© Copyright 2017, Max Swiderski
The film Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) was marketed as a radical and progressive tale of erotic fiction. It operates under the pretense of empowerment for woman by allowing them to explore their sexuality. However, in actuality, the film fails to live up these claims. It reinforces traditional and conservative power dynamics as well as gender roles. Its protagonist, Anastasia Steele, is a naïve college student who becomes infatuated by the alluring Christian Grey. Anastasia is willing to do whatever it takes to be with Christian including sexual practices she does not necessarily enjoy such as BDSM (Bondage and Disciple; Sadism and Masochism) —which the film claims to de-stigmatize. This essay will argue that Fifty Shades of Grey does not de-stigmatize any taboo sex practices or gender roles. Rather its representations of power dynamics and relationships further adhere to traditional values that do not make any positive progression on these subjects.
Power dynamics are present throughout the film 50 Shades of Grey; however, the way that they are presented can be problematic, ambiguous and confusing. Within only the first few minutes, it becomes apparent that the film will portray power dynamics through the male gaze—presenting women as objects for the pleasure of men. The first time that Christian and Anastasia meet, she is on her knees after having tripped, and he is standing over her. They proceed to conduct and interview, from which the only seemingly important information she extracts from him is that he “exercises control in all things” (00:06:37) and he is not gay. These two details of his character make his intentions clear to everyone but Anastasia: he can and will possess her if he so chooses. Most people would be able to recognize Christian’s manipulative nature, but Anastasia cannot. She is presented as naïve while he is presented as a confident and domineering image of masculinity: “Masculinity inheres in Christian’s sexual and business prowess, which he uses to dominate Anastasia, whose vulnerability is heightened by her sexual inexperience, youth, unemployment, and femininity” (Musser). Christian can sense that she is young and naïve and he does not hesitate to take advantage of that. Although she is a consenting adult, she has no other experience regarding sex or relationships, which leads her to be easily persuaded by his powerful and therefore knowledgeable image.
It is implied that Anastasia has always been a motivated and determined student, but as soon as she meets Christian that changes. She becomes infatuated with him and it affects her other personal relationships and professional goals. During their first meeting, she receives a pencil with “Grey” printed on it. We then see her in class, daydreaming, presumably about Christian. She has the pencil in her mouth and is biting on it in a sensual way (See Appendix ), making for strong phallic imagery. Obtaining Christian becomes her most important goal because his success and power can take her further in life than she could ever get by her own merit. This negates Anastasia having any authority or influence of her own, making her only value her body, which is available for Christian to possess.
Anastasia is a self-professed ‘romantic’ whose ideas of love come from literature, her field of study. Despite an apparent incompatibility, she is attracted to Christian because of his good looks as well as his powerful and wealthy station in life. Although she does not have any notion of how to navigate a relationship, she is willing to do anything to be in one with him, including becoming objectified. Christian discloses to her that his “tastes are very singular”, and he “does not make love” he “fucks, hard” but it is only after he learns that she is a virgin that he makes any real advance towards her. He is attracted to the idea of possessing her as a naïve, virginal object, but she is attracted to him as a figure of power who can teach her about love. However, he explicitly tells her that love is not one of his intentions. Ironically, Anastasia—who knows nothing about love, except for that which she has read about in stories—wants to teach Christian—who is emotionally and psychologically damaged—to learn to love.
Christian’s relationships with women are complex and concerning. He is typically possessive of them and his intentions with Anastasia do not stray from his usual habits. However, she complicates his preconceived ideas and desires regarding relationships. When Anastasia arrives at Christian’s office to conduct the interview, she exits the elevator to find a floor filled with female secretaries, all dressed in a different coloured grey dresses, which represent the different ‘shades’ of Christian’s taste in women. He seems to have at least a financial control over them, but their obedience to him suggest that he may have more. Anastasia, however, is wearing a colourful pattered shirt with a blue cardigan, skirt and stockings. She is evidently out of place and out of his possession; her colourful outfit makes her an outlier, not just another ‘shade’. Christian comes to realize that he will have to change his perception of women and relationships in order to be with her. She will not be such an easy conquest as he is used to, yet she still can be conquered if he wills it.
Fifty Shades of Grey portrays an ambiguous representation of gender roles and feminism. Anastasia asserts control over some of her desires, yet Christian easily persuades her in other instances, most notably engaging in the sexual practice of BDSM (Bondage and Discipline; Sadism and Masochism). This type of sexual preference is considered to be rough and usually involves one partner playing a “dominant” role and the other partner playing a “submissive” role. Typically, the former is male and the latter female, but role reversal is also common. Because of its aggressive nature, BDSM has become highly stigmatized and taboo. In fact many professional psychologists confuse BDSM with abusive tendencies and therefore express biases and even disgust or fear when discussing this practice (Leistner, Mark). Additionally, sexual sadomasochism is a diagnosis included in the most current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Leistner, Mark). A societal stigmatization of BDSM as well as other sexual practices and preferences has led to misconceptions and ‘othering’ of those who do participate in them. Such is the case with Christian.
