First and foremost, I would like to begin by saying that I have not read nor seen the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, which is obviously problematic when attempting to voice my opinion over its recent deconstruction that labels it a “promotion of domestic, both physical and emotional, abuse.” Thus I have researched multiple sides of the argument (I found there are more than just two) most throughly in hope that I can summarise and conclude with a simple and wholesome ending. Although usually, I don’t wish to post something that I can easily disagree on in just a few days time, yet I feel it necessary to post now, pre-film release as the boycott is drawing nearer and nearer, and perhaps once again post-watched in an enlightened frame of mind.
Perhaps that is why I’m not wholly committing to boycotting and slandering something I’m not sure of. I like to know all the facts on both sides, and unfortunately, that means seeing the film for myself. Perhaps this makes me a “bad feminist” as one article rudely suggested, (although I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad or good feminist, simply you are a feminist or not, and your opinions on matters are subjective), or perhaps simply I’m not prepared to jump on the bandwagon and point fingers at something I know nothing about yet, especially when the dark veiled curtain of domestic abuse wisps past and falls on the cinematic screen ominously. People should know that this is a serious allegation, not a new trend to gossip about for a week or two.
Fifty Shades of Grey, quite idealistically is proposed to be screened in UK cinemas on Valentine’s Day, February 14th. Not uncommon knowledge to the general public, Fifty Shades is an erotica novel by EL James, depicting the male protagonist Christian Grey (played by Jamie Dornan), as a controlling, sexually manipulative and narcissistic, yet sexy and alluring man that looms over the female protagonist, Anastasia Steele, played by Dakota Johnson. The key aspect that illuminates the story between the two, and to the sweaty-palmed weak-at-the-knees and shaking reader, is Christian’s fetish of BDSM. He supposedly “corrupts” Anastasia by introducing BDSM into her life and exposing her to a whole new world of sexual possibilities – a concept I have a problem with as why consent to adventurous sex “corrupts” her I have no idea. Not to mention the many articles that criticise Christian for taking her virginity, like that matters for many reasons I won’t express now.
Anyway, in the past few weeks the hashtag #50dollarsnot50shades has been trending amongst our news feeds, with almost 11,000 ‘likes’ on its Facebook page. It certainly isn’t the “best thing since sliced bread” at this moment in time. Apparently, campaigners all around the world are offended at the “blaring obvious” abuse that Christian forces upon Anastasia. They argue almost threateningly, “real women don’t end up like Anastasia; they often end up in a women’s shelter, on the run for years, or dead,” as if watchers and readers condone physical abuse.
Instead, they urge people to spend their money on women’s shelters rather than a cinema ticket – which clearly is a wonderful idea. Constructing the protest from a purely negative thing into a positive thing. Indeed, many shelters and awareness charities have flourished tremendously from the campaign, which is wonderful news.
Furthermore, director of Wearside Women in Need, a charity for victims of domestic violence, Clare Phillipson spoke out to the Guardian about her ongoing dissatisfaction and disappointment in the novel too, and the public’s infatuation with it. She argues how she had been waiting for “a feminist icon to savage this misogynistic crap, but nobody did.” She, alongside many other women’s shelter representatives, argue how the novel has alarming parallels between Ana and Christian, to the battered and bruised women that they work with. However, alarm bells similarly rang clear in my mind when I read that Philipson encouraged the women to bring copies of the Fifty Shades trilogy to burn them on the 5th November, alongside an effigy of Christian Grey. That is a lot of assurance and certainty in their hatred towards a work of fiction, a certainty that this book definitely is offensive at least to them. Or are these women projecting their past pain and anguish onto an easy figure that radiates dominance, control and (potentially) abusive authority in his stride? I don’t know. Ignoring the cult-like cleansing rituals that spring to mind, I’m also reminded of my own ignorance. I don’t know what it is like to go through that pain of abuse, and whatever lengths it takes to heal these survivors is completely condoned in my eyes, even book burning. But the Guardian should have spared this piece of information as not to present the opposition as, well… lunatic, as even Philipson points out herself saying,
“People have said we are total lunatic fascists for wanting to burn a book, but is there something sacred about it, or is it just rubbish? And is there something legitimate about burning an instruction manual for an abusive individual to sexually torture a vulnerable young woman?”
Yet director of the film, Taylor-Johnson, also told the Guardian how she attempted to “empower” Anastasia by “tak[ing] this girl on a journey” and thus avoid “leav[ing] her as a victim,” contrasting the view that she was abused at all.
