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The Insidious Underlying Message of ‘The Mister’

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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.

Jealous Haters Book Club: The Mister chapter twenty-one or “I would prefer not to.”

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Since I don’t have any news about The Mister, I’m going to shamelessly hijack your eyeballs for news of my own: The Boss, which began as a serial I wrote to subvert the tropes in Fifty Shades of Grey, spawned a seven-book series, the first five of which are now becoming available in serial form on the Radish app. Since its premiere on May 20th, it’s a #1 trending title with over 100,000 views. Are you kidding me? Is this real life?

If you’ve never read the series but you’ve always been mildly curious, this is a great way to dip your toes in. A new episode unlocks for free every day, and if you want to read ahead, you can pay a few cents to unlock more chapters.

Tell your friends! Tell your neighbors! Tell your parents that you’ve found a great hardcore BDSM soap opera! They’re gonna love to hear about that!

In other news, while this is gonna translate to some extra income next quarter (which is sorely needed), my husband severely injured himself about a month ago and has missed some work and is rapidly accumulating medical bills, resulting in a big income shortfall this month which is a supergiant pain in my ass. ZERO pressure, but if you’ve been thinking, “I should send money to Jenny’s Kofi,” this is a good time. I absolutely hate mentioning it (hence the stupid thing at the bottom of all my posts, sitting there like a guilt bomb when you finish reading the damn thing, sorry about that) especially after I just mentioned it not too long ago, but man, I have been super broke lately. If it ain’t one thing, it’s another. There’s always ups and downs, right? Don’t sit there like, “OH MY GOD I FEEL BAD BECAUSE JENNY IS GOING TO DIE IN THE GUTTER! I AM STEALING FOOD FROM HER CHILDRENS’ MOUTHS BY READING THIS CONTENT WITHOUT GIVING HER A DOLLAR!” because I won’t and you aren’t. I’m Domino. I always luck out somehow (and my weed hook-up extends credit). If you can donate and want to, awesome, if you can’t or don’t want to, you’re still awesome because you’re here.

PS. Mr.Jen’s injury is some kind of spinal nerve damage thing that’s causing severe chronic pain in his shoulder and arm. At least, that’s what they’re going with for now. We don’t know how he got injured, which is complicating the diagnosis and treatment; all we know is that he woke up suddenly with 10/10 pain and a cramp in his trapezius muscle that won’t ease up with any muscle relaxers that they’ve tried. He’s on a shit ton of drugs to control pain and help him sleep (which they barely do), as well as so many OTC pain relieving patches and gels that he smells like the dirty, loose Certs at the bottom of a grandma’s purse. Cross your fingers that’s it something simple to fix and I’ll keep you guys updated if you’re interested in knowing what’s happening with him.

Now, let’s escape from the career realities of a working writer, into a magical world of a super popular novel written with as much care as one would take with a grocery list.

Jealous Haters Book Club: The Mister chapter twenty or, “The plot deigns to make an appearance.”

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You know what’s really difficult? Finding news to report on this book. I haven’t even seen much ado about E.L. James’s BookCon panel over the weekend. Either I’ve unfollowed all the right people on social media, or all the right people have blocked me. Either way, I’m good, but at least Twitter pulled through for me in one respect. My awesome Twitter friend Quiana sent me pictures of some kind of promotional box for The Mister that includes pink granny panties, Windolene wipes, and artsy black-and-white photos of the Cornish countryside.

Imagine opening up your super amazing publisher promo or subscription box or whatever this thing was and finding underpants and cleaning products. Ah, the romance.

May Patron Appreciation Post!

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It’s that time of month! My Patreon patrons get new fantasy-novel names and classes in this haphazard video I shot on the wrong SD card so it looks like it’s coming to you straight from 2005!

As always, I so appreciate all my Patreon patrons, all my friends who toss money in my Kofi, all the people who are broke but tell their friends, “Hey, there’s a cool blog you should check out!” Everyone who comes here supports me in some way, monetarily or just by showing up, you’re all badass for helping me support my family by doing the only job I’ve ever been able to keep!

Jealous Haters Book Club: The Mister, chapter nineteen or, “Nothing Says I Love You Like A Gun”

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Hold the fucking presses. We’ve got news and it’s going to be music to your dick. Which is, incidentally, one of the more maligned phrases from this god awful book. I mean, imagine, writing “music to my dick” in your manuscript. Imagine how totally devoid of literary self-awareness one must have to confidently put that phrase into the world. Imagine it. The hubris. Imagine sitting down and typing that on purpose.

Now, imagine you did it twice.

In the interest of due diligence, I looked up the phrase “music to my dick” in Grey.

Her sharp intake of breath is music to my dick.

We should have started keeping track of the number of copy/paste phrases and incidents have meandered into The Mister from the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. At this point, I’m assuming we’re a few pages from Maxim exclaiming, “I’m fifty Misters of fucked up, Alessia!”

