Trigger warning: This piece discusses sexual assault and domestic violence.
So, Fifty Shades of Grey is a thing again. I remember walking through Costco a few years ago and coming across hundreds of copies of the book on display. I had heard about how terrible it was, so apart from skimming through a few pages while waiting for my parents to get samples of artisanal cheese, I never actually read the series. And now there’s a movie. And maybe now your eyebrows are raising because you’re wondering how I can write about a movie based on a book that I have never read in its entirety, but hear me out. Like the majority of middle school females in 2007 I did read the Twilight series, and Fifty Shades is actually just Twilight fan fiction under the username Snowqueens Icedragon, so that has to count for something. Though, while I’m at it, I should probably also put a disclaimer that I am not personally experienced in the ways of BDSM culture, so there is another reason why I am technically not qualified to be writing this—if I say anything inaccurate then, BDSM experts, please correct me—but I digress. But Fifty Shades has received criticism about the accuracy of its depiction of BDSM and glorification of abusive relationships from many, including people that have read the book.
The point of this piece is to hopefully convince you to not give this franchise more money by seeing the movie in theaters. I don’t consider seeing it ‘ironically’ or as a joke as legitimate reasoning. As far as I can tell, the majority of people are not opposed to this movie because of feeling uncomfortable with BDSM, instead, people such as myself are against this movie because of the false, and frankly dangerous, ideas it is spreading. The foundation of BDSM, and any safe sex for that matter, is supposed to be about mutual intimacy and trust, safety and safe words, understanding boundaries, and giving consent based on shared desire, not manipulation and fear.
Let me begin with a brief synopsis of the story. Anastasia Steele is a college student who conducts an interview with a rich and handsome 27-year-old billionaire CEO, Christian Grey. Ana is smitten, but Christian tells her that he “doesn’t do the girlfriend thing.” However, he still proceeds to follow her around, being mysterious and vague about what he does until she agrees to sign a nondisclosure agreement, immediately isolating her from her family, friends, or anyone that could give her advice, and then he explains that he wants a BDSM relationship where she surrenders herself to him in all ways. She either has to sign a written contract with him agreeing to all of his conditions, or she is to completely get out of his life. Anastasia has no previous sexual experience whatsoever (as in she has never thought about her clitoris existing and refers to her lady parts as “down there,” kind of no experience), but she is infatuated with this rich attractive man, so she considers his offer. Ana is written as incredibly innocent and immature, needing a “big strong man” to teach her about her own body and the ways that it can be pleasured. Christian is immediately keen on “taking her virginity” so that she can be all his and only his.
Things on this contract that he wants her to sign include: she is not allowed to touch him, she is not allowed to masturbate, she must stay with him every weekend, she can only eat foods from a specifically approved list, wear certain clothes, talk to certain people, follow a strict exercise regime, and if any rules are broken then she will be physically punished. She tells him that she is uncomfortable with some of these things, but he tells her that there is absolutely no room for negotiation. He says that he needs to feel complete control over her in every aspect. Ana tells him that she wants more beyond just the BDSM, but he says that he doesn’t know any other way to have a relationship. He does make sure to litter her with expensive gifts. Ana has reservations about getting hurt, but at this point they have already had sex multiple times (which I am kind of confused about because this is before she has signed the contract) and she is busy grappling with her strong feelings toward him to the point of tears. Really, there are at least half a dozen chapters that end with her going to bed crying.
Christian continues to be extremely emotionally manipulative, abusive, controlling, jealous, and possessive, displaying stalker-like tendencies. Throughout the novel Ana is taught that her comfort doesn’t matter at all as long as he gets off doing what he wants. Christian is aroused when she refuses his advances. He forces her to go on birth control pills because he “doesn’t like wearing condoms.” He follows her to another state when she goes on vacation to distance herself from him. Then Christian talks about his emotional childhood sob story and Ana starts having even more feelings. This leads her to decide that because he is “lost in some private darkness” she can’t just abandon him—she needs to help him by letting him punish her even though she is still uncomfortable with it, and is hopeful that by allowing him to do this then maybe he will actually love her. This sounds very much like a victim rationalizing an abuser’s actions and unfortunately feeling as though they have no choice but to stay with this person.
Defendants of the book claim that everything that happens is justified because Ana consents, but there is nowhere where I can tell that this actually happens. She doesn’t actually sign anything, but even if she had, consent in a healthy relationship should not be based on coercion and manipulation. The only place that there should be an imbalance in positions of power should be when one person is being sexually dominant and one person is being sexually submissive, and both people involved should derive pleasure from these positions. Meanwhile, Christian clearly has the upper hand in pretty much everything in and out of the bedroom, and he uses this position to exploit Ana’s feelings of low self-esteem, of not being good enough for him, and her fear of losing him. He uses this to get what he wants with absolutely no regard for what Ana might prefer, leaving her completely powerless. Everything about the relationship is completely on his terms. At one point Christian completely ignores Ana’s safe word and is angry at her for attempting to stick to her boundaries. At another point, Christian tries to seduce Ana, she says no, she would rather talk instead, and he replies with “If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet too. If you make a noise, I will gag you.” He proceeds to have sex with her even though she is trying to kick him away and is saying no, and this is a woman that he claims to care for. This is not romance, this is not BDSM—this is sexual assault. But because the author writes that Ana enjoys the sex that Christian forces on her, readers are supposed to ignore that she asked him to stop and he didn’t. It’s good to remember that the body responding to sexual stimulation doesn’t count as consent.
The moral of the story—and by story I mean a more thorough skimming of the book than I anticipated (plus a detailed plot summary to fill in the gaps) that I wasted at least two hours of my life reading just so that I could have more bloggeristic integrity—is that Fifty Shades of Grey is yet another popular piece of media that has been and will continue to be consumed heavily by the masses that blurs the lines of what is considered consensual sex. Not only is this disrespectful to people that have experienced domestic abuse or sexual assault, but it’s portraying and glorifying a harmful message. Making the abuser into an attractive billionaire with a tragic backstory doesn’t make this story romantic, but that is what many people seem to take away from it. There is nothing attractive about a man that wants to hurt women and deny their own autonomy. There is a shortage of media that explores and expresses female sexuality, and this could have been an opportunity to write about a healthy BDSM relationship. Unfortunately, Fifty Shades only serves to perpetuate the archetype of the dark, brooding, intimidating, and abusive man in complete control over female sexuality, and this ends up being normalized and accepted, or even idealized. This series eroticizes and romanticizes intimate partner violence and contributes to spreading the message that if victims of abuse stick around and put up with it for long enough, then eventually the abuser might love them and change their ways.
So please, rather than using ten bucks to see this movie, consider making a donation to a women’s shelter or domestic violence organization instead.