It seems like you can’t open your web browser or turn on the TV lately without hearing about the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie. Based on the best-selling novel by E.L. James (which sold over 100 million copies), the film took over the box office this Valentine’s Day weekend with its huge established fan base and promise of steamy, kinky sex scenes.
The movie, which premiered last Friday, is estimated to have made $67.9 million over the three-day weekend, according to USA Today. If the movie is true to the book, though, this is anything but a “love” story.
In actuality, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is the story of a wealthy, abusive and controlling older man grooming a virginal young woman for his sexual appetites. It normalizes and glamorizes abuse in relationships, all the while blatantly misrepresenting an entire kink community. Sounds far-fetched? Bear with me.
From the beginning of the story, Christian Grey does things to Anastasia Steele that are highly abusive. Early in the novel, he begins stalking her. After their initial meeting, he shows up at the store in which she works, and later he already knows where she lives before she tells him. Grey uses intimidation and abusive language, in one instance even telling her, “Well, if you were mine, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week after the stunt you pulled yesterday.” That stunt? Getting drunk with her friends.
Grey even starts by warning Steele to stay away from him, saying things like “You should steer clear of me,” and similar statements, all while showering her with expensive gifts. Coercion much? Once they discuss a possible relationship, Grey talks Steele into what is basically a gag order: she couldn’t discuss their relationship with anyone, which effectively isolated her from friends and family.
Things only get worse after they begin dating. Grey is manipulative, jealous and oversensitive to anything he perceives as an affront against him. Central to the relationship is the objectification of Steele. To him, Steele is a “thing” which he is entitled to take possession over. This is linked to the explanation that he doesn’t “do” love; only sex.
While many have argued that their sex is consensual, based on her signing a contract which outlines his expectations of her, by no means does this make their relationship OK. Steele doesn’t experience pleasure from the acts Grey forces upon her. Her pleasure is derived from knowing he is experiencing pleasure from what he is doing to her. Therefore, Steele’s sexuality is devoted to Grey’s, and it is not her own.
He reminds her of her own objectification throughout the story, constantly saying, “You are mine.” When she offhandedly mentions fleeing to Alaska to get away from him, he tells her that he would find her wherever she would run because he has the ability to track her cell phone.
The nail in the coffin of the case against Grey is the scene where Steele flat out refuses his sexual advance toward her, telling him “No” and physically kicking him off of her. He replies that if she struggles, he will just tie her up. As readers, we’re meant to forgive him for this threat because Steele enjoys the ensuing sex, but that doesn’t excuse his behavior.
Also problematic is that this story has been touted as BDSM-centered erotica. Grey’s manipulation and abuse of Steele throughout the story flies in the face of the ground rules of the Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism community.
The credo of this kink community is “Safe, Sane and Consensual.” It is questionable whether Grey follows these and other rules of the BDSM community as laid out in most “BDSM 101” books, like Lisa Sweet’s “Bondage for Beginners.” Many in the BDSM community are upset at their representation in James’ book. Especially horrific is the author’s portrayal of Grey’s appetite for BDSM being “explained” by his abusive childhood. This perpetuates a cultural misconception that people who engage in this play do so because they’re damaged somehow.
While the book series and movie are undoubtedly being used as a starting point for couples’ conversations about sexual exploration and desire, this doesn’t mean they are a good starting point.
In reality, this story is based on an abusive relationship. The author uses the guise of BDSM to justify Grey’s treatment of Steele, perpetuating the stereotypes that BDSM relationships are abusive and people who enjoy that play have something wrong with them. In light of the problematic nature of the story, many organizations have boycotted the film, and others have been created solely for that purpose.
One such organization is 50 Dollars Not 50 Shades. The organization asks people to take the money they would spend to see the film and donate it to a local abuse shelter, where many people in Steele’s position end up.
The popularity and glamorization of such a story as something to be desired normalizes such appalling behavior, and desensitizes people to it. In a society where domestic violence and abuse occur at epidemic proportions, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is the last thing we need.
Britt Talkington is a senior in history.