Since its debut, the erotic thriller “Fifty Shades of Grey” has grossed over $300 million worldwide, garnering huge audiences and lukewarm reviews. An adaptation of E.L. James’ bestselling series, the film promises a steamy romance with elements of sadomasochism. Bondage, Discipline and Sadomasochism (BDSM) practitioners have already criticized the film for its misrepresentation of BDSM culture, citing the lack of mutual consent between Anastasia and Christian as a prime example. The film normalizes abusive or manipulative behavior in a culture where 43 percent of college men admit to employing coercive behavior to have sex with an unwilling woman, according to CrisisConnectionInc, a rape crisis center and hotline. Nothing in “Fifty Shades of Grey” is romantic. Nothing about it is even sexy, because the protagonist Anastasia is clearly uncomfortable with Christian’s obsession with rough and sometimes harmful sex. The film conflates manipulative behavior with affection and portrays non-consensual sex as an erotic thrill. The inherent message that love manifests in emotional and physical abuse influences millions of impressionable teenage girls worldwide into normalizing and accepting problematic behavior from future partners. Furthermore, the success of the film only encourages the already prevalent rape culture on college campuses, with women’s non-consent becoming a non-issue. Although the film shouldn’t be banned, we should make every effort possible to highlight the troubling power dynamics within the film and discourage any mentality that challenges a woman’s right to sexual consent.
From the very beginning, the film introduces an uncomfortable power dynamic between Anastasia and Christian. Ana is a young, naive, sexually inexperienced English undergraduate major and Christian is a young billionaire and CEO already familiar with the rougher aspects of BDSM. Accustomed to having everyone obey his every whim, Christian himself says that he “exercises control in all things” and begins to manipulate his way into Ana’s life. He stalks her at the hardware store in which she works, chastises her for her food habits and clothing and pursues her aggressively even after she explicitly refuses to sign a Dominant/submissive contract binding her to him. In one of the creepier moments of the film, Christian breaks into her apartment after she calls off their relationship, seeking to “remind” her of what she’ll be missing. Her decision to exit the relationship means nothing to him. Even if BDSM subscribes to sexual dominance and aggression, the fact remains that Ana never consents to become his submissive in the first place. Ana’s non-consent remains a fundamental problem in the film. Christian relegates her safety and personal desires to his own lust and propensity for violence. Glorification of abusive behavior in a film with such a wide outreach can potentially influence people into believing that manipulation and aggression are normal, even necessary, in a healthy relationship.
The film proceeds with Christian revealing more of his “darker” side, and Ana progressively becomes more alarmed and uncomfortable with his lifestyle. Ana’s desire for a regular, loving relationship and Christian’s refusal to emotionally attach himself to anyone cause tension in their relationship. Rather hypocritically, Christian refuses to enter into a romantic relationship with Ana, pursuing her sexually to satisfy his urges and blatantly ignoring her protests. Whenever she expresses her discomfort, he either coerces her into a sexual position or plies her with alcohol. By legal definition, many of the later sexual scenes in the film are depictions of rape. Although Ana does leave the relationship by the end of the film, plans for the sequel have already begun, in which Ana endures emotional and physical pain in hopes of changing Christian for the better. For Ana and Christian, BDSM serves as an obstacle to a fulfilling relationship, not as a path of sexual empowerment or of deeper emotional bonds. Ana certainly treats Christian’s sexual lifestyle as such; she despises it, but endures it for his sake in hopes that he’ll grow out of it. The story positions Ana as sexually submissive and self-sacrificing for the betterment of her partner, and thus promotes the idea that abusive partners can change to become caring lovers; in fact, this is a common reason why domestic violence victims don’t leave, according to Leslie Morgan Steiner in a 2012 TEDxRainier talk. The “endgame” of the books focuses around Christian giving up his BDSM lifestyle and emotionally attaching himself to Ana for the rest of his life. However, fantasy does not translate to real life, and glorification of abusive relationships in any form of media will only influence young girls into accepting and normalizing such behavior from their partners.
With heated debates all across the nation on campus sexual assault and consent, a film inundated with scenes of a man ignoring a woman’s protests only triggers a backlash against anti-rape campaigns on college campuses. Endorsing in the film even as a mere “fantasy” could falsely encourage college men into thinking that a woman’s consent remains unimportant. Already, a number of Ivy League educated men think it’s okay to chant “no means yes, yes means anal” on college campuses —even as a joke, the chant really reflects a culture in which 40 percent of college- age men believe that forcing sex on an intoxicated woman is acceptable, and one in 12 college men have admitted to raping or attempting to rape a woman on campus. Consent is and will always remain a difficult issue, but the glorification of non- consensual sex in “Fifty Shades of Grey” only encourages people to disregard consent altogether.
Photo Courtesy of Universal Studios