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.

*****

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.

On the Manifold Crimes of “Love Actually”

Let me preface this post by saying that Love Actually is probably my greatest guilty pleasure movie. I love Love Actually. I still watch it a couple of times a year – always at Xmas and whenever I need to have a good cry. It’s the movie I can rely on to have me weeping within the first five minutes, but smiling by the end of it.

However, that’s not enough to forgive it its sins, and there are many.

Let’s start with a little one.  Jamie and Aurelia: their love story is framed as a triumph of the heart over the mind.  Love is bigger than culture or language, and it will always find a way. RUBBISH! Their love is unbelievably shallow. The only conversation they’ve actually had when they agree to marry is the conversation in which Jamie proposes marriage. THIS IS NOT THE FOUNDATION OF A LASTING RELATIONSHIP.

Also, Jamie attends Peter and Juliet’s wedding, which is portrayed as being at the start of the Xmas season. He pops home to find his girlfriend providing clothes-free entertainment to his brother, goes to Portugal, writes a novel, comes home, learns Portuguese, returns to Portugal (and all the while Aurelia is learning English) and proposes marriage – all before Xmas. No one learns another language that quickly! NO ONE! (And can we say “rebound”?)

A little less flippantly… This is a film which purports to be about the wonders of love in all its forms: traditional rom-com staple romantic love (Jamie and Aurelia, the Prime Minister and Natalie, John and Judy), the giddy crush on your older boss (Mia), the wavering love of a long-term couple (Karen and Harry), unrequited love (or is it?) (Mark), childhood crushes (Sam), even love for one’s mates (Billy Mac and Joe) and sibling love (Sarah).  However, there is no space for a single non-heterosexual storyline amongst all this. Not a one. Not only that, but homosexuality is played for laughs: In one of the movie’s few mentions of homosexuality, John explain’s the Prime Minister’s unmarried state by saying, “He’s, uh, married to his job. Either that, or gay as a picnic basket.” And at the altar when Mark and Peter are discussing the stag do, Peter says, “Do you admit the Brazillian prostitutes were a mistake?” Mark agrees, and Peter continues, “And it would have been much better if they’d not turned out to be men?” Hilarious.

Any whisper that a character may be gay must be utterly refuted. At Peter and Juliet’s reception, Sarah asks Mark, “Do you love him?” To which Mark replies, “No, no, no is the answer. No. Absolutely not.” It can’t be a simple “no”. Nothing less than a flat-out vehement denial will do. When Billy Mac returns from the party at Elton’s to declare to Joe that “the people I love is in fact you,” Joe responds, “Well, this is a surprise. Ten minutes at Elton John’s, you’re as gay as a maypole.” Cue much laughter in the theatre. Elton John’s gay, and – oh, lol – gay is contagious, don’t you know? Actually, this could have been a sweet love story had Billy Mac transpired to actually be in love with Joe. But, again, he dismissed Joe’s wee joke – “No, look, I’m being serious here” – and after explaining how he realised he’d spent his life with Joe and how he feels it’s been a wonderful life, he re-exerts both his and Joe’s heterosexuality be saying, “Now, let’s get pissed and watch porn” – standard red-blooded man pastimes.

Actually, I lie. There is one tiny nod to non-heterosexuality in this movie: Colin’s wet-dream fantasy-turned-reality with the easy American girls who are so poor they must share a bed and can’t even afford pyjamas. We see in silhouette the four girls plus Colin collapse onto bed in a giggling pile, the women focused on Colin but certainly touching each other. So there we have it. Female homosexuality is A-OK, as long as it’s for the consumption of a man.

While we’re on the subject of Colin: he is portrayed as a bit of a dopey every-lad who just wants to get laid, but he is a CREEP. In one of his first appearances, he’s distributing lunches to the women of Harry and Sarah’s office, sexually harrassing each one of them as he goes: “Beautiful muffin for a beautiful lady,” “Try my nuts,” “Hello, future wife”.  Later, having bombed out after trying to hit on the wedding caterer by insulting her food, he complains to his mate Tony that he can never find true love (ie, a shag) because English girls are “stuck up”. Not the fact that he is a CREEP. It’s the women who won’t sleep with him who are the problem. The movie rewards his creepiness by handing him a harem of easy American girls – and one for his doubting friend Tony, too.

Tony is one of three non-white people in the entire ensemble cast: the other two being the Prime Minister’s aide Annie and Juliet’s husband, Peter. None of the main storylines focus on them. The only one who even features in one of the main narratives is Peter, and although the movie more or less opens with Peter and Juliet’s wedding, the narrative thread it begins is Mark’s love for Juliet. Peter is a bit character in his own love story.

(Mark is, of course, a creep too. If I found that my partner’s best friend who refused to even be polite to me had compiled a video montage of close-ups of me, my first thought wouldn’t be “aww, he loves me.”)

In fact, I see something Othellian in the Peter-Juliet-Mark storyline: black man marries pretty white woman, black man’s closest ally conducts a whispering campaign to split them up. In Love Actually it’s the pretty white woman he whispers to rather than the black man, but there are signs it’s going to be just as effective. After Mark outright declares his love for Juliet – while encouraging Juliet to lie to her husband, who’s right there in the next room – he starts to walk away, but Juliet chases him down the street and kisses him on the lips. Do we believe that Juliet goes back inside to her husband and forgets all about it?

I could go on all day (and I may have a whole other post about the female characters’ lack of agency – maybe closer to Xmas), but my final and most vehement point has to be NATALIE IS NOT FAT. Her ex-boyfriend is portrayed as a dick for saying she has legs like tree trunks, but then Annie, the Prime Minister’s aide, describes her as “chubby” and in possession of “pretty sizeable arse”, her own father calls her “Plumpie” in front of the Prime Minister, and even the Prime Minister and purported love of her life says “God, you’re heavy!” when she jumps into his arms in the airport at the end. But she’s not even a teensy tiny bit on the plumpish side, and the constant snide remarks about her body are just really gross and jarring. The two characters who could in fact be described as being on the plump side don’t get away with it, either. Billy Mac’s manager Joe is called “a chubby employee” and “the ugliest man in the world”. And when Jamie asks Aurelia’s father for her hand in marriage (ick), there is confusion as Aurelia’s father thinks he means his other, fatter daughter – which is obviously funny, because who’d want to marry the fat girl, right?

(I haven’t even had a chance to mention poor wee Sam – his mother has just died, but there’s no exploration of his grief and his callous stepfather calls him a “wee motherless mongrel” and jokes about having sex with Claudia Schiffer in his bedroom!)