Christian prefers BDSM due to traumatic past events and relationships. He had an abusive childhood as well as other manipulative and unhealthy relationships. At the age of 15 he was seduced by his mothers friend and remained her ‘sub’ for 6 years as he became introduced to the world of BDSM. He was never exposed to a healthy representation of love or relationships, which leads to an incapability of expressing love or affection to the women he ‘dates’. However, Anastasia challenges Christian to show a romantic side. While this gives her some authority, it also implies that there is something inherently wrong with BDSM, which works to further stigmatize the practice. Fifty Shades of Grey appears to open a door in mainstream media that provides a platform for discussion and therefore de-stigmatization of BDSM, but it only does so on the surface level. It has not made “significant inroads” because it still relies on “a division of sexuality into normal/abnormal (Tripodi).
Anastasia desires to have a relationship with Christian because she is drawn to his power and wealth. However, she is not necessarily drawn to his sexual practices: “I’m not jumping at the opportunity to get whipped and tortured in your red room of pain” (00:52:45), but she is willing to entertain the idea of BDSM in order to attain her ultimate goal with him: marriage. BDSM is considered an obstacle that Anastasia must overcome in order to find happiness, which for her is measured by conventional and conservative relationship standards. Tripodi examines how Fifty Shades of Grey operates under the false pretense of empowerment, which further stigmatizes BSDM:
Women seem to view Fifty Shades as an outlet for sexual frustration even though the novel maintains, rather than challenges, existing power dynamics between men and women in heterosexual relationships. The series concludes much more like a Disney movie than an exploratory manual into how BDSM can serve as a form of empowerment, ending in a fairytale depiction of Ana and Christian as married with children. Ana’s love has “cured” Christian of his need for BDSM, and while they still make the occasional trip to the “red room of pain,” Ana can do so while achieving traditional heterosexual respectability (Tripodi).
Anastasia comes to represent a conventional, conservative version of femininity. She endures her partner’s sickness—BDSM—and is able to transform him into a traditional version of masculinity. Fifty Shades of Grey has the appearance of being a radical and progressive tale of erotic fiction, but in actuality it covertly reinforces a stigmatization of non-traditional sex, relationships and gender roles.
For all of the films negative representations of power dynamics, sex and gender roles, its one redeeming representation comes in the form of consent. BDSM is a form of sex that relies heavily on consent because it pushes peoples physical and mental limits. The submissive partner must be willing to be controlled and dominated, which often includes degradation. These acts must be consensual and predetermined by both partners otherwise the submissive can be left feeling violated and traumatized. In Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian drafts a non-disclosure/consent agreement, which Anastasia must sign before they engage in any BDSM practices. The two of them outline clear boundaries concerning what she is and is not willing to try. This is done so in an equal and professional setting (Appendix B). The only concern regarding their contract is that all of the conditions are designed to please the dominant—Christian. However, this is only done to keep the partners in character. Although the Dominant has control, in actuality, it is the needs of the submissive that are being served:
Since “safe, sane, consensual” is such a critical element of BDSM life and given the fact that submissives are ultimately in control of dictating the kinds of sexual acts they want done to them, BDSM becomes a space where both the dominant and the submissive can consent to acts whereby they are “able to achieve equality in sexual and romantic relationships (Tripodi).
Christian drafts the consent agreement, but Anastasia dictates what she is comfortable with and what beyond her boundaries, which is an essential part to a healthy engagement in BDSM. Additionally, the series positively represents sexual equality. Both partners reach an orgasm 75% of the time; the only occurrences of a partner not climaxing are done as a form of ‘torture’, which is a common practice in BDSM (Leistner, Mark).
Fifty Shades of Grey offers the illusion that it empowers women by allowing them to explore their sexuality. However, the film frequently represents Anastasia as a naïve college student whose only real attraction to Christian is his wealth and power. She is willing to try BDSM for him, but her ultimate goal is a traditional, conservative relationship and she sacrifices her personal and professional goals in order attain that with him. The film claims to de-stigmatize BDSM, but Anastasia views it as a hurdle and emotional baggage that Christian carries, which only she can save him from via love. These representations of sex and gender roles do not make any positive progression in terms of de-stigmatizing and ‘othering’ of non-conventional relationships, which is dangerous because it can lead to misunderstanding and even hatred towards people who practice BDSM and sexual sub-groups.
1. Musser, Amber Jamilla. “BDSM and the Boundaries of Criticism: Feminism and neoliberalism in Fifty Shades of Grey and The Story of O.” Feminist Theory, vol. 16, no. 2, 2015, http://journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/doi/full/10.1177/1464700115585723. Accessed 10 March 2018.
2. Leistner, Christine E; Mark, Kristen P. “Fifty Shades of Sexual Health and BDSM Identity Messaging: A Thematic Analysis of the Fifty Shades Series.” Sexuality and Culture, vol. 20, no. 3, 2016, https://link-springer-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/article/10.1007%2Fs12119-016-9337-2. Accessed 10 March 2018.
3. Tripodi, Francesca. “Fifty Shades of Consent?” Feminist Media Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, 2017, https://journals-scholarsportal-info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/details/14680777/v17i0001/93_fsoc.xml#body-S0005. Accessed 10 March 2018.
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