Arts & Pop Culture

Thoughts on 50 Shades

By Christina Lee

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Karen Tsai

I remember when Fifty Shades of Grey first became a national sensation. I was a mere high school student then, trying to keep myself from drowning in AP classwork. I hadn’t the time or the interest to dive into a trilogy of erotica, or so I thought. I vividly recall the first day one of my friends brought the silver-covered novel to the lunch table. My other friends and I looked at her incredulously. Five minutes later, we were picking random passages to read aloud.

First, we tested the rumor that there was sex on every page. The myth went un-busted, and the more we read, the funnier the sexual prose got. The lunchtime readings were my first and most expansive experience with the novel, until a couple of years later when I asked to borrow my mother’s copy of the book. She warned me that I would probably hate it. I agreed with her, but I was willing to give the novel a second chance. Plus, I was interested in how it became so wildly successful. I got through about five pages of Anastasia’s musings before I had to put the book back down. She had barely spoken to Mr. Grey, and I already found myself unable to stand reading such poorly written junk. It was then that I swore off Fifty Shades for good; I wouldn’t be caught wasting my time on the trilogy any longer.

Years later, it was announced that Fifty Shades would be made into a movie. Reminded of my disgust for the books, I initially stood by my plan to never touch the story again. However, worn down by the constant advertisements, rumors of a great soundtrack, and (repeated) guarantee of seeing Jamie Dornan’s abs, I gave in.

There I sat, armed with microwave popcorn and a fully charged laptop, ready to embark on a cinematic journey that I expected would end poorly. I imagined the characters would resemble the leads of the Twilight movies: Anastasia would be quiet, flat, and submissive while Christian would be domineering and creepy. I was half-right. Christian was both domineering and creepy; in fact, he was worse than I expected. Having never finished the book, I was surprised by the degree of possessiveness he achieved by the end of the film. He constantly followed Ana around despite her requests that he stop. When Ana announced that she was going to visit her mother across the country, he became unreasonably angry and demanded she stay with him. After she disobeyed, he followed her to Georgia. This stalking is one of the many signs of abuse throughout the movie. Christian proves to be nothing less than a robotic, controlling jerk. Some critics suggest that the character’s machine-like nature can be attributed to Jamie Dornan’s acting skills. However, Once Upon a Time fans (such as myself) can attest that he is a fairly expressive actor, so the stiffness must come from somewhere else, like the writing.

Anastasia, on the other hand, is a dynamic protagonist constantly caught up in a web of sexual and romantic desires. Although she wants Christian to take her out to dinner and act like her boyfriend, she also wants to satisfy his sexual desires as well as her own. She wants to escape Christian’s tyranny, yet she cannot imagine her life without him. She evolves from a naïve sweetheart into a conflicted character with whom the audience can empathize. She is nothing like the wishy-washy, monotone girl I envisioned.

However, Christian and Ana’s abusive relationship is plain to see in the movie. Although we are not able to hear Ana’s thoughts, as we are in the novel, we can see how negatively affected she is by Christian’s domination over her. Not only does he constantly stalk her, but he manipulates her into doing things she is uncomfortable with as well. Christian states that he is used to getting his own way and this is obvious in the way he treats her. He expects her to change for him but refuses to adapt to her desires. One notable exception is when Christian allows Ana to negotiate the terms of the relationship contract he has created for them. Ana, having done some research, makes fairly well-informed cuts. Before the contract is signed, however, Ana and Christian begin engaging in BDSM practices. She isn’t bound by his rules, yet he acts as though she is. The dominance he exerts over Ana is unhealthy and common in abusive relationships.

One of the things that kept this movie engaging was Ana’s constant fight against Christian’s abuse, and I was very glad that she escaped him in the end. I felt the most compelled by the film when she was empowered, especially in the final scene where she finally leaves Christian. However, I know there are two more books, so there are at least two movies left and I anticipate a fairly long struggle is yet to come.

The abuse disguised as kinky sex in Fifty Shades is a misrepresentation of BDSM. I, like Ana, did some research on the subject before I formed an opinion of it. Personally, it’s not my cup of tea, but when performed healthily and safely, there is nothing objectionable about it. For those who don’t know the acronym, BDSM covers all sexual practices involving kinky activities, such as bondage. These methods, when employed in bed, are intended to add intensity to the sexual environment. Many people actually experience a heightened sense of enjoyment when pain is put into play. A Kinsey Institute study revealed that 55 percent of women and 50 percent of men gain sexual pleasure through experiencing voluntary pain while involved in sexual activity.

BDSM practices range anywhere from being tied up to using paddles and various other sex toys. The wide scope of activities that fall under the BDSM umbrella show how varied it is, and statistics show that it is not as uncommon as popular stigma implies. BDSM is always a consensual act, and both parties are expected to give an enthusiastic “yes” before and during activities in which they take part. Additionally, safe words such as “pineapple” or “red” are required so that the couple will be aware of their own limits. When one person is reaching the end of their tolerance level, they will give a warning with the word and it is expected that the other will stop whatever is making their partner uncomfortable. After intercourse, those engaging in BDSM also engage in what is called “after care,” a process by which both participants are psychologically and physically comforted by the other.

These healthy processes of BDSM are seen only to a certain degree in Fifty Shades. Christian and Ana do establish safe words; however, there is never any after care. Christian does not comfort Ana after intercourse and refuses to sleep with her. This is a psychologically damaging relationship not condoned by the BDSM community, and is one of the greatest objections the group has toward the film.

Additionally, many protest the movie’s portrayal of the dominant and submissive. Fifty Shades places Christian in the role of the dominant, or the person in the couple who has complete control over the situation. Christian fits the stereotypical definition of dominant: he is possessive, controlling, and comes from a difficult background. Ana, on the other hand, is a virginal princess, constantly clad in white. These polar opposites are not how BDSM relationships are defined. Christian’s abuse is atypical in the BDSM community, and his actions are considered by some to fall outside the realm of those practices—Christian doesn’t practice BDSM, he practices abuse.

For this reason, I am upset by the movie’s (and novel’s) prevalence in popular culture. E.L. James created a storyline that uses BDSM as a device to portray Christian’s controlling character, and this storyline was made widely available through her bestselling novel and now well-advertised screenplay. Rather than just creating an abusive relationship and romanticizing that, James throws in BDSM and gives the entire set of practices a bad rep. Now please, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s awesome that erotica is being discussed and opened up to the public. I think it’s healthy that more people are becoming open about their sexuality. However, this movie hinges not on healthy sexuality, but a stereotypical and poorly portrayed dominant-submissive relationship.

As much as I enjoyed Ana’s character, the killer soundtrack, and Jamie Dornan’s abs, I would not watch Fifty Shades again, and I would not recommend that others watch it either. I do not support the romanticization of abuse and poor portrayal of sexual practices. If you want erotica, look for healthier and more consent-filled literature. If you want to know what BDSM is really like, do some research. That will give you a more accurate definition than this movie ever will. Also, you don’t need Fifty Shades to enjoy Dornan’s physique—just google it. You’re welcome in advance.  

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