*TRIGGER WARNING: This post address the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse within and around the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise.
In the summer of 2012 the rich and sophisticated Christian Grey became a sexual enigma to millions of women. In February 2015 he was brought to life in movie theaters, serving as a permission slip for women to feel erotic all over again. Mr. Grey is no white knight yet his enormous appeal seemed to fill a lot of women who longed for burning sexual pleasure and the fantasy of being so intensely desired by a lover they accepted or confused domestic violence and abuse for a steamy romance. Fifty is a story about the abuse of a manipulated, inexperienced girl at the hands of a psychopathic man whom she tries to heal with her purity. Another version of Fifty is a story about a sexually curious young woman entering an erotic relationship with a rich and exquisitely attractive lover, neither able to deny their fierce attraction to the other. What is most clear about the Fifty phenomenon is that we need more stories told of women being free to enjoy and explore their erotic sides without shame. The massive popularity of Fifty isn’t so much what the story is about, rather it is an indicator of what many women feel they are lacking and fantasize over.
In order for a fantasy to work it has to offer the reward of something outside of the every day, the attainable. It has to exceed our dreams and become something we long for. It has to be something more grand than who we are or ever could be. All of this is to say, the misbegotten Fifty Shades of Grey is not fantasy. It is the worst of us.
Fifty is a litmus test of everything wrong with how women approach and understand their sexuality, specifically the significance of “having a man” woven into our definitions of self-worth. It is a manipulation of female insecurities around being found “beautiful”. It is everything wrong with how our culture approaches female sexuality. It is pop culture reinforcement that rich white men can do as they please, stalking/domestic violence/sexual assault can be rationalized away, men make decisions about women’s bodies, women long to be dominated and sexually abused, abuse can be loved away and broken men healed by our devotion, men show their true love through violent possession, and that a good looking and/or rich lover needs to be kept by any means necessary. That’s no fantasy, Sister. At a very great cost to women, that is real life. It represents the worst of us.
And we knowingly, willingly, and enthusiastically consumed it. By. the. millions.
When something like Christian Grey becomes a media zeitgeist it impacts culture, shifting our norms and trickling down to young people who are always in tune with the latest and greatest. In this case, the problem is Christian Grey and the “fantasy” sex life he offers isn’t so great and that is cause for concern for a younger generation ill-equipped to unpack all of this. (Resources at the end of the post.)
The Fifty trilogy is not a love story, it is a grooming course for abuse. The books are FULL of power imbalance, stalking, emotional manipulation, sexual coercion and several types of abuse. There is a meme going around that if Christian Grey weren’t rich and hot, Fifty would be an episode of Criminal Minds.
By now we are familiar with the back story – E.L. James was inspired by the Twilight saga and sought to write a more adult version of the melodramatic, twisted teenage love-triangle. James’ erotic fan-fiction became Fifty Shades of Grey, a trilogy of books turned blockbuster film. Fifty has sold over 100 million copies and has earned $130 million in two weeks since the movie’s release. The studio is already working on film sequels to follow books 2 and 3. Twilight became a billion dollar empire and while James’ story, especially her writing, has been heavily criticized I’m of the mind everything was done quite intentionally as James was clever enough to see an open lane for massive profit. The formula: forbidden love story starring a naive, bland non-wealthy virgin girl who is found to be irresistible by a just-this-side-of-criminal, dangerous, intoxicatingly handsome and powerful older male love interest offering her tantalizing sex and a better life happily ever after. It allows women to be with the “bad boy” while taking no actual risks and still getting the Cinderella storybook ending.
