On Valentine’s Day, Fifty Shades of Grey hit major theaters like a riding crop. Despite being among the many who abhor the premise of E. L. James’s bestselling novel of abusive male dominance, far be it from me to deny its fans’ fulfillments. But whether you see Shades the book as an abomination to women everywhere or a worthy instruction manual for couples wanting to spice the tepid gumbo of their sex lives, Shades the movie should frighten you. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s anticipated drama draws faithfully enough from its source text, following the sexual awakening of Anastasia “Ana” Steele at the hands of Christian Grey, a billionaire Adonis with a tragic past. Yet where the book is a fantasy crafted by a woman with women in mind, the film has only men and men’s standards in its crosshairs. In confronting viewers with explicit visual suggestions of how one should consume the exploits of characters better left to private imaginations, the film undermines any therapeutic potential they might have held.
For proof, one need only look at the film’s technical grammar. From its overwhelmingly gray palette (how many brain cells got freaky to make that cinematographic decision?) and overt phallic symbols (to wit: Christian’s towering office building and the monogrammed pencils on his desk, subject to the occasional suggestive close-up) to Ana’s incessant lip-biting (I stopped counting at 30 instances) and painless loss of virginity, the film’s pathos lends itself to effortless critique. Shades was filled with laughs—its makers didn’t take the film too seriously—but I’m willing to bet this was a calculated strategy to divert gazes away from the injurious messages at its core. It’s right there in the opening credits, over which Annie Lennox’s retread of “I Put a Spell on You” lays down the line: I put a spell on you because you’re mine. You better stop the things that you do. Christian may not be equipped with magic, but he has the next best thing: capital. During their first interview, Ana is as much attracted to his wealth and power—not to mention the rockin’ bod that seems to hug the skeleton of anyone in Hollywood with a few Benjamins to rub together—as to the broken child cowering beneath it all. Were it not for his rare combination of material assets, Ana would have no interest in Christian. His wealth “justifies” his abusive behavior.
Whatever the reason, a connection is born that neither of them is able to fight. Such is the film’s ridiculous attempt to justify all that follows: both are imperfect souls in a world brimming with them, and it’s all they can do to keep from trying to perfect each other. I get that. But as their relationship develops and the scent of their pheromones becomes too concentrated to sneeze out, a morbid game of give and take begins. Christian bids Ana to sign a detailed sexual contract that outlines his dominance and her submission in kind, while ensuring that love never enters the equation. Beyond the fact that even BDSM advocates have balked at this unrealistic premise (theirs, in fact, has been the most cogent denouncement so far), more troubling symptoms of gender bias lurk within.
Shades is a master class in heterosexism. This is obvious as early as the fateful interview, when Ana asks Christian if he is gay for the sole reason that he never goes out in public with a woman on his arm. In addition to confirming the stereotype that men and women think differently by sheer virtue of their biological divergence and that both must fit into predetermined roles, the question of Christian’s sexuality reinforces the notion that men—straight men—are insensitive by design. This double standard is clearest in the film’s treatment of the body at play. We can set aside the camera’s over-emphasis on Ana’s bare breasts and concealment of Christian’s penis—this is in keeping with the already sexist standards of what is permissible by the MPAA’s R rating. We can even ignore that only the exploits of the film’s most “beautiful” people matter—this despite the fact that on the page Ana’s roommate is described as “gamine and gorgeous,” while Ana struggles with her plain self-image.
What does deserve our attention is that Christian’s feelings matter far more than Ana’s in the film. Regardless of the intensity of any given sex scene, Ana never reaches orgasm on screen. While this might seem a clever way to avoid turning each of their encounters into a money shot, it puts a question mark above the goals of the characters involved. Furthermore, this downplaying of Ana’s pleasure has two unforgivable side effects. First, it brightens the spotlight on Christian’s needs. It’s no coincidence that he obtains the greatest and most obvious pleasure from Ana’s pain, as when he whips her with his belt in response to her demand that he dole out the most extreme punishment of which he’s capable. This incident moves Christian’s infatuation for Ana outside acceptable BDSM terms and into the realm of sexual sadism. Second, it proves that the fantasies put forth by the novel would crumble were they to be fully realized on screen. When he tells Ana, for example, “I don’t make love. I f**k. Hard,” one has to wonder how such a statement could be in any way alluring.
Whatever we may think of Christian’s physical attempts at capturing her for his prey, they’re nothing compared to the verbal tactics fed him by screenwriter Kelly Marcel. By its third iteration, his “It’s the way I am” mantra loses all effectiveness and imbues the proceedings with cheap desperation. The only function of that statement is to pave Ana’s submission as a path to his devotion. Yet the film supports a greater hypocrisy when their conversations turn to a family friend who made Christian his submissive from age 15 to 21. Christian reveals that this relationship was a healthy one for him, insofar as it freed him from the burden of responsibility at an impressionable age, and that they continue to be in regular contact. Ana grows jealous and condemns his “teacher” as a “child abuser,” even as she continues to pine for his increasingly violent affections. In contrast to the young Christian, Ana is inundated with responsibility, as he requires her to follow his every word, down to what she eats and drinks.
Though Shades the book has—affectionately, I might add—been called “mommy porn,” the film is more dangerous than pornography. In no uncertain terms, Hollywood’s capitalization on the book’s film potential is a mirror of the story’s gross sexual politics: a patriarchal moneymaking machine dominating a global market of feminized submissives without consent. Some would point out that, because the film was written and directed by women (even if Marcel’s script was tweaked by action veteran Mark Bomback, best known for The Wolverine), it’s somehow okay. Such an argument, however, smacks of reverse sexism and puts me in mind of Audre Lorde’s oft-quoted but rarely heeded prophecy: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In this case, the master’s tools—be they signs of wealth or the instruments of torture arrayed in Christian’s infamous “Red Room of Pain”—only intensify the questionable nature of his reformation.
None of the above criticism is about me being too cool for the story (and in case you’re wondering, I’ve read it). It’s about the ongoing sickness of equating male domination with female empowerment. Let it be known that at the end of the trilogy Christian admits to Ana holding all the power in their relationship, but that it requires him to speak said power into being before she can claim it for her own. He is the one who defines it. And if self-empowerment can only be had through abusive trust, at what point does real abuse begin? It’s a vague proposition, and one that recalls the kind of rhetoric recently spouted by Utah State Representative Brian Greene, who questioned whether or not sex with an unconscious person counts as rape. As any BDSM practitioner will tell you, trust grows not through blind submission, but in active and mutual participation. It’s about offering, not sacrifice. And if the end result of apparent love is self-gratification through the reinforcement of a dominant male fantasy, then we might as well throw away the last century of feminist progress along with one of Christian’s spent condoms.
All told, my biggest worry is neither that men will think this is what women want nor that women will think this is what they need. It’s that those who identify with neither Christian nor Ana will feel left out of the conversation, and that those who witness this homophobic nightmare will never think to question the outdated gender dichotomy on which its story depends.
If this is what love looks like, then I shudder to think what hate might look like.