During the summer of 2012, it wasn’t out of the ordinary to spot a middle-aged soccer mom alongside her 20-year-old daughter both reading the same romance novel on an airplane. In fact, E.L James’ erotic romance trilogy became so ubiquitous over a span of a few months that it was almost commonplace. Topping several national best-seller lists and selling over 100 million copies worldwide, James’ Fifty Shades of Grey became a national phenomena. Known for its material on bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism (BDSM), the film adaptation of the book came to theaters this weekend just in time for Valentine’s Day.
Fifty Shades of Grey is about more than just sex, however. The series has come under fire as several critics and domestic violence groups have derided the novels for glorifying a manipulative and emotionally abusive relationship.
And by abuse, they don’t simply mean BDSM. In fact, the film’s disregard for boundaries has incited more backlash than its depiction of BDSM. By domestic abuse, they mean the controlling and emotionally manipulative way that Christian monitors everyday aspects of Ana’s life.
When billionaire CEO Christian Grey first meets Anastasia Steele, he immediately becomes obsessed with her. He follows her to her workplace unannounced, tracks her cell phone and confronts her on the street, and lets himself into her bedroom without any warning or notice. Nearly every interaction between Ana and Christian is marked with emotional abuse, including stalking and intimidation.
When they begin dating, Christian quickly assumes control of all aspects of Ana’s life. He sells her car and purchases a new one that he approves of, tells her what clothing she is permitted to wear, controls what doctor she sees and contraceptives she takes, and monitors her eating habits—all without her permission or consent. Christian solely dictates when they will meet and how affectionate they will be with each other. He also threatens to end all contact with Ana if she discloses the nature of their relationship to her friends and family, essentially isolating her from her loved ones. When Ana defies his rules by scheduling a trip with her family without his permission, she sparks his violent outrage (“You are mine. All mine. Do you understand?”)
At the same time, severe childhood abuse renders Christian emotionally distant and unable to form relationships outside the context of abuse. When Ana reaches out to him, she doesn’t know if he’s going to be receptive or cold—he is kind to her one minute and pushes her away the next. This inconsistently keeps Ana under his control and fuels the belief that women can somehow change an abusive man and make him love her back. By this same regard, Christian occasionally showers Ana with expensive gifts and takes her on lavish trips and helicopter rides, all for the sake of convincing her to sign a BDSM contract stipulating sexual domination and lack of romantic love. These grand gestures lack any emotional depth and reinforce the belief that sexual control over women can be bought with extravagant gifts.
The most unsettling aspect of Fifty Shades of Grey has nothing to do with BDSM or poor writing, but the fact that an emotionally abusive relationship was marketed as a sexual fantasy and Valentine’s Day fun. The BDSM angle has always been a thinly-veiled smokescreen to Christian’s complete manipulation of Ana outside of the bedroom. He takes advantage of a sexually inexperienced woman by forcibly removing her independence and making her solely dependent on him. By placing an abusive relationship under the context of a handsome, charismatic billionaire, the film portrays a man who uses his inexplicable wealth and broken childhood as someone who needs to be “fixed” and deserves our sympathy.
While I will defend the rights of fans to watch and enjoy this film and reject decisions made by libraries and bookstores to censor the series, Fifty Shades of Grey ultimately passes off negative gender expectations and domestic abuse as positive sexual empowerment. The problem with Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t BDSM but rather the fact that it lacks self-awareness of the manipulative emotional abuse perpetrated by its titular character. This February, don’t see Fifty Shades. Save the $12 and buy yourself cheap boxed wine and some chocolate.
Featured Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures