dir: Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015
So…I’m a wee bit disgusted with myself for contributing to Fifty Shades of Grey’s box office this weekend. But sometimes, when you’re on a date, you’re willing to sublimate the critic in you just long enough to survive 2 hours of barely passable cinema.
Yes, that is all bias. Yes, it’s rude. But, this is my opinion. Don’t like it? Don’t keep reading, please.
Before I go any further: I too have a limited knowledge of the BDSM community, and do not purport to know any more than any other individual with an active internet connection and a sometimes sexually curious set of friends (I know I’m not the only one, don’t front.)
Fifty Shades is pound cake tempting the cinematic weight watchers of mainstream Americans. It’s the blunt offered by a friend at the college party. It’s the softcore HBO flick you “just happened” to watch one night. In following the sexual and dramatic adventures of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, America is invited to revel (or churn in disgust) in that which is often just out of reach (by choice or otherwise.) In fact, everything about the film’s media push promised taboo, decadence, sexual deviancy, mystery. Much like the written work’s stark cover art, it sought to incite some sense of the forbidden and danger in your average full-time parents and hormone-ridden teens alike (gender notwithstanding.)
There are a multitude of problems with this. But let’s start from the beginning, because I’m going to enjoy this.
For those who don’t know, Fifty Shades the written work, began as Twilight fan-fic on some thread on the vast internets. Somewhere along the line, E.L. James recrafted the works to become an independent set of stories.This itself is not an issue. Thousands of scripts are written and re-written in Hollywood.You know that little art film, Die Hard? It was originally supposed to be a sequel to the Arnie classic Commando (mmmm steroids and hyper-masculinity in Reagan’s America).The issue here is that the re-crafting was less craft and more re.
Specifically, Fifty Shades is just as bad a clone of Twilight as every other young-adult-angst-post-apocalyptic-exploitation film that comes out every other year. The sad part is, even in it’s re-re-written form as a screenplay, the film hits the exact beats of Twilight to a guilty fault. It’s tiresome and amazingly transparent. Secondly, my heart cries for Jamie Dornan. Not only is he wasted in this film, but his awkward swallowing of an American accent is painfully apparent in the beginning of the film. I’m not sure if it was by acclimation or skill that it leveled out to my ears. But it’s hard to not compare this to his great work in The Fall. Thirdly, while my date continuously said that “the book was better,” I found myself in the position of a rock and a hard place. Thus, if the book was hot trash, the movie could only aspire to be lukewarm oatmeal. I say this because the film takes willing dives into dodgy territory with increasing pretense of drama where there is only drivel.
I’m specifically speaking of the contention of the sex acts themselves, and the pandering and misguided discussion of Christian’s sexuality. Before I continue to be (rightfully) mean, Fifty Shades does best when it’s dealing with sex. More specifically, the camera almost takes pleasure in the sumptuous extreme close-ups of Christian and Ana’s bodies writhing, pulsing, and moving about. Kudos to In fact, I was surprised at how much the film sought to tease; there are gratuitous shots of crotch and pubes in this film. It’s strangely refreshing, as it pulls away from the sanitized body-on-body sex scenes of even some of the most R-rated films as of late.
In addition, Fifty Shades makes a point of highlighting safe sex. Christian is explicitly shown (incorrectly) opening a condom in every penetrative act. Out of all the bad things about this film, that was one bright moment. Rarely do we see the fantasy involve condoms in our favorite romance dramas. If they don’t serve the narrative, the specters of STD’s and pregnancy are afterthoughts, if not wholly thrown into oblivion.
+1 for 50 shades.
Anyway, back to the fuckery.
Midway through the film, it’s revealed that Christian was introduced to BDSM life by way of an older woman, a friend of his mother’s, when he was 15. For 7 years he was about that #SubLife. Anyone with a brain can do the math here and surmise that:
- This means a 27 year old Christian just got his freedoms 5 years ago.
- Christian was at the very least abused by an adult.
These two points are important because Ana in no way acknowledges these things until a cheap jealous quip in the third act. What’s more, the idea of abuse as gateway to transformative sexuality is an uncomfortably strong narrative line pushed throughout the film. This is obviously a problem because Fifty Shades initially purports that the Dom-Sub relationship is one of respect, love, devotion and strictly consensual forms of sex and emotion.However, once Christian’s history and foibles are revealed, the film suggests that he is only this way because of his prior abuse.
