, unforgiving social landscape in which women are nothing more than livestock and brutal patriarchy reigns.
No country is uniform in its cultures and traditions. As there are people in every country who challenge outdated social mores, there are those who uphold them. Albania is no exception. It has to be true that Alessia’s grandfather was more forward-thinking on issues of gender and relationships than Alessia’s father is, since the former married a woman who would take risks to subvert the power of the state, even just a little bit. Otherwise, we must believe that true love convinced Nana to sacrifice all personal agency and bow to the whims of a man who upholds the subjugation of women. This approach asks us to allow that a woman can still be strong and forward thinking even as she surrenders her principles and raises her daughter to accept that abuse is a normal and expected part of marriage. That she has a tremendous liberal Western influence over her granddaughter, but chose not to impart these same lessons to her daughter and instead raised her to be a docile peasant wife. That this is a conscious choice a woman can make without diminishing her standing as a feminist inspiration to younger generations.
Even if we entertain the argument that Nana’s Christian beliefs may have made archaic gender roles more personally appealing as a marriage model and child-rearing strategy, James is still encouraging us to view such an abandonment of autonomy as a necessary component of a love story. It’s just that this time, she’s managed to make it more subtle, half-covering it with a wan blanket of white feminist characterization on the page, rather than in exasperated damage control tantrums in the media. Instead of invoking the importance of a woman’s sexual pleasure to drown out critics, she’s created a talented, multi-layered heroine who’s had to overcome real adversity. Yet, when the chips are down, Alessia wonders if her grandmother’s “crazy ideas about independence and liberation” have damaged her ability to live a moral life–the dismal one her mother accepted for herself and which she trained Alessia for.
Am I accusing James of sitting down and carefully plotting this out like an expert propagandist, cleverly aware of the damaging anti-feminist ideals her work glamorizes? No. I could make a snarky comment here about her not being a savvy enough creator to pull such a feat off, but the truth is so much worse. Internalized misogyny is like radiation or carbon monoxide: there’s no obvious proof that it’s there but that doesn’t mean it isn’t contaminating everything. The success of the Fifty Shades of Grey series was arsenic wallpaper on the public consciousness. It was subjectively attractive and that was enough to make readers ignore its underlying poison. Some people are simply unaware of its dangers; others see a profit to be made in introducing a toxic product to the masses. I don’t believe E.L. James is the wallpaper manufacturer. I think she just adores this particular shade of green and doesn’t see the harm in recommending her interior decorator to others.