In my opinion, both the book and the movie versions of “Fifty Shades of Grey” (originally “Master of the Universe,” a “Twilight” fan fiction penned by Snowqueens Icedragon, who has since adopted the pen name E.L. James) have generated far more attention, money, and drama than they’re worth. While I have not read the book, not doing so was an extremely deliberate decision. I did, however, out of morbid curiosity, read the entire “Twilight” series when it came out. Seeing as how “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer’s writing was the fountainhead for James’, which has since flown as freely and messily as so much blood during the graphic birth of Bella and Edward’s vampire child in the final installment of their series, I think the only fair way to assess the extremely controversial instances of sexism and abuse in the Fifty Shades of Grey film is by taking its reference material into account.
At this point in the news cycle we’re all probably acquainted with the plot of Fifty Shades of Grey, but just in case, it is as follows: Virginal, Vancouver dwelling, soon to be college graduate Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) travels to Seattle to interview twenty-seven year old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) on behalf of her sick roommate, Kate (Eloise Mumford). Shortly thereafter, the mysterious Mr. Grey begins alternating between expressing extreme interest in Ana and advising her to stay away from him. For example, Christian asks Ana out to coffee, only to change his mind shortly after they sit down and cut their date short. He then appears to have a change of heart once again, whisking her away in a helicopter on a night when she was probably expecting to go out with him without crossing state lines. As their relationship escalates, Christian begins to open Ana’s eyes to a whole new sexual world. He describes himself as a dominant, and shows her a secret room in his home filled with sex toys and restraints designed to elicit both pleasure and pain. He also shows her a separate room in his apartment where she is to stay when she visits him, as cuddling and sleeping together are not part of the deal for Christian who, as he tells Ana early on, does not conventionally date or make love but fucks . . . hard.
While overwhelmed at first, Ana seems amenable to learning about Christian’s way of life. However, Christian says he will not touch her until he has her written consent, and presents her with an extremely detailed contract outlining what the conditions of their relationship — with him in a dominant role and her, submissive — would be. Though Ana does not immediately sign the contract, she continues corresponding with and seeing Christian anyway, who shows her the ropes, in more ways than one, of the first sexual relationship she has ever entered. When Ana graduates college, Christian reveals that he has sold her charming vintage car and replaced it with something new and flashy. When she goes to visit her mother in across the country, in Georgia, Christian unexpectedly appears at the bar where she and her mother are having drinks.
Eventually, Ana confronts Christian about his desire to punish her, asking him if he would still want to do so if she told him that she feels the same way about punishing her as he feels about her affectionately touching him. In response, Christian says that while, no, he would not want to, he would need to. Ana then asks Christian to show her how bad such punishments can get. He obliges, and soon the two of them are in Christian’s playroom, Ana bent over and completely naked and Christian, fully clothed. He says he is going to hit her — that is the word that is used — six times, and that she is going to count. He then selects a tool and gets to work. As Ana counts to six, it is clear from Christian’s face (by far, the most animated Jamie Dornan’s acting gets in the entire film) that he is getting off. At the same time, Ana becomes increasingly more upset. By the time he is finished she is crying, and when he reaches toward her, she jumps back, says he better not touch her, and leaves.
The next scene finds Ana in her room in his apartment, awake and crying, clearly wanting to be left alone. Christian comes into the room and beseeches her not to hate him. The dialogue that follows is so indicative of the reality of many domestic violence relationships as to warrant a trigger warning at the beginning of the scene. Ana appears to be apologizing for her own shortcomings (which again, in this case, literally mean not taking a beating well) and Christian alternates between half apologizing and implying that he is unlovable, a technique employed by many abusers to make their partners feel obligated to be there for and save them.
In the morning, Ana wakes to find Christian waiting for her in the main room of his apartment. She asks for her car back, but, seeing as how he has already sold it, the best he can offer her is a check for the money he received from its sale. Ana starts to leave and, when Christian follows her, she shows the most strength her character has all film, by firmly saying “No!” as if he is a misbehaving dog. Then she gets into the elevator, and the movie ends.
While that final sequence literally left me shaking in the theater, the rest of the movie is granted a necessary amount of levity by Ana’s playful dialogue and the endearing way Dakota Johnson portrays her. The budget for this movie was clearly massive, some of the clothes are gorgeous, and the heavy handed gray aesthetic is certainly present, but otherwise, aside from it’s subject matter, this is an extremely boring film.
It is also objectively impossible to watch Fifty Shades of Grey — especially its terrifying ending — and see the relationship between Christian and Ana as anything other than abusive. Regardless of whether not that is what original author E.L. James, screenwriter Kelly Marcel, or director Sam-Taylor Johnson (all of whom are women) were going for, that is just what it is. Period. Intent is not impact, just as the relationship between these fictional characters — who, again, were originally based on other fictional characters — is not love. Stalking a woman, kidnapping her, and stealing her car are not romantic things. They are the sick and twisted actions of a sick and twisted man; something that, by his own admission, Christian clearly is.
