*This article contains spoilers*
It would be an understatement to say that Fifty Shades of Grey has caused quite the stir. The books sold millions; suddenly women all over the world were reading porn on trains or during their work breaks. Mainstream porn is generally manufactured for heterosexual men and created with their pleasure in mind. The book encouraged women, who otherwise might not, to explore their sexuality and dip, if only in the shallow end, into the world of porn from which they are often excluded. It also encouraged open discussion of BDSM, which is surely a good thing. To top it off, the long-anticipated film came out on Valentine’s Day, sticking a big middle finger up at the holiday reserved for romance, roses and cuddly teddies.
And that’s about where the positive aspects of Fifty Shades end. Much has been written defending or criticising the books/film, offering various perspectives through which to look at Christian and Ana’s romance. Yet however you look at it, the story is a glamorization of abusive relationships. This is undebatable. It seems that when domestic and sexual abuse is dressed up with money, helicopter rides, a grey tie and a six pack we have no problem swallowing it down. The film opens to the tune of Annie Lennox’s cover of ‘I Put a Spell on You’. Queue raised eyebrows. This is what the story sells us; that its hunky anti-hero is spellbinding, charismatic, enthralling Ana, putting her under his spell. No. Christian Grey is as dull as the dullest shade of grey on a Dulux Colour chart. That’s no reflection on Jamie Dornan; it’s the character himself. There’s nothing charismatic about him and he works no magic. In every aspect of her life, he asserts a hideous, insidious control over Ana. He dictates what she wears, what she eats, when she exercises, who she works for with such sinister thoroughness that we wonder how on earth he has time to do his high flying (very ambiguous) job.
In the film, when Ana first meets Christian she wears an inoffensive cardigan and a modest, frilly skirt to convey innocence and naivety. It’s the stereotypical virgin’s uniform. Christian wears a serious grey suit and tie to convey that he has serious money and a serious penis. I was curious to see how director Sam Taylor-Johnson would take the dreadful writing, vacant plot and endless butt-plug/bath-tub blow job scenes of the book and craft them into something suitable for the big screen. Take away the sex and Fifty Shades might as well be the handbook of trashy novel plots for dummies. But then again, I wasn’t keen for a visual of the butt-plug fun. The sex scenes involved a lot of dramatic music, close ups and spanking. Aside from all the red room tools, it all looked pretty vanilla to me. I wondered how much this Christian Grey was actually in to what he said he couldn’t live without, or whether it was just another thing he threw money at. The movie emphasises the visual and all we see, constantly, is Christian’s wealth. He even caresses Ana with a peacock feather. No cheap fluffy handcuffs for him.
The beginning is innocent enough, with a few cringe inducing moments of dirty talk and a few laughs. But the light-hearted beginning escalates quickly into something much darker. I was suddenly watching an abusive relationship play out in front of me on the big screen, with sexy music playing underneath. Like the book, Christian and Ana’s relationship is not based on love, trust, or mutual understanding, but manipulation, abuse, control. I felt more and more uncomfortable as I watched Christian’s abuse of Ana unfurl. Christian’s most explicit lines had a distinct aura of threat around them, but he’d take off his shirt afterwards and it would all be okay because apparently we can all wash misogyny down easily with a helping of steely abs. In several cases, Ana seems ambivalent, nervous and occasionally downright uncomfortable. In the run up to the beating scene, I actually felt a sense of dread. Christian beats Ana with a belt until she ends up sobbing, barely able to speak. I don’t know about you, but I think that reaction is as good as a safe-word. It doesn’t suggest ‘pleasure’ to me.
What I witnessed here was not BDSM. It was not respectful, consensual, based on trust, nor was there any aftercare. Christian forced a contract on Ana, but discarded it because apparently she took too long to make her decision, and he couldn’t be kept waiting. Did he ask her at any point if he could have sex with her? No. He assumed her consent, calling her virginity a ‘situation’ that he needed to ‘rectify’. Did he ask discuss with her at all how they should proceed if the pain drove her to tears? No. Constantly ‘surprising’ her, but never asking, Christian was a cold, threatening, unpleasant character with whom I wouldn’t go within a mile.
Watching the beating scene, I almost hoped E.L. James had sat and watched it – really watched it, not just analysed it to see if it was a close enough representation of her written version – and felt ashamed for what she has created. Because when it was there, right in front of you, with the amplified sounds of a belt buckle hitting skin and Ana’s sobs, I can’t have been the only one who thought: ‘nope. This isn’t sexy, even though I’m being told that it is’. The message E.L. James has given out about BDSM relationships is uninformed and irresponsible.
I hope if the film has done anything, it has brought this to light and maybe encouraged people not to buy in to the ugly fantasy that is Mr Grey. There’s nothing sexy about domestic abuse or non-consensual sex. BDSM is not the problem; Christian Grey is. He is spot on when he describes himself as ‘fifty shades of fucked up’. Ultimately, the film underscores the fact that this is precisely what he is. And it just isn’t sexy.