Feminists, BDSM enthusiasts, movie-goers and erotica lovers alike have all been quick to criticise the phenomenon that is 50 Shades of Grey. In the weeks leading up to the film’s release on the 13th February, groups such as ’50 Dollars Not 50 Shades’ and other similar organisations have been encouraging would-be 50 Shades fans to boycott the film and instead donate the money that they would otherwise spend on a ticket to refuge centres that help female victims of domestic abuse.
Now, I’m all for helping victims of domestic abuse (female and male), and I can’t deny that the groups have put their beliefs about 50 Shades of Grey to good use and achieved something positive. I’m not knocking that. What I am knocking is the notion that the film (and I am talking exclusively about the film here) depicts domestic abuse in any way, shape or form.
‘What, but you’re a feminist!’ I can hear you wondering.
‘You’re always going on about BDSM, how can you support this?’
‘Do you condone domestic abuse?’
Woah. Just stop right there.
For those of you that don’t know, 50 Shades of Grey tells the story of Literature student Anastasia Steele, who, on a chance meeting with hunky billionaire Christian Grey finds herself infatuated. Eventually, Grey admits that his ‘tastes’ are somewhat unusual, to which Ana replies that she wants him to ‘enlighten’ her. Accepting the challenge, Grey proceeds to initiate Ana into the mysterious waters of BDSM by showing her how it feels to be tied up, spanked, and have Champagne spat into her mouth (yes, really).
Okay, sarcastic tone aside, there have been claims made that Christian is abusive, emotionally manipulative, a stalker and even a rapist, and when claims like this are being made about something as huge as 50 Shades of Grey, they need to be taken seriously.
When Ana first meets Christian, Christian does not pursue her in the way that most men would. He instead holds back as a means of protecting Ana. He leaves a lunch date early, telling her that she isn’t the one for him and that he’s no good for her, repeatedly emphasising that he doesn’t ‘do’ dates, he doesn’t ‘make love’ and he absolutely does not do the whole ‘girlfriend thing.’
Eventually, when they do get together and Christian is open with Ana about his ‘preferences,’ he is not pushy, evasive, or unclear about his intentions. He puts together a BDSM ‘contract’ with a long list of activities that Ana can decide whether she is open to trying or not. When she looks over the list and informs him of the activities which she is not comfortable with, Christian does not try to persuade her otherwise or push her into giving him her reasons, he just crosses them off the list. After Ana repeatedly expresses consent to a sexual relationship with Christian, he explains how she can use safewords to verbally ‘tap out’ of any activity that is no longer causing her pleasure, and before he shows her his ‘playroom,’ he asks her if she is sure about what she is consenting to and whether she trusts him, before telling her that ‘it’s important that you know that you can leave at any time.’
I mean, I don’t know about you guys but I think he’s looking pretty kind and considerate thus far.
As their relationship progresses even further, Christian not once tries to push Ana’s limits. There are only a handful of sex scenes in the film, but each one depicts extremely light BDSM, which Ana enjoys every minute of (aside from one, but we will come to that in a minute). Christian never expresses discontent or frustration that Ana is not open to trying some more experimental forms of BDSM, instead creating extremely sensual and fulfilling scenes designed around Ana’s preferences. There is even a nod to aftercare when Christian is scene carrying Ana to bed as she snuggles up to him in a fluffy bathrobe.
Not only this but on a number of occasions we see Christian unwrapping a condom before intercourse, followed by Ana going on the contraceptive pill – I cannot, in the history of my relationship with cinema, remember birth control being so explicitly referenced before, apart from in films that centre around accidental pregnancy such as Juno and Knocked Up. Another instance of realism is during the BDSM scenes, when Christian takes his time securing the ropes, a clever touch that highlights the fact that BDSM has its boring bits. We even see hairs on Ana’s legs when she is silhouetted in front of a window which is a welcome change to the primped and preened Hollywood brigade!
If anything, Ana is the more problematic character in the movie. From the beginning, Christian tells her that he absolutely will not sleep in the same bed as her and that he doesn’t want to be touched without his consent. The reasons for this are not made crystal clear to Ana, but after she questions him about the scars on his chest, there is the suggestion that Christian suffered physical abuse as a child. He is also open about the fact that he was sexually abused by a much older woman when he was just boy, to which Ana is, understandably, outraged.
So why then, does she try and touch him or force him to sleep in bed with her at every opportunity? Why does she reach for his chest and scream at him about his limits in every argument? Why does she constantly question his desire not to be touched when he never once questions any of her limits. ‘You’re the one changing me,’ Christian says to Ana during one of these conversations, and it’s true. Christian may be older and more experienced, but he is still a survivor of abuse and so any needs that he has regarding touch and intimacy should be respected without question.
The one scene that I felt vaguely uncomfortable watching in the film was towards the end, where Ana demands that Christian spank her as hard as he possibly can. He refuses at first, but she insists. After asking if she is sure, he does what she has requested, and yes, it hurts. Ana cries as he is spanking her but not once does she utter her safeword, ‘red,’ or even the word ‘yellow’ which she is able to use if the pain is becoming a little too much but is not unbearable. Ana could have withdrawn her consent at any time, but she chose not to. It was consensual and involved no pressure from Christian. If anything, she was the one pressuring him into it. After he is finished spanking her, he tried to comfort her, first right away, then afterwards in her bedroom, and then just before she leaves, but she refuses after all 3 times.
Do Christian and Ana have problems that they need to address? Of course they do!
Does that mean that the relationship is abusive? No!
Christian and Ana’s relationship is hard work. Ana has gone from having zero sexual experience to falling in love with a BDSM Master. Christian has gone from never having had a loving relationship to finding himself experiencing emotions that he never knew he had. Of course it’s a struggle! It would be weird if it wasn’t! Twilight, the book that 50 Shades was famously based on, is about a far more volatile relationship!
Both stories are about finding love against the odds, about being with somebody that is so fundamentally different to you that it is dangerous for both of you, but about persevering anyway. 50 Shades of Grey was never intended to be an instruction manual for the perfect relationship or BDSM encounter. I mean come on, the trilogy features a helicopter crash, a kidnapping, a crazy ex with a gun and a 27 year old self-made billionaire. It was inspired by glittery vampires for crying out loud – it was never meant to depict reality!
Ana is represented in the film as an independent woman who stands up for herself, doesn’t agree to anything that she doesn’t want to, and is not afraid to call out Christian when he is being an idiot. She is the one that wears the trousers in the relationship, and anybody who watches the film with an open mind will see that it is actually Christian who is the vulnerable one.
The one thing that is even a little weird in the film is when Christian tracks Ana down to the bar where she is being harassed and steps in before putting her to bed, but is that seriously all these protesters have got? (And let’s not forget that this scene almost perfectly mirrors the one in Twilight where Edward saves Bella from some rowdy men as she is walking home – it wasn’t even E. L. James’ original idea!). Oh, and to those of you losing it over the fact that Christian ‘breaks into’ her apartment, no he doesn’t. Ana’s flatmate lets him in because he wanted to mend their argument with wine and sex. Read the book.
Honestly, I’m dumbfounded as to how this film has been slated as much as it has. Yes, it’s trashy, yes, the dialogue is appalling, and no, you might not think that the actors have any chemistry, but is it a film about domestic abuse? Absolutely not.
Oh, and in case you needed any more persuading?
Know Your Meme
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