By now we probably all know the basics: damaged millionaire falls for innocent undergrad and introduces her to a world of BDSM play that’s by turns sexy and disturbing. He tries to push her into a full-time dominant/submissive contract; she tries to push him into a “normal” romance. Predictably, it’s a tortured relationship. Audiences go wild.
Some feminist reviewers say Fifty Shades is a story that glorifies abuse. Others say it’s just a sexy fantasy, not to be taken too seriously; we should all chill out, and enjoy it for what it’s worth. For me, it hits a precise middle ground that’s very uncomfortable. Fifty Shades is silly and easy to dismiss, but also too realistic for me to suspend my disbelief – or my politics.
I read the books (yes, all three) when they first came out. As a BDSM educator, I got my opinion down to a sound bite: The books are poorly written; the BDSM play as described is pretty safe, but the relationship is totally toxic, so don’t follow this example. Cue eye roll. Change the subject.
So when I went to see the film last week, I wasn’t prepared for how visceral my response would be. The Fifty Shades film is a high-contrast version of the first book. Seeing it all play out, as opposed to reading about it, really heightens the impact of the story. We could justifiably credit this to the contrast between terrible writing and highly competent filmmaking, but I’m not sure it’s a good thing.
On the plus side, seeing the story as a film means we’re spared Ana’s tiresome inner monologue and various plodding details. The wealth-soaked story also works great with film visuals—as home décor/ expensive car/custom dungeon furniture porn, Fifty Shades made me drool.
On the minus side, compared to the books, Christian’s BDSM technique takes a nosedive. In the books, most of what he does is relatively safe. In the film, he makes errors of the most basic variety. He uses slip knots for his four-point rope bondage, dangerous because they tighten when pulled on, and the rope isn’t wrapped enough times to prevent nerve and circulation damage. In the flogging scene, he has Ana face up on the bed—because yay boobs, I guess? But this means he’s hitting her in the stomach, which is generally both unsafe and unsexy. The BDSM play in this film is best understood the way you would understand a fight scene in an action flick: fake, possibly entertaining, but by no means an example to follow.
The film is totally true to the books in perhaps the most disturbing area. I’m just gonna say this straight up: Fifty Shades of Grey could be used as a how-to manual for emotional abuse. Christian tests Ana’s boundaries, finds her pliable enough to push around and proceeds to step over those boundaries in every imaginable way. He stalks her at her workplace, traces her cell phone, ignores her “no” so often she might as well not be saying it. He makes her sign a non-disclosure agreement, effectively preventing her from telling anyone what he does to her. He controls her eating and her drinking. He gets angry with her when she visits her mother or talks to her friends. He walks into her apartment when she’s told him to stay away, chooses her birth control, sells her car without her consent. He punishes her physically when she very clearly isn’t cool with it. He pushes her to sign a full-time dominant/submissive contract; when she refuses to sign even after extensive negotiations, he says “Fuck the contract” and does as he pleases anyway. Along the way he snarls, “I’m 50 shades of f*cked up.” It’s true. He is.
Listen, I’m a big perv. I have engaged in full-time dominant/submissive relationships for the bulk of the last 15 years. Believe me when I tell you: Dom/sub relationships are not supposed to go like this. Done correctly, they’re a complex dance of deeply respected mutual desire, consent and vulnerability, and above all, great joy. They are often hyper-romantic; they take a long time to build and hone, and they require a lot of work to sustain. Fifty Shades isn’t about any of this. It’s about a powerful, rich, petulant man-child coercing a resistant young woman to bend to his will by every means available.
Honestly? I’m tired of spending my energy as a BDSM educator picking apart the minutiae of all the things Fifty Shades gets wrong. I’m tired of the public conversation about kink revolving around this terrible story that dresses up clear, unambiguous abuse in the clothes of BDSM. I am the last person on earth who wants to police anyone’s fantasies, but every time I have to face Fifty Shades, I can’t help but think: Really? This is what turns people on?
As a queer, kinky feminist, I resent that Fifty Shades has taken up the language of kink to lend extra gravitas and exoticism to a tale that’s by turns nauseatingly clichéd and downright upsetting. Guess what? It is actually not fun or sexy at all to watch the detailed process of an emotional abuser ensnaring his victim. In fact it’s a bit stomach-turning.
Pure fantasy doesn’t need to be politically progressive. But omitting the millionaire thing, Fifty Shades is a fantasy that tries really hard to make itself realistic. It employs real BDSM terminology, techniques and concepts. So we can’t be faulted for evaluating it on its own terms. And by those terms, it is indeed 50 shades of f*cked up.