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Fifty Shades of Grey

February 13, 2015
Fifty Shades of Grey

There’s a particular difficulty involved in criticizing Fifty Shades of Grey: how to separate the quality of the movie itself from mere squeamishness over the content. It would be easy to note the sex scenes and dismiss the movie as pornographic; it is indeed pornographic, but not just because it involves relatively explicit sex, as films like Blue Is the Warmest Colour and Nymph()maniac prove. Even from a more cosmopolitan viewpoint about sexuality, it would be easy to dismiss the fetishistic aspects as “unhealthy” or “deviant”; it is indeed unhealthy, but not just because the explicit sex involves elements of fetish play, as films like Secretary and 9½ Weeks prove.

But sex — even kinky sex — forms an essential part of many people’s lived experience. To write off a story as beneath consideration just because it focuses on sex is not only lazy, but does a disservice to the people who find these topics relevant. This should be a particular concern in the case of this story, since E.L. James’ writing has been particularly resonant with women past their twenties and thirties, who have typically been underrepresented in — if not shut out of — discussions about sexuality and sexual fantasies.

And so I can’t just blithely wave my hands at a woman writing erotic Twilight fan-fiction — an amateurish rip-off of writing that was bad to begin with — to awkwardly process some of her own fantasies by transforming the sexually-unavailable Edward Cullen — a classic Nonthreatening Boy archetype for young female readers if there ever was one — into the sexually-voracious but emotionally-unavailable Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Too many people have found this text a touchstone, allowing them to explore their own degree of interest in unconventional sex through the blank-slate avatar of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). Calling it cheap and tawdry is tantamount to saying all these readers’ fantasies are wrong, and I’m not interested in being anyone’s morality police.

I can, however, say that the sketch we see of a kinky relationship between Anastasia and Christian is highly problematic. Full disclosure: I have not read James’ book, and so I cannot speak directly to its contents except as filtered through the lens of others’ writing about it from a sex- and fetish-positive perspective. From what I can tell, director Sam Taylor-Johnson and Saving Mr. Banks co-writer Kelly Marcel has managed to tone down some of the worst aspects of James’ novel, but much of that might come from the elimination of Anastasia’s inner thoughts.

The most significant example might be the safewords. As portrayed on-screen, Christian suggests “yellow” and “red” as signals Anastasia can use to slow or stop him, though she never actually uses them. As I understand it, the book suggests that he intimidates her into not using them, even when she wants to. Lacking insight into her thoughts and feelings, we lose this nuance. Johnson’s performance suggests Anastasia’s nervous enjoyment in all but one of their sexual encounters, and after the one exception she does assert a strong boundary that Christian does not violate, at least within this movie. Does the fact that we can’t see this version of Anastasia being intimidated from using her safewords ameliorate the problems in the book’s version? it’s not entirely clear either way.

That said, there is still plenty of unhealthy behavior left in the movie. Christian repeatedly shows up where Anastasia is with no invitation, or even explanation of how he found her. He emotionally manipulates her at every turn, using voluntary compromises of his self-proclaimed personal rules as leverage to extract compliance from his naïve mark. He is obsessed with laying out the terms of their fetish play ahead of time in the form of contractual obligations, despite the understanding of all “safe, sane, and consensual” practitioners that a BDSM relationship must be a constant process of communication and renegotiation, even more so than a “vanilla” sexual relationship. This may not invalidate Fifty Shades as a fantasy, but we should be aware that this fantasy romanticizes an extremely dysfunctional, emotionally violent, and abusive relationship.

To some extent, there’s not much that Taylor-Johnson and Marcel could do to fix this problem from the book. It probably works as well as it does precisely because Christian drives Anastasia beyond her limits without proper limits and boundaries in place. When the dominant Christian takes the control away from the uneasily submissive audience-surrogate Anastasia — the one who BDSM practitioners all agree should paradoxically keep all the control — it gives a neophyte audience permission to explore beyond their own mental boundaries. Indeed, if Christian takes the choice away, then it’s hardly Anastasia’s/their “fault” for indulging in “forbidden” or “bad” pleasures. Christian’s unhealthy dominance absolves them of whatever guilt they may feel for reading/watching “smut” in the first place.

And Christian himself is conveniently absolved by adding his own tragic and abusive back-story. But again we have a probably-ignorant slight against actual fetish practitioners, who are painted as messed-up victims of abusive pasts. Just at the moment the story grants the audience permission to explore these desires, it pathologizes them. The guilt is back on full-blast, and Christian is set up as a figure to be saved and “normalized” in the long run by Anastasia.

It’s the laziest, cheapest, and tawdriest of pulp romance novel conventions, and it’s this lazy, sloppy writing that really does the movie in. It’s not that there’s sex — even kinky sex — but that everything leading from one sex scene to the next is so awkward and sketchy and corny and badly plotted and paced. There’s little development, and the movie feels like it has only just reached its complicating action when it comes to an abrupt halt. The cinematography reflects this laziness, rendering Seattle even more monochromatic than in real life, and consistently using the simplest , least imaginative framings and compositions possible. It is, in a word, pornographic, in that the story is the thinnest excuse to string together “the good parts”, which are themselves not particularly steamy compared even to what’s available on premium cable channels these days.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with pornography as fantasy, taken in moderation. If boys want to go to Transformers to see stuff get blowed up real good, that’s fine too; it just doesn’t make for much of a film. On the other hand, it does seem that the privacy of a book is a more natural space for indulging in erotic fantasies than in a crowded movie theater. But then, I’m not really looking to get anything out of this particular fantasy in the first place.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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