Much has already been written about the book version of Fifty being a massive success largely due to the advent of e-readers, thus allowing female fans to discreetly enjoy their potentially-embarrassing “lady smut” anytime and anywhere. This plays to the imaginations of millions women and teen girls seeking permission to experience and enjoy their sexual desires with impunity, free of slut-shaming and the continual charade of performing sexuality as opposed to authentically feeling it and discovering just how deep it can go. The more popular the books became, the more women felt it was accepted for them to explore this genre. The books were written at a junior high reading level to draw in the teen audience post-Twilight who needed something new and sexy to fall into, as well as the non-reader who was assured by her friends the books “read quickly” and bought them just to see what the fuss was about. Fifty mainstreamed kink, albeit an inaccurate and abusive version of BDSM, which brought a sense of naughtiness and excitement. Soon family-friendly retailers were selling thousands of copies of “mommy porn”, which removed the barrier of access most women feel towards going into sex shops (that would also be off limits to youth under 18) where this type of erotic material would normally be found. Well played, E.L. James.
The character of Anastasia Steele (Ana) was written in a way that was so obnoxious you become numb to Christian treating her so poorly because you keep willing her to be hit by a taxi. Ana is a blank canvas of sorts, which allows the female reader to insert herself into the role and become lost as Christian’s sex slave. Christian is a psychologically stunted cad, making sure his needs are met while Ana serves as nothing more than a well-kept puppet. Their “romance” has ups and downs, twists and turns and ends dysfunctional ever after. Now, that is the BOOK version of Fifty……
Because the movie version of Fifty and the movie’s characters are completely different and change the way we interpret the story.
I saw the movie with a good friend who liked the books and reads a lot of what I teasingly call “panty burners”. We spent the morning texting each other jokes about shaving our legs for our date, both wearing grey sweaters with red shirts underneath, and that our husbands were put out they had not been invited. She and I have had many a discussion about this series, not always seeing eye to eye, but always being respectful of each other’s views. I went into the movie fully expecting to hate it. She bought me popcorn and made me promise not to complain through the whole two hours. The problem is, I didn’t despise the movie and it took me a full week to gather my thoughts. In fact, an hour in my friend turned to me and said, “Melissa, what in the world are you going to blog about??” She is very correct — I can see why people will defend it as a fantasy and a love story. I can see why it was released on Valentine’s Day – the movie version of Fifty was so transformed you could almost call it a romantic comedy. Almost.
With regard to the movie, forgetting about the books for a moment, I can see why people will refer to Christian as a prince. I can see why women are caught up in the physical sex appeal of the actors and the lavish lifestyle Christian’s wealth and affections bring. Hollywood does fantasy very well. I can see where it gets confusing because the movie becomes all the defenses people offer towards the problems in the books. In the movie the problems don’t exactly melt away, but they do become extremely blurred.
The sweeping camera angles, good lighting, and sexy actors don’t help to make anything more clear for the viewer, especially with Beyonce signing seductively in the background. The nice things I’m going to say about the movie don’t remove the myriad problems Fifty presents, they simply represent what most people, especially teens, are going to walk away with. Please understand one very clear, very concerning thing: the book versions of Fifty are nothing like the first movie for Fifty and this will confuse if not blow away all of the red flags and important discussion points on healthy sexuality, relationship violence, consent, and communication that people need to understand. Most specifically young people who don’t have the frame of reference most adults will in figuring all of this out.
My great concern is, young people will get little to no guidance making heads or tails of any of this.
Dakota Johnson does a phenomenal job giving life to Ana – a very likable one – and we see a smart, strong, funny, and quick-witted young woman awaken to her sexual self. She toys with Christian and his strong emotions for her as she plays at grown up sex and relationships for the first time. The movie seems to switch the roles, with Ana in charge and leading Christian on as he begs her with his pleading, billionaire eyes to agree to take him as her lover and sign the contract. The contract will allow for their Dominant/submissive relationship, which is framed in the movie as Ana having complete, informed consent on just exactly what is about to go down. In the twenty minutes of sex scenes in the movie we see Christian rocking Ana’s world with amazing orgasms that leave her literally weak in his arms. In the movie, Christian is attentive to Ana and she cannot get enough of him, shown breathless and wanting through much of the latter half of the film.
