‘fifty shades’ is better than it should be

but that doesn’t mean it isn’t troubling

There are moments of laughter in Fifty Shades Of Grey, where the camera winks at the audience and simultaneously acknowledges the script's hamfisted treatment of sex-talk, plus our own discomfort at hearing such clunky dialogue flop about the screen. These are the two kinds of chuckles during the film. Fifty Shades Of Grey, the book, has been read by tens of millions people—which is surprising because the text veers from being simply not very good to something that feels like it is written as a parody of itself. (For instance, the usage of the phrase "inner goddess" is employed frequently, as a stand in for Anastasia's sexual desire, as in, “My inner goddess sits in the lotus position looking serene except for the sly, self-congratulatory smile on her face," which is a real sentence in a real book that was really written.) The movie, then, finds itself being better than it has any right to be—but that doesn't make it good, or even problem-free.

Much was made about the lead actress, Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) not being the right fit to play Anastasia Steele. And, truth be told, she isn't... And that may be the best part of the film. Fifty Shades started as a Twilight fan-fiction, and the similarities between Christian and Ana/Edward and Bella are pronounced. He's cultured and endlessly pursuing; she's virginal, afraid, helplessly attracted to him, and just the perfect blank slate for the reader to use the character as a stand-in for herself, or own desires. But Johnson-as-Steele is a bit different than Stewart-as-Bella: Sure, she bites her lip just as much as KStew, but she also does other things too, like looks reasonably flushed when she's turned on, convincingly channels the aforementioned "inner goddess," ribs Christian for being so serious, and finds herself struggling between her attraction to Christian and her fear of him, too. She is a character charged with self-discovery—one who is beginning to put into her own words what she does and doesn't like, what she does and doesn't want. Which makes her a different sort of creature from her book iteration. 

This is where the film both succeeds and stalls, and this is where the film differs from the book. In the book, Anastasia Steele is certainly intrigued by Christian's proposition—which includes signing a contract that bids and bans her from doing, eating, and wearing specific things—but she is also deeply disturbed, and much of her motivation is to please him. To quote the book:

He hits me again … this is getting harder to take. My face hurts, it’s screwed up so tight. He strokes me gently and then the blow comes. I cry out again.

“No one to hear you, baby, just me.”

And he hits me again and again. From somewhere deep inside, I want to beg him to stop. But I don’t. I don’t want to give him the satisfaction. 

In an evocative piece on consent in Fifty Shades by The Atlantic's Emma Green, Green writes, "(The above section) an emotional bargain—Ana tolerates it, barely, because she’s scared of what will happen if she doesn’t. She can't tell Christian she doesn’t want to be spanked—she's too shy, and her relationship with him is dependent on his power to both widen her sexual horizons and get whatever kind of sex he wants from her. But even though she ostensibly consented to this interaction, it seems like a thin kind of consent." In order to understand exactly how crucial communication is to S&M, and also how its practice isn't necessarily violent or perverse, we spoke with professional dominatrix Shana Vaughan-Gabor. She says, "There is a reason you outline these thing in an outside, sober setting. A contract is a living document, it can change—and when your relationship is sex-based, it is all the more important," she says. 

The film cuts out this kind of dialogue, and while we see Dakota Johnson's nervous ticks and deep breaths, Christian does not, and when she firmly says no, he listens. In the best scene of the film, Christian and Ana debate the contract which he asks her to sign, where she employs familiar S&M terms like, "hard limits." Anal and vaginal fisting are off limits. Dildos and vibrators are okay. And, inner goddess, what the heck is a butt-plug? (Many laughs, for that one.) Here, Christian and Ana are doing something that is crucial in the movie, and, according to S&M professional Vaughan-Gabor, crucial to enjoying your limits: Communicating. Ana seems particularly intrigued and not at all afraid. In fact, despite how sexually charged the scene is, she abruptly leaves, demonstrating to Christian that a girl with free-will may be something he is interested in after all. 

But the film—and by extension, the book—wants it both ways. It wants Anastasia to be intrigued and turned on by Christian's "singular tastes," because it wants us to be intrigued and turned on. But it also wants to provide a narrative of romance, and here is the key issue of the film: It suggests that a dominant/submissive relationship is devoid of affection or love, and that the desire to dominate comes from past trauma, which, according to professional dominatrices, is simply untrue. The reason that Christian is interested in submission and dominance is not because of a kink or a sexual desire, but because he was abused in his past, subjected to torment, and kept in a sexually abusive relationship with "Mrs. Robinson" for six years. Oh, and he hates his mother. Not because, say, he was interested in feeling pain. No, his kink comes from something deeper that can be fixed, something Vaughan-Gabor prickles at. "This is such a sore point for the community. For most people, they just have a fetish. You do not have to be intrinsically damaged."

courtesy of universal

"Not all BDSM relationships include pain, and typically the ones that do also include a variety of other activities," says Vaughan-Gabor. "I think pain has two elements. First, there is a chemistry behind it. It's a matter of taste. A little slap causes a tingle, and more creates a physical high as your body floods with endorphins. Your conscious state is altered. That is referred to as 'sub-space.' Pain as release is also a common human practice and like so many things it's up to how an individual uses/abuses an element. Secondly, it reflects the psychological act of dominance or submission. We find power dynamic is every aspect of our lives. This is an acute exploration of what it means to trust someone that much. Some people can achieve orgasm solely from the pain experience," Vaughan-Gabor explains. 

Orgasm, in case your interest was that explicit, is exactly what Ana does. The sex in Fifty Shades is filmed in a very familiar way to that of a romance film: Lots of edits, swelling music (side note: The soundtrack is awesome), mood lighting. It isn't raunchy, even though there sure is a lot of nipple. This feels much "sexier" and less explicit than the book, where she seems to be "quickening" on every page (yes, that does mean what you think it means). At least, here, we actually get to see her convincingly reach climax. And the scenes where he teases/intros her to S&M, she seems to be wildly enjoying herself. The sex is mostly conventional, and while the average theater-going audience might blush at watching Ana get spanked (which she does), it seems to be handled with a sort of affection—and it excites her too. Except, the film seems to chafe under that enjoyment, unsure of what to do with it, and, aside from a grueling end scene which seems to come out of nowhere, the tension feebly builds to a whimper. 

Director Sam Taylor-Wood did too good of a job in her rendition: She gives Ana a stronger, more powerful voice, she made the consent more explicit, she allows Ana to enjoy the sex she was having—except for one particularly notable scene, in which Ana definitively draws the line. Yet, the curse of the film is that it is still grounded in a very problematic story, one that assumes Christian's interest in S&M means he is the perfect wounded creature for Ana to innocently nurse and that his "singular tastes" exclude him from feeling any sort of emotional connection, which is generally an incorrect assumption, says Vaughan-Gabor. Because Ana is never truly afraid of Christian (thankfully, under Taylor-Wood's direction), the explosive ending feels out of place, and the film ends up being a compilation of two people thinking about having sex, having sex, riding in an airplane, and then not having sex. 

Fifty Shades Of Grey seems to suggest that Anastasia Steele is excited, but not too excited, by Christian Grey's sexual proclivities. If she truly was turned on, it might suggest that she is like him: A damaged individual who likes pain for the wrong reasons. So instead, she is a semi-willing participant, hoping to win him over. It is in that strange grey area (see what we did there!) where the story exists, trying to decide whether Christian is hurt or just perverse, whether Ana is horny or just capitulating, that the text—and its film—becomes a real problem.