I had avoided getting caught up in the frenzy of the book release for 50 Shades of Grey, mainly because I prefer reading non-fiction. However, I’ve not managed to stay clear of the film’s release. So it’s entirely upon this film version that my critique rests.
My curiosity was incited mainly due to the furor against the film. Over a never ending list of excessively politically correct reasons that I’ve never heard being applied to any other film in relation to women before. Including films with graphic bloody violence. But here, under the guise of “feminism”, a list which regardless of the commentator, country, or publication, all seem to echo in the same tone of indignation as if it were a mantra.
So, if you’ll allow me, first I’d like to critique the critics and then will critique the film.
The main point of outrage revolves around the perceived normalisation/preparation for domestic abuse, through the liaison Mr. Grey and Ms. Steele have embarked on. To call what they have a relationship, seems a little premature considering the number of dates they’ve had, unconventional as they may be. As a feminist, naturally any abuse would concern me. Given that there are so many films which devalue, objectify, over-sexualize, degrade, insult, offend, exploit women, I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing this one.
However, what compelled me to accept an invitation to attend a private screening of the film for a fundraiser, wasn’t all the voices objecting to the film, but the female voices supporting the film. So along I went, ready to either be outraged or laugh at it’s stupidity. But neither reaction occurred.
In the opening weekend of the film, in the US alone, $81.7 million was made from its release. Internationally, $158 million was generated from ticket sales. This film has been the 2nd biggest box office February opening hit ever. These are no small potatoes.
Yet many people are trying to dismiss it as a bad, boring film based on a poorly written book, saying that it’s inaccurate about BDSM (considering it’s not a documentary about BDSM it really didn’t need all the details), a misogynist chic flick gone wrong. Even worse, that it’s “mummy porn” (because what could be more worthless than the desires of a woman who has had children right?) or fantasy for single middle aged women (it’s fascinating how male audiences have never been insulted this way for going to see an Angelina Jolie film or whatever other lead actress is the actress du jour, nor had to contend with their relationship status or age being part of the reason for the film’s lameness).
Anyway, most of the criticisms seem to centre on these points. Sociologist Patricia Edgar in The Age went as far as to say “What needs to be understood by both parties in a sexual act is that a lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent”. Patricia, I’m trying to understand your sentence. But that won’t be possible because this utterly contradictory, and confusing statement is the product of the irrational blind rage against 50 Shades of Grey.
The core problem the critics have, is with Christian Grey himself. He is a stalker, possessive, manipulative, intimidating, a sociopath, a pathological abuser, a warped pervert with no hope for change, a narcissist, controlling, jealous, selfish, obsessive, uncaring. And this is just touching the surface of his weaknesses or “damage”. His immediately obvious flawed nature is something he’s learnt to come to terms with, and in his personal life has devised a “structure” which he informs the other person on, in this case, Ana. He is very clear with her about what being involved with him entails.
This is already more than what most men reveal about their psyche and backgrounds, especially so soon upon meeting a person they want to be intimate with. Usually men tend to present themselves in the best light, besotted by a woman, are helpful, attentive, until they know she has become attached to them and once she has their Grey side starts showing.. protectiveness turns into possessiveness, supportiveness turns into resentment and any admiration they had turns into jealousy or indifference as the woman’s charms now, may as well be invisible for all the emotion, she can arouse out of him. Their affection becomes measured and conditional.
Wedding rings, the world’s smallest, most socially acceptable handcuffs
So yes, he’s been emotionally scarred early in life. Some of the physical scars which Ana asks about look like cigarette burns all over his chest. Yes, he’s a self made millionaire who when it comes to intimacy definitely has trust and communication issues. But to his credit, he’s found a way of channelling this in a sexual lifestyle that although not all people subscribe to, he manages to find some that do. And this is always consensual. Sometimes he is the dominant and at other times he’s been the submissive.
In the countless articles about 50 Shades that appear all over social media and the internet, which I’ve read in a perplexed state of amusement due to the level it’s been blown out of proportion (somehow it seems more of a PR created outrage than based on anything to do with the film) and none seem to deal with the reason why this book/film/story premise has in fact resonated with women (which I’ll address later) .. and not with just a few women, which would make it a cult film or flop, but with millions of women, globally.