Arguably, many articles criticise and brand Fifty Shades as abuse for its portrayal of BDSM, yet Taylor-Johnson dismisses this by saying “There are rules [to BDSM]” whilst admitting that “Yes, the film is hardcore in places, [and] there’s dominance in places – but at no point did I feel like it had crossed a boundary.”
Clearly, as Zoe Williams continues in her article, “There are going to be people… who will see a woman strung up like a dead turkey, dangled before an omnipotent man like a bauble, as an image of aggressive disrespect”, to which Taylor-Johnson dismissed quite gruesomely by saying “There will always be humourless people in the world…”
I wouldn’t quite tarnish the book-burning survivors of domestic abuse as humourless, yet clearly this comment was directed at the non-abused. The “ordinary” people of our civilised society that are quick to jump on the bandwagon and nit-pick at the crumbs of our disintegrating culture, ignoring the basis that media, fiction, and the art-world are subjective and for our entertainment, not to “promote” and fill our fish-bowl brains with evil and villainous motives, a prospect that reminds me of my recently written article on the supposed underlying pedophilia in Sia’s music video, which can be read here.
Nevertheless, what is it about BDSM, (the abbreviation of bondage, discipline, sadomasochism, and masochism), that offends some people or strikes them horrifically into thinking it is abuse?
Clearly, this is not the only criticism with the film as campaigners point out many other problematic behavioural traits of Christian, yet I wish to explore this point singularly.
Thus, matter-of-factly, most women find that sexually, they prefer to be submissive and dominated by their partner in some instances. A part of that role play can be seen as controlling or physically painful – in some women’s eyes, whereas in others, a total turn on. The key words here are role play. It’s not real and it is consensual between both partners, in which they will have agreed on a “safe word” when they feel their boundaries are being pushed too far. This is crucial in agreed BDSM partners, and, as my research on the topic suggests (but correct me if I’m wrong), Christian and Ana have a safe word for their consensual sexual endeavours for this reason.
I’ve noticed a photograph circulating around social media of Christian Grey with numerous alarming quotations edited above his head, pointing to sexual and physical abuse, such as these:
And yet, before we join forces with our book-burning friends, these quotations are taken entirely out of context. A context which, admittedly I don’t know yet – but nonetheless, if you are like me and have not read the book nor seen the film (as no one has seen the film yet), we shouldn’t write off the relationship as abuse until we do know the context.
Worryingly, as feminists such as myself argue against the “no means yes” phrase that has grown large and spread like an infectious contagious disease in supposed “Lad culture” whereby the belief that a woman saying “no” to sexual advances from men actually translates to “yes” and, not to state the obvious, promotes rape in a really damaging and disturbing way – is very real and imbedded in our society. However, almost contradictory to my point, the message that “lads” are failing to get is that there is a time and a place where “no” is allowed, but this is a very fine line. Of course, all sex must be consensual and if a “no” scenario of role play is about to take place, then it must be agreed on beforehand to avoid situations where your partner is saying no, and you think it is part of a sexual ‘game.’ Hence, like I stated prior, a safe word is usually set up to avoid this blurred line (intended reference) scenario. Basically, “no means no” yet the small print states, “unless organised prior or a safe word is set in place.”
Therefore, it is difficult to judge whether this quotation is an actual example of abuse and rape, or apart of that intimate small print that many couples discuss.
At the risk of embarrassing myself, (skip this paragraph parents!), I draw upon an illuminating point by Sophie Morgan in this article on the Guardian whereby she discusses her own submissive fantasies, drawn upon as a child in the children’s myth, Robin Hood, despite barely knowing “what sex was.” She continues, “Maid Marian was boring most of the time, tending the campfire and looking pensively into the middle distance, but I was fascinated by her in peril, as a prisoner, captured, tied up or in chains. I didn’t know why, but those stories made my heart race. It’s hard to explain my interest in BDSM any more intellectually than that – I know that I find erotic many things that other people would balk at, but there’s no reason I can come up with for why I find them hot…It’s just part of my makeup.”
Likewise, I was always fascinated for unexplained reasons to the likes of enslaved princess Leia in Star Wars, or the sacrificial bait in ancient classics for the wicked minotaur or monstrous reptile as she clings helplessly on to ropes, or simply Meg in Hercules for her enslavement to Hades. I suppose Freud would criticise such fantasies as being allusive to beastality, yet as I grew older I realise that these are just fascinations and fantasies of myself, being rendered helpless and being controlled by someone else whilst saying “no”, acting the scenes in my head – although obviously this could easily be another woman’s nightmare, as Morgan rightfully points out.
