Alison Willmore: The film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey was an absolutely unsurprising hit before it ever reached theaters, setting ticket presale records and getting green-lit as a trilogy ahead of the book’s many, many fans actually getting to see it. It was also the source of much absolutely unsurprising advance controversy. But what I hadn’t expected when we published my review was an instant reaction from people who saw the central relationship between Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) as abusive in the books and were unhappy that it wasn’t being called out as such.
Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t exactly a feminist milestone, though the movie version of Ana felt like she had more agency and self-awareness than the book incarnation, at least as filtered through the scattered excerpts of it that I’ve read. But the film feels to me like a double fantasy. On one level, there’s its already notorious, if pretty damn mild, depictions of BDSM. And on another, there’s its emotional drama about being the focus of someone’s obsession — and it’s the latter that I feel more interested in (and conflicted about). But Kate, as someone who’s seen the movie and read the entire book, do you think “abusive” is an accurate way to describe the central romance?
Kate Aurthur: I’ll confess that I read Fifty Shades of Grey recently — like, uh, this week, actually — so when the waves of debate were happening about the novel after its release, I didn’t have an informed opinion. Now that I have read it, which I did after seeing the movie, I can imagine why people could have been uncomfortable with or actively denounce the Christian/Ana relationship as it was written. But in the movie? Unless you have a rule that sexual violence and inflicting pain during sex automatically means abuse — and there are people who feel that way — it not only strikes me as not abusive, but it’s a movie that fetishizes consent.
As opposed to every other movie ever, pretty much, the romantic leads have conversations about what they’re comfortable with, what sort of sex they like (it’s all new to her), and what they want from each other. Christian famously presents Ana with a contract he wants her to sign that would establish the boundaries of their relationship. Which she won’t sign! She leaves him in the end. So I’m flummoxed, Alison. Why are people fretting over Fifty Shades of Grey more than other movies where couples fall into bed and don’t have these sorts of conversations? P.S. I’m not ready to write it off as not being a feminist milestone!
AW: See, that’s the conflict that I think is at the heart of this: the feminist versus just feminine thing. Fifty Shades’s depictions of desire and being desired do feel crazily feminine to me in that distinctive way of fan fiction (which is the world from which the books came) or historical romances, which cater to female fantasy in a way that’s never, in my memory, been put on the big screen this way before. Compared to other standard studio fare, this movie might as well be in a different language. Consider David Edelstein’s line from his review in New York magazine: “With his fluffed-up hair and pert, pretty little face, Dornan’s Grey looks more like a natural bottom than a top.” Facepalm-worthy for multiple reasons, but most of all that Christian is not there with Edelstein’s interests in mind at all. It doesn’t matter if men like him.
Christian’s many icy facets reflect many different archetypes of terrible, irresistible dream lovers: the rich and famous type who can whisk you away from everything, the mysterious and emotionally wounded type in need of healing (all that late night piano playing!), the ultra-protective type who’ll drop anything to come get you, the person totally devoted and riveted by you. And, of course, the toppiest top who’s ever topped, who’s endlessly capable of and fixated on providing orgasms and doesn’t even need or want to be touched in return. The anger and scorn that’s being directed at the movie has to, at least in part, come from disappointment over such a major female phenomenon being so unabashedly indulgent and, in some ways, old-fashioned in its characters and depiction of romance. Ana may eventually come into her own in terms of the power dynamic, but she’s so intentionally unformed, the naïf who’s swept up by and tames the libertine. I don’t think there’s anything problematic in terms of sexual consent in the movie, though you might be able to make an argument in terms of Christian’s boundary-pushing outside the bedroom. But I think a lot of the distress precedes the movie and has to do with the book. Would you say their dynamic is different on the page?
KA: It’s really different. I read the comments section in your review. As with most internet comments, some of the writers were smashing you with a blunt instrument, in that not one of them has actually seen the movie, and I didn’t notice anyone acknowledging that perhaps the film — Kelly Marcel adapted the screenplay from E.L. James’ novel, and Sam Taylor-Johnson directed it — made significant changes. But a number of the commenters made true and well-expressed points about the book, in which Christian and Ana have a much more fucked-up dynamic.
Let me get specific: Christian is obsessed with Ana’s eating and trying to regulate it; he repeatedly tells her to stop biting her lip because it makes him lose control of himself (this lip biting is a reference to Kristen Stewart’s acting tic in Twilight, by the way); he is often angry at her and takes that out on her sexually and violently; and when she says “no,” he proceeds anyway — which is rape, even if in James’ depiction Ana is into it. There’s a disturbing bit early in the book when she’s debating with herself whether she wants to enter into the relationship he wants. She thinks, He’s dangerous to my health because I know I’m going to say yes. And part of me doesn’t want to. It’s not given more weight than that, but it’s a complicated idea, and I thought of it as I read the rest of the book: Part of me doesn’t want to.
But that isn’t how the movie is! In that context, though, things that the screenplay did keep — Christian showing up at Ana’s work, being able to track her to a club after she drunk-dials him, flying in uninvited when she visits her mother — are much creepier. He is clearly a stalker in the book. And it’s arguable that he is in the movie, too, even without the more disturbing (if not criminal) backdrop I described above. As our colleague Ariane Lange wrote, there aren’t examples of women acting in a romance like Christian does that don’t signify murderous mental illness.
