The Internal Battle Between Clocks and Cocks: A Critical Analysis of 50 Shades of GC

Last month, a mysterious stack of untitled and unattributed papers appeared in the mailroom and thus began the illustrious 50 Shades of GC. Though a casual reading may cause only blushes or arousal, this piece of writing has sparked academic debates surrounding the identity of the author and, more importantly, the work’s multiple layers of meaning. The piece provides a harsh critique of Grinnell College students, yet the work’s many layers take this criticism far beyond the walls of this college and show a young woman’s struggle to assimilate within a culture of systemic oppression and psychological violence. The protagonist’s sense of self and identity are embroiled in conflict as she searches for a means to reconcile her position in academia with the life that she left behind in the south side of Chicago. This coming of age story implicates the patriarchal system as an oppressive force, which overpowers and shatters her boundaries of consumption, physicality, and reality.

In the opening paragraphs of chapter one, the protagonist, Amy, is established as an outsider from her peers and as a student who is deeply preoccupied with her working class home life and upbringing. Her brother, a looming tragic hero, and her neighborhood are put in direct contrast to “the MacBook toting, Calvin Klein wearing crowd of individuals who were supposedly [Amy’s] peers.” Amy criticizes the typical college student for embracing a capitalist amor sceleratus habendi (“accursed love of possession”) that the dominant culture embodies, which excludes her as she is unable to participate due to her socio-economic status. Amy’s station at work, creating customizable pasta dishes, places her, even amongst her academic peers, as a member of Marx’s proletariat. She continues to live out Marx’s vision that: “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” In her position behind the pasta bar, Amy is quite literally face to face with her bourgeoisie oppressors and forced into their servitude by her need to work in order to continue her education, which is presented as a savior from her working-class station.

Academia is also an oppressive force in Amy’s life as she is governed by her workload, which includes weeks of computer science problem sets, a math test, and a political science paper. As she endlessly labors on the fourth floor of Burling Library, the small windows taunt her as, “Their laughably small size made the space seem almost more prison like.” An education at Grinnell promised Amy the possibility of upward mobility; it is intended “to save her from the gang culture that claimed her brother’s life two years ago.” Instead it has otherized her as it forces her to socialize to the capitalist, patriarchal norm and imprisons her in a structure of academia that she feels is necessary in order for her to succeed, but for which she feels no passion.

In order to survive as a working class student in a school where she feels caught in the midst of an eternal class battle, Amy attempts to assume passing privilege as a member of this capitalist culture by appearing to conform with the dominant conspicuous consumption. Amy wears a fake Rolex Yachtmaster II, “a timepiece that normally fetches a price of well over thirty thousand dollars, but sold on the streets by her brother and his gang of thugs for a fraction of the price.” The watch not only is expensive but also has a notably ‘preppy’ name, reminiscent of a privileged lifestyle that includes summering at Martha’s Vineyard and pastel polo shirts. The watch superficially masks Amy with a conforming semblance of wealth though ultimately it is an attempt to subvert capitalist privilege, as it was not lawfully acquired. It’s practical consequence, however, is a perpetuation of the watch as a status symbol. Her attempted insurrection through this timepiece is contrasted with the attraction that she feels for Ashton, who is in many ways an embodiment of the patriarchal society that she longs to remain free from. This creates, if you will, a dissonance between clocks and cocks, with which Amy is hopelessly struggling. Yet, this confusion is further complicated for Amy when this complex status symbol is mirrored back to Amy in Ashton by his fake Piaget Altipano watch. This conflict begins to indicate to the reader that Ashton has some startling similarities to Amy herself.

Amy not only attempts to appear as conforming to social norms with her watch, but also as performing whiteness. During Amy and Ashton’s sexual outburst in the Dining Hall, Amy is literally whitewashed by 2% milk before Ashton penetrates her. By breaking open the bag of milk, Ashton forces Amy to yield to normative whiteness, which moves her closer to the dominating sexual ideal and makes her more appropriate for his penetration. The significance of this intentional whitening is less obvious to the reader as it is masked behind the more sexually graphic images brought to mind by the milk; as whiteness is the norm, her coerced adherence to the white ideal passes relatively unnoticed. In the second chapter, Amy is studying in Burling and looks out over the snow. At first the snow is characterized as white, but, in the following sentence, the narrator describes the snow as “colorless.” As whiteness becomes more omnipresent, it also becomes more invisible. This subtle change suggests how white has become the unseen norm that Amy has internalized.

