50 Shades Crappier: On Selling Abuse for Valentine's Day
I have written previously about 50 Shades of Grey, and the problems that I, and many others, have with the presentation of BDSM in the book. In short, the book purportedly explores a woman's sexual awakening in the context of consensual BDSM, but really portrays a woman's emotional abuse in the guise of kink at the hands of a controlling partner.
Which is why I was so disheartened to find out that 50 Shades would be adapted for the screen. I knew it would mean that the franchise would live on for another few years, and that we would continue to be inundated with the books/films and its characters until the screening of the final film. And as I feared, the way the film was talked about in the weeks and months leading up to its Valentine's Day release was fairly frustrating. I found it upsetting to see that the story was getting tied up with red ribbons and sold as the perfectly romantic Valentine's Day date. You could get anything from flowers to chocolate to champagne with a 50-Shades-theme: even a teddy bear with suit and handcuffs.
While the surprise success of the initial trilogy sparked a lot of hand-wringing concern-pieces about the kink in the books, that concern had largely died down by the time the production of the film made news. And aside from some gleeful pieces about the rumored lack of chemistry in the sex scenes between Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson and the fact that the first-choice actor for the character of Christian Grey dropped out before shooting began, much of the press coverage has been excitedly caught up in the frenzy of a film that is perhaps a bit risky, perhaps a bit dirrrrty (in a circa 2002 Christina Aguilera kind of way), but definitely romantic and perfect for Valentine's Day. The press has delighted in pointing out the 'racier' aspects of the film in breathlessly hushed tones and whispering about steamy 'forbidden' pleasures. It seems that the film, kink and all, is now somewhere on par with edible lingerie: not something you discuss with your parents or in polite company, but something 'naughty' that you can indulge in behind closed doors. In an interview with Elle magazine, Dornan revealed that he had been to a dungeon to get an idea of what BDSM looks like, but also emphasized that he'd needed to take a shower afterward before he'd felt comfortable going near his wife and new baby. In several magazines, reporters speculated whether Dakota Johnson would let her parents see the film.
50 Shades, in short, was no longer a source of outrage, but a perfectly acceptable, if racy, romantic film.
Why has the film been overwhelmingly marketed as a sweet, if a bit edgy romance, and why has it been received this way? Why are we flocking to the theaters on Valentines's Day to see a film that features an abusive relationship, and why is this film labelled as a romance?
Because we have been gaslighted by culture when it comes to sex. We have been told that all sex is dirty, and consequently we cannot tell anymore if sex is really just 'dirty', or actually abusive. I'm from a generation of young women that has been taught that they should not have sex (or at least not enjoy it, or at least not talk about it), that their value lies in not being 'slutty'. And on top of that mess, we are constantly bombarded with the message that when a man pushes our boundaries, when he makes us feel uncomfortable, invades our personal space and tells us what is good for us, that this is done out of affection (or at least lust) and that it is romantic. Not surprisingly, Twilight, the franchise that 50 Shades is based on (it started life as Bella and Edward fanfiction), is a terrible offender in this regard: Edward constantly follows Bella around, sneaks into her room at night to watch her sleep, dictates who she can and cannot see, and even has her kidnapped by his sister to prevent her from hanging out with her friend.
Given all these restrictions when it comes to women's sexuality, it is not terribly surprising that lots of women appreciated the books. Quite aside from questions of literary merit and questionable portrayals of BDSM, the book does present something of a subversive take on women's sexuality. It is a book written by a woman, with a main character who has a sexual awakening and who is shown, again and again, to be having enjoyable sex. In a world where books and films involving sex and sexual pleasure are focused on men, where even when it is geared towards women it is still often about a man (a la "7 new ways to please your man" articles), it is refreshing to have a book that is centered on female pleasure, and it is understandable that it was such a big hit.