But I’m going to put myself out there and say that I didn’t mind how he acted in the movie. She clearly can say no to him. And again, she does. I wish there were a way for us to ask the people who commented on your review to let us know whether they agree that the movie is quite different, and offers a corrective to the book. Maybe we’re going to be yelled at again, though.
AW: Oh, probably. And I’ll go ahead and invite more of it by saying that the film’s romanticizing of Christian’s obsession is actually my favorite part. There’s something so unfiltered and ill-advised about it, because obviously when someone who shows up at your work the next state over and pretends he was just in the area picking up some murder/bondage DIY items at the hardware store isn’t hot at all, it’s scary. But the movie keeps using these possessive gestures as evidence of the sway that Ana only gradually realizes she has over him. He tries to make rules to create distance in their relationship, she doesn’t agree to them, and he then breaks them himself. As Christian puts it, he can’t stay away from her, and I’ll admit it, I was charmed by the movie’s starry-eyed depiction of someone who’s fixated on control but is totally losing it because of love. It feels like such a reaction to a generally noncommittal or easily distracted world — Christian’s just consumed by Ana. Isn’t he a business mogul? Shouldn’t he be spending more time in the office?
Christian’s not the healthiest romantic fantasy, but I don’t know when that became a measure of escapism. Ana’s trickier — I’m frustrated and fascinated by the way the movie makes her such a (sometimes literally) passenger in the story. Her interview-cute with Christian is set up to emphasize how little about her is intentionally alluring. She wears a drab outfit, she’s quavering and uncertain, she falls down when going into his office. There’s supposed to be something swoony about how he becomes infatuated with her in spite of all these things, that there’s some ineffable appeal (which is probably more Twilight influence — didn’t Edward first fall for Bella because of her smell?), and that he sees something in her that no one else has before.
But Ana’s initial passivity seems, like her virginity, to be there to emphasize her blankness — there’s so little to her in terms of her personal history and her desires. With one notable exception: She enjoys the playroom activities Christian introduces her to without seeming to have any particular affinity for them. She’s fond of literature in a vague way. She has almost no post-college plans. She accepts Christian’s lavish gifts but doesn’t appear to like them. The movie makes wanting and pursuing things seem like an off-putting personality trait for a girl, and it’s bewildering. Kate, you mentioned Ana’s inner monologue, and the book’s written in the first person. Does the character feel significantly different in the movie as a result?
KA: Frankly, the movie benefits from not having Ana’s inner monologue, which is excruciating in the book. Her penchant for saying to herself, “Holy crap!” and “Holy shit!” has been well-covered, and I knew of that going in. I was less prepared for some other things that made me laugh out loud, like her thinking of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, “Damn, that woman was in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong century.” Ana is an about-to-graduate senior in college who has not only never had sex, she has barely kissed anyone, and has not masturbated — or even accidentally had an orgasm while asleep! She’s a blank-space heroine, which is a great description, if there ever were one. In fact, she’s practically a child.
And yet, as Johnson portrays her, I found her to be likable, sharp, forthright, and sane. Also, the movie is funny, which the book isn’t. Johnson and Dornan bring a knowing wit to their characters, as written by Marcel and imagined by Taylor-Johnson. It’s not winking or mocking. But this movie knows what it is.
I don’t mean to overly extol Fifty Shades of Grey’s virtues. But I want to echo the point you made in the kicker of your review. You wrote: “And even if the sex isn’t actually edgy, the movie’s presence in multiplexes might well be. After all, indulgent masculine fantasies, raunchy and otherwise, flood theaters every week. Seeing such an unabashedly indulgent feminine one burn up the box office? That feels gratifyingly audacious.”
It’s impossible to ignore how important that is. People have already started saying that there isn’t enough sex in the movie, or it’s too vanilla, or it’s just not hot, or it’s boring. It’s easy to make fun of this movie. But I’m going to remind everyone that there has never been a theatrical release like Fifty Shades of Grey before — a movie that is already a huge hit, and was made by a major studio, in which sex drives the plot — and it’s aimed at women. Ana has hesitations about Christian and his tastes, but it’s not because she’s ashamed; it’s because she wants more from him, and insists on it.
To the question of whether it’s hot, which is essential, I don’t really know what I thought — in part because I’m so not used to seeing a movie like this in a theater, and in part because I saw it with six (six!) co-workers. I’ll need to see it again to decide.
AW: Honesty, I didn’t find it all that hot, and I ultimately wouldn’t call it a good movie, though I don’t think it’s a bad one, either. For me, more than anything, it was fascinatingly different, this unexpectedly potent reminder of how many of the films I see each week are made for a supposedly broad audience by way of dudes. They’re mostly made by men, and they’re mostly about men, and that certainly doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy or relate to them, but when that’s the perspective from which so much cinema comes, you start to forget just how much is going unrepresented.
Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t ideal, but it doesn’t have to be — it’s just a step in a direction we need to keep shuffling toward, one in which stories about, for, and by women aren’t such an insane novelty. Maybe then a softcore, alternate-universe, BDSM take on Twilight won’t stand out so glaringly, because it’ll have company, other stories about other characters, better ones. Until then, I’m happy this movie exists — floggers, helicopters, and all.
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