I saw 50 Shades of Grey at a free preview screening Tuesday night, several days before its day-before-Valentine’s-Day premiere, and I wish I’d been given a safe word to make the movie stop. Because 50 Shades of Grey is bad. Not so bad it’s good, but just bad. And it’s boring. Especially the sex. I mean, if you thought the books were totally hot and you’d love nothing more than to watch it all play out on screen, have at it. Chacun à son Grey, and all that. But me, I’m a hater. And haters gonna hate.
Carly, my date and bartender for the evening, is also a hater. We laughed (and cringed and groaned) through the entire film, and then for a long time afterwards, and not just because Carly smuggled a flask of excellent whiskey into the theater.
Here’s the tl;dr analysis of the film, in which you get three fairy tales for the price of one: Sleeping Beauty and the Beast with a side order of Cinderella.
a) Monster awakens young woman’s sexuality so she can fix him
b) This is because a woman can’t be sexual on her own, but instead requires it unleashed within her by the application of a penis to her vagina and a silk necktie about the wrists.
c) It’s the young woman’s job to put up with the monster’s abuse in order to change him
d) Because monsters make exemplary boyfriends if they are rich enough and they take you on romantic helicopter rides over Seattle.
I never read E L James’ trilogy, which started out as Twilight fan fic, but I had a pretty good idea of what to expect going in, given the nonstop publicity and analysis since the first one came out. Anastasia Steele, an awkward innocent, is sent to interview the fabulously wealthy Christian Grey at his minimalist-designed and boring offices. She arrives in a frumpy shirt and blue sweater combo, and after she’s led into Grey’s office by a succession of ex-Robert Palmer backup models, Grey holds forth on her sweater and the history of Cerulean Blue. Actually, no it doesn’t happen like that at all, but IF ONLY the Dom was played by Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, what a superior film this would have been! Unfortunately we’re stuck with Jamie Dornan, who plays a cyborg with an excellent fitness regimen.
So, one thing leads to another, and after buying her a new computer, a new car and (thankfully) new clothes, Grey presents her with a sex contract (as wealthy and powerful businessmen do) and then tells her to look up “submission” on the Internet. Some Capitalist Foreplay ensues as they negotiate the terms of the contract, but it’s clear that Ana has not done much of her homework when she asks Grey, “What’s a butt plug?’ Honey. Do you know what a butt is? Do you know what a plug is. OK, do the math.
The contract turns out to be a irrelevant because they go at it anyway, unprotected by the law or a thin layer of latex. You see, he’s found out she’s never had The Sex and wastes no time doing his manly duty of de-virginizing her in the most boring and, frankly, depressing way possible. Save for a fleeting kiss below the navel, there’s no foreplay, no condoms, no lube, no attending to her needs, before doing it in the Missionary position for a minute or two with no apparent orgasms. Her roommate even tells her she looks “different” when she comes home. It makes Red Shoe Diaries look edgy and sophisticated.
And it’s not just that this sex is incredibly boring: It’s enraging. If you do the kind of work I do, you’re extra sensitive about how female sexuality is depicted onscreen. This film pushes a totally false myth of what “romantic” sex is supposed to look like to the gazillions of people who have no doubt already bought tickets to see it. It also reinforces the idea that women are supposed to do whatever they can to please (and fix) their men, whether they want to or not, because that’s what female sexuality is all about. If you’re lucky he might please you back, but it’s not actually part of the contract. As someone who hears from young people all the time, it’s depressing to read the emails and answer the questions they ask about how confused and ashamed they are because their sex lives don’t look like what’s on screen (or, if it does, they can’t understand why it isn’t making them happy)
On the bright side, there were a few things—OK, two things—that I liked about the film.
First, Dakota Johnson (who plays Ana) was really, really funny in the comedic scenes. There are moments in the film where she seems as annoyed/repulsed/bored by this dude as we are. I think someone should cast her in an intentionally comedic film stat, because she’d be great. Jamie Dornan should really stick to serial killer roles–and his own accent. I wouldn’t be averse (as a friend of mine suggested) to having Gillian Anderson’s The Fall character tie him up to work out their issues together.
Second, I loved the look of the “playroom,” Grey’s tasteful den of domination, which must have been a production designer’s dream come true. It’s what I think Williams-Sonoma (or maybe Restoration Hardware) would look like if they sold fetish gear. Racks and racks of gleaming metal and leather devices, perfectly displayed and lit. I would snap up those leather handcuffs like they were large pastry cream whisks–and don’t even get me started on the gorgeous knots of red rope.
As far as the actual BDSM stuff goes, and considering it was all most people are talking about anyway, there just isn’t that much to write home about. Aside from the fact that the Dom/Sub relationship was totally inaccurate, according to just about everyone in the the actual community, it was … boring. And cheesy. I kid you not, he brushed her thigh with a peacock feather while light jazz played on the soundtrack. And the one scene that was meant to represent the most intense BDSM play—and the kind of thing Grey told Ana would help “fix” him—looked a lot more like domestic violence to me. Dude, she’s got to be into it! Otherwise you’re just beating her up.
If 50 Shades was written as a creepy thriller, with this same wealthy, controlling weirdo stalking and manipulating an impressionable young woman, it would have made more sense. Or even as a satire of romance films. But as a sexy love story? Painful.
Please don’t spend any of your hard-earned money on this film. We sure didn’t. The creators are rich enough already, and there are other mainstream-ish films about BDSM out there with a lot more wit, heat and joy. Try Secretary with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, or the documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan by one of my favorite filmmakers, Kirby Dick. They’re also a bit hard to watch at times, but for the right reasons.
Update: I’m listening to Jaclyn Friedman interview brilliant 50 Shades recapper Jenny Trout about the books, and it seems the film is way less offensive and creepy than the books. Which is just … yikes! If you do want to spend money on something, check out Jenny’s link of DV and anti-rape orgs that could use your support, and read her recaps here.
Reprinted with permission from How to Lose Your Virginity
Therese Shechter is the director of the documentaries How To Lose Your
Virginity, I Was A Teenage Feminist and “How I Learned to Speak
Turkish. She curates the interactive online story collection “The V-Card
Diaries” and is one of the feminist podcasters of Downton Gabby. For more info, see here.