This inescapable fact has often been cited as negatively stigmatizing members of the BDSM (the blanket term for sexual practices including bondage, submission, domination, sadism, and masochism) community, due to its inherent implication that, in order for someone to display the sexual proclivities that appear to control Christian’s entire emotional life, they have to be like Christian, who blames his sexual style on his molestation as a child. While this is certainly false, it is interesting to note that there is a school of thought which holds that engaging in dom/sub role playing can be therapeutic for those who have been the victims of sexual abuse in the past. The rationale behind this belief is that a healing pedagogical function can be served by re-creating a situation in which one once felt powerless under new conditions where they have complete control and the ability to stop the roleplaying at any time.
Whether or not this belief is universally true, or true at all, it does bring up something this is absent in Fifty Shades of Grey: Mutual consent and the submissive partner’s immutable right to say no. While Christian does give Ana a contract that mentions safe words and frequently verbally warns her about his desires, Ana neither signs the contract nor seems allowed to say no to Christian, inside the bedroom or out. In fact, one of the many times that he emails her asking if she’s read through the contract and “done her research” perfectly exemplifies his inappropriate unwillingness to do so. Ana playfully responds to his email by saying “Nice knowing you.” Rather than chuckle to himself and say something flirty back or contact Ana to find out whether or not she was joking, Christian travels from Seattle to Vancouver and breaks into Ana’s house, where he proceeds to, in his words, remind her how “nice” he is.
This, along with other things Christian does, like track her phone to find the bar where she is out with her friends so he can take her to his hotel room and undress her while she is unconscious (or, at the very least, blackout drunk), or track her phone to follow and find her in Georgia, or steal, sell, and replace her car without so much as consulting her first, are not romantic. They are not “dominant.” What they are, however, is fan fiction.
If you keep in mind the fact that Christian Grey is supposed to be Edward Cullen, his bizarre behavior can be explained (not excused, explained) as not the actions of an abusive man, but the necessary lifestyle of a teenage vampire. This is the only way I can attempt to understand the obsession millions of readers and viewers apparently have with Ana’s abuser.
Edward is hot and cold with Bella because he loves her. He pushes her away in order to protect her from himself. This is because, again, Bella is a human. Edward is a vampire. Vampires kill people. Edward and his family try their best not to kill people. Ergo, as much as Edward is attracted to Bella and, actually, for the exact same reason that he is attracted to her (she literally smells good enough to eat), he needs to try to keep her away from him. If he doesn’t, he could literally hurt or kill her. There is a reason why Meyer wrote “and so the lion fell in love with the lamb.” Lions and lambs are different creatures, one of which is a predator, and one of which is prey. In fantasy, vampires are predators, and humans are prey. In real life, human beings should not be prey to other human beings. It is extremely unfortunate that, sometimes, they are. When a human feels a need to hurt or kill another human, that is not romantic. That is not attractive. That is not BDSM, and it cannot be justified the same way a fantastical supernatural romance for a young adult audience can.
A relationship in which someone is aroused by their partner’s desire to actually hurt or kill them — not play act, not be kinky in a fun and consensual way — should not have the wide following that “Fifty Shades of Grey” does, and this is, without a doubt, the kind of relationship this movie exemplifies. Christian specifically tells Ana that he is only interested in “BDSM” because he was “seduced” (read: sexually abused) by an older woman, starting when he was a minor and continuing for six years. Edward Cullen was also a minor when an older individual transformed him into a vampire. Edward and Bella cannot become physically intimate with each other due to Edward’s potential, as a vampire, to get carried away and mortally wound her in the process. Because of this, the two of them go back and forth regarding whether or not he is going to turn Bella into a vampire, like him, which will be a painful process, but one that she will ultimately learn to embrace, like he did centuries ago. In Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian harasses Ana about agreeing to become his submissive, the way that he was submissive to his molester many years earlier, which will also be a period of painful adjustment for her.
All of this is to say that Edward’s actions and motivations, which are also creepy, can be explained (not excused!) by the fact that he is a vampire. The only possible excuse I can bring myself for make for James’ writing is that, in attempting to stay true to her source material, she unintentionally wrote (as Ana guesses in the movie) a sadist, not (as Christian corrects her) a dom.
Now let’s return to Christian telling Ana that even though he would not want to punish her if he knew it was not leading to any sexual gratification on her part, but actual pain, he would still “need” to. That is not BDSM. That is an uncontrollable desire to cause other people pain. Such is the stuff of horror movies, not chick flicks. Period. Christian Grey is an abuser, Anastasia Steele is his victim, and the only way this movie could be justified is if it was the only one made out of the trilogy, due to the fact that it ends with Ana standing up for herself and heading in the exact opposite direction as Christian; something we would all be fortunate to do when faced with a repugnant predator like him.