I'm an open-minded guy who loves movies about sexual awakenings (Secretary) and eccentric billionaires (The Thomas Crown Affair), so I was delighted at the idea of seeing Fifty Shades of Grey. A number of close friends—male and female—had confessed that they had caved and read the book and, well, liked it. Combine that with the sexual reawakening of conservative housewives all across the nation, and, I figured, it should at least be a good date movie. That pretty much sums up my expectation level going in: a fun romp, an easy watch, but probably nothing too intellectually stimulating. (I had seen the trailers, after all.)
What I didn't expect was for my inner feminist to get riled about what I was seeing on the screen. Have I ever gone on the record as a feminist before? I don't know, but suddenly I felt like I needed to—immediately. Because while the book may have reawakened many a housewife's libido, it's my opinion that Fifty Shades of Grey is pretty problematic—on feminist, BDSM, and just general we're-not-cavemen-anymore grounds. Hear me out.
Ah yes, the most generic female lead of all time. Most movies open with some act or gesture that makes you want to root for the protagonist. Here Ana just tells you: "I have a GPS and a 4.0 GPA." Subtle. She's a virgin who melts any time her cheek is touched, and for whatever reason only receives emails from one person: Christian Grey. When he asks her what she's into, she just says, "Books." Seriously?
When this was a book, that vagueness was appealing—any woman could write herself into the part. But when you're dealing with a movie, and a character, she kind of needs something...more. Anything, really. She could have said "I'm really into Twilight fan fiction and comic-con" and I would have found that 25 times more appealing.
The fact that Ana is one-dimensional isn't that horrific. It's this guy. The rich, handsome man who cancels meetings for a woman he just met, buys expensive gifts (spoiler alert: it's a car), and plans elaborate dates all while secretly having a big heart with a passion to eradicate world hunger. Oh, but there's a catch. You can't touch him. You can't sleep next to him. He wants to control every aspect of who you are, including what you eat and how much you drink. And he does whatever he wants with you whenever he wants, because he basically owns you.
I don't know any guys like this. I'm certainly not a guy like this. And I would venture to say that if a man has half a coffee date with you and then starts showing up uninvited to bars where you're out with friends and making you go home with him, if he sends you lavish gifts and tells you what to do with them, if he can't even let you go visit your mom without showing up (once again, uninvited), this is not a good boyfriend. This is a stalker and you should probably call the police.
But in this movie, the controlling stalker is rich and handsome so…it's okay I guess? It's like he's some adult version of Disney's archetypal Prince Charming—he shows up and whisks you away, riding off into the sunset together, so your life is new and exciting. You can never go back to what your life was because he's shown you a rich and fancy new lifestyle and claims to be devoted to you. Except for one thing: He gets off on causing you pain, and you're not necessarily into that. Meh, whatever.
Let me demonstrate a crucial scene that shows how this could have been a feminist movie but isn't. Here's one version where it's Christian who's invited into the BDSM world:
CHRISTIAN: Why would we do these things?
ANASTASIA: You'll be giving me pleasure.
CHRISTIAN: And what do I get out of it?
Empowering, right? A strong woman who knows what she wants sexually saying, "Look dude. If you want to be with me then you need get me off." In the real version, the roles are flipped, and the effect is a little more squirmy—it feels arrogant on his part, and the fact that she shrugs and leans into the whole thing "just because" is frankly a little bit repulsive.
This is, incidentally, a dialogue I see playing out all across the country with almost-couples in their 20s. The woman says she wants to get serious and the guy is like, "Hey, we're hooking up and having fun. I don't do relationships. Don't you like me enough to just screw?" and the woman gives in and the situation is, in a word, shitty. Why we're romanticizing this dynamic in the movie is beyond me.
Finally, we reach the end of the film and Anastasia just wants to know why they can't settle down and have a rich, handsome family together. In other words, why all the BDSM stuff? His response: "Because I'm fifty shades of f*cked up." Thus, the pivotal explanation in the movie is that if you engage in BDSM it's because you're damaged or psychopathic, not because you're in a loving relationship that involves exploration of that type of activity. Which just bashes the BDSM community in addition to reifying stereotypes.
This movie is in poor taste, but it's already broken box-office records. It cost $40 million to make and made $94.4 million domestically in its opening weekend—I'm not a Hollywood power player, but even I can see that's a good ROI. And yes, I realize that nothing I can say will make people not want to see it. But just remember one thing as you watch Steele explore Grey's playroom: This is not real life. This is not a true portrayal of a loving relationship, BDSM, or even Prince Charming. Because in the fairy tales, the prince is charming at least part of the time.
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