Way More Than Fifty Shades of Skepticism

As the evening of February 14th approached, my friends and I ate one last chocolate strawberry and drank one last sip of Barefoot Sauvignon Blanc, and headed to Southside Works to do the most cliché thing a group of single girls could do on Valentine’s Day: yes, we saw Fifty Shades of Grey.

I had a very limited, if not nonexistent, interest in seeing this film; in fact, instead of reading the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy in anticipation of the movie premiere, I immersed myself in articles about everything that was wrong with the series. But my apprehension paled in comparison to my lack of interest in being home alone while my friends participated in this pop-culture phenomenon without me. So, I went. And it turns out that I wasn’t the one. E.L. James’ erotic novels have sold over 100 million copies worldwide, but its record-breaking opening weekend is even more impressive. According to Variety, over the four-day President’s Day weekend, the movie made an unprecedented $94.4 million, and also gained the 4th spot in the biggest R-rated openings in history.

Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of a shy, soon-to-be college graduate named Anastasia “Ana” Steele (played by Dakota Johnson), who meets the incredibly wealthy and overwhelmingly handsome Christian Grey (played by Jamie Dornan), while interviewing him for a university newspaper article. The two develop obvious attraction to each other, easily noticeable by Christian’s stares-that-last-a-bit-too-long, and Ana’s shy, blushing cheeks. Although the initially two part ways, Christian “courts” Ana, showing up at her work, sending her rare, first edition novels, bringing her home after a drunk evening and eventually whisking her off by helicopter (operated by Christian himself) to his luxury apartment in Seattle.  

Christian eventually introduces Ana to his deep, dark, deviant secret—the Red Room. Ana finds herself surrounded by luxurious ruby walls with whips, floggers, handcuffs, neckties, eye-masks and other BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism), toys and accessories. It is in this room that our handsome Christian is able to be his true self, acting as the dominant in the BDSM sex he has engaged in with fifteen women who have been his submissives over the years.

Revealing the Red Room is a turning point in the movie, and the rest of the story highlights the struggle between Christian and Ana in balancing the different desires they have for their relationship. Ana yearns for “normalcy”—she wants to sleep in the same bed as Christian, go on dinner-and-a-movie dates and seemingly be a “typical” couple. But Christian refuses. He objects so much to this that he even writes up a contract, as he does with all of his submissives in the past. The extensive contract details the ways Ana must act submissive to Christian in all aspects of their relationship—not just in the Red Room. Although Ana questions her participation in their sex throughout the entirety of the film, she ultimately ends up doing everything Christian asks in order to please him. The film ends with Christian crossing Ana’s limit, and Ana wanting nothing more than to get away from this man she was once so desperate to please.

Fifty Shades of Grey was an entertaining film, and it supposedly did E.L. James’ writing more of a favor than it should have. I enjoyed watching the beautiful, model-esque cast live their lives among the decadent décor and ornaments, to the sultry tune of Beyoncé, Skylar Grey, Ellie Goulding, and the Weeknd (seriously, the soundtrack may be the best part). The atmosphere in the college-aged filled movie theater was fun and light, with a surprising amount of laughs given the seriousness of the topic at hand. Although I had more of an enjoyable experience than expected, the amount of problems I see with Fifty Shades of Grey only increased after watching the movie.

When it comes down to it, Fifty Shades of Grey is not an accurate representation of BDSM or the couples that participate in it. Power dynamics do exist in BDSM between consenting adults in a healthy and communicative partnership, and just as BDSM is a broad term that encapsulates many different behaviors and dynamics, these power dynamics also have a large range and function. The unhealthy aspect of Ana and Christian’s relationship is the way their dominant and submissive power dynamic is brought into every aspect of their lives and interactions with one another, not only when it comes to their sex.

Although there are merits to the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey brought conversations about BDSM into the mainstream, the movie normalizes a relationship dynamic where one participant is being coerced into submitting to please the other person, while feeling incredibly uncomfortable about it. Although Ana may enjoy the sensations and orgasms she receives from Christian, she feels a level of uneasiness with the way these feelings are achieved to the point where she does not want Christian to touch her in any form, and she leaves his apartment more emotionally distraught than we have seen her in the movie thus far.

The relationship dynamic between Christian and Ana is abusive and it’s not something we as a society should be fetishizing. Although the relationship in the series may not overtly brand itself as healthy, Fifty Shades of Grey has become so mainstream that it is being sold and understood as typical BDSM practice. There is nothing wrong with women, or anyone, having or indulging in fantasies about being handcuffed, tied up or submissive in any form. But having Fifty Shades of Grey be the first exposure for many people to this practice is worrisome, because it doesn’t reflect the realities of BDSM. Unfortunately, the movie does not get across the fact that no one should be forced to participate in something they feel uncomfortable with, even if it’s with someone much more powerful and persuasive than they are.

Fifty Shades of Grey is going to continue to be popular. It is a phenomenon that forced its way into our libraries, bookstores and Kindle tablets, and is now taking our movie-theaters by storm. But Fifty Shades of Grey is being advertised as something it is not—consensual, typical, healthy BDSM practices. It is in fact the opposite of this. Now that some aspects of BDSM have been introduced to the mainstream through Fifty Shades of Grey, let’s use this opportunity to take this conversation one step further. We must include and listen to those who actually have healthy BDSM relationships rather than take advice from fake characters that started out as Twilight fan fiction.

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