By Jessica Delfanti | February 15, 2015
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Writer: Kelly Marcel, E.L. James (novel)
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden, Rita Ora, Max Martini, Callum Keith Rennie, Andrew Airlie, Dylan Neal
Before thinking to review Fifty Shades of Grey, there are some things we should consider. The source material was built from Twilight fan fiction. The book has helped to shift the concept of BDSM into the mainstream light. And the women that have raved over its contents have a right to enjoy what they enjoy. That said, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film adaptation is at best a senseless, structureless exhibit of bad writing; at worst, it’s an irresponsible movie that portrays an abusive relationship in positive light and paints a damaging picture of the very real, and very responsible world of BDSM.
For those unfamiliar with the book’s content, Fifty Shades follows Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who is the perfect summation of the “every girl” archetype. She’s dorky and falls down sometimes! She doesn’t know how to talk to boys! When she accidentally meets the “intimidating” Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), he takes a sudden and unprompted interest in her, she finds herself part of a very unpredictable and unconventional romance. Much of the film surrounds his pursuit of her, and his attempts to get her to legally consent via contract to all the things he wants to do to her. Somehow, Anastasia doesn’t seem to notice that his behavior is almost laughably full of red flags: demanding to know if any of the men in her life are her boyfriend; policing her drinking, right off the bat, out of “concern for her safety”; showing up at her work and buying a collection of duct tape and ropes. Yeah, no. The guy is either a serial killer or has zero sense of boundaries–not what you want in a boyfriend.
Most of the film feels like a bizarre genre mashup of delusional romantic comedy and a cautionary tale about the dangers of domestic abuse. There are all of the staples of the “every girl” romance that have become popular: she is a girl no one else has noticed before (debatable), he is a man that many have noticed, but has taken a unique and special interest in her, giving her special privileges that no other woman has enjoyed (debatable). The fantasy here hinges upon this idea that “plain” girls (I have to laugh while typing that, as the girls in question are always portrayed by beautiful actresses) can simply wait around to be plucked up by some man like an apple off a tree, and that their subsequent “triumph” is garnered by essentially being better than the other women he’s been with. This kind of myth is understandably attractive–I don’t have to do any work, I’ll just wait here for my soul mate to find me! This archetype of man of sexual prowess chooses plain girl to “awaken” may just be the manic pixie dream girl for women: a male archetype that exists solely to be beautiful, amp up the woman’s ego, and expand her world…all while having little or no character at all. Just like the manic pixie dream girl, the real problem here is when people stop distinguishing fact from fiction. These people do not exist.
The kind of people that do exist would live in that second genre that Fifty Shades pulls in so aggressively: manipulative, controlling, and abusive men who prey on inexperienced women. There are countless instances in the film that feel more like a horror movie than a romance, where Grey’s behavior is so clearly manipulative, where he takes Anastasia into situations of obvious danger, or acts in a controlling manner that makes him seem completely unhinged. There were multiple times I wanted to yell at the screen: “Don’t go in the woods with him! He’s going to kill you!” Everything the guy does is dripping with serial killer. The film would have been the perfect set up for a final climax where Grey murders the trusting Anastasia when she disobeys him–leaving the final, important message: he may be sexy, he may be wealthy, but don’t be swayed by a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the dude is crazy.
Which brings me to the portrayal of BDSM in the film. Living in San Francisco, I can easily forget that the general education as to “sexual deviancy” here far surpasses the general population’s knowledge. It is extremely concerning to think that people might watch this film and think this is what BDSM is. What Grey describes as special “tastes” leads to the reveal of a “playroom” full of whips, floggers, handcuffs, blindfolds–all standards of BDSM. And while most of the actual sexual behavior in the film is fairly vanilla (as far as bondage goes), there are some extremely troubling elements. First, Grey’s proclivities would not be so disturbing if he was seeking a “submissive” that was equally interested and aroused by the activities; instead, he pressures an extremely inexperienced girl into it. Second, the film conflates the “dominant” role with being, in Grey’s words, “fucked up,” and Grey’s experience being molested. This plays dangerously close to a rather conservative idea that people that participate in “deviancy” (this term includes homosexuality for many, even now) are the products of some sort of damaged psyche, as opposed to recognizing that human sexuality is naturally a very expansive spectrum, in which there are many variations on activity enjoyed by completely “normal” people.
Still, in the face of the trilogy’s massive success, and the likely commercial success of the film, you might be tempted to ask if I’m missing something, if you’re missing something here. The book didn’t sell over 100 million copies because it’s terrible, did it?
I would counter that with the concession: yes, there is clearly market for this kind of material, but I’m not talking about the glorification of abusive relationships. I think what women gravitate to in Fifty Shades is the openness with which Anastasia’s sexuality is addressed, the way that Grey talks about sex in a way that sheds the taboo, completely removing the sense that women do not talk about sex and their desires. In the world of Fifty Shades, a woman’s desires can be as straightforward as agreeing to points in a contract; compared to a world where women are too frequently told that any sexual interest will label them as a “slut,” that can be attractive. I don’t have to explain the basic categorizing of women by their sexual activity into “Madonna and the Whore,” but you can see clearly that Anastasia is allowed to be both. And it’s no surprise that then the most interesting component of the film is the part where Anastasia is in power, as she decides whether or not to engage in Grey’s special style of “play.” The internal debate over whether to do something risky, something uncomfortable and potentially dangerous, on the off chance that it may grant access to sexual satisfaction–well, that’s something many women can identify with.
Instead of deep diving into that interesting area, the movie treads through all sorts of bizarre, boring, and ridiculous territory. There’s no question, this movie is Fifty a Shades of bad.