Jealous Haters Book Club: The Mister, chapter eighteen or “Pussy Wreck”

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I try to update these with news about The Mister or E.L. James…but this book has all but dropped off the face of the zeitgeist. The initial, desperate clamoring for hype has trickled out. A month after release, the book has fallen out of the Amazon top one hundred. It’s fallen off the top twenty-five releases on BookScan. It’s being beaten by After. In other words, while The Mister sold better than most authors can expect, it did not do the work the publisher had to have been expecting on the heels of blockbuster after blockbuster. Consider: Grey moved over a million copies in its first week. The Mister moved 68,500 copies upon debut, and the numbers have fallen by tens of thousands with each subsequent week.

Hey, remember all that “a rising tide raises all boats” nonsense that romance authors touted to explain why it was okay for E.L. James to rip off someone else’s work and write hundreds of thousands of words glamorizing domestic abuse? You know, because it was bringing so many new readers into the genre and we were all going to make bank? Yeah, if those wonderful new readers had stuck around, The Mister would be doing comparable numbers. Instead, it seems that all Fifty Shades of Grey did was create a weird cottage industry of thin-skinned self-pubbers in an arms race for who can write the most disturbing books chock full of rape, stalking, abuse, and forced pregnancy, who crank out their 10k short stories every week with the help of underpaid ghostwriters so they can game the KU algorithm and make bank.

How’s that rising tide, everybody? You drowning yet? Hope your allegiance was worth it.

Jealous Haters Book Club: The Mister chapter seventeen or “Forget the plot, tell me where you put the bags!”

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Hey there, everybody! Before we get started, I’ve got a housekeeping detail for Trout Nation and it is a DOOZY. Starting yesterday, you’ll be able to read my Sophie Scaife series (written as Abigail Barnette) on the Radish app! A new episode will release every day, Monday through Friday, and the first twenty or so episodes of The Boss are free so you can try before you buy!

Also,  shout out to whoever left the Amazon review for Where We Land that pointed out the book is nothing like Poldark. I’ve had so many people mention that to me over the weekend.

Okay, now, let’s get into this book. The one you came here for. The one you don’t want to keep reading but find yourself inexplicably drawn back to.

Let’s get into.

The Mister.

Which, by the by, was a “deal of the day” on several book blogs last week when it was offered as a $2.99 sale ebook on Amazon. Like Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels, The Mister has also been moved into categories it does not belong in to retain the illusion of super high sales numbers. Right now, it’s the #2 bestseller in “Mothers and Children Fiction” and #4 in “Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense Literary Fiction.”

Again, let me be clear: The Mister would be a dream success for any author who previously hadn’t written the bestselling book of all time or whatever. But if you are that author, and your publishing house has thrown gobs of money behind your book launch? And you’ve been on television all over the world to promote it? And done numerous print interviews?

You shouldn’t be getting your ass handed to you in your own category by Kindle Unlimited banging-my-billionaire-stepbrother books.

Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber made a video from which you will never recover.

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If you don’t follow me on Twitter, you may be unaware that I’ve been pretty obsessed with Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s romantic new song, “I Don’t Care.” The song tells the story of “a party we don’t want to be at,” but reassures the listeners that it’s okay “when I’m with my baby.”

There is absolutely no way that someone sat down and listened to this song, in which the lyrics never make it clear that the two men singing the song aren’t lobbing cute lines like, “Tryna talk, but we can’t hear ourselves/Read your lips, I’d rather kiss ’em right back” and “‘Cause I don’t care as long as you just hold me near/You can take me anywhere/And you’re making me feel like I’m loved by somebody” to each other instead of some unnamed woman in the song.

“But Jenny,” you might be thinking, “Just because a woman isn’t explicitly mentioned doesn’t mean that they’re not singing about women.” Which is true…about any other artists. Both Bieber and Sheeran write music that is aggressively heterosexual, dropping “girl” liberally, almost as if assuring everyone that, no, definitely the person I am singing about is a woman. Sure, not every single song tosses in feminine pronouns or descriptions of long hair and dresses, but most songs in their catalogs make it clear that they are straight, straight, straight men who love the ladies.

Not this song, friends.

Not this one.

And it is glorious.

But I’m not here today to prove the queerness of the song to you. No. I am here to discuss the absolutely bonkers video that accompanies it.

Click the jump to step into a world of bizarre pleasure you never dreamed existed.

Jealous Haters Book Club: The Mister, chapter fifteen or, “I was so bored, I forgot to include this part of the title.”

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No real news, except The Mister did move up from #4 to #3 on the New York Times bestseller list. It has yet to reach #1 on either NYT or USA Today. Which is a great example of exactly how the success of one title doesn’t automatically translate into the success of the next title, even for authors with blockbusters.

Since it’s a slow news day, it’s a great time to remind everyone that any typos or misspellings in the quoted text are my fault unless otherwise noted. I’m really bad at typing. Also, remember that I don’t post the full text of the chapter, just selections, and I sometimes might not mention a detail like, “he took off his shirt,” or something before an excerpt where he’s shirtless. Consider any inconsistencies in that vein the result of omission, unless I point it out.

This is also another great time to remind everyone that I have a book out that has been deemed “adorable” by readers, and you can find out more details here.