by Cadi Cliff
Content warning: mentions abuse and rape.
Fifty Shades of Grey. The Twilight fanfiction by E.L. James has sold over 100 million copies around the world. The film, with a Valentine’s weekend release, had been marketed as the ultimate date-night movie, an ‘incredible fairy-tale love story’, a piece of ‘mommy porn’. I’m going to start this by saying that yes, I have read the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (borrowed, not bought), and no, I do not condone censorship. You are free to read and watch what you like. However there is something about the credibility given to Fifty Shades by the volume of individuals going to watch it — it took £1m in ticket sales ahead of its February 13th 2015 release — that doesn’t sit well with this writer.
We’re adults, correct, and we can distinguish between fiction and reality. But Fifty Shades normalises abuse and makes it ‘sexy’.
We’re adults, correct, and we can distinguish between fiction and reality. But Fifty Shades normalises abuse and makes it ‘sexy’.It contributes to a culture of microaggression. By turning acts of abuse around to market them as ‘romance’, it effectively silences the experience of millions of victims of abuse. The marketing bulldozes ahead without a scrap of self-awareness or conscience, where abusive actions are treated as adorably flirtatious exchanges and domestic violence is met with fervour. ‘Lose control,’ one poster urges. No one can deny that James created a huge phenomenon — it outsold Harry Potter — which means it comes with influence, just like the Twilight saga that seemed to ensnare hordes of young readers.
Its subject matter? If we’re honest — a profoundly abusive relationship in which its protagonist undergoes emotional and physical violence at the hands of her partner. This film, and those like it, are a regressive step back in society’s view of violence against women. The argument that ‘it’s just fantasy!’ has been a popular use in defence of the movie’s treatment of its main character. Unfortunately, for one in four British women, Fifty Shades is a brutal reality. I’m all for better platforms for women writers. I’m all for more awareness of female desire and sexuality. I have nothing against BDSM. But when it comes to Fifty Shades, I honestly hope you choke on your popcorn.
Christian, the alleged ‘love interest’, actively stalks Ana. He buys her work place, tracks her whereabouts through an app on her phone — “No place to run. I would find you. I can track your cell phone—remember?” He controls what she eats, and dictates who she is allowed to spend her time with. He demeans her, threatens her, and blames her. As a result, Ana is afraid of making ‘Mr Grey’ angry, afraid to talk to her friends, and is insecure and isolated. But in the countless statuses of fellow Facebookers who are off to watch the film, no one seems to be even acknowledging this side. Natalie Collins, who runs campaign group Fifty Shades Is Domestic Abuse, remarked that: “The thing that I would say to people who are reading the books, who are going to see it, is, if he wasn’t rich and very attractive, would this behaviour be normal?” A white, rich, stereotypically ‘handsome’ male is cooed over by readers and viewers. If he didn’t have his looks, a six pack, and a millionaire status, would you think this relationship was okay?
Far from ‘empowering’, Fifty Shades seeks to remove agency.
In Fifty Shades, threats are represented as playful fun and force ends up being acceptable because, although it starts with Anastasia’s fear, it ends with her pleasure. James’ work effectively says that this is what women want: the perpetuation of violent rape culture. Here, pressure is acceptable, abuse is celebrated, and consent is discounted. Psychiatrist Dr. Miriam Grossman remarked 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.’ Far from ‘empowering’, Fifty Shades seeks to remove agency.
The book itself includes several examples of rape, where Ana is pressured into having sex, or outright forced into having it. The BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, Sadism and Masochism) community have themselves been outspoken on the issue. They’ve been quick to distance themselves from the lack of safety or consent in the novel. The world of BDSM is one based on trust and respect, and is a world apart from the one depicted in Fifty Shades. As BDSM practitioner Sophie Morgan states, “Fifty Shades is not about fun […] It’s about abuse.” The film, with the help of the director and actress, may have performed a sort of salvage job on Anastasia’s character — thankfully her ‘inner goddess’ is nowhere to be seen/heard.
We like to believe that, somehow, we are immune to both the ideas and values that are churned out by the culture in which we live.
Critics claim that the film’s director, Johnson, has injected her with more ‘fight’ which means that it’s her rebellion, not just her submission, which Christian finds attractive. If the director and the author tussled for control of this material, reviewers seem to suggest that the director came out top. This doesn’t mask the root of this film however, the subject matter.
We like to believe that, somehow, we are immune to both the ideas and values that are churned out by the culture in which we live. Not true. We like to label fiction as ‘just a story’, cutting it off from our own world. But the reality is every story comes from something, everyone wants to say something. The casual image of a guy, fully clothed, surrounded by women in bikinis in a television advertisement for a product which is totally unrelated, the apparently acceptable violence equated with masculinity in action movies … They’re all normalising and making casual real problems in our society.
This casual nature of things unnerves me the most. When the screen goes dark and the audience guzzles on their soft drinks, Fifty Shades is filling the shape of violence and abuse with the idea of romance. This is the most dangerous tactic the author could have used, whether she realises it or not. We cannot continue to mistake obsession for love, nor abuse for romance. One in four women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. One in six men will too. Two women are killed by a current or ex-partner every week. There are countless individuals who will bat off claims that the book or film glorify abuse.
But the parallels between Grey’s behaviour and the behaviour of abusers in the real world is there — just because Grey is rich and good-looking and this is being sold as an erotic romance, does not hide that fact, it just encourages viewers to turn a blind eye. So why the fuck are we glorifying this? Instead of tittering over the trailer with your friends, think about the sobering reality of abuse. Instead of paying to watch a film which normalises the suffering of abused individuals, don’t. There is a brutal reality behind the glamour. At least acknowledge it.
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