So despite all of my misgivings, I went to see the film, hoping that if nothing else, I was in for a movie that showed a woman having sex she was excited about. Unfortunately, the film is not set up to focus on Anastasia's sexual pleasure, or even on her sexual awakening. It is constructed as a plain old star-crossed-lovers story, in which two people fall in love and then have to fight obstacles presented to them by their surroundings so that they can be together. The only problem with that in this film is that neither of the plot elements make sense.
Before I talk about the film, let's clarify some terminology so we're all on the same page. BDSM stands for Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism. The acronym is an umbrella term for types of activities - often, but not always, sexual activities - in which one partner is dominant and the other is submissive. These interactions, called scenes, are carefully negotiated beforehand and everyone involved must take care to insure that everything is safe, sane and consensual. That's the most important tenet of BDSM. What these scenes look like, exactly, is up to the individuals involved and can vary a lot. Often, BDSM is also called 'kink'. You may have heard of kinky sex vs vanilla sex, which is a dichotomy that a lot of people use to differentiate between sex that incorporates elements of BDSM and sex that does not, but in reality those borders are a lot blurrier than you may think, and these terms mean different things to everyone who uses them. The books, and this film, uses a lot of this language, and the main character Christian is presented as someone who practices BDSM and tries to entice Anastasia to engage in these activities with him. However, both texts get a lot of things about BDSM wrong, and you can read more about that in my post about the book.
The first problem with the star-crossed-lovers plot in this film is that their falling in love is not presented in any sort of a believable fashion. This is partially due to the fact that neither of the characters has much, well, character. Christian never reveals much about himself because, we are led to believe, he is damaged and cannot talk about his feelings. Anastasia, on the other hand, seems to not have anything to reveal. This may well be due to the fact that, created for a fan-fiction story, she was meant as a template for a reader to project themselves onto. But that is not the greatest basis for the development of a believable romantic love story. And so, for the first fifteen minutes of the movie, they do not talk about much of anything ('What is your thing?" Christian asks, "books, I guess" Ana replies), and then once their relationship inexplicably takes off, they talk about nothing but their relationship - and their struggles with it. There is not a single moment where they seem to connect, where they seem to have fun and enjoy each other, nothing, in short, that would make all of their tragic struggles seem worth it. In order for an audience to root for them, we have to just take in good faith that they are in love and meant for each other, and move from there.
However, this is difficult to accept when you consider the nature of their obstacle - it is, when it comes right down to it, merely the fact that they are not a good match for each other. This becomes very plain in a conversation they have at the house of Christian's parents, after Christian threw her over his shoulder and carried her outside to berate her for deciding to visit her mother without telling him about it first. Ana is upset that he would find this problematic, and Christian is upset that she does not understand why he does not want her to leave. The issue is, of course, that Christian is trying to hold her to terms of a contract he has drawn up - a contract between dominant and submissive that he wants her to sign, but that she does not feel comfortable with and keeps putting off signing. Ana, on the other hand, is holding out on signing the contract because though she wants to be with him, she wants to do it on her own terms - she wants to have what she calls a "normal" relationship. Ana has made it clear that for her, it is important that a relationship includes shared activities besides sex (such as having dinner together or going to see a movie), and that it involves sharing intimacy (one thing she struggles with in particular is that Christian does not want to sleep in the same bed with her). But Christian is not interested in those activities.
The problem, their obstacle, is that they are simply two people who are a terrible match for each other. Christian is looking for a submissive who will enter a sub-dom arrangement with him, and although Ana has fun with some elements of bondage play, she is uncomfortable with most of the elements of the contract that are most important to Christian. And on the other side of that, Christian has made it clear that he has no interest in the elements of a relationship that Ana desires most.
Ideally, at this point, the two would come to the conclusion that they would each be much, much happier with a partner who shares their idea of an ideal relationship. They would say to each other, "look we have great chemistry and really like each other, but we are constantly at odds and it seems like neither of us will get what they want without a huge amount of sacrificing and compromising. Let's end this here, and look for people we are a better fit with."
