50 Shades of Complicated

Dear friends, I know that many of you respect my opinions on film and issues of social justice. I want to make clear that I saw this movie for the first time tonight and these are my immediate thoughts based on my reading of the film. I am more than willing to entertain arguments to the contrary but would ask that you keep discussion civil because of the specific nature of the topics at hand. In this post I’m going to be talking about issues concerning BDSM, rape culture, consent, romance, and representations in the following post and some of it might be triggering to you. Don’t read on if you don’t want to.

I have not read the 50 Shades trilogy. I am coming to this movie as fresh to the material as one can be given the promotions and campaigns. Thusly, in this post I am only discussing the film – not the merits or morality of the book on which it was based.

First I want to talk about the film cinematically, both because I can’t help but appreciate its technical qualities but also because they speak a lot to my reading of the film as a whole.

This film is masterfully directed. Sam Taylor Johnson is incredibly talented and I hope she gets opportunities to direct more interesting material because she absolutely has the chops to be one of the best directors in Hollywood. The cinematography in the film is absolutely stunning. The care and precision with which every shot is handled is truly beautiful and made the experience of watching the film enjoyable if just for that.

The score and soundtrack are also incredible. The choice of songs and the use of sound in the film is really special. I will be downloading the soundtrack as soon as I can because it is truly great.

Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson are equally excellent in the film. While they appear to have no chemistry in off screen interviews, on screen they feel like a true couple and have a really interesting dynamic that I was really invested in.

The screenplay on the other hand is absolute trash. The fact that the people working on this film were able to get such a fantastic final product out of such a miserable screenplay is astounding. If a great screenwriter had been given a few shots at this to punch up the dialogue and iron out the kinks (no pun intended) this could be a legitimately great film.

That’s what I have to say about the film from a technical standpoint. Now for the moral complexities and conundrums.

I’m going to start with this. I do not think this film is an example of rape culture being passed off as romance. Perhaps in spite of itself, the film promotes an understanding of consent that I was completely shocked to see. The way that body language was coded. The verbalized reaffirmations of desire and consent. The film is so intentionally constructed that there are no lazy moments of taking control without consent and there is even a counter example to the Christian/Ana dynamic when one of Ana’s friends comes on to her. The power of Ana’s “No” is really important here. When her friend comes on to her she says no immediately and repeatedly and its only when Christian intervenes with a punch that he backs off. There are, on the other hand, countless times when she rebuffs Christian throughout the film and in none of them does he take control.

I’ll give two examples to back up my point. Both involve the use of punishment in their contract as Dominant and Submissive. The first occurs shortly after they begin to have a relationship. She rolls her eyes at him and he says “if you do that again I’ll have to put you over my knee”. In any other context this would be creepy but we have to remember that the idea of punishment in a BDSM context had been firmly established and agreed upon beforehand. But not just beforehand, when he says this she agrees. And when she rolls her eyes at him again and he does put her over his knee, his forcefulness is coded in every line with asking her for permission before proceeding. It is not just that she likes being spanked, she agrees to every step along the way because he asks at every step.

In the second instance of punishment which is right at the end of the film, he makes very clear that he wants to punish her and she says no very clearly. He expresses what he wants and she says no and that is the end of it. He does not continue trying to convince her. The only reason they go through with it is because she tells him to do it to her. Not with weak body language or half-assed metaphor. She clearly and directly tells him to punish her. And after the punishment, he wants to hug her or connect with her (it isn’t entirely clear other than he wants physical connection) and she clearly says no and he stops. He’s human, there is hesitation an body language showing what he wants, but from that point forward she tells him no and he doesn’t continue, just as he had from the beginning of the film. Christian and Ana in the movie have a very specifically defined relationship based on desire, consent, and safety and he never breaks that.

So in terms of straight consent the film gets a passing grade that most romantic films don’t . I’m as shocked as you are.

Now to the BDSM. This is the film’s biggest problem because Christian Grey is 100% coded as enjoying BDSM because he had a traumatic event in his childhood. Except… not entirely. The film does this weird thing where is shows Ana and Christian enjoying straight dom/sub sex without any connotation of it  being weird. There is a delineation made between the dominant (Christian) using pain as a part of the healthy trust based part of BDSM and using pain as a punishment for breaking rules.

