I read my first Harlequin Presents when I was in sixth grade. It was Lord of La Pampa by Kay Thorpe and for the decades since I have remembered the line “With a woman like you there can be no other way.” This was said by the hero moments before he forced himself on the heroine. Because he was an Argentinian cattle baron, in my head the line was delivered in a sexy, sensual Spanish accent.

I mention that experience because when I picked up Fifty Shades of Grey a few months ago I felt very much like I was reliving that first encounter with Harlequin.  It seemed very Old Skool 1980’s bodice ripper. Christian Grey had all the core characteristics of the alpha hero of the time which is described in Beyond Heaving Bosoms as:

These heroes aren’t just determined, assertive, and confident—they’re hard, arrogant, and harsh and the heroine is often afraid of him. He’s a punisher as well as lover and protector, but he hurts her only because he loves her so much. Baby. Punitive kisses were dealt with abandon, and the heroine, after stiffening up and resisting, would eventually soften into his kiss—after all, who wouldn’t love having their lips mashed hard enough to leave bruises? And speaking of bruises: grabbing the heroine by the arms so hard they leave marks was another earmark of Old Skool heroes.

These things are all true of Christian. He’s assertive and confident (who wouldn’t be with that kind of success before age 30), a dominant who believes he should be allowed to punish his lover (submissive). He certainly has a lover who fears him; Anastasia often chirps about how she is afraid of him. Especially since he likes to spank her – and would be totally into other forms of punishment if she was willing.

The above definition, along with being rather simplistic (and therefore succinct which is why I chose it) missed out on listing the attractive parts of this Old Skool hero. They are almost invariably super wealthy and powerful. Some at this point might say money doesn’t matter but what else explains the endless use of millionaire, billionaire and duke in titles? Maybe in real life it doesn’t matter but I think I can say with confidence it clearly matters to quite a few when it comes to fantasy.  Back to the positives of the Old Skool hero: They are handsome, either in the traditional sense like Christian, or in a unique, chiseled, masculine vigor sort of way. They’re charismatic – the heroine and tons of other people are drawn to them.  They might demand total control but inevitably it’s because they want to take care of you. Christian is always concerned for Anastasia’s health since she is too stupid to often forgets to eat and drinks a lot and is pretty darn vapid. Also for her safety (he saves her from a bike messenger accident and later buys her a new car with lots of safety features.)He worries about her career (he offers an internship at his firm almost right away). He concerns himself with how often she is being molested (way more than most of us). So controlling yes, but a caregiver as well.  They are generous, at least with the heroine. They give her lavish gifts, normally uniquely suited to her (in Christian’s case some first edition books of Ana’s favorites). Finally, they are flatteringly obsessed. A man who could have dozens of women for the asking is interested in our average (and in many cases, below average intelligence) heroine. He’s not just interested in her; he is determined to have her.

I think all of that is relevant when we look at the huge success of Fifty Shades of Grey and the surprising popularity of its hero. Because it is my personal opinion that what makes the book and hero popular is that it delivers the Old Skool hero experience without the bodice ripper cover and the scorn heaped upon those who read romance. Fifty Shades of Grey readers read romance without having to say they read romance. Whether it was through the work of a marketing genius or sheer luck, Fifty Shades broke out of its genre and got legitimized by the mainstream in a way any number of novels employing the exact same characteristics have not been able to do.

And I have to admit that after having written all that I went on the internet to look for information on why the book is popular and was surprised to discover that Smart Bitches Sarah mentions this same factor (Old Skool hero) in a blog she did on why 50 Shades is so popular. I think this is less a great minds think alike coincidence than it is a “people who’ve read a lot of romances recognize a romance hero when they see him” fact.

Adding more depth to my argument that 50 Shades readers read romance is the following argument I found in Psychology Today by Linda and Charlie Bloom:

I believe it (the popularity of 50 Shades) has a lot to do with the desire that so many of us have of being swept away from our mundane lives and into a world of passion and ecstasy. One of the things that makes this series so compelling is that it affirms the classic fantasy that the handsome prince is going to ride into our lives on his noble white steed and sweep us off of our feet, take us away from our ordinary existence and bring us to a beautiful castle where we will spend the remainder of our lives living in luxury, leisure, and of course, pleasure!

If that isn’t a pithy definition of about half of the Harlequin Presents line I don’t know what would be.

So how does all this help me come to a conclusion on whether or not Christian Grey is a douchebag or dreamboat? It doesn’t. But it does help explain why my reaction to him was “meh” rather than yay or nay. I’ve spent years reading heroes exactly like Christian.  Unless they do something to push a personal hot button, they no longer have the power to enrage me. They also don’t have the power to enamor me unless they do something extremely right. Christian landed squarely in the middle. He was honest with Anastasia about what he wanted from her, he talked to her (endlessly) about what the relationship would look like and he was kind to her as often as he was cruel. Would their relationship work for me? No. But does that make Christian an eeevvvviiillll villain? Also no.

So there are my completely mediocre feelings on Christian Grey. Now it’s time to put the question to AAR Staff: Christian Grey, dreamboat or douchebag?

Lee: I haven’t read the book, but after reading your blog, I’d say he was an honest but not perfect dreamboat.

Blythe: Straight up douchebag, IMHO. Granted, I didn’t read the last book – just the first two. But Christian is a stalker. He’s controlling. He’s a little smarmy. And I know this is not the point under debate, but his wealth is completely unbelievable. For me the behavior that puts him over the edge is telling Anna what car she needs to drive and then buying her company so he can tell her douchebag boss what to do.

There’s definitely some appeal in his incredible wealth and his very flattering obsession with Anna. I mean, if some rich, handsome guy wants to be obsessed with me because I am just that awesome, I’d probably be cool with that. But if he tells me how to work and what to drive, we’re done.

Melanie: I have to admit, I’ve tried reading 50 Shades three times – I’ve never been able to finish it. Christian creeps me out, but I don’t feel I can really decide on dreamboat or douchebag for him. It’s mainly Anna that I can’t stand, but Christian seems to pull all the stalker tendencies of Edward Cullen (which isn’t surprising, since that’s the basis for the character), and takes controlling to the next level. I don’t like controlling, it’s just not my thing. But he just sits on that line between caring/obsessed and controlling/obsessed, and that’s too close to an abusive relationship for me to feel comfortable with.

Dabney: My sense is that he, while not being my type, is an upfront demanding guy. The real problem with him is that he is drawn to a woman with, at least in the first book, so little agency. The power differential between them is so huge, it reflects poorly on him for wanting a woman who is so not his peer.

Blythe: For me I wouldn’t even say that it is that. It’s more that I can’t even believe that he has the power in the first place, or that she managed to get through college with no email address. I know I harp on that all the time, but with this book you have to take your willing suspension of disbelief, whack it with a sledgehammer, and bury it in the woods somewhere.

Part of it is simply his age. If he were 40, or even 35, I could buy into it more.

Mary: I read all three books precisely so I could understand the phenomena.  It took me a LONG time to get through the first book, but I persevered and found book 2 was slightly better and book 3 much better.  Since this is about the character of Christian and not a critique of the book, I will try to limit my comments to him and not what was wrong with the book(s) – and there is much to critique there.  I did not like Christian at all to begin with.  Controlling men are so not my type.  He was also a tad unbelievable given his success at such a young age.  However, by the second book I started to gain some empathy for him and by the third, I understood why he was the way he was.  Christian was the victim of sexual abuse by an older woman who was a Dom.  He was manipulated during an extremely difficult time in his adolescence.  I see his sexual proclivities as an attempt to regain his own agency.  I think he chose Anna precisely because she was so different from the woman who sexually abused him.  He also had issues about his birth mother and her death that would make anyone a little disturbed.  So the guy had issues.  What I saw through the course of ALL of the books is his growth and coming to terms with what had happened to him.  So while I would not characterize him as a dreamboat, he was not a douche either.  He was just a very unhappy man trying to cope with the injustices life threw his way by himself.  Anna helped him to understand that he needed help and through her encouragement, he got it.  The Christian at the end of book 3 was a much mentally healthier person than the Christian we first meet.

Shannon: I struggled with Christian throughout my reading of the first two 50 Shades books. He was extremely controlling, and, unlike a lot of people, I see nothing romantic or endearing about someone who is obsessed with another person. He seemed to believe he could behave as irrationally as he chose, but the same was not true for Anastasia. She was expected to fall in line with his every whim. Sure, he was kind to Anastasia, but it seemed a superficial kindness. He bought her expensive things as a way to further his control.Although he did grow throughout the two books I read, I didn’t find his growth sufficient. He was still a self-important ass.

Definitely a douche.

So now it’s your turn. Christian Grey, dreamboat, douchebag or who the heck cares?

Maggie AAR