Feb 122015

As of this writing, Fifty Shades of Grey holds a 32% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a 47 on MetaCritic, and a 3.1 on IMDB. Suffice to say, it won’t sweep the Oscars next year. I do predict it will do well at the Golden Raspberries. Its loyal fanbase will probably guarantee a commercially successful opening weekend and a lot of DVD sales, but I suspect it will do poorly in the long run.

I am a little disappointed we won’t see little CGI chibi versions of Dakota Johnson’s subconscious and inner goddess hopping around.

The most favourable reviews consider the film a slight improvement over the book, seeing it as a slightly silly Recession-era fairy tale with just enough kink to titillate the uninitiated. The majority describe it as tepid, ludicrous, clichéd, and reactionary, neither erotic nor romantic. The harshest critics condemn it totally. For example:

The relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele is one of the most fucked up and upsetting I’ve ever seen portrayed on the big screen.

And let me be clear to the women who are incredibly defensive of the book that gave them a sexual awakening: When I talk about domestic abuse, I’m not talking about the sex.


That is how this movie makes domestic abuse seem okay. It’s emotional abuse disguised as a ‘naughty sex contract’. It’s domestic violence dressed up as sexy fantasy.

And it’s a genius, subtle move. Putting this kind of controlling, emotionally abusive relationship in the context of a sexy billionaire who just needs to be loved, makes it ridiculously easy to convince audiences the world over that this kind of behaviour is okay. He’s not some poor drunk with a mullet, hitting his wife for not doing the dishes. Christian is classy. Rich. Educated. He’s not what most women imagine an abuser to be, and his kind of abuse is not what most women would immediately recognise.

To them, FSOG isn’t just a bad movie, it itself is actively harmful.

I would be among the first to agree that Fifty Shades of Grey, the book, describes an abusive relationship. To me, Christian’s stalking, threats and emotional manipulation, and Ana’s consequent misery and frustration, make this unmistakeable. Skimming through Tumblr and other online forums, I am amazed at the number of posts defending the relationship as shown, and troubled that this isn’t more blatantly obvious to more people.

However, there is a separate issue here, summed up in the phrase “Fifty Shades is abuse”. Does it, by its existence as a mass media product that has been and will be read and watched by millions of people, contribute to abusive relationships?

In criticizing FSOG, kinksters find themselves, if not allied with, at least aligned with anti-pornography crusaders. While kinksters want to explain the distinction between BDSM and abuse, and crusaders want to condemn the film as a normalization or romanticization of abuse, both operate on the assumption that media like this has an influence on the incidence of abusive relationships, that the people who see it (primarily heterosexual women) will absorb it completely, monkey-see-monkey-do.

Talk to kinksters and they’ll eventually talk about their favourite kinky books, films, and TV shows: the vicious criminal women in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, the tortured relationship between Nazi officer and concentration camp inmate in The Night Porter, the evolutionary-psychology-run-amok philosophy of John Norman’s Gor series, etc. None of these are “positive depictions of healthy BDSM relationships”. Most kinksters will admit the discrepancy between BDSM fantasy and BDSM reality, even as they acknowledge the erotic appeal of such depictions. They understand the difference, and don’t see such media as harmful. So why the rush to condemn Fifty Shades as harmful, beyond its misrepresentation of BDSM?

One point to consider is that kinky people are concerned about what vanilla people will do because of the film and books. Walter Kendrick, in his book on the history of pornography and censorship, The Secret Museum, says that the debate over censorship is always premised on the hypothetical “vulnerable person”, whose behaviour will be influenced negatively by exposure to the media in question. It is assumed that the person judging the work knows better than the vulnerable person, and has the rightful authority over the vulnerable person. Perhaps we should have more faith in people’s good sense, and not blame media for bad behaviour.

I believe FSOG’s popularity is symptomatic of widespread beliefs that contribute to abusive relationships: it is an effect, not a cause. Those are the same beliefs you see in thousands of romance paperbacks and romantic comedy movies.

As for the impact and fallout of this giant multimedia juggernaut on the kink community: gays survived Boys in the Band and Cruising, lesbians survived The Killing of Sister George and Personal Best, and kinky people survived Nine 1/2 Weeks and Body of Evidence and Secretary and even (shudder) the Exit to Eden movie. Despite Susan Wright of the NCSF saying this is our “Stonewall moment” (a poorly chosen turn of phrase), it’s just another skirmish in the push-pull dialectic of vanilla and kink. It is not the apocalypse.

In fact, as I read through the various critical reaction to the film, I’m impressed at how many people, and not only in kink-oriented venues, distinguish between the BDSM depicted in the film and all the other abusive aspects of the relationship. That’s a testament to the educational and advocacy work of the NCSF and other writers, educators and activists. Lots of people in the general population “got the memo.”

  2 Responses to “Fifty Shades of Grey, the Film: bad or just mediocre?”

  1. I agree that the books and movies are not causes but a reflection of the abuse is normal het romance that infects our society. I would go further and say that the requirements of the romance genre promote many of the underlying ideas of het relationships that promote an unhealthy relationship where one person is supposed to change another and where “love” grows from “dislike” or even “hatred” initially and where virginity is part of female attractiveness. If you removed all of the “kink” from these books, they would still be about an abusive relationship.

  2. I know personally at least one woman who stayed in an abusive relationship and was influenced by 50 Shades to try to “love her man better.”

    Eventually she left.

    Would she have left sooner if she hadn’t read this book? Would she have tried to fix the relationship with increased sex? Would she have wondered why she couldn’t just love her man well enough for him to be kind to her?

    There’s really no way to know for sure, but I have my suspicions, and I doubt my friend is the only one who wondered what was wrong with her and why she couldn’t be more like Ana and “fix” her abuser.

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