She continues better than I could summarise, that “Despite what I like to do in bed I consider myself a feminist and find it very depressing that because of my informed sexual choices there are women who’d want to wave “down with this sort of thing” placards in my direction.
“I genuinely believe it’s the fundamental misunderstanding of what BDSM is that contributes a lot to feminists’ opposition to dominant/submissive relationships – and this misunderstanding is perpetuated in epic fashion across EL James’s trilogy.”
Wanting to put this BDSM taboo to bed now, I want to end it by summarising that sexually submissive women crucially decide who to “submit to,” a vital important factor which is taken away in instances such as rape and abuse, and one in which Anastasia clearly allows and consents to submit to Christian, thus suggesting that their sexual relationship, at least, isn’t abusive. Indeed, Taylor-Johnson argues against the supposed “feminist critique” (I’m gradually finding this woman more offensive than the accused novel), as she says “To be feminist… doesn’t mean you can’t be submissive. It doesn’t mean you always have to be on top.” Which is true, but why feminism is dragged into this I don’t know. Please don’t tarnish us all with the same brush that tucks the smirks and undertones of ‘frigidness’ in your remarks under the rug. Likewise, we’re not all crazed authoritarian OCD control and fun-restricting freaks whom are afraid to sexually explore in fear of not being “feminist enough”… yeah, we don’t all burn bras, either just FYI, but there is, albeit, an annoying truth to her statement – and that’s because some feminists are against the BDSM thing in real life, unlike Morgan who is against how it is perceived in the film.
This, to me, is ridiculous because being a feminist means you should be who you want to be in all aspects of life. These feminists remind me of the radicals that criticise us for wearing red lipstick in a desperate “appeal to men,” yet I won’t criticise because that contradicts my point. Simply put, these feminists preach the liberation of women, whilst providing them with a new handbook of rules and regulations. Not being oppressed by men? Extreme radicals can fill that void!
Morgan argues how submissive women in real life get to decide how much “control” to give their partner, and presses importance on the safe word. She continues that it’s also “about context” as “Feeling challenged, even feeling demeaned within [a] sexual context is different to domestic abuse” and suggesting BDSM “endorses or encourages sexual violence is not only wrong but… a frustrating red herring that needs clarification.”
And yet BDSM isn’t the problem for some people with Fifty Shades of Grey.
As one article in Relevant Magazine interpreted, the relationship between Christian and Anastasia is an abusive one, whereby Ana suffers emotional and physical violence at the hands of Christian. “And”, the article taunts, “worst of all, [she] doesn’t seem to realise this.”
Apparently, Christian stalks Ana by tracking her location through an app on her phone, threatening her as presented in this image:
To make matters worse, he controls her food intake (according to Relevant) and whom she is allowed to spend her time with, thus isolating her from her friends and family. He guilt-trips her, blames her, humiliates her and threatens her, all tell-tale signs of emotional abuse and a controlling relationship. Even, as one quotation worryingly suggests, Ana contemplates how “He’d probably like to beat seven shades of shit out of me,” implying she is fearful of his dominating control and supporting Sophie Morgan’s statement, the aforementioned Guardian journalist, in which she says, “Fifty Shades is not about fun,” but about “abuse.”
Yet another problem I have, is how it argues that Fifty Shades is being marketed as a romance to “silence… millions of victims of abuse.” I would question both these statements – the first being is it being sold as a romance? And the second, it clearly isn’t silencing anyone.
According to Taylor-Johnson, the potential moment where the relationship could be seen as abusive, Anastasia crucially “walks away.” Does this not suggest that Fifty Shades is more like an accurate and dysfunctional relationship that many of us experience in our young adult lives? Not that we’re all subjected to any form of abuse, but that ‘romance’ doesn’t have to be straightforward, and it often isn’t in reality. Fifty Shades clearly isn’t the cliched romance in which Christian is a knight in shining armour, he is seductively evil but admirable, too. It makes a change from all the “nice guy meets troubled girl” movies out there at least. (Which is perhaps damaging, too. By now I’m sure everyone has heard of the Californian shooter whom sought to slaughter every woman he saw as he was consistently rejected for “obnoxious brutes” in comparison to him, the ‘nice guy’ or “supreme gentleman” throughout his life. Read the article here.)
