Can I love Heathcliff but loathe Christian Grey?
Do you think Christian Grey a violent obsessive with a downright nasty jealous streak? Or is he just another romantic, powerful hero in a similar vein to Heathcliff or Darcy?
I ask this because the 50 Shades of Grey film comes out in February, just in time for Valentine’s Day lovers to bond over popcorn and butt plugs. I’m going to see it myself with a gang of other 30-something mums, so I’m thinking of making us letter t-shirts that spell out ‘T-A-R-G-E-T A-U-D-I-E-N-C-E’.
But, despite looking forward to a giggly evening and a massive bag of Revels, I have very little time for the 50 Shades hero, Christian Grey, who is portrayed in the books as a controlling obsessive with a nasty adolescent streak. I honestly don’t understand the fascination; however pleasurably perverted he may be in bed there’s surely something very unappealing about a man who will tell you your skirt is too short to leave the house? Oh, he’s big on safe-words in the Red Room of Pain, but there’s no safe-word to stop him alienating Ana from her friends and pressuring her into giving up work.
Yet when I mentioned this to a fangirl friend, she rolled her eyes and reminded me that I had chosen a reading from Wuthering Heights at my wedding.
“Honestly, apart from the quality of writing, what’s the difference between those characters? They’re both sexy, they’re both dicks,” she asserted.
Now, if you haven’t read Wuthering Heights then you probably think it’s a bosom-heaving romance set in the wilds of Yorkshire to a Kate Bush soundtrack. If you have read it, you’ll know it’s the slightly incestuous story of two squabbling farmers, a fairly unlikable heroine, weeping ghosts of children, and far, far more hate than love. There’s no sex, but by god there’s erotic tension – more than in all three 50 Shades books put together (yes I read them, no I didn’t enjoy them. Erotica where you start skipping through the sex scenes isn’t erotic).
But I had to admit that my friend had a point; there are definitely some similarities between the characters. Both are tortured by a traumatic childhood, both are obsessed with a woman they say they love, both are powerful men in their respective universes, and both have a penchant for violence. In fact, you could argue that Heathcliff is even worse than Christian because he doesn’t come with safe-words.
And there’s the small factor of him toying with infanticide, brutally assaulting his wife, and attempting nothing less than the total annihilation of an entire generation, just because the girl he liked married somebody else (sorry, should I have issued a spoiler warning? Only the book came out 168 years ago, and this isn’t exactly The Apprentice final).
But I feel compelled to defend the Heathcliff antihero, who has been my literary fantasy of choice for the best part of 20 years. He is better than Christian, despite that bit where he tries to kill a puppy.
The fundamental difference is in the women these antiheroes fall in love with; Christian Grey falls for a submissive, passive, meek little girl who lacks agency, lacks power and stops eating for five days after they break up. How she survived into her twenties is beyond me. Meanwhile Heathcliff falls for the only person that he considers an equal; the fiery, passionate, assertive Cathy. She is anything but passive, actually steering their romance towards its doom.
Another thing that makes Heathcliff romantic but Christian creepy as hell, is how their writers describe their flaws. Heathcliff is a bastard, but he’s presented honestly as a bastard; he’s not even handsome. At one point, he almost breaks the fourth wall by mocking Isabella’s attraction to him. He’s recounting the moment he hanged her pet spaniel and sneers: “But no brutality disgusted her: I suppose she has an innate admiration of it.” I can never read that without picturing Emily Bronte raising an eyebrow at the readers who find Heathcliff romantic, possibly even laughing at herself for the same.
Compare that to Christian Grey, whose least appealing characteristics are actually romanticised; written as if they are proof of his undying love. For example, in the third novel our hero tells his bride: “I’m not very happy about you wearing so little right now.” This is on a beach, by the way. Yet moments later Ana’s “inner goddess purrs” (yuck) and she decides to do “some kind of floor show tonight for his eyes only”. It’s so romantic, right? If your partner is jealous enough to hate you wearing swimwear to swim in then why not reward him with a sexy dance later that day? You lucky girl, he must really love you.
Yet Heathcliff stands back while Cathy marries someone else; he respects her autonomy even as it destroys them. At one point he talks about the man she chose to marry, explaining: “I would never have banished him from her society as long as she desired his. The moment her regard ceased I would have torn his heart out and drunk his blood! But, till then – if you don’t believe me you don’t know me – till then I would have died by inches before I touched a hair of his head.”
Come on, that’s romantic.
Of course, while I may be comparing antiheroes, there’s clearly no comparison between the books as works of literature. In fact, it’s pretty unfair of me to pit the two against each other, a bit like comparing Tennyson poetry with lyrics from Goldie Lookin Chain.
After all, Wuthering Heights includes breathtakingly beautiful, passionate paragraphs – like this from Heathcliff: “Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable. I cannot live without my life; I cannot live without my soul!”
Passion in 50 Shades includes lines like “He’s my very own Christian Grey-flavour popsicle… He’s soft and hard at once, like steel encased in velvet, and surprisingly tasty.” I don’t need to ask which one you find more arousing, I hope. And seriously, ‘surprisingly tasty’? If you have ever described oral sex in that way then you shouldn’t be allowed to talk to people anymore. Or have sex.
So when people defend 50 Shades of Grey by arguing that Christian is simply another brooding, powerful antihero in the style of Heathcliff or Mr Rochester or Darcy (my three earliest loves), I can confidently disagree. Those three characters have their demons and all three are occasionally pretty unpleasant to their corresponding heroines. Yet none of them feel a need to control their lover’s diet, or restrict their access to their friends, or ask them to dress less attractively in front of other men.
They respect them and that is why they are great romantic heroes, while Christian Grey is plain old creepy.
Enjoy your popcorn.