Ashton’s actions in whitewashing Amy before entering her suggest that Ashton is an embodiment of the patriarchy that Amy has, quite literally, internalized. The author provides very little personal information about him, stating only that he is in an economics class and he likes pesto. These qualities present him as a capitalist plutocrat socialized by and adhering to Grinnell’s ideals. From their first interaction, Ashton asserts his dominance over their relationship. He follows Amy into the dish room, barging through the back door without asking first, thus foreshadowing aspects of their sexual encounter in Burling and showing blatant disregard for D Hall policy. Amy reclaims some agency when she propositions Ashton but ultimately relinquishes her position of power by assuming a submissive role during their destructive D Hall sex.

The first installment of 50 Shades would serve as a rambunctious sexual awakening for Amy, but the following chapter leaves us with more concerning questions. The closing pages are characterized by a marked shift in tone as details become increasingly surreal, not unlike that of the Gothic novel. As Foucault argues in Madness and Civilization, “[The Gothic] liberation [from form] derives from a proliferation of meaning, from a self-multiplication of significance, weaving relationships so numerous… that they can no longer be deciphered except in the esoterism of knowledge.” This esoteric knowledge was violated in Burling when they knock over the bookcases, and thus leaves readers to wonder at the physical impossibilities described in this section. First, the unexplained appearance of the loathsome molasses cookies is nonsensical, as it is outside our realm of possibility that any student would want to hoard surplus bags of those cookies. Moreover, Ashton is miraculously able to spot Amy through Burling’s windows and then to hit said window with the aforementioned cookies. At this moment, the reader realizes that reality is amiss, but ironically Amy does not join in this realization until the chapter’s closing when she sees that the bookshelves have been righted to their original locations after they were toppled during a complete misapplication of Newton’s first and second laws of motion.

The author’s detailed portrayal of nearly impossible events causes confusion and we are left to wonder whether the whole interaction was actually a hallucination. This would suggest that Amy has so deeply internalized the patriarchy, that she hallucinated an embodiment of our patriarchal capitalist “democracy.” Thus, Amy is encountering a subset of herself that has been socialized by these dominating norms, which are, in turn, dominating her body. The widely discussed hallucination theory is further evidenced by Amy’s belief that she had met Ashton before, Ashton’s similarly pseudo-opulent time piece, their shared negative experiences regarding hot water – Amy’s mother was burned at her job at Starbucks and Ashton has an unspecified bad memory – and the preface specifying Betty’s realness, thus priming the readers to more closely examine assumed realities.

Furthermore, once their intercourse has begun, the two cease all communication simply seeming to inherently understand one another’s needs, including unlubed and unexpected rear entry, a sexual act which would usually require specific preparation and an intimate understanding of the partner’s body and consent. Amy also feels a sense of connection with Ashton that goes far beyond the physical chemistry that could be expected between first time lovers. During their first encounter, Amy states that her tongue “found its place in his mouth,” indicating a feeling of recognition and identification with his body as an extension of her own. This motif of conflation of self and other is continued in chapter two where Amy feels “a great wave of relief” upon taking Ashton’s bodily fluids into her own body. These instances show that Amy has hallucinated a sexual partner that is essentially an extension of her own self and shows her mental conflict over her internalization of the patriarchy. This is, perhaps, why Amy suggests few outward signs of physically enjoying their intercourse as even her erotic feeling has become embroiled in her struggle to reconcile herself with society.

As Amy is wrenched from her working-class social location and forced to comply to Grinnell’s ivory towered patriarchy, she is socialized by a panopticon of normativity. She is minoritized by her peers and compelled to perform wealth and whiteness. Yet, the anonymous author has left us with many questions to be answered in future installments. What is the significance behind Ashton’s Piaget Altipano watch? Is Ashton a phallic representation the patriarchy? Is Ashton not a part of Amy herself, but rather a representation of her lost family and the entire story is about ghost incest? If Ashton is not a figment derived from Amy’s crumbling mental wellness, will they ever be able to find love despite their different socio-economic statuses in our classist, sexist, racist world? Or as Judith Butler simply asks, “Is the failure to acknowledge the specific cultural operations of oppression itself a kind of epistemological imperialism, one which is not ameliorated by the simple elaboration of cultural differences as ‘examples’ of phallogocentrism?” Answers to these and other questions will undoubtedly unfold in the forthcoming chapters. The serial nature of this work painfully prolongs our anticipation and leaves our analysis incomplete. We hope the tale’s climax will be more enjoyable than Amy’s.

1 Comment

  1. Is this a joke? I’m offended by this.

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