I hadn’t originally planned on watching Fifty Shades of Grey. I knew going in that its depictions of sex and kink were problematic, that its production had been troubled, and that the reviews were unkind, to say the least. But I wasn’t expecting it to do nearly as well at the box office as it is, bringing in over $300 million to date worldwide.
I don’t subscribe to the belief that you must have seen a film, or played a game, or read a book in order to criticize it. The reasons why are enough to fill a blog post on their own (note to self), so I won’t go into them here. However, I was curious to see what the draw is. Just why, exactly, is it so popular? I had my hypotheses, but I wanted to know for certain.
And now I think I know.
So first, I do have to rant about how bad this movie is. It’s bad. Really bad.
It’s astonishingly heteronormative, and, more surprisingly, sex negative as a whole, not just about kink and BDSM, and slightly homophobic even. I wasn’t expecting that. Specifically about BDSM though, the film treats kink as a form of psychopathy. It’s well known that Jamie Dornan is squicked out by BDSM, and it shows so very clearly in the movie. Grey despises his kink. Here’s a thought experiment: replace “kink” in this film with “gay”. That’s why this is a problem. It’s important to note that some people do view kink as a type of sexual orientation.
Fifty shades is also problematic because it’s bad BDSM. There are so many things they do wrong. Grey is a truly terrible top. A good top is one who is empathetic and good at reading one’s partner. If you want to see what a good top looks like, check out the two BDSM scenes from Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. During these scenes, the main character is trying BDSM for the very first time. During the first scene, you see the top getting started and he sees that the main character hasn’t gotten over her fear of pain and isn’t in the right head space. So he sends her home. He saw she wasn’t comfortable and stopped things right then and there, for her sake. Empathy. During the second scene, she is ready and the top knows this. So he ends up giving her a truly amazing orgasm. That’s what a good top is. Empathetic. And you never ever ever act out of anger. BDSM is about love and empathy, not anger and hate.
Even if you ignore the problems with sexual representation in this film, it’s still a bad film. The script comes off as bad Twilight fanfic. As has been reported a number of times before, the chemistry between the two leads is virtually nonexistent. Even worse, and the acting is just plain terrible all around. During one scene where Grey reveals his past tortured past, I almost laughed out loud. It was afternoon soap opera bad. There is a later scene where the two leads are talking by a pool about their relationship and…well…let’s just say it recalled the romance scenes from the Star Wars prequels. Yeah, it was that bad.
But I was expecting most of this going in.
What I wanted to get out of the film was understanding of the draw of the film. I think I got that and now have a theory (theory in the scientific sense, the thing that comes after hypothesis, which is to say a working model).
I have not read any of the books, but I have read summaries of the plots of the latter two, just to make sure that it’s going in the direction I think it is.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a redemption story. It’s a story about a sexually inexperienced woman “saving” a man, or alternatively a story of “the good girl” getting “the bad boy” to change his ways and become “good and pure.” See why I said it’s sex negative? The whole contract thing really drives this point home (which, btw, contracts aren’t actually a thing in BDSM as far as I am aware). She never signs this contract, which is symbolic of getting him to change his ways, to fall in love.
I think that the use of BDSM is just a plot twist to get this tired cliched romance novel to stand out in a sea of tired cliched romance novels. The film isn’t actually about BDSM at all. In fact, I think that BDSM is really just a stand-in for spicing things up in the bedroom. So this story has two things it’s doing at its core: a bad boy redemption story, and the notion of spicing things up in the bedroom.
I think this is why the kink as psychopathy aspect is actually part of the reason it’s so popular. It provides an “out,” a chance to say “I’m not really into BDSM,” while still getting excited by it. This is also why the film doesn’t actually show a single red mark, bruise, etc. It’s all hidden, kept out of sight via careful camera angles, especially during the final whipping scene. It’s actually trying to hide the BDSM part, literally.
And don’t even get me started on the fact that there is copious amounts of full female nudity, but there is not a single penis to be seen!
Here’s another interesting thing I’ve been thinking about though: I don’t regret financially supporting the film, despite it’s numerous problems. There are some good aspects to the film. First of all, the musical score is actually pretty incredible!
Another thing I was impressed by, Dakota Johnson is actually not a size 0 stick of a model. She actually has some curves. Is she representative of the average woman’s body in this country? No, but it’s progress. There was also a scene at the end where Anastasia told Grey “No” very firmly, in a “No means no” kind of way, and he stopped. He actually listened.
Ultimately, my sincere hope is that this film will increase the number of films being made about sex. Sex is an incredibly important part of the human experience, and one that is categorically ignored in the film world. Sure there are some amazing indie films about sex, such as Shortbus, Blue is the Warmest Color, and the aforementioned Nymphomaniac, but they all had a tiny audience compared to Fifty Shades. Fifty Shades has shown that there is an audience for films about sex (even if some of those reasons are dubious).
What I am hoping is that Fifty Shades works out like the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man. Now Spider-Man wasn’t a bad film like Fifty Shades is, but it still wasn’t very good compared to the current cream of the crop superhero movies. But Spider-Man was really important because it was financially successful, which made production companies more willing to spend money on future superhero films. I think this ultimately paved the way for the modern superhero renaissance. I don’t think we would have had The Dark Night, or Watchmen, or Captain America if it weren’t for Spider-Man.
I can see a world where Fifty Shades kick starts a new renaissance of films about sex, real sex, good sex. This is a world I want to live in. We are so prudish and sex-negative in the United States, along with much of the rest of the world. This is something that needs to change, desperately. Sexual freedom means freedom to be yourself, to embrace who you are, not hate yourself for it. I can be happy in a world where Fifty Shades of Grey is popular as long as it ultimately leads us to a more sex positive society.