Magpie Corvid reviews Fifty Shades of Grey
Nobody need see Fifty Shades of Grey for fun. For a smart, sexy film about dominance and submission, check out Secretary. Fifty Shades fails utterly.
It is beautifully shot, hollow, and chilling in its implications. The kinky sex is weak, and poorly done. The characters are paper, meritless; not worth all the ink and pixels spilled over them. But the relationship between Christian and Ana has captivated the imaginations of millions of people, and that relationship, portrayed as romance, tells its millions of fans that stalking, controlling behaviour, overwhelming, extravagant gifts, and isolation from family and friends is love.
The film embodies BDSM as the power and wealth of Mr Grey, the captain of industry, and as the anguish of his abused childhood. And, as it savagely marginalises kinksters, its greater significance is as a reinforcement of women’s social subordination. A reinvention of fairytale orthodoxy, from Tess of the d’Urbervilles to Twilight, its inspiration, Fifty Shades says that wealth, power and youthful, fit, white masculinity are the premier expression of romantic love, and that for a woman to submit to that is both graceful and natural.
Christian Grey’s love language is abuse. In books and film, he wields the tools of patriarchy and capitalism to get his way. He talks a good game about consent, then regularly violates it. Within ten minutes of the film’s start, he turns a news interview to intimidating, invasive questions for the reporter, Ana. He traces Ana’s phone; he turns up to her workplace unannounced; he scraps and replaces her car. He interrupts her holiday with her mother; he controls what she eats, drinks and wears. She does not sign his submissive contract, but she keeps to his non-disclosure agreement; never – not to her mother or her housemate – does the inexperienced Ana breathe a word of what is being done to her.
Even in her infatuation with Christian, Ana resists his gifts, his narcissism, and over and over again, he brushes her resistance aside. You can see her hesitance in her eyes, but she keeps going forward with him, because she loves him, and because, in her mind’s eye, she is the lead in her own romance tale – where the love of a good woman can cure Christian’s dark tastes, which were wrought in his own horrific childhood abuse.
In the trilogy, critics hated Ana’s monologue, her “inner goddess,” but its absence in the film means that both their relationship, and their sexual encounters, seem even more coerced than they did in written form.
For millions, this film might be their first exposure to something in the guise of BDSM, and to take it as a guide would be incredibly dangerous. Real kink is based on real, ongoing consent – not one conversation, not some pompous contract. And a dominant need not be a white, male captain of industry with a sad back-story, model looks, and a Red Room of Pain. He may be a she, a person of colour, disabled, working class; and a dungeon can simply be a box of improvised toys hidden under the bed. And real BDSM is not always so fraught; it can be quiet, intimate, loving and liberatory, and while there are heaps of great erotica and films out there that capture this, these are lost in the torrent of flawed portrayals of kink, like Fifty Shades.
For all these reasons, we are right to critique Fifty Shades, but we should not condemn its fans. Books and films about female sexual dominance find a much colder welcome in popular culture than Fifty Shades has, and that’s because of the structural marginalisation of women; indeed, would a book with a female dominant have as much commercial appeal to publishers and producers? But millions of people, of all genders, have fantasies of submission. To these people, we should say: feminism is for you. Your submission may be an artefact of our culture, but, in a sense, so is every part of our lives as human beings. It is up to us to realise our fantasies in a way that is consensual, safe, and liberatory for everyone involved. And in order to build a culture that is safe for all of our fullest sexual expression, we must dismantle patriarchy and capitalism must be torn down.