They don't, of course, because as a culture we are sold on the idea that anything can be overcome in the name of love.
It is also crucial here that, while Ana states that she does not want to have to change to fit Christian's needs, throughout the film she also tries to change him to fit her needs. From the moment after their first date, where he tells her to stay away from him because he will only cause trouble, Ana is determined to tame him. Of course, this is another very old narrative that we know from romance novels: the narrative of the innocent young woman whose love softens the heart of a man damaged and broken by previous experiences. Despite the fact that Christian repeatedly tells her that "this is who I am!", she seems certain that his kinky proclivities are something that he can - and should - move beyond. And it seems that she's not entirely wrong, as he does break some of his own rules: he has sex with her that does not inolve BDSM (a first for him) and even occasionally sleeps in the same bed as she does, both things he initially said he would not do. This reinforces a damaging narrative, one that keeps many women in abusive relationships for far too long: that they can eventually stop the abuse by just loving their partner enough.
But what about the sex, you ask? Isn't the book about sex? Doesn't, perhaps, this awesome sex provide the basis for their relationship and their incentive to keep trying to make it work, even though their personalities clash? Sadly, the film does not offer us this solution. While the film does contain a lot of sex, it does not have the first-person-narration from Ana's point of view that would let us know that she is, indeed, enjoying the sex with Christian. There are plenty of sex scenes, and while Ana seems to be having a good time in many of them, the camera always pans away long before she could have any of the earth-shattering orgasms she has in the book, and several of the sex scenes end with her alone in bed, feeling frustrated and confused. At least three of the sexual encounters result in her crying because she does not understand Christian's behavior and is upset by it. And though plenty of scenes revolve around them negotiating the contract that Christian insists upon, they do not pay it much mind in practice ("fuck the paperwork," Christian says almost immediately after first bringing it up), and they do not actually communicate about the sex they are having. When Christian finds out that Ana has never had sex, he picks her up and takes her to his bedroom to "rectify the situation," and Ana follows him along passively. Without the internal monologues from the book, which often show Ana as an enthusiastic and eager, if passive, participant, the sex between them seems driven by and focused on Christian and his pleasure. And so the book's one redeeming quality, its unabashed portrayal of female pleasure, fades into the background.
Questions of cinematic merit aside (and critics seem pretty unanimous in finding the film mediocre at best, with wooden acting and oftentimes downright terrible writing), for long stretches of the film it is not as bad as it could have been. Ana and Christian seem more on an even footing than they do in the book. They may disagree, but at least they are two adults having a disagreement, whereas the book often displays an immense and terrifying power imbalance between the two. But on the whole, this is a film that never needed to be made, because at its core it is a film about two people who have nothing in common and do not seem to like each other very much, but nevertheless spend 125 minutes inexplicably trying to form a relationship, hurting and frustrating each other in the process.
And we need to talk about this bad, boring film because it and the media narrative that exists around it feed and perpetuate damaging stereotypes about relationships. They reinforce the idea that the degree of drama present in the initial stages of a relationship is directly proportional to the degree of love the participants feel: the greater the struggles and the higher the emotional stakes, the bigger the love. This is not true. In fact, if two people are really a good fit for each other, then the beginning stages of a relationship should be mostly fun and easy. Subscribing to the idea that big problems means big love can lead people to become stuck in relationships that are not making them happy, or at worst, are downright unhealthy for them. Furthermore, there is the undercurrent of both the film and the book that Ana need only 'heal' Christian's emotional wound for him to become a respectful and caring partner. This is a dangerous idea, and many women stay in abusive relationships because they think that their partner will treat them better if they love them enough, or that they have a responsibility to stay because they can help them with their support.
In short, and for a whole lot of reasons, there are plenty of better ways to spend two hours and $12 dollars than going to see that film. Because despite all the racy marketing, it's really just another retelling of some very old tales, and we really need to move on from them already.