It’s been two weeks since the release of Fifty shades of Grey gave the topic of abusive relationships a rather troubling Valentines Day gloss. Complaints have ranged from accusations it romanticises violence against women, to the somewhat moot point that the acting, writing and direction are all to put it bluntly, “flaccid”. Weeks later, in the cold light of day, away from the saccharine veneer of it’s Valentines weekend release, Ruth Grahame outlines why Fifty shades wins Hollywood Hegemony’s “most confusing sexual politics” award.
Trigger warnings: Abusive relationships. Fifty shades of Grey. BDSM*. Psychological abuse. Rape culture. *warning because many individuals have damaging experiences with it, not because its inherently damaging
As a queer, kinky feminist, I read most of the first book and got very, very angry. The Christian Grey of the books has no consideration of boundaries, constantly pushes Ana to do more when she has explicitly made her discomfort unclear (Which she shouldn’t even have to do, he can read hints, he just doesn’t care about them), and literally rapes her in more than one scene across the trilogy. In a society where, in England and Wales 2 women are killed by their partners or ex-partners every week, only a third of convicted rapists get jail-time, and “why did she go home with him?” is a more common question than “why didn’t he stop?”, the defending of abusers because “they were in love” or “its just a book and therefore has no social context or influence” is such strong bullshit I almost cried on several occasions.
When I had to actually pay money to see the film in order to write a review of it, I felt dirty, and not in a sexy way. So you have an idea of the mindset I went in with. But when I came out I was stunned that it was actually… not nearly as awful as I’d feared. That’s not to say its a feminist masterpiece, or even a good film, but it was pretty far from what I expected. I almost, kinda liked it?
As a film, a great deal of it was boring or simply didn’t make sense. A woman with very little sense and few interests meets a billionaire with very little self-control and one very specific interest which she doesn’t share. They meet up awkwardly a few times and are suddenly obsessed with each other to the point where he literally stalks her. For those of you who haven’t read or seen it, the start of the relationship goes thus: She has an interview with him in which they ask each other cliched questions and tell each other nothing interesting; he turns up at her work, jokes about being a serial killer and gives her his number; they go on a date which ends when he “breaks up” with her; he becomes a stalker.
The speed at which he changes his mind about her is dizzying and makes it hard to keep track of his motivations (and is often a facet of abusive relationships). In one scene he goes from casual chatting, to walking away saying “I can’t do this”, to caressing her face and then telling her he has to leave her in about a minute. This is scripted to sound like a very big deal, but may I remind everyone that this is their FIRST date. The only time they have EVER spent together in a non-business context. This kind of poorly scripted turnabout repeats throughout the movie, making it hard to take any aspect of their relationship or their emotions seriously. It is possible Christian is supposed to be completely incapable of sticking to a decision, have very little self control, and no self-awareness, but that doesn’t fit the erotic romance genre so I’m inclined to think its just terribly written.
Fortunately for this situation the actors have never heard of subtlety. Every emotion Ana has is shouted at you as though her face is a loudspeaker of feelings. Christian’s facial expression can either be the same emotions loudspeaker or completely impassive. This is typically known as Bad Acting, but considering that a lot of the characters emotions seem to be for no reason at all, it does make it easier for the audience to follow, and makes their train wreck of a relationship more compelling to watch.
So, onto the aspects of the film everyone cares about. Is it feminist or is it abusive?
To say both feels paradoxical, but the film does contain elements that are almost revolutionary in sexual politics, and I don’t think they should be overlooked, however problematic the context.
The context is pretty bad though.
The main problem comes in the power dynamic of their relationship. Christian is a billionaire and he abuses the power this gives him to control various aspects of Ana’s life without her consent. Initially this just means buying her expensive gifts which she doesn’t want, which is comparatively harmless (though its worth noting that this is commonly done by abusers to make the victim feel indebted to them), but then extends to tracking her phone, selling her car, taking her home. Of course, in the book he gets even worse and even buys the company that hires her, so at least he didn’t do that? But tracking her phone is gross abuse of power. He’s showing very clearly that he’s willing to violate her privacy to gain access to her. People try to defend his abusive behaviours with “oh but its so romantic!” or “he’s just looking out for her!”. This is exactly how victims of real-life abusive relationships often feel in the early stages, until they realise that they want their own life and realise how terrifying their situation is.