In a surprising turn, critics are mocking the reaction of these average women, who happen to number in the millions. They question and ridicule how such a concept as the S&M contained in 50 Shades could even be in their interests or desires. Not only do they say this book is poorly written and politically incorrect, nor the film a disappointment because of xyz reason, but the women who would dare say “I liked this” are being judged on a sliding scale of pathetic or having victim mentality. Was the same said about men for Gone Girl? Did the men’s movement rise up to put a stop against manipulative, violent women? Surely Gone Girl’s Amy was far more outrageous.
Consequently, comes the disclaimer from these women, with comments like, ‘ Yes I’ve read the book but lost interest, it really didn’t do it for me, the 3rd book wasn’t very good, it’s just a bit of fluff’. Basically anything to minimise their previous interest or any importance one can give to it. In effect, they are issuing this disclaimer largely based on the bad press/shaming it’s received.
So I took myself along to the film, observed and listened to what the audience had to say in the foyer both before and after the film. This audience consisted predominantly of middle aged women, suburban mothers taking a night off, the ones who would usually be more concerned with whether their kids had tidied up their own bedrooms than with who was getting tied up when adults go to play in a red room.
There were a few suburban mums there whom I hadn’t seen in years. Not since I came to the sobering realisation that my own marriage had been soul crushing experience I had to end for the sake of my health. I recalled that at the time I was going through this awakening, some fellow suburban mothers condemned attempts to break the chains by what they perceived as a dangerous independence. With the irony of this time warp in mind, I made my way to a seat.
The day after seeing the film, I stumbled upon a review by Scott Mendleson at Forbes who says of Fifty Shades that it is ” a true event film aimed at audiences that almost never get true event films: older women “. Suddenly this film made much more sense. One woman I spoke to mentioned to me that she had gifted a copy of 50 Shades to her mother in law as a thank you for looking after her kids when hubby and her decided to have a retreat for a few days. All she’d heard was that it was a popular book and didn’t give it much more thought. Upon their return she was informed that it was “that sex book” and mortified, she apologised profusely to the mother in law, offering to take it from her and throw it away. The twist is, that the mother in law, an elderly woman, told her to do no such thing. In fact she wanted to read part 2 and hoped there was a part 3!
So what could anyone that has contributed to this top selling novel/ box office hit need to absolve themselves from?
What has been the magnet for women to the Grey phenomenon?
To answer these questions, there are some statistics that are very relevant:
75% of men and only 29% of women always have orgasms with their partner (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, Michaels, 1994)
As many as 80 percent of women have difficulty with orgasm from vaginal intercourse alone. Clitoral stimulation during intercourse can help, says Stern, but so can medical treatment. “Female sexual dysfunction (FSD), which encompasses the inability to orgasm, is very common—as high as 43 percent, according to some surveys. And 10 to 15 percent never climax under any circumstances.
Close to half of all first marriages are expected to end in separation or divorce, many within a few years (Bramlett, 2002) and subsequent marriages are even more likely to end (Karney, 1995).
Sexual dissatisfaction is associated with increased risk of divorce and relationship dissolution. (Karney, 1995).
Dr. Herbenick. “Orgasm becomes easier with age,” she says. “As an example, while 61 percent of women ages 18 to 24 experienced orgasm the last time they had sex, 65 percent of women in their 30s did and about 70 percent of women in their 40s and 50s did.”
“We have an orgasm gap,” notes Dr. Herbenick. “While 85 percent of men thought their partner had an orgasm during their most recent episode of sex, only 64 percent of women reported having an orgasm.”
In studies by Wallen and Lloyd, Wallen said that if men and women knew the reality of their biology, their sex might improve.
“What is startling and surprising to me is that both men and women buy into the same sort of cultural model,” he said. “If he is a good lover, he can bring me to orgasm with his penis alone. And a man buys into that and doesn’t offer any kind of stimulation. And because he’s not any good, she won’t say anything because it’s emasculating.”
“I know there’s a lot of interest in the female genitals, but that does not get at women’s orgasmic possibilities” says Carol Queen, staff sexologist and researcher at Good Vibrations, a feminist adult toy shop and education center in San Francisco. “The statistic my colleagues and I have been citing lately is that roughly 70 percent of women rarely or never have orgasms with intercourse. That makes it the norm,” she says. “I think most people have no idea so many women have this problem.” Though this number does not come from a scientific study, she says there’s a general consensus among her peers in the sexual health community about how high it is.
Compare that with the fact that 75 percent of men climax every time they have intercourse. Men who can’t sustain an erection or achieve orgasm during sex have been given a medical diagnosis: erectile dysfunction. And it affects a lot of them – approximately 20 to 30 million in the U.S. But while the FDA has approved 26 sexual enhancement treatments for men, it has developed zero for women.
The reason 50 Shades of Grey has been a box office hit and print sensation, is because the vast majority of women are Bored and receiving No Sensual Pleasure or very little, from men.
Regardless of the level of commitment, whether it’s an affair, fling, friends with benefits, de-facto relationship or marriage, the satisfaction is simply not there. Which is then why many women turn to OTHER forms of satisfaction, namely material or emotional ones from their partner. Many bored men in long term relationships tend to turn to affairs or brothels to avoid staying vanilla, rather than exploring more with their partner, however it is rare for women to do the same, especially go to brothels or hire escorts. Women’s needs go unmet and they descent becomes palpable in other ways.
One might argue that the absence or denial of an orgasm to a woman is in itself a form of abuse, as it is one of life’s gifts to any human being to be able to experience this state. Beyond health benefits, there is power which affects self esteem and enhances one’s state of being from that big O. A woman’s Orgasm should be sacred, well nurtured, respected.. not denied, controlled, repressed or mediocre.
Women have flocked to 50 Shades of Grey in pursuit of the potential secret to this elixir of pleasure.
Whether they found it or not, is another story, but to put it bluntly, the reason for E.L James’ success, is the lack of success of men in the bedroom.
Starting from that base of sexual dissatisfaction/dysfunction, the next question is, how could the average woman make such a leap to relate or want to relate to the character of Ana. And here is what E. L James did right. Not only was Ana a virgin at 25 yrs old, most unusual for her generation, but she had never even had a self induced orgasm. In light of the statistics and research findings I explained earlier, this is the conceptual dot linking the average woman to her character. The absence of having experienced an orgasm.
Some feminists or critics might argue that if women wanted to improve their sex life, there are various ways to go about it. Many have tried and simply can’t. And some may not be comfortable with looking to the porn that is available as a way to change the situation.
The other contentious point that’s emerged from the film is the “domestic violence” we are being groomed into accepting, along with the outcry for women to turn away from this film lest they be subject to it. I couldn’t disagree more. We can see that the control issues in the film as ones many women can already relate to. There’s nothing new there. After the film I was discussing this with some young women in their early 20s, seated to my right, who said they thought the “violence” in the film given the reviews was nothing compared to what they have to deal with from guys most of the time. The only difference being there is no luxurious lifestyle accompanying what they have to put up with.
The middle aged women seated around me, joined in saying that if what was in the film was considered domestic violence because Mr. Grey was so controlling, then that was nothing compared to their husbands who checked up on them constantly and were forever giving instructions for this, that and the other, who monitored their spending, and that they never had time to themselves even for a cup of tea. In their words, at least Ana seemed to have more orgasms than they had in a long time and it went for longer than 2 minutes. To which they all laughed.
Mr. Grey wasn’t the only dubious male in the film. Was anyone outraged at the brother who had sex with Ana’s room mate on their first night of meeting? Was this more acceptable, respectful behaviour? Was anyone outraged at Ana’s seemingly innocent college friend who took advantage of her when she was drunk outside the club and was attempting to force a kiss despite her saying no several times? Did anyone notice Mr. Grey intercede and push him off before she threw up? At least in his contract he let Ana know that she could say no to any of the suggestions or make her own, and he would accept them. Nice guy college friend couldn’t even accept a drunken no.
Then of course there is Ana’s mother, who’s onto her 3rd or 4th marriage, I can’t quite recall and who misses her daughter’s very important event, her graduation, because she can’t possibly go without husband #4 who is busy. Despite Ana’s pleas she smiles and calmly tells her no, not without her man. The mother is clearly in a controlling relationship yet when we see her with husband #4, he seems like a sweetheart and is all smiles and cooing to her. She is as besotted by him as Ana is with Christian.
Here’s the uncomfortable truth which we can see play out in a myriad of forms all over the world, at every level of society in most cultures: Men have problematic issues with control and power. We’re all too used to it. We don’t like it, but we know it like the back of our hands.
Women’s self esteem and dignity is constantly being undermined through religion, the media, financially, career wise, in the education system, family, reproductive rights, politics and porn. How we see ourselves in relation to men’s expectations and desire is often much like Ana, we think we’re nothing special, even when we know we are. We relate to Ana in this sense too, she is overwhelmed by a man who tells her she IS special. He tells her he never wants her to doubt how beautiful she is.
Even though she isn’t the typical leading actress bombshell type, he seems to adore her. She is very pale, mousey, not fashion savvy, isn’t flirtatious or even coquettish, doesn’t wear much make up if any and doesn’t have the regulation Hollywood breast implants. The camera even shows she neither shaves or waxes her legs. Scandalous, we see hair on her legs as they’re carefully backlit to highlight this.
In a world where a large part of women’s efforts goes toward constant “self improvement” be it through fashion, fitness, cosmetics etcetc being comfortable in one’s skin, especially to do with feeling pleasure is a rarity, the distraction and societal direction is in seeking physical acceptance through certain aesthetics.
Often empowerment for women means saying “I don’t care what you want or like, this is how I am, accept it, deal with it”. Yet because humans are complex living in a world of shades of grey, there is something deep within us that also wants to be wanted, wants to be liked, wants to be desired.
This obsessive desire, be it right or wrong is what Mr. Grey gives Ms. Steele.
It’s interesting that when we’re in our teens and 20s we want to evoke desire, but our competitiveness and insecurities get in the way of actually knowing how to master it, not to mention that at that age we are much less orgasmic than later on in life. This is the age which men seem to be attracted to, it can’t just be for the lack of wrinkles and toned body, perhaps they are aware of this insecurity and know how to play it.
As we go through our 30s, we start finding our voice, sometimes a voice we lost in our 20s. Our confidence begins to grow. We start seeing things how they are and not how we idealise them to be. We also start standing up to men which we may have previously not done, or not done with complete assertiveness. A confident woman in her 30s will intimidate weak men and be a challenge for those who like to control.
Many women find themselves married and with children at this stage and whilst it could be a potent decade (personally I think 30s are the best decade) the condition of being a mother, with little time for your own needs can diffuse this. Many women stop being desired as strongly as they were by husbands and the “motherly mentality” makes them lose their way to their innate sensuality. We begin to feel invisible.
What E.L James does successfully, yet again through her character of Christian, is to make him a man who is successful in all areas, who knows what he wants intensely, and above all else, who wants Ana. She is missing him, he appears within the hour. She plays the cat & mouse game with him too and despite him seeming stalky by showing up so many times when he had been far away, there is something in us that interprets that as ‘he’s present, she was his #1.’
Many marriages have the opposite happen. Husbands who are physically unavailable for various reasons or “work”, who miss important occasions and dates, or who are there but half heartedly as if he wishes to be elsewhere, even if elsewhere is watching a football game.. women are not stupid, they know when he is using excuses to disconnect and switch off from her. And it leaves them fantasising about a man who can be fully present in the moment, not just going through the motions or making excuses. So when Christian shows up, literally, we think of the times our partners or ex partners didn’t, and couldn’t step up to the occasion to be there when we wanted them.
Christian’s intimacy issues, which make him broken, f*d up, unable to love.. we’ve all been with men like these, although maybe they never expressed it cause they were too busy trying to act the part of having it all together. But we know what it’s like to be alone yet beside someone. I dare say many women can relate to it, which is why this isn’t grooming anyone.
Being “broken” however isn’t exclusive to men, women can also feel that. Women don’t even need to have gone through trauma to feel unworthy. The beauty industry teaches that our efforts must be constant and persistent if we’re to achieve an appearance that matches what we’re told is the “sexy, desirable, attractive, healthy, fit, beautiful, etc” ideal. Until then, we are an incomplete project, which is precisely why Ana was so self conscious at first, until that is, she realised that Christian, despite his appearances, didn’t see himself as perfect and whole. On this level, two resilient individuals connected, despite their low, broken self esteem.
Christian doesn’t want a traditional, dinner and pizza date relationship and I think many women know that this traditional model, which he describes as “vanilla” has also sent them into a spiral of sensual despair and perhaps toward taking up too many yoga, pilates, general exercise classes, or obsessing over interior decorating, what their children are wearing, micro managing and over scheduling their kids activities with a fine tooth comb, becoming workaholics or obsessing over food… all to avoid the fact the spark has long gone from their sex life and vanilla, beige or shades of grey is what they have to get used to.
E.L James knows, women don’t want vanilla.
A woman in her 40s knows what she wants and how to get it. Having said that, not all women in their 40s know yet what they want or have developed the confidence to seek it. Similarly for a man, which is why I think Christian should have been in his mid 40s at least. The grey should have been more visible on Mr. Grey, at least in his hair, so we could really see how his manipulation of a much younger woman was based on insecurity rather than mastery of himself. His brokenness would have been highlighted. How much of a challenge can a woman more than 10years younger be to a man? Not much at all. A woman 15 years younger would have made him look like the desperate, wounded, lost creature he truly was. The level that he needed in order to take advantage of the situation, by being so much older and control her would render him utterly ridiculous.
In all relationships there are power plays at different times, but if there is a constant imbalance, that’s when abuse can be identified. Ana was not dependent on Christian even though she accepted his gifts. She was choosing to take advantage of this lifestyle and that needs to be recognised too.
When anyone, man or woman wants the approval of another, regardless of gender, there is an element of vulnerability. If this vulnerability falls into controlling hands it can become submissive. But is not necessarily abuse.
Submission by choice and by force are very different things. Submission by choice can have elements of pleasure. Submission by force only induces anxiety and fear.
For those concerned that 50 Shades of Grey will normalise domestic violence, they have nothing to fear. This is a film that women who have passed through 50 shades of pleasure and hell through toxic relationships can probably relate to more than younger women, which is why it has become the film event for a generation of experienced women.
50 Shades of Grey has no more chance of luring the youth to red rooms than Annie did to making kids want to become orphans, Dumb & Dumber making guys want to be dumb, Gone Girl turning anyone into a murderer or The Grand Budapest Hotel making anyone want to work in the hospitality industry in Budapest.
One woman who both read the books and saw the film had this to say:
“To me, its ‘a wonderful love story.
The SM things were not that shocking, I would have expected harder things. OK he spanks her with a belt, which hurts, undoubtedly, but there are worse things. Most of the time, he just bonds her and spanks her. OK also, he gets rid of her menstrual tampon. Well. Is that all?
She accepts a lot, not only in terms of sexuality, keeping in mind she was a virgin when they met, but also mentally, making her do what he wants most of the time, but often because he wants to protect her. He’s a control freak in all domains of his life, anyway.
In the movie, Grey is not that dominant, we never saw how agressive he can be, he looks at her like she’s the 8th wonder (which she is, actually). She looks more dominant than he does!
Without the SM, the book would have been like a simple love story, with the pure and innocent girl and the powerful man who teaches her everything. I’ve read the 3 books because I wanted to know Greys’s full story. SM makes it more modern, that’s it!”
Decades ago Pretty Woman was touted as the ultimate film romance. No one was offended that a prostitute became the role model for a contemporary Cinderella. Even though surely her life would have been more sordid than anything Ana went through. The question isn’t is this bad, the question is why can’t we come up with new formulas? Why is the collective story telling not done telling this story?
Ultimately perhaps that’s all that 50 Shades is, yet another version of Cinderella, modernised.. with all the elements present… girl with a heart of gold in dