The newest trailer for the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey was released last week, and the Internet is all atwitter about it. The movie, scheduled to open on Valentine’s Day 2015, is based on the book of the same name by E. L. James., and boy oh boy, there is a lot to say about the story.
When the books first came out (there’s a whole trilogy!) I bought the first two to read, so I could understand what all of the hype was about. I had a lot of thoughts but not a lot of feminist context through which to analyze what I was reading. Now, it’s a few years later, I’m a little bit smarter and with the upcoming movie, Fifty Shades is on my mind again.
For those of you who have been living under a rock, I’ll catch you up a bit. Fifty Shades follows the relationship between literature student Anastasia Steele (a.k.a. Ana) and the sexy-as-hell billionaire Christian Grey. After interviewing Christian for an article, he and Ana begin a crazy relationship — if you can even call it that. Anyway, Christian brings the virgin Ana into his world of BDSM, and the story sort of spirals off that one point.
There are definitely a lot of things wrong with Fifty Shades, the least of which is the poor quality of E. L. James’s writing. I guess that’s what you get with a story that started as online Twilight fanfiction. But before I completely berate certain aspects of the story, I want to raise up a few of its more positive qualities.
To start, Fifty Shades broke a huge taboo. Women have always had to be hush-hush about watching porn, and porn has almost always been a man’s thing, at least publicly. But when Fifty Shades came out, women were openly reading it, talking about it, rushing to the stores to buy it and putting it on the best-seller list for months. In fact, the book is still on the New York Times best-seller list, and that in and of itself is enormous. Let me put it like this: An erotic novel written for women has been on the best-seller list for months. Woah. It honestly makes me so happy that women are publicly reclaiming porn, erotica and more generally, women’s sexuality.
And when you read the many, many sex scenes, there’s also a lot of empowerment there. The book is obviously written by a woman; every sexual encounter between the couple is all about pleasing Ana. It’s certainly nice to dream of a world in which a woman’s orgasm is prioritized, instead of sex being all about the man’s pleasure. So yeah, Fifty Shades is a little feminist.
Now, before we get too excited, I want to highlight a few things. Let’s start with the story’s representation of BDSM. To put it bluntly, James has zero experience with BDSM, and that’s pretty clear from her writing. Maybe that’s why a novel centering around the practices of dominance, submission, role-playing and restraint can become so popular in mainstream culture: As James and her characters learn about the culture, so can we as readers. It’s sort of like Kinky Sex 101. And, while it should be awesome that BDSM is getting some serious public acknowledgement, there’s not really any point when it’s a huge misrepresentation of the BDSM community.
So where did she go wrong? Well, to start, Christian is extremely tortured and had a horrible past — when he was only four, his whore/crackhead mother died — all of which lead him to the dark world of BDSM. This gives off the impression that people who are into BDSM are tortured and twisted and broken. In fact, most BDSMers have had a pretty grief-free upbringing. James’s rendition portrays BDSM as something troubling that only “bad” people will turn to for sexual pleasure. This is a gross misrepresentation that, in a way, shames BDSM.
Additionally, a ton of the story centers around a contract that Christian tries to get Ana to sign. And the whole time, Christian is constantly having to convince Ana to accept his terms of the contract, despite her concerns. If you watch the new trailer, you can even get a glimpse of it. The contract spells out exactly what Christian expects from their relationship, and it even dictates what Ana should eat and wear. Basically, it sets up a relationship where Christian is 100 percent in control of every part of Ana’s life.
In the book, it’s often painful to watch that play out. When Ana bites her lip, she is subject to Christian’s spanking, no matter where they are or who is around. In the second book, Christian is uncomfortable with Ana’s boss, who has a crush on Ana, so he buys the company and fires the guy. Weird. When you really dig into it, Christian and Ana’s relationship is an abusive one.
Don’t get me wrong; I do not think BDSM is abusive. When practiced with mutual consent, I’m all for sex whatever way people want it. But Fifty Shades portrays a relationship that contains several of the main tactics abusers use: isolation, denial and blame, dominance outside of the bedroom and intimidation. He exerts control over her in all aspects of her life and disguises it by giving her rides in his fancy helicopter. And the whole time, he says it’s Ana’s fault for being so attractive, for biting her lip, for tempting him. Ugh. While there are certain things in the books that I’m happy to see getting so much publicity, I don’t like how the story glorifies an abusive relationship. Hopefully the movie will write out some of the more unfortunate plot points.
At the end of the day, go ahead and read the books or see the movie if you want. It’s okay to be exposed to problematic situations in media, as long as you know what you’re watching. Maybe you’ll be inspired to experiment with BDSM, or maybe you’ll feel better about watching porn. Whatever. You do you, and go get your Fifty Shades on.