Abuse, or the Lack Thereof, in the 50 Shades of Grey Movie

A couple of disclaimers to start with: I have still not read the 50 Shades books, and I’ve read enough critiques of them from enough sources that I trust to not feel compelled to do so (I did my time with Twilight and The Da Vinci Code – I’m through reading crappily written novels).  I am happy to believe that the novels present Christian as an abusive stalker.  As such, this post relates wholly to the movie and makes no commentary on the books.

Second disclaimer:  I’ve seen the movie once, and I was a bit tipsy at the end of a fabulous day of helping a dear friend celebrate her birthday, so I may just have been more open to giving it a favourable reading.

Third disclaimer:  Contains plenty o’ spoilers.

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I’ve read several reviews of 50 Shades of Grey describing Christian Grey as an abusive, stalker-y fuckwit, and then seen a couple of comments from people insisting that while the books were awful, the movie didn’t in fact portray abuse.  After a fairly lively discussion with one of these people on Twitter, I was convinced to go see it and form my own opinion.

There were definitely some parts in which Christian came across as super creepy:

  • He turned up at the bar where Anastasia was celebrating the end of her exams with her friends, even though she hadn’t told him which bar she was at.
  • He showed up at her house – in her bedroom, even (presumably let in by her roommate, not breaking and entering, although this was not made explicit).
  • He arrived at the hotel where Anastasia was having drinks with her mother in Georgia, which was just about as far away from Seattle, where Christian was based, as it’s possible to get without leaving mainland USA.

In all of these instances, Christian was uninvited, and, yep, it was pretty creepy.  However, it’s not any more creepy than, say, the Prime Minister knocking on every door in Harris Street looking for Natalie, or Jamie travelling from London to Portugal to propose to a woman he’s never even had a conversation with, both in Love Actually.  The difference is that Anastasia expressed her displeasure and discomfort at these events rather than simpering and saying, “Aww, how sweet, let’s snog now.”  I am not saying that this makes Christian’s behaviour 100% A-OK, but I think the only thing that stops viewers as reading these actions as super-romantic is Anastasia’s reactions to them.  These were not the moments when she found Christian appealing, and, honestly, I’ll take that over the standard rom-com framing of these sorts of behaviours as totally sweet and adorable.

A scene which people have expressed some consternation at is the one in which Christian is unhappy that Anastasia is going to visit her mother in Georgia and that she hasn’t informed him of this.  I’m not going to lie: if my new partner casually mentioned over dinner with my parents that they were going to be flying across the country tomorrow and hadn’t mentioned it to me, I would have been pissed too.  Christian’s response is to make an excuse to get her alone (“I promised Anastasia a tour of the grounds”), and, when she complains that she can’t walk that fast in her heels, he throws her over his shoulder and spanks her ass a couple of times.  Now, they are already in a Dom/sub relationship at this point and Anastasia knows her safe words, so I don’t find this as hugely shocking as someone without any awareness of BDSM might.  However, it’s generally pretty frowned upon to strike someone in anger, even (especially?) if they are your submissive, so this is probably the most problematic part of the movie to me.  On the other hand, Christian’s subsequent tantrum – “You’re mine, all mine!” – came across as petulant and rather stood to underline that Anastasia is not in fact all his but still her own free agent who’ll go visit her mother if she damn well wants to.

Early in the movie, Christian expresses some jealousy over some of the men in Anastasia’s life.  However, Anastasia’s response to this is basically “Chill out, what’s your problem?” and Christian makes no attempt to suggest she should keep away from them.  In fact, I saw no evidence of Christian trying to isolate her from her friends or family at all.  Each time Anastasia asked to go home (which she was not shy about doing), Christian ensured she got home safely (it was necessary for Christian to ensure this when Anastasia was in a different city to the one she lived in and without her own transport).

Most importantly, Anastasia explicitly consented to every sexual act which occurred in the movie, and all but one of the BDSM scenes (the above-described fallout to Anastasia’s announcing she was going to visit her mother).  There is not even the vaguest suggestion of sexual assault in this movie.

Now some words about agreed-upon levels of control and excuses for punishment.  Some of the reviews I have read have expressed dismay about the level of control Christian seeks to exert over Anastasia’s life: she is to dress how he wants her to, see the doctor of his choosing to obtain contraceptives, not drink to excess, etc.  An important aspect of most Dom/sub relationships is, of course, the bondage and the spanking and flogging and blindfolds and all those accoutrements. There are various ways of framing this type of play.  Christian frames it as a punishment: he wishes to punish Anastasia for breaking rules.  This means it is necessary to create rules for Anastasia to break.  The night of Anastasia’s graduation, she rolls her eyes at Christian for some small reason.  Christian says, “If you roll your eyes at me again, you will go over my knee for a spanking.  Do you understand?”  Anastasia indicates that she does, and not five minutes later, she rolls her eyes at Christian again.  Over his knee for a spanking she goes – which is, of course, what Christian wanted to do to her all along (Anastasia is pretty happy about this too).  If Anastasia rigidly kept to all the rules Christian laid out for her, he’d never have an excuse to punish her.

On the flip side, a lot of Dom/sub relationships also include agreed elements of control outside of a BDSM scene – for instance, a Dominant selecting a submissive’s clothing for them.  My relationship has some of these elements, and yet you better believe that I still consider myself strong and independent.  It’s just a pleasing daily reminder of the sort of relationship we have in between full sessions (which are pretty impossible to conduct every day while still getting on with the rest of life).

And ultimately Anastasia has to negotiate and agree to these rules and thus is in control of the whole relationship, as beautifully illustrated by the scene where she discusses the BDSM contract Christian has written up.  He suggests they discuss it over dinner; she insists that the meeting is conducted formally in a meeting room.  She goes through the contract clause by clause, rewording any clauses she dislikes and making it clear which activities she is comfortable with and which ones she will not accept: “Genital clamps: absolutely not!”  So the bits about not drinking to excess and dressing how he wants her to dress?  Anastasia accepts finds these to be acceptable and agrees to them.

Make no mistake: this is not a good movie.  There is much about it which is preposterous, laughable and just plain bad – Christian is a 27-year-old billionaire head of a business empire; a plane, glider and helicopter pilot, and an accomplished pianist, for pity’s sake.  The portrayal of BDSM is not as awful as it could be, but there are some pretty terrible aspects.  Christian insists that he “has” to be a dominant because he is such a damaged fuck-up (“The woman who gave birth to me was a crack addict… and a prostitute,” he intones sombrely to the sleeping Anastasia, and the theatre bursts out laughing).  Also, kids, don’t use cable ties for bondage, be REALLY REALLY careful when using a flogger on the front of someone’s body, and six whacks with a leather belt is only slightly more intense than a kitten jumping on you.

I think the movie will be read completely differently by those with an understanding of BDSM than by those without, and it would have been more responsible of the film-makers to be clearer about the structure of Anastasia and Christian’s relationship – for instance, by clarifying that Anastasia finds the psychological aspects of their relationship as agreeable as the physical.

So, yeah, I’m not going to recommend 50 Shades as an awesome movie that everyone should rush out and see, but I find myself basically in agreement with those who say that it doesn’t portray abuse.