I’m already tired of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise and we’re just getting started.
I want to write a book someday and it’s disparaging to see how brilliantly bad writing sells.
E. L. James must be making a killing. Like millions of people, I paid fifteen dollars to read Fifty Shades, book one. I couldn’t finish it; the writing was atrocious: “I’m not sure Wanda, my old VW Beetle, would make the journey in time. Oh, the Merc is a fun drive, and the miles slip away as I hit the pedal to the metal.” It doesn’t get much better from there.
While sub/dom relationships are fine and healthy, it’s a little problematic that Grey is an extremely rich and powerful male CEO and Ana is a poor female student — someone who is already dependent on a number of people in power (parents, teachers, boss). Their relationship calls to mind the many real-life cases of powerful men exploiting and assaulting young women with impunity. It doesn’t help that Jamie Dornan, who plays Mr. Grey, first drew attention for his role as a serial killer of women in the fabulous crime drama series The Fall, which ended in 2016, and this role feels uncomfortably similar — both characters are into extreme domination.
I tried reading the book to prepare for the movie after reading Buzzfeed articles and angry Facebook posts about how the franchise purportedly gives people the wrong idea about BDSM. I see why some people have made that accusation, but I’m not sure it’s completely fair. There are live-in submissives in our community who do sign contracts like the one Mr. Grey repeatedly asks Ana to sign, but in real life, any contract regarding a BDSM relationship is not a binding legal document and cannot really protect anyone. Many people make and sign contracts for sexual theater, to make the BDSM agreement seem more official, but it’s nothing you can involve your lawyer with.
The bigger problem than the contract is the fact that Ana Steele is simply not kinky. She is pushed, wooed, and pressured into this BDSM relationship by a much wealthier and more powerful man, and therein lies the problem. Submissives enter into kinky sex willingly — many of us seek out our dominants — and there’s nothing wrong with a poor, woman submissive seeking a BDSM set up with a wealthy male dominant. But Ana is not seeking a dominant and she is frightened by Grey for most of the book (and movie). Her naiveté is presumably what makes Grey attracted to her — a delicate, innocent thing — but that’s also what makes her easily manipulable.
One criticism I’ve heard from kinky people is that the series romanticizes an abusive relationship under the guise of BDSM. I’m not certain this is true either, and I would remind kinksters that BDSM encompasses a range of scenes, practices, interpretations, and lifestyles, some of which are pretty extreme. There are some BDSM relationships that I myself would consider bordering on abuse which some hardcore kinksters enjoy.
Forgive me for this, but…it’s a shade of gray. Would I consider being caged and collared for six months and fed in a doggy bowl psychologically damaging? Maybe even abusive? Yes. But some people spend years hunting for a master who will do just that.
In the real world, where people’s kinky limits can be clearly listed on a website profile or discussed at a casual sit-down, Ana and Christian would have realized quickly that they are sexually incompatible. Grey wants a weekend submissive into hard S&M, who likes being punished, controlled, and ordered around — and you just can’t do that with someone who knows nothing about sex. Asking Ana to be that person is like asking a first-time gym user to be a personal trainer — you can give them the tools, but they still will have no idea what they’re doing and you won’t get good results.
Ana has no clue what she wants, but it’s certainly not this, and as a virgin to sex, she has no business getting into kink before learning the basics. She truly knows nothing — and knowing nothing makes her easy to take advantage of. See the problem?
Another issue: the book and film present inklings of a “mystery” around the origins of Mr. Grey’s kinkiness, which is presumably explored in the following two books (and in the regrettable films that will follow this one). It’s hinted that his current sex life is the result of some earlier abuse or trauma. This suggests that kink is only reserved for unhealthy, damaged people.
Kink is healthy, even if it “comes” from bad experiences. I don’t have a great history with my dad. I’m also really into older men and often have sex with men who are my father’s age. A psychotherapist may link the two, but so what? Being attracted to older men has not disrupted my life — if anything, it’s enriched it. Kink isn’t trauma, nor is it traumatizing — it’s simply what some people do to get off.
I don’t know for certain why E. L. James tries to pathologize Grey’s kinks, and by extension demands us to do so, but I have a good idea. E. L. James’ depiction of kink is what someone would write who has no real experience in BDSM. It reads like the fantasy of someone who did enough research to know what flogging is but has never gone to a fetish gathering or been to a BDSM sex party or navigated a consensual BDSM relationship in their own life. Non-kinky people are shocked by kink and try to pathologize it — authentic kinky people know better.
I can’t presume to know E. L. James’ private life, that’s how the book reads. Take from that what you will.
In the end, Christian and Ana’s onscreen playtime is what I call “vanilla kink” — the most basic stuff to shock non-kinky, heterosexual people. The whole thing feels like a made-for-TV film designed to sell a line of cheap, kinky bedroom toys to people who know nothing about kink and think a velvet blindfold is hardcore — and although it has a theatrical release, that’s exactly what this movie is.
I enjoyed the slowed-down, sultry version of Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” but overall rolled my eyes and lamented the whole thing for what it ended up being — a titillating tale riding on the presumed shock value of kink to generate mass interest. If blindfolds and light bondage don’t shock you, the film is a yawn.