Anyway, psychiatrists such as Dr. Miriam Grossman states that “Fifty Shades of Grey teaches your daughter that pain and humiliation are erotic, and your son, that girls want a guy who controls, intimidates and threatens.” Similarly, another article in Feminist Current points out, that apparently the film teaches men to “be turned on by women in pain,” as Christian seductively (although not seductive in their eyes), tells Ana, “I’m going to fuck you now, Miss Steele… Hard.” The article argues how women are “growing up in a culture which grooms and socialises them to be subordinate.”
To put it bluntly in response to these statements then, don’t expose your vulnerable and impressionable child to such films and those above the age of fourteen will probably have a vague idea of their sexual preferences anyway, as stated before about imbedded child fascination that grows over time.Watching Fifty Shades of Grey won’t miraculously persuade your daughter to like BDSM and the porn industry depicts this submissive way of women already, so most boys (and girls!) already think and express their desires towards domination and control, especially now that the UK porn industry has banned female ejaculation, literally sending out the message that women do not enjoy sex and are for male sexual pleasure only. (Another article I’ve been meaning to write which is the third time I’ve said this now…But I will.)
Besides, what’s so worrying about someone telling you they want to “fuck you now”? Does a verbal consent have to be given every time between you and your partner, or do you simply allow the heat of the moment to take over sometimes? We’re neither Ana nor Christian, we don’t know the chemistry and connection that they have. Sometimes consent can be unspoken in relationships.
Apparently, we can’t dismiss Fifty Shades as a fictional story, either. (Even though that is exactly what it is), as art, television, books, movies, and all entertainment and media outlets send a message and show the “values and acceptable behaviours of a society…” And whilst this is true, I don’t think therefore that we should just censor all the bad aspects of our society out. We can’t paint this false picture that the world is rainbows and happiness, because it’s not. Fifty Shades, although undoubtedly I will have some problematic views on the character Christian, should still be viewed and watched and enjoyed because that’s the entertainment industry. I can still enjoy the film, despite disliking Christian. Not all characters are supposed to be liked, and sometimes people do fancy the villain. God, even me and my friend once discussed how Hannibal Lecter is sort of attractive in an arrogant and mysterious sort of way, and he literally eats human flesh. That film didn’t spark a “promotion in cannibalism” as young girls swooned to nearby mental asylums hoping to snatch one up for their own…
It is fantasy. Yet people like Christian do exist in real life, and perhaps the message that Fifty Shades is trying to portray is that the Christian’s of this world are alluring but dangerous. Or that we can fall in love with whoever we want. Or that simply BDSM is something that should be celebrated, and not repressed or shunned if you’re into that kind of thing. I’m sure Ann Summer’s prospered greatly off the publication of Fifty Shades, and will continue to do so after the movie as couples eagerly watch and discuss exploring things themselves excitedly.
Some critics argue how Fifty Shades “promotes domestic abuse” as Anastasia vows to love Christian, despite his ‘issues’ as a partner (from what I can assume are commitment issues?) Anyway, it has been said that this promotes emotional abuse as women will watch the film and think that by allowing and loving men such as Christian, you can change their behaviour and sculpt them to who you want them to be, which “in reality” isn’t true. The reality being, they will always control you and will eventually lead to much more serious abuse and therefore you ought to ‘leave’ the real Christian’s of the world. (Alert – victim blaming. ‘Instead of teaching women to leave, teach men how to behave.’)
This brings me to my next and final point. If Fifty Shades is abusive, then why does that mean we shouldn’t watch it?
Malaysia banned the film outright with the Malaysian Film Censorship Board tarnishing the adaptation as a “pornography than a movie”, continuing that “The content is more sadistic, featuring scenes of a woman being tied to a bed and whipped.”
Is this what we want? Censorship and shackles around our long-sought freedom to decide for ourselves? A lack of intellectual debate and discussion as we’re brainwashed into a happy media portrayal?
Some images such as these (left) argue that films such as Fifty Shades are regressing women back to the likes of the 20s, but, may I add, the 20s was a time when female sexual pleasure was not celebrated nor talked about, let alone screened in the cinema. The 20s was a time when lipstick made you look promiscuous and makeup was sold in hidden departments, away from mens’ eyes. The 20s was a time when women had to protest under the suffragette movement for our right to vote… It’s quite frankly an insult to compare the 21st century to the likes of decades ago when discussing Fifty Shades, because that is inaccurate. I’m sure for one the women and men of the 20s, 30s, 40s and possibly 50s would have been appalled by Fifty Shades at it’s ‘vulgarity’ and ‘openness to sex’, whilst the suffragettes would have revelled in its glory, doesn’t that show how far we’ve come? Presenting female pleasure and exploration in BDSM is progressive. By not showing the film we are clawing our way back to the likes of the 20s, not the other way round.