His selling her car is very quickly brushed over in the film-he punishes her for making a facial expression he doesn’t like and they go back to doing sex things. “It doesn’t matter if she didn’t make that big of a fuss right? And he bought her a much better car!” But she liked her car. She didn’t ask him to sell her car. Even if she secretly wanted a new car, it is in no way his place to make that decision for her and him being a Dominant sexually does not excuse the blatant disregard for her autonomy. Taking this level of control over someone without their explicit and willing consent is abusive. Worse, he physically hurts her because she expresses her displeasure about it in a way he doesn’t like. Now, in a BDSM relationship, there is nothing wrong in principle with spanking. But when it’s used to dismiss important conversations like “Where the fuck do you get off stealing and selling my car?”, it’s being used to get away with abuse.
He takes her back to his hotel room after tracking her phone to a bar. We’re told to believe that he didn’t touch her (except to undress her), and I do believe that because its a story, but he still undressed her. I understand that we’re supposed to think of him as being a gentleman because she was “covered in vomit” so he cleaned her up, but, we saw the scene where she threw up and she was clean enough that he tried to get her to dance with him immediately afterwards. Then she passes out and he takes her to his hotel room.
At this point they were practically strangers-they’d had the one date in which he said he couldn’t be with him and that was it. If a near stranger tries to take your passed out friend home with them, it is extremely unlikely that they will “just” be undressed without their consent. In other words, DO NOT LET THIS HAPPEN. It doesn’t matter if he’s a billionaire. It doesn’t matter if you’ve spent the evening hooking up with their brother. Take your friend home yourself. Christian acts like he had no choice in taking her home and undressing her himself, but a responsible man would have found Kate and told her “your friend has been sick, you need to take her home”. Christian is irresponsible and Kate is a terrible friend for letting it happen.
After Christian shows Ana his playroom, they talk for a bit, they have some sex, and the next day Ana gets unhappy about their relationship and asks to go home. Being a gentleman and totally not abusive (sarcasm) he takes her straight home as she wanted. Except no. He drives her to a remote location in the woods so he can try to talk her round to doing what he wants. This one was pretty personal for me, because I’ve been in a similar (but not quite the same) situation. A friend of my brothers was supposed to pick me up and take me home because I didn’t want to walk in the rain. Instead, he picked me up and went on a road trip. Like in Ana’s situation, no physical assault happened, but it is a horrible situation to be in. In a car, the driver has all the power. The passenger has no power to change the situation without wrestling the keys from the driver, which would be extremely dangerous, or calling the police, which is a terrifying prospect and not something most people are willing to do in this kind of situation. Frankly, if I was Ana in that situation I’d be incredibly scared of physical assault. Which in this case didn’t happen, but she’s still been left completely powerless because he cared more about talking her round than about what she actually wanted.
He is also ridiculously possessive. Men being possessive around other men is a common abusive trope in romance stories, but he is possessive about Ana wanting to see her own mother. He threatens her with violence and near begs her not to go. Again, this is NOT excused by him being sexually dominant-she has not consented to being hurt by him, she explicitly does not want to be hurt by him. Isolating people from their family and threats of physical harm (yes pain counts as harm) are textbook signs of abuse and need to be treated as such.
He literally makes her sign a non-disclosure agreement about their relationship, and lies about his lawyer insisting on it. We know he’s lying because they later point out how the agreement is completely unenforceable because the law just doesn’t work like that, but its just allowed to slide. I struggle to think of any stronger evidence that Christian is an abuser. Except, you know, all the points I’ve already made about the abusive things he’s done.
But I promised almost revolutionary. The bits I want to celebrate basically all boil down to one important principle: Boundary discussions. Christian has a sex contract, and they negotiate the terms. Now, an actual sex contract is somewhat over the top (and its VERY important that they recognise it has no legal basis, which makes it more like an elaborate rules-based roleplay), and his particular sex contract has some pretty concerning elements (though again, the worst parts have been removed in the film), but the principle of pre-discussing what individuals in a relationship are and aren’t comfortable with is a very good principle. It needs to be made clearer that any consent given in the contract can be withdrawn the second either party is uncomfortable with it, but they do imply that with the use of safewords. In the book, Ana is deeply uncomfortable with many aspects of the contract and Christian steamrollers over her objections. But in the film, they sit down for a “business meeting” which Ana is decisively in charge of. She states the terms she wants changing, explains her soft limits and hard limits, and its all agreed to without argument.
