Watching 50 Shades of Grey at my local cinema offered a somewhat prescient and serendipitous beginning. The trailer which preceded the movie was for The Boy Next Door, a film about a man who stalks, threatens and emotionally blackmails a woman, whilst coercing her into sex. A truer representation of the film which followed it, there could not be.
50 Shades has been portrayed as a love story which has BDSM as central to its narrative. I disagree. The sex, kinky or otherwise, is actually irrelevant. This film, like the books, is solely about power – specifically, of a man having it and a woman not. It uses BDSM as a inaccurate metaphor to drive the story, but the sex is just a distraction for what is at its heart: an abusive relationship. 50 Shades is not about kink, but about control.
Let me be clear: Christian Grey is a stalker. An aggressive, jealous, controlling man. He is someone who, after meeting Anastasia Steele once, finds out where she works and shows up there unannounced; discovers her private home address and sends gifts to her; tells her to stop drinking when she is out celebrating her graduation; traces her cell-phone and turns up at the bar she is at. These are not romantic acts, they are abuse red flags.
Later, Grey breaks into Steele’s new apartment (the address of which she did not give him); he inserts himself into the group of friends she is with at her graduation show and demands she is photographed with him; he turns up at the hotel bar that she is drinking at with her mother and insists he is introduced as her boyfriend. Grey gives Steele no escape from these situations and she is forced into accepting his presence in them.
I had hoped that director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel would remove the books’ abusive storyline and give Steele more agency, but the only place she has that is in the playroom – the place where Grey stores all his kink tools. In there, she is able to order him “don’t you dare come near me”, and he abides by her wishes – but outside of their sexual activities, she has no power at all, and he violates her boundaries over and over again.
This despicable behaviour has nothing to do with BDSM. Ironically, the most consensual activity that takes place in the film is the sex. Clearly, Taylor-Johnson had decent BDSM consultants: the sex scenes are carefully considered and show both kinky and non-kinky activities to be sensual, respectful and realistically portrayed. It was also refreshing to see female pleasure as the central focus, not just in Steele’s obvious enjoyment, but in the framing of the sex and the camera resting on Dornan’s physique in such an erotic and titillative way. (Though it’s worth noting that even with an 18 rating we still don’t get to see his penis).
Yes, it is positive to have films which openly position female sexual desire at the core. Yes, it’s a good thing that we get to see a woman enjoy sex (albeit in a submissive role, not a dominant one, so that sexist double standard is still intact). Yes, it’s nice that consensual BDSM can cross into the mainstream and be considered an enjoyable activity, rather than weird.
But beautifully-shot, female-gaze-oriented sex scenes do not excuse a storyline which allows a man to completely abuse and violate a woman’s boundaries and privacy. The fact that Grey is dominant in the bedroom has nothing to do with his need to control and manipulate every aspect of Steele’s life. The conflation of these two things is what makes this film (and the books) so critically problematic.
It is not acceptable for a man to stalk a woman, harass her, and to drive a wedge between her and her friends and family. Showering a woman with expensive gifts does not make it okay that a man can break in, then hide in her home waiting for her. Emotionally manipulating, then harassing, a woman to agree to a man’s relationship terms (or have no relationship at all) is not, in any sense, alright. All good relationships are built on respect, trust and consent and this one contains none of that. Grey’s abusive behaviour is excused, because he is “a dominant”, as if enjoying a sexual kink removes the need for a man to be a decent person too.
The film will undoubtedly be as successful as the books, with sold out screenings all over the globe. But as much as I want to applaud a movie written and directed by women, I can’t condone one which idealises male power and emotional abuse as something seductive and sexy. They’re not. With the kinky-sex as a saucy distraction, the central message of this film – that it’s okay for men to control and manipulate women – remains unquestioned, and that’s not just bad, it’s dangerous.