This is not full of spoilers. If you are highly sensitive to spoilers, however, I encourage you to check back here after seeing the movie or reading the book. Some plot details will be discussed, though the movie’s ending is not revealed.
Confession: I read all three of the Fifty Shades of Grey books a couple years ago and I saw the movie-opening weekend. I also partake in many other guilty pleasures, such as watching Bad Girls Club and buying way too many clothes. However, reading this erotica trilogy was certainly the most uncomfortable of my indulgences and I wrote it off as something I shouldn’t be proud of. Later, when the hype of the movie came, I felt like the story was promoting something I was against. But why did I feel that way?
For starters, reading the sex scenes while on a crowded CTA Red Line train, during rush hour when you have no personal space no less, was… strange. Even though I was reading on a Kindle, I felt like the whole train knew I was reading about riding crops and spanking. I am not a terribly sexual being, and I surely do not know much about the BDSM community. Did I feel sick for wanting to read about explicit sex scenes? Perhaps I was I concerned that others (strangers on the train or a friend at work) would think less of me because I had read it?
Now, the movie has opened in theaters and the wave of over-stimulating reviews and opinions flood my newsfeeds. It has been a couple years since I read or even really thought about the books, so it all came rushing back to me. The confusion of my thoughts on the subject has resurfaced and I find myself being pulled in different directions: Is this franchise smut, but virtually harmless? Is it potentially dangerous to vulnerable viewers? This is where I worry fiction walks a fine line and quick moving social media culture swoops in for the kill. I was feeling some type of way about my friends getting upset with the movie’s message, so I knew I had to figure out what exactly my feelings are.
The opposition for Fifty Shades of Grey is too serious to ignore. Many writers have been using the books’ own quotes against it, proving how lack-of consent and abuse are huge red flags in the story. The defensive here is that the quotes are taken out of context, but the bigger defensive to almost all of the criticism is the word consent. Many believe that the contract signed by Anastasia Steele serves as consent for all of the sexual encounters that followed. At one point, she even initiates her own “punishment.” She decides, after consenting and then experiencing it, that she does not like it. She still consented. Though, the important part was her decision to put a stop to it right afterward, so that it would never happen again. This is an empowering moment for Ana, and I think it is important to highlight. Even if a consensual contract was drawn, she still felt strong enough to realize how upsetting it was to her and she expressed her feelings openly to Christian. To be fair, the link above does point out times when Ana says something like “please, not tonight” and it appears that Christian ignored her wishes, which becomes a different story. Luckily, the movie chose not to partake in those instances of more blatant manipulation.
To help clear up some of the murky matters, it is important to note that the book differs from the movie in some important ways, just like the way I mentioned above. The movie elevates Anastasia to be a somewhat stronger character than the book does, probably because we cannot hear the awful inner dialogues E.L. James wrote. It just seems like the movie portrayed Ana to be observant and careful, while giving in to her curiosity, which gives her a more independent persona than in the book. However, neither the book nor movie can hide the fact that Christian’s tendencies, outside of the bedroom even more so, can be interpreted as abusive. Christian is very controlling. For the sex scenes, that can be stimulating (some women prefer domination in the bedroom), but when he shows up places uninvited or controls meals, the line is crossed. Still, it seems to me that Ana calls a lot of shots and calls him out on his bullshit, which is still on the right track.
I cannot ignore the manipulation, though. Christian’s controlling behavior and coldness definitely made me uneasy. Though we do not learn too much about Christian’s past in this installment, we are seeing through Ana’s eyes, so we learn more about him as she does. We get the hint that he was in a (maybe?) consensual dominant-submissive relationship when he was underage. This is where my knowledge of Law & Order: SVU comes in and I start worrying for Christian and Ana. In a world where abused children are more prone to becoming abusers themselves, this may cause us to feel bad for Christian or to understand his issues more. However, it certainly does not mean that it is okay for him to abuse Ana. It is sad, but it is not an excuse.
Still, I feel myself coming to more of a defense for Fifty Shades of Grey, regardless of whether I will ever watch the movie again. Consent is important to understanding the BDSM nature of the relationship. I know I am not the only one who doesn’t know anything about that culture, so that can lead to a misunderstanding of what is on screen. If Ana really agreed to everything, if the contract she negotiated is a valid form of consent, it all seems like fair game to me. She felt that the contract served as consent, even if it didn’t look healthy to others. She knew when to get out if she wasn’t liking the direction the relationship was heading. She knew she had the power to call it quits, whether or not the contract said that, as exemplified by her actions at the end.
I enjoyed the movie, if for nothing else than the color correction and the fashion (Christian’s suits and Ana’s new clothes are pretty nifty). After I dug a little deeper and read up on some articles for and against the series, I think feel content with it all. I actually saw the movie privately in a showing for Pure Romance with a couple of my gal pals. As you can imagine, the ladies of the theater were cracking jokes and sharing plenty of “ow ow”s, which was fun. I was nervous though, waiting to hear the reactions of the theater when some of the more controversial scenes played out. Particularly, I heard people become confused, and uncomfortable, when Ana asked for punishment. I was almost relieved to know that the women in the theater were trying to figure out how they felt about it, too. I know everyone has their own opinions about consent and how it plays a role in Fifty Shades of Grey, but at least the door of conversation about it all has been thrust wide open (pun intended). As for me, I can say that I had a good time seeing a female-fronted film that has started a really interesting conversation.