The rest of the sex scenes are racy but not raunchy, yet still explicit enough to earn nervous giggles from the rest of our theater audience made up of groups teen girls or twenty-somethings and their boyfriends. You know who was not in our theater at all? Older adult couples who are more likely seasoned in their sexual experiences and preferences, and have trusted partners they give of themselves to in the bedroom (and wherever else they choose to get it on). You know who I wouldn’t want to see this movie with? My idiot teen boyfriend educated about sex by online gonzo porn, who has no real clue what to do with my body to keep it safe and pleasured during different types of sex, let alone connect with me on an intimate emotional level that proper BDSM requires.
My friend pointed out Ana stays true to herself, firmly establishing and maintaining her boundaries, and capturing the heart of a seemingly desirable partner who ignores the elegant women surrounding him for her. She wears very little makeup and a wardrobe that is not overtly sexy nor sophisticated. I pointed out Ana, or rather Dakota Johnson, fits the body ideal of white woman beauty: gorgeous face, milky hairless skin, breasts and buttocks that are just big enough to be sexy but still small enough to look like a perky teenager, a tiny waist, slender limbs with no muscle definition and hip bones that jut out. She is delicate where Christian is athletic and muscular, Ana seeming almost child-like when she is being carried in his arms.
The movie makes clear Christian is the self-aware and sexually experienced one, but Ana is definitely the one in control of how things play out sexually. We see Ana display sexual agency, almost using Christian as a sex tour guide as she eagerly and willingly explores. Despite being a novice, Ana does not shy away from Christian’s sexual preferences and at times even seems to mock them as no big deal or even not out of the ordinary. Christian always asks for consent before each and every sex scene. In fact, there is consent up, down, right and left in the movie and it felt like it was put in by director Sam Taylor- Johnson to make a point. Perhaps it was one of the spots of vitriolic contention reported between Taylor-Johnson and James, with T-J turning this story into a female-driven sexy rom-com and E.L. in the background screaming in a rage, “NO! He is just supposed to TAKE her from behind and destroy her ****y so she is so sore she understands she belongs to him only! ARGH! WHERE are my whips and nipple clamps?!” Where James wanted Fifty to be an explicit S&M movie, Taylor-Johnson turned it into a tasteful love affair between a more empowered female protagonist and incredibly less despicable male protagonist who are figuring each other out and growing as individuals as they communicate their needs and wants. (I cannot believe I just wrote that sentence.)
We see none of the viciousness we get from Christian in the book. Christian was completely unlikable psychopath in the book. In the movie he is alluring-bordering-on-charismatic, especially if you have no background on Book Christian. Jamie Dornan is sensual and smoldering, his body fitting every cultural requirement for male sex appeal. In the beginning of the film we see Movie Christian save Movie Ana from almost being hit by oncoming traffic (something I would have welcomed for Book Ana). A short time later he rescues a very drunk Movie Ana in distress after she is separated from her roommate during a night of partying. Movie Ana is trying to decline a kiss from her male friend while he insists, physically restraining her from getting away until Movie Christian appears, punches him out, and yells “I believe the lady said NO!” Thereby in some weird parallel universe appearing to send a strong message about consent and onlookers intervening when incapacitated women are being assaulted (a crime he commits frequently in the books). Through the whole film Movie Christian takes great care to gain consent at each sexual encounter, please his lover, and provide tender after care following consensual exploits in the red room (his “BDSM” playroom). Even the stalking in the book – showing up at the hardware store, the bar scene when Ana gets sick, taking drunk Ana to the hotel room, the surprise visit at her mom’s all appear to have reasonable explanations that come from a place of concern and his blooming love for her – not because he is an obsessed and maniacal creep trying to control a young woman’s life, like Book Christian. The movie moves quickly through the elaborate gifts Christian bestows Ana, making him appear to be a doting boyfriend with expensive tastes. The movie also shifts the way we interpret the back-and-forth Book Christian does with “I can’t have you and you can’t have me. Here, have some expensive gifts. I need you to be mine forever, you should steer clear of me. Let’s go for a ride in my helicopter” game. In the book, his “inability to leave her alone” felt like a training manual at women’s crisis hotline. That isn’t meant to be flip – The relationship between Christian and Ana in the book is downright disturbing. In the movie that disturbance becomes fuzzy, especially if you have no premise from the book version, Ana and Christian are shown as sexy star-crossed lovers whose relationship is steamy, patient, equally balanced, and built on respect of where each is coming from. Taylor-Johnson seems to understand James’ story needing tweaking to appear hot and desirable on screen. The movie version feels much more like the kind of romance and sex women do really want, and let’s be honest T-J’s job is to create a film that gets ticket buyers in the door. Whether she intentionally corrected so many of the books wrongs remains a mystery.