As I similarly ranted towards the supposed end of Page 3, I would argue that we as a society need to start recognising what is objectification and abuse, physically and mentally. What is really damaging women?
I feel a lot of the time some feminists are barking up the wrong tree. They preach to ‘free the nipple’ and eradicate them from its sexualisation, yet demand the breasts of women in The Sun to be removed because it’s “inappropriate.” Really, the only inappropriate behaviour of The Sun was its attitude towards the women it photographed. If they just changed their wording and presentation, there would be no problem with it.
Likewise, I fear that people are jumping on the “50ShadesOfAbuse” bandwagon, having heard the words “abuse” and “female oppression” and are quick to point out why.
Yet where is the evidence that there is abuse?
To me, all I see (or imagine) is some rough sex mixed with a problematic relationship. Aka, real life. Relationships can get messy and present us with challenging situations – the commitmentaphobe, the emotionally stunted, the porn addict – are all real people that prevent and cause problems in real relationships in real life. BDSM and exploration of sex ought to be celebrated, too. The moment we stop seeing different types as sex as “bad”, allows us to highlight the differences between sex and rape. There is no such thing as “bad sex” and instead, just consensual sex, or rape. If broken into these two categories, Fifty Shades is not rape and not physical sexual abuse.
I know that to be in an abusive relationship it doesn’t necessarily mean that your partner has to physically harm you, it can be emotional too. But so far, from the quotations I’ve seen, I fail to recognise or see such evidence in Fifty Shades. Context is key, remember!
Not to mention, how much of this is publicity? Rumours have been spread that Fifty Shades PR and marketing team have sparked the debates of abuse themselves. Indeed, when the book first came out, I’m sure it wasn’t just me who nudged my friends in the direction of a decrepit old woman intensely scouring the pages, the words reflecting largely in her rounded glasses as she pressed the book further and further against her nose on the bus, and causing us to snicker and whisper jokes amongst each other. Didn’t we all pick up our mothers, sisters, or friend of a friends copy in wonderment of its private passages, blushing in secret as flashes of images conjured in your head? Wasn’t it then criticised for being “awful writing”, twinned with the likes of Twilight? (Ironically it does have origins that go back to suggest it was written as fan fiction on the Twilight novels.) Regardless of what we thought of it, it graced our shelves in 2011 and yet only now, four whole years on, we started preaching about underlying tones of abuse? Where were the protestors four, three, two years, heck – even six months ago?
To summarise, then, don’t fall a victim to the hype. For all I know it could be true, and I may very well be posting again about the cruelty inflicted upon Ana – yet I still don’t think this means people should not see the film.
Obviously, donate to women’s shelters and victims of domestic abuse, but don’t feel ashamed or policed by people for seeing what potentially could be a good film! It’s our culture. It’s the 21st century and I don’t condone censorship. Perhaps a film I DO have a problem with, is American Sniper. The glorification of American (and all) soldiers is not only propaganda, but the presentation of civilian Iraqis as villains and savage is barbaric and mostly unrealistic. Now that, that promotes something negative. American Sniper promotes war and large scale massacres. It promotes the dehumanisation of a country so that we feel justified in bombing their people. So the likes of soldiers such as these feel they can exploit and abuse real people because they thought “Iraqis weren’t human.”
However, this isn’t because of the film industry, but for numerous other reasons. Regardless, I’m not campaigning for it NOT to be shown. It’s still a documentation of a soldier’s life and should be shown in his memory and to highlight the unnecessary cruelties of war. Or shown simply because it is a film and entertaining to watch. We should just watch with caution – can’t that same rule apply to all films we watch, including Fifty Shades?
As behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings argued, “In my view, the appalling nature of domestic violence – and I wholly support the amazing work that refuges do for women at traumatic and vulnerable periods of their lives – has absolutely nothing to do with the pain/pleasure sexual axis within a fictional love story which has brought a lot of entertainment to millions of women.” Instead, “most adults have a pretty good handle on what is and what isn’t morally acceptable. Does reading a thriller involving murder makes us more likely to commit one? Or even consider it? Of course not.”
And with that I finish and implore you to think wisely before you tarnish something you know nothing about. Then again, perhaps I’ll be back with a re-write up that contradicts my finalising points, but nevertheless, even if Christian does subject Ana to abuse, that doesn’t mean it promotes it or that we shouldn’t watch it.