Back in 2012, when the furor surrounding EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey was in full effect, I wrote a series of snarky mini-reviews on the book which focused primarily on how bad the writing was, and how silly much of the non-existent plot was. But for the most part I didn’t seem concern myself too much with the deeper themes of the book because mocking inner goddesses and ellipses took up an awful lot of my time.
Now, three years later, with the movie finally in theaters, it seems like media outlets are tripping over themselves to cover every minute detail about both the production and the final product: Do the stars have chemistry? Do they secretly hate each other? What caused all of author EL James and director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s on-set fights? And, finally, is it any good?
MarkReads and the Case for Domestic Abuse
But while said outlets are dying to tell you whether or not Jamie Dornan’s accent was up to snuff (it wasn’t) or whether Dakota Johnson’s performance transcended the text (it did), many are shying away from what’s become a growing and troubling question surrounding the movie and the series it’s based on: Beyond the BDSM, beyond the helicopter rides and the dungeon of endless orgasms, is this just a story about domestic violence dressed up as kinky romance?
If you’d asked me back in 2012, I probably would’ve said no. That while Christian Grey is clearly a bit of a stalker, and while he seems creepily fixated on his girlfriend’s dietary habits, this is just the typical “rich prince comes to save the dowdy, virginal heroine from her humdrum life” trope.
I’ve since changed my mind.
Part of the trouble is that the books were so goddamn tedious and poorly written that it was easy to gloss over entire sections where the male romantic lead was saying and doing incredibly bizarre and abusive things — like tracking the phone of a woman he’d met about two days earlier to “rescue” her from a bar where she was slightly drunk, and then taking her back to his hotel room without her consent and undressing her, for instance.
What changed that was watching Mark Oshiro‘s (of MarkReads) increasingly critical and outraged reading of the text through his YouTube series this past January. Going through the book chapter by chapter, Mark does an excellent job of explaining to his audience the textbook ways in which Christian abusively grooms his virginal girlfriend into not just being a “submissive” in a sexual sense, but also into his ground-down, subservient slave outside of the bedroom as well. A quick disclaimer: While I do recommend Mark’s series wholeheartedly, I will advise that large parts of the book, and Mark’s interpretation of it, may be hugely triggering.
I do also want to note that I was aware that Jenny Trout did something similar years ago when the books first came out, and am embarrassed to say I didn’t read her genius summary at the time, but I recommend that as well to anyone who prefers reading over watching.
The Review: What the Fifty Shades Movie Might Be Trying to Say
In any event, I felt like my experience of the book had been completely re-shaped: Instead of making fun of Snowqueen’s Icedragon and her Twilight fanfiction, I instead found myself wondering how a story about a controlling billionaire douchebag and his timid, insecure college girlfriend was somehow accepted as a risque rom-com. But as the movie’s premiere drew closer, reports started bubbling up that the movie had managed to transcend the source material, and had ironed out many of the book’s problematic elements. By the time the reviews actually came out, the movie was mostly panned but it seemed like there was still a strange debate growing around the movie itself: Was it a straight adaptation, or was it trying to say something critical about its source material?
So yes — I gave in and watched it, and I came out of the film feeling that Sam Taylor-Johnson exposed the series for what it was: a story of domestic abuse at the hands of a narcissistic, insecure man-child.
Before I go much further, I need to stress that this doesn’t mean the movie is good. It’s extremely dull in some long stretches, and the sex is mostly passionless and uncompelling. On its own, particularly because of Jamie Dornan’s dead-eyed performance, it doesn’t work at any point as a romance or as a kinky sex romp. And yet the strange thing is that partway through the movie, I wondered if perhaps it wasn’t meant to be cute or sexy or raunchy or romantic. Because even though Christian’s stalker qualities are kept to a minimum, and even though he doesn’t throw nearly as many hissy-fits any time Ana dares to breathe, I would argue that director Sam Taylor-Johnson constructed a Trojan horse of a film that exposed its problematic elements slowly, building them over time into an ending that frankly felt like something better suited to a thriller than a frothy, lightly-erotic guilty pleasure.
The movie follows all of the book’s major plot points, which isn’t tough given that this story spans a two-week stretch of time where neither a billionaire nor a recent college graduate seem to need to be anywhere other than in bed with each other. But the movie does a better job of constructing it all into a coherent journey for Dakota Johnson’s character.
At the start, Ana is mousy, insecure, virginal, and constantly put-upon. You already know the bones of the story, but let’s go through them again:
Ana’s roommate Kate gets sick the day she’s meant to interview Christian Grey, enigmatic billionaire blah blah of some big company that does something. The movie capitalizes on the fact that Kate has sent her supposed friend in totally unprepared, and offers her no helpful advice or background information, but does take the time to mock Ana’s sloppy outfit right before she leaves the house (and can’t do anything about it). Ana drives to Seattle and interviews the young, sexy CEO of Whatevercorp and feels completely intimidated by him — but more because of her overall lack of preparedness, and his delight in making fun of the interview questions she didn’t even bother to read through; First they’re too mundane (“To what do you attribute your success?”) and then bizarrely invasive (“Are you gay?”). Finally, he tries to turn the tables on her and starts asking her about herself — what books does she like? Would she like to work for him? Why doesn’t she think she’d fit in among his army of robotic, slick-looking blondes?
While the audience is left feeling a little dry about all of this fairly mundane Q&A, Dakota Johnson plays Ana as completely overwhelmed and entranced, and the take-away is obvious: she isn’t used to people taking an interest in her, or treating her like she’s special. In that sense, it becomes easier to understand how she falls for a guy who effectively just spent twenty minutes negging her.
Once Ana gets home, her roommate is dismissively grateful, but more interested in teasing Ana for her obvious crush and stealing her lunch. Later, Ana’s mother calls her at work to tell her that, oh gosh, she just can’t make it to her graduation, but she understands, right? And both the unnamed guy that Ana works with at the hardware store, and her good friend and token minority, Jose, feel comfortable putting their hands on her or generally invading her space with little repercussion. They’re all small scenes, but the movie takes the time to draw your attention to them, and to underscore the idea that Ana’s used to people walking all over her and getting what they want with no resistance.
This is about as nuanced as the film gets because once Ana starts hopping on Christian’s helicopter, nearly all of the side-characters disappear. This set-up is enough, though, that you understand who she is at the start of the film and why it’s so easy for Whatevercorp to lure her into a situation she isn’t comfortable or happy with.
An Argument for Intentional Badness
Now for a level of conjecture that borders on reaching: I’m going to argue that Jamie Dornan’s much-derided stiff performance was intentional. By having him not come off as a smoldering leading man, but instead as an awkward, narcissistic man-child who’s too emotionally stunted to have a proper relationship (thanks in part to the fact that he was raped by one of his mother’s friends — yes, I’m serious), the movie instead reads as Ana slowly realizing that she hasn’t lucked out with the man of her dreams, but has instead fallen into a relationship with a dangerous, petulant, and disturbingly powerful man.
When she has a little too much to drink after her final exams, he “rescues” her, brings her back to his hotel room, undresses her while she’s unconscious, and then sleeps beside her — and looks confused when she seems alarmed by all of this. When she jokingly tries to tell him she’s not interested in his weird sex contract, he shows up in her room unannounced and uninvited so he can fuck her back to her senses. He sells her car without asking and buys her a new one, along with a new laptop and a cell phone — specifically so that he can contact her whenever he wants. And when she tells him she needs time to visit her Mother in Georgia and think about things, he shows up at the hotel bar that she and her Mother are drinking in, removes the cocktail from her hand and admonishes her for how many she’s had (because he’s been watching her the whole time — yes, actually). Oh, and Mother — who couldn’t put in enough effort to fly out to see her daughter graduate — is a huge supporter of this toxic relationship and encourages Ana to “follow her heart” and go after this obvious catch of a man. Because she’s the worst.
Again, none of these moments necessarily differ from the book, but the way the scenes play out leave them feeling less knight-in-shining-armor and more restraining order. Where a once shy, timid Ana is taken by his machismo, as the movie goes on she looks increasingly less pleased with his behavior. By two-thirds of the way into the movie, it’s obvious the tables have started to turn, leading into what is probably the best scene in the movie: the played-for-laughs sex negotiation. The two sit down in a dimly-lit boardroom to discuss his BDSM contract which dictates literally every detail of what he can and can’t do to her. She’s straight-forward in her demands, and her refusals, and effectively plays him like a fiddle. If he had any power or charm up to this point, it’s all but evaporated and she’s (mostly) in control now.
Warning: I’m About to Spoil the Ending
But by the end of the movie, it’s obvious that all of the neverending dungeon orgasms in the world can’t distract her from the fact that she wants a real relationship with a real boyfriend — not a guy who tells her when to eat, or buys her clothes without asking, or stalks her, or gets jealous when literally any guy is within five feet of her, and particularly not with a guy who seems obsessed with paddling her ass, regardless of whether or not it does anything for her.
And it’s that final note that the movie chooses to end on. Again, it’s the same ending as the book, but the intent feels very different. In the book Ana demands that Christian shows her how bad it can get so she knows whether or not she can handle it. He agrees and beats her ass with a belt (again, yes, literally), and she decides she’s just too gash-darned overwhelmed by his kinky world and flees. In the movie, however, the scene is played as Ana realizing that she just doesn’t want this — she doesn’t want to be with someone for whom beating a sobbing woman with a belt is a huge turn-on, and it will never be a turn-on for her to be beaten. The fact that she has to scream at him several times to stop following her out of the door, and that the last lingering shot is of her crying and of him looking confused, drives that final point home: she realizes that he’s not a kinky guy, but rather an emotionally-stunted abuser.
Now all of this is debatable, of course. It’s equally possible that no matter how hard you try to make this story seem romantic, watching a man beat the woman he ostensibly loves with a belt until she sobs and flees from his apartment is going to be a hard sell. But I still feel that instead of an erotic kinkfest, what Sam Taylor-Johnson wound up portraying was the story of a young woman who goes from feeling insecure, overlooked, and downtrodden to realizing that she has all of the power in the world to refuse things, and people, if she doesn’t want them. And in spite of the corny lines and stiff acting, given the source material, I’m willing to chalk that up to a victory in its own right.