It isn’t until the final ten minutes of the film we start to see this might be very problematic and dangerous for Ana. And when that scene happens my friend and I were not only emotionally disturbed by it, there was a noticeable shift in mood across the entire theater. We immediately commented on it to each other. Our audience had been chatty and laughing through the film but the final scenes had everyone leaving the theater in silence. Maybe that was the best thing to come out of the night — how clearly uncomfortable the audience was by Movie Christian’s abuse and violence once it was clearly exposed. Suddenly, he no longer looked like a sexy prince. You wanted Movie Ana out of there fast, and you sighed with relief when the elevator door closed. You cheer Ana’s strength for leaving Movie Christian and you wish he could be the man Movie Ana deserves.
And here’s how all of this becomes one giant, big mess — where the hundreds of millions of copies of creepy, abusive Book Christian and doormat, victimized Book Ana collide with the charming, sexy Movie Christian and interesting, eager Movie Ana to create a churning ball of mixed messages for a generation of young people who are absolutely going to be exposed to this and who absolutely are going to receive zero comprehensive sex education from school nor are likely to have meaningful and ongoing conversations with their parents about sexuality, consent, sex (and all the different types of), and emotional maturity in sexual relationships. As this excellent post establishes, the movie contorts what is really going on: an abuser who uses “BDSM” to disguise his intentions while his victim is taught to view the abuse as normal, and normalcy as special.
Fifty is a massive pop culture influence and it will normalize a number of unhealthy and unsafe ideas:
2. If he loves you he might get angry or violent when you frustrate him because he loves you so much. If he loves you it isn’t rape. If it was sex you didn’t understand or regret it isn’t rape. Read more about that here and here.
My friend and women’s rights activist Regina Yau summarized everything perfectly when she said, “You know what’s really sad?
That the film adaptation of Fifty is based on a book written by a female author, and is directed by a female director working off a script written by a female scriptwriter. This should’ve been a moment we can celebrate – an anomalous bright spot in the male-dominated movie industry landscape. We should’ve had a top quality story about female empowerment and sexuality that we could all root for and that would show once and for all that women are a viable and profitable audience demographic that can drive more female-centric pop culture stories – that women’s stories and experiences matter on all levels. What do we get? A badly-written book and film that glorifies domestic/relationship violence and male abusers.”
The story we need to be telling is that as women have every right to enjoy erotic experiences, but we must love ourselves and each other more than to come anywhere close to accepting degradation and violence as our ultimate fantasy. Fifty Shades of Grey is not fantasy. It is the worst of us.
Need help understanding all of this for yourself and wondering how to talk to your teen or young adult about all of this? I suggest these resources:
1. Here is a list of fifty critical thinking questions and discussion points around the Fifty franchise from the sex-talk help org Educate Empower Kids. The list is useful to parents to help sort out your thoughts, and offers an excellent road map for what you should be talking to your teens about. Read it here. Another great post about why we need to talk to our kids and how this ties in with other children’s narratives is here.
2. If you need a better understanding of what BDSM is and how it is responsibly practiced, visit here.
4. Understand what teen dating violence is, what it looks and feels like, and how prevalent it is. Read more here.
Melissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween”. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.