In the interest of transparency, I have never read E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey series. One night, as I roamed a Borders bookstore before the company ceased operations in 2011, I picked up a copy of the first book and skimmed through. I’ve read pieces that are excerpted in essays.
Likewise, I’ve never seen any of the film adaptations, because contributing money to the franchise — let alone actually sitting through it — seems counterintuitive to every single one of my beliefs.
Based on the numerous critiques of the Fifty Shades series, this series is a trash fire of poorly-written, poorly-executed romance. In the last seven years, critics and fans alike have debated heavily whether Christian and Ana’s relationship — that of a dom and his sub, a traditional BDSM pairing — is a good or bad representation of kink.
James’ best-selling trilogy — now a series of box office-dominating movies starring Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson — was initially Twilight fan fiction. James’ series was ahead of the “professionally published fan fiction” curve. Fifty Shades became a sensation before Wattpad authors were collected in anthologies and before publishing companies sent out solicits for fan fiction authors who wanted to produce young adult fiction.
Fifty Shades (and its accompanying criticism) also hit stores well ahead of the Time’s Up movement, which found its origins in Tarana Burke’s #MeToo campaign. The hashtag began trending late last year after Alyssa Milano tweeted it following the wave of allegations against Harvey Weinstein, setting off a veritable tsunami of similar accusations from people (mostly women) all over the world, in every industry.
Now, as the final film in the Fifty Shades trilogy hits theaters, powerful men who’ve abused their power to manipulate women into performing sexual acts are facing a reckoning. This is, perhaps, the first time in memory that so many men have been fired from their jobs, publicly shamed, or otherwise punished for rape and sexual abuse.Now, as #FiftyShadesFreed hits theaters, powerful men who've abused their power to manipulate women into performing sexual acts are facing a reckoning. #MeToo #TimesUp Click To Tweet
Given that most of the discourse surrounding Fifty Shades is centered on the argument that Christian and Ana’s relationship is abuse, the release of Fifty Shades Freed in this media climate feels ill-timed.
Simultaneously, it doesn’t. The franchise has been criticized for years for conflating abuse with BDSM, which not only shines an inaccurate light on the kink community but also does incredible damage to the millions of women who view Christian and Ana’s romance as some kind of ideal. Maybe now, people will finally start to hear those criticisms, and examine them, rather than just writing them off.
Romance novels — and films — should explore women’s sexuality
There’s no question about one thing: James’ Fifty Shades has opened up discussion about the importance of romance novels for women to explore sexuality, including kink. It’s launched conversation about BDSM into the mainstream and given many people the tools and the language to talk about things they want more of, in their fiction as well as their bedrooms.
However, the relationship portrayed in Fifty Shades isn’t BDSM. According to critics, the communication, trust, emotional maturity, and consent that are integral to healthy BDSM are completely missing from the series.
BDSM expert Mistress Couple, the headmistress of a BDSM training chapeau in the Berkshires called La Domaine Esemar, told People prior to last year’s Fifty Shades Darker cinematic release that she has never been able to sit through a full book or movie from the series because of the “abusive aspects.”The relationship portrayed in #FiftyShades isn't BDSM. Click To Tweet
These relationships should be between two equal partners, who are operating on the same level of understanding of BDSM, what it involves, and what they want to give and receive from each other.
In the Fifty Shades trilogy, Christian grooms Ana to become his submissive and then has her sign a contract detailing what she can and cannot do. Some things, she negotiates, but ultimately, everything is on Christian’s terms. His control is entirely determined by him, and she doesn’t have the knowledge or the confidence to speak up for herself.
That’s not romance. It’s not BDSM, either. It’s just abuse masquerading as kinky sex — and you can (and should, if you’re into it) have the latter without having to endure the former.
Anastasia Steele belongs to the #MeToo movement, too
Remember that Babe.net article that reported the experience of a young woman (known publicly as “Grace”) who said Aziz Ansari repeatedly pushed her to have sex with him after she repeatedly said no? Remember how it launched a ton of conversation about how to report those stories, but also what “bad sex” looks like, and how tons of people had to reframe their own experiences in light of this person identifying hers as assault?
When we talk about enthusiastic consent, we have to talk about these experiences, because they are all too common. When someone is pushed into doing something they don’t want to do, or when they don’t feel comfortable saying no, they end up with stories just like Grace’s.
According to everything I’ve ever read about Fifty Shades, Ana Steele has several of these moments in her relationship with Christian, especially at the beginning. I think — and maybe I’m wrong — that if Ana Steele read Grace’s story, she would have a hard time not re-contextualizing her life in its words.
In the Fifty Shades Freed trailer, Ana does seem to be coming into herself more. However, that confidence also seems to bloom from the fact that she’s now Christian’s wife, no longer just his submissive girlfriend. There are legal ties that bind them, and the capitulations he makes in the trailer — like admitting that he should have asked if she wanted him to buy them a house before he did it — feel flimsy, because he’s always had the power in their relationship.I think — and maybe I'm wrong — that if Ana Steele read Grace's story, she would have a hard time not re-contextualizing her life in its words. #MeToo #FiftyShades Click To Tweet
Being married doesn’t change that, perhaps especially for Mrs. Grey.
Especially in the midst of Time’s Up, we have to put our money where our mouths are
As I said above, the Fifty Shades series has opened up mainstream media conversation about kink, romance novels, and more. In some ways, it’s been really good for women’s fiction, including for fan fiction authors trying to make their way to being published authors writing the kind of romance that sometimes can only find a home online.
However, the small bit of good this series has done absolutely does not outweigh the harm it’s perpetuated.
In the wake of #MeToo and Time’s Up, we should strongly reconsider pouring money into a film that portrays abuse as somehow romantic, desirable, or equivalent to safely-practiced BDSM. Hollywood pursues the projects that make money, which means that we — as media consumers — need to be highly conscious about the money we spend, what we spend it on, and what kind of message that sends.
I fully support the desire for romance films that show enjoyable sex, whether it’s super vanilla or super kinky — but the basis of it should always, always be enthusiastic consent. I’m tired of seeing rape, assault, and abuse disguised as “rough sex” or “kink.” Give me fully liberated characters who communicate about what they want, how they want it, when they want it, and where.
We should demand better of the films we see to scratch that itch — for ourselves as well as future generations.
If Christian Grey were a real-life millionaire behaving the way he does toward Ana Steele, I highly suspect he would have had his reckoning already.
So why pay to watch him treat her like his toy?