Not only does this do injustice to the BDSM community as a whole, it also fucks up the fun. Instead of respecting (even if it’s sugar-coated mainstream) BDSM principles and culture, the film merely uses it as the catalyst for a lame attempt at calming the moral fears of a vanilla audience. The only way you can enjoy the sinfulness of the sex is to understand that it’s fictive, and also because this man is a deviant. He really is a nice guy at heart, but some horrible, terrible pervert destroyed his nascent sexuality. Fifty Shades wants you to have your cake and eat it, at the expense of a much more complex and very real culture and lifestyle.
The results however are increasingly agitating at best and wholly fucked up at worse. There’s no better place to look for this than the two’s horrid relationship and presentation of Ana’s sexuality (and character). Ana is a 1D character. Saying that she’s 2D would be an insult to real 2D characters like Stacey Dash and Ethnic Convict #4. Her entire role in the film is to act as a stand-in for the audience’s own projections. Nothing signifies this more than by one of the dumbest lines to ever be written: “what’s a butt plug?” Really? And she’s a virgin. Did I mention that? This complicates Christian’s machinations on her, and he effectively deflowers her.
The problem here is that their subsequent sexual engagements are increasingly….uncomfortable. Without consenting to “the contract,” Ana and Christian engage in what we’re to assume is the introductory Dom-Sub relationship. This is anything further from the truth. Christian has no respect for boundaries, and on occasion is often obsessive and rapey. In turn, Ana is wholly just swept into “his world,” with lame attempts at establishing her own convictions and reliability. Thus, what is supposed to read as “Dom-Sub” is actually “abusive and toxic.”
Again, this does ultimate disservice to the actual relationships the film parrots with abhorrent lack of skill. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the final scenes where Ana is confused as to why Christian won’t let her in. In fact, she explicitly asks if he extracts pleasure from bringing her pain. This is a glaring error, because she definitely asks him at the beginning of the fucking film if he’s a sadist, to which he basically agrees.
[sey-dist, sad-ist] noun Psychiatry. a person who has the condition of sadism, in which one receives sexual gratification from causing pain and degradation to another.*
For an “english lit major,” she surely doesn’t understand that words mean things.
In the most toxic turn of the film, Ana demands that he show her “the worst” in an attempt to understand who he is. Now, what transpires is ridiculously..ridiculous. Not only because the act itself is relatively tame (or maybe I too am a deviant), but also because it’s clearly an abusive situationship that Ana enables, victim-blaming be damned. Yes, Christian is domineering, obsessive, rapey, and just bad with words. But Ana is almost equally obsessive and passive, as a human being.
The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, it’s a gross painting of a potentially independent female character that denies her agency and effectively flattens her into a passive and witless woman waiting to be taken. That’s insulting and problematic as hell, and it generates unsound understandings of sexuality, at best. Secondly, it suggests that this is what BDSM relationships are, and, that in some way you’re supposed to enjoy this. In reality, this is simply a sexed up version of any number of romantic dramas we’ve seen in the past fifty ‘leven years.
We must at some point accept that the toxic and unhealthy representation of heterosexual relationships in American cinema is long and storied. Sadly, I doubt that we (the average moviegoer) ever will. Somehow though, in our glutted need to feed, we’ve allowed Fifty Shades to enter the arena, and in a bizarro way, indulge a crystallized version of the shit we’ve allowed ad infinitum. The only thing that makes Fifty Shades worse than any previous films is that it furthers the idea while also disrespecting an actual culture and it’s complexity. This ain’t nothing new to Hollywood, I assure you. But it does leave me disturbed because, audiences will leave this film and:
- Clumsily try to recreate a few sex scenes and send themselves to the hospital.
- Start imagining themselves in these roles, believing it to be novel.
That second point is disturbing because these characters, and the things they’re doing, are anything but safe or healthy. In turn, running around thinking you know how to conduct BDSM because you saw this film will most likely get someone hurt, or worse (emotionally and otherwise). Thus, I only ask that you don’t see this film. It’s already making money and shouldn’t get any more. In addition, if you do find yourself interested in the kinky life, please find your information and understanding from legitimate sources and not a fictive imagining that is not even remotely accurate.
*Courtesy of dictionary.com
The original Homeboy With A Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. Find his rants and retweetery @dapisdope