When they have sex, Christian very frequently checks in-by which I mean checks for active participatory consent. As a dom, he starts off with very gentle scenes and asks her “how do you feel?” and “does that hurt?”, not for the purposes of getting off, but to check that she’s ok. In the one scene that in the book was explicitly rape, the film has made very explicitly active consent. Not only does he ask “do you want this?”, and not only does she nod, she also holds out her hands for him to tie up-actively and willingly and explicitly consenting. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with also getting off on knowing your sex partner is enjoying themselves, but getting off is a secondary concern – checking in is vitally important to ensuring consent in any relationship, especially one with such heavy power-dynamics as theirs.
The film shows us a LOT of female pleasure. Ana is very much enjoying herself in the sex scenes-I mean toes-curling, moans of ecstasy, scenes that leave her grinning from ear to ear with the strength of her pleasure. Considering that men receiving pleasure even earns a lower age rating than female pleasure, because men getting blowjobs is just part of life but women orgasming will totally corrupt our teenagers into thinking they deserve better, it is worth noting that in this film hers is the only pleasure we see-Christian doesn’t even have a single cum-face in the entire film. And speaking of cumming-they don’t. Speak of it, that is. It is never made explicit that anyone has orgasmed, and yet they are very clearly shown to be having the most enjoyable sex of anyones life. This may seem strange to people for whom sex is about orgasms, but for the rest of us this is stunning. Female orgasmic disorder is ridiculously common. More women have faked orgasms than haven’t. There are many people for whom orgasms just don’t work how society tells us they should. We are not catered to by porn or by sexual health magazines that continually espouse “10 gazillion reasons you should orgasm” or “how to make her cum everytime” (spoiler alert: it won’t make her cum everytime. Might not even work once) or by partners who have learned this and judge “did you cum?” as the yardstick for “was it ok?”. It’s something we learn to judge our own sexual validity by, and when you go into sex knowing that the end goal is orgasm and orgasm is unachievable for you, it can make the whole process of sex painful and alienating.
There is barely a moment’s consideration as to whether Ana should feel any kind of shame for her sexual desires and enjoyment, she is simply free to enjoy herself.
The sex scenes are actually pretty good. They are the most consensual scenes I have ever seen in fantasy. The directing in some of the scenes is breathtaking. If the whole film was 2 hours of that, I would consider my money very well spent-although I would prefer to watch it alone rather than in a public cinema.
It feels terrible to have to write “there was female pleasure and consensual sex” as revolutionary sexual politics, and it feels even worse that the only place we get to see it is wrapped up in an abusive relationship masquerading as the romance of the century. But I have NEVER seen discussions of consent in any other form of mainstream media, and it is revolutionary. Most countries in the world, and most states in America still have models of consent where consent is assumed unless the victim explicitly said no. In some places, consent is assumed unless the victim said “NO GET THE FUCK AWAY OR I WILL TRY MY HARDEST TO HURT YOU”. California recently passed a bill that changed this to consent being assumed ONLY if the participants said explicitly agreed, and this was considered “anti-male”. Literally the idea that consent should be actively given before sex can be considered consensual is considered by many to be radical feminism. I want to live in a world where I can see leads ask “do you want this?” in every romance. In every porn. In every individuals sex life. I hate that 50 abusive shades of the most boring colour in the world is the only place where I can see explicitly consensual sex, and I hate even more that I have to praise it for doing so, but I do have to praise it, because we do live in a world where asking for consent is an act of revolutionary feminism.
50 shades of grey is a fairly terrible film for so many reasons. But we live in a fairly terrible world, and if this is the only way to get people to take note then lets just hope we can power through it and bring something better into the world next. More of the consensual and enjoyed sex, less of the advertising for abuse.
If you’re worried you or a friend might be in an abusive relationship:
http://www.riseuk.org.uk/ (for all genders)
If you’re hurting your partner and want to stop:
If you don’t believe any of this constitutes abuse: