Some thoughts on Fifty Shades of Grey














Another weekend, another smash-hit movie that various guardians of culture have decided that no one should like because it’s “bad” — that is, wrong.

Last Tuesday, the reviews for Fifty Shades of Grey were at 76% “Fresh” at Rotten Tomatoes. It’s now Sunday and that percentage has dropped an astonishing 50 percentage points. What happened between Tuesday and Sunday? I have no idea, besides “more critics saw the movie,” but I get the feeling that the early reviews saw the movie for what it is, and the later ones felt a need to conform to a critical “consensus.” The consensus, in this case, is that a movie like Fifty Shades of Grey is “bad for us.” Most of the bad reviews I’ve read tell me nothing about the movie and everything about the reviewer. They worry that the movie is bad for women, bad for romance, bad for sex. They say that the movie doesn’t represent sex as they understand it, doesn’t represent their ideal of love, doesn’t represent their high-minded notions of what culture should represent. They sniff in disdain about the gutter origins of the project (it began as Twilight fan fiction), as though that had anything to do with its quality as a movie.

Very few of the complainers actually discuss what the movie is, only (as many of the same did with American Sniper) what it is not. It’s a good thing that people are arguing about movies, since movies haven’t felt relevant in a long time, but the charges being leveled against Fifty Shades sound ludicrous to me.

I’m told that it should be boycotted because it glorifies domestic abuse. I’m told that it should be boycotted because it misrepresents the BDSM community. I’m being told that it should be boycotted because it “perpetuates the cultural narrative that women’s entertainment is bad.”

For those at all curious, I can tell you that the movie Fifty Shades of Grey glorifies domestic abuse only insofar as it is a drama about what I suppose one could describe as an abusive relationship. Yes, it is that. So is La Femme Nikita, My Fair Lady and A Streetcar Named Desire. The fact that a movie dramatizes a mode of human behavior does not make it an endorsement of  that behavior. Drama isn’t there to make nice. Quite the opposite, drama exists to plumb the depths, to bring things up to the light of our consciousness. Women — that is, people — enter into abusive relationships all the time. Should those relationships remain undramatized? It is not drama’s job to educate or edify, it’s is drama’s job to entertain and enthrall. Lots of people are enthralled by the relationship of Anastasia and Christian, and they are, say the critics, “wrong” to do so. The drama speaks to them, tells them something about themselves that they cannot experience in any other way. It’s not a Sunday School class or an “issues drama” or a women’s-health-center pamphlet, it’s a romance that explores some of the most thrilling, disturbing recesses of the human psyche, why would an audience not be enthralled?

Even some of the “good” reviews, I find, hold their noses and say “Well, obviously would not fall for such nonsense, but if you enjoy this sort of thing, do go.” Why, in 2015, are we still having this high-culture/low-culture argument? If a movie works, why must it still be held at arm’s length?

Does the movie misrepresent the ideals of the BDSM community? Yes, it does. And it does so knowingly. In fact, it’s one of its big plot points: the male lead, Christian, expresses himself in the language of BDSM but doesn’t really understand the lifestyle. He uses it to exert control over his sex partners but takes it too far; he uses it to punish Anastasia for things that are wholly within his head. She knows that’s wrong, and the movie knows that that’s wrong, and says so. Again, it is not a Fifty Shades‘s job to accurately represent the BDSM community, any more than it’s American Sniper‘s job to accurately represent the “true life story” of Chris Kyle.

BDSM, I’d say, is really only a metaphor in Fifty Shades for control. Christian is a fabulously powerful and wealthy young man who feels tiny and helpless, so exerts control over everything he interacts with. He attempts to tie Anastasia down (figuratively), wooing her with flexes of power and romance, she’s intrigued but recoils at his overly-controlling nature and slips away, he applies himself toward controlling her more, she is again intrigued but ultimately recoils, and so forth. Whenever I’m given a fantasy project to adapt, the first thing I like to do is remove the metaphor and see if the story still works. Remove the BDSM metaphor from Fifty Shades and the drama still works.

The third point I find the most baffling, that because Fifty Shades is “so bad,” that now “women’s entertainment” will be forever branded as “bad,” that resources will no longer be allocated for serious women’s movies, that female-driven pictures will forever be ghettoized and stigmatized as part of the culture’s self-perpetuating cycle of women being second-rate citizens.

I don’t know where to start. Fifty Shades of Grey is, if nothing else, an immaculately produced motion picture. Every care has been taken to make it a first-class production. The director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, has done a fantastic job, in ridiculously adverse circumstances, under incredible pressure of expectations, to elevate the source material. The screenplay, by Kelly Marcel, does a terrific job of creating a kind of hard-edged fantasy world for these two characters to perform their odd little dance of control. The lead, Dakota Johnson, does a heroic job of infusing her character with a giddy, frightened, delighted and appalled inner life. The script requires her to go from virgin to sex-slave in nothing flat and she makes every degree of the experience palpable.

And guys? I’m here to tell you, I’ve seen a lot of bad movies. I’ve seen a lot of bad movies in 45 years of moviegoing. I’ve seen a lot of bad movies this calendar yearFifty Shades of Grey doesn’t come anywhere near “bad movie.”

The fact of Fifty Shades‘s spectacular weekend is not going to mean that all women’s movies will now be considered beneath comment, or will be ghettoized. If anything, the boardrooms of Hollywood tomorrow will be filled with executives demanding for their underlings to “find the next Fifty Shades.” A romance franchise that prints money, that does Marvel business on a $40 million budget? There is no studio executive that looks down their nose at that.

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2 Responses to “Some thoughts on Fifty Shades of Grey
  1. This is the best 50 Shades of Grey article I’ve read so far. And I liked what The Onion and The New Yorker had to say about it a lot, as well. Also really glad to read something that gives Kelly Marcel the credit she deserves. She’d also scripted Saving Mr. Banks, a movie I just loved and that, incidentally, was another portrayal of a control freak with under processed childhood trauma issues.

  2. Chris says:

    Todd says: “Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t come anywhere near “bad movie.”

    I was perusing the site and caught this. I’d agree, it isn’t a bad movie, but it isn’t a very good one either. Regardless, one readily anticipated that critics were going to rip it to bits in grand bandwagon style no matter what the final product looked like. (I give A.O Scott of the NYT credit for maintaining a posture of amused indifference – as though it would be too easy to rip it apart, so why not give the movie a little credence as if it actually had something to say about sex.). Yes, I suppose the film could be likened to dramas about the abuse of women (Streetcar, My Fair Lady, et al) but I don’t take that seriously for a moment. Wearing its rather bland notion of naughtiness on its silk sleeve, the movie is far too exhibitionistic in its well-appointed, boutique spectacle of said “abuse” to presume there’s even an iota of genuine criticism or condemnation. The movie aspires to be little more than a smutty Hallmark greeting card. It may be the thought that counts, but I would suggest it put more thought into fantasies of décor, couture and consumerism than anything about women’s issues.