So we have two standards here. The film is very specifically saying that BDSM is good and normal but that Christian’s obsession with the punishment aspect of his role as a dom is based in trauma. I have to give the first part a pass because every other sex scene in the film besides the two mentioned above are intimate and extraordinarily consensual in every way cinema has to portray that. The second part is obviously messed up because it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of BDSM. While those unacquainted with the practices of the community may not understand this, in a dom/sub relationship the idea of punishment for “breaking rules” is something that happens. What that “breaking rules” is not is something like the use of a safe word to end the play. The contract that so much has been made of is actually one of the best parts of the film because it shows how there is a difference between the “rules” that could be broken leading to punishment and the use of a safe word to end play. Ana has things she won’t agree to and defines them as hard limits and Christian respects that. While the film associates the punishment aspect to being “broken” everything else in the film is treating BDSM in a remarkably respectful way.

So while I can’t pass the film wholly on its understanding of BDSM, I can’t write it off entirely either. In spite of everything I have read about the book I can’t say that this film promotes a stalker as a romantic interest because it’s just not there in the film. I can’t say that it associates all BDSM with being damaged because it’s just not there in the film. I can’t knock the film for things that aren’t there.

So there are my thoughts. This is my only experience with this narrative and I invite anyone to criticize this because I fully acknowledge that I likely don’t remember every single detail from the film in perfect clarity.

Thanks for reading

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4 thoughts on “50 Shades of Complicated

  1. This is a great review. I have not seen the movie but I had read the books. I’m not surprised the screenplay is awful considering what they had to work with… I won’t comment on the bdsm aspects, since I know very little about it. As a ‘reader, I found it to be something strange and unknown but not necessarily problematic. However, there is clear emotional abuse and manipulation in the books that left me feeling uncomfortable. That’s why I chose to not see the movie, because those “undertones” in the book were too strong for me to support the series and it’s delusional, horrendous author.

    1. Absolutely. I will say that the undertones of emotional abuse and manipulation have been changed pretty radically for the film if my understanding of the book is right. There are moments in the film that are reminiscent of Edward hovering outside Bella’s window in Twilight but I think the director was very careful to contextualize them more as a traditional RomCom “meet cute” than as him stalking her because there’s no evidence of him stalking or tracking her movements in the film.

  2. In terms of what this series represents I take no issue with the sex, or the BDSM punishment dom/sub roles. My issue lies with the far more subtle forms of emotional and financial abuse that are going on in the background.

    I spent some time working in a sexual assault and domestic violence clinic – and some of the behaviors Christian has in the books AND film have some pretty creepy parallels between the series and the stories I heard from victims. It’s a lot harder to notice in the film – easier in the books – but still subtle because Ana doesn’t necessarily see them as bad behaviors all the time, or she forgives him and negotiates… Taking into account she is not a real person, and denial in victims is a real thing I’ll proceed with my two cents.

    1) The series as a whole is guilty of perpetrating the ‘he can/will change’ trope. This trope is very dangerous as this kind of mentality is seen in abuse victims all the time, due to the nature of the cycle of violence/abuse. And while the romantic in me loves a good trope – given the context I’m side-eyeing it pretty hard.

    2) Christian is financially controlling/abusive. He SOLD HER CAR without telling her or asking for her permission. What the heck??? If this was real life that would not be okay – but because he is a rich white guy we don’t really notice it.

    3) The selling of the car goes along with the rest of the creepy stalker behaviors. He entered her apartment without her permission because he didn’t like the e-mail she sent him. Again – Ana was okay with this and they had some fun sexy times. Though – another behavior that really shouldn’t be seen as acceptable or okay.

    4) He is emotional abusive. He explicitly tells her that she should stay away from him, or however the heck he phrased it. This is a classic move of the emotional abuser. It’s coupled with him telling her how much he wants her. Paired with the showering her with gifts – mainly the laptop in this case – specifically so she can stay in contact with him at all times.

    So while the film may not be about him raping her – there are defiantly some shady undertones to it. I mean, it’s given many people a sexual awakening, and while I’m all happy for happy vaginas – The whole thing coupled with the hype of the film, it’s mass consumption, and the romanticizing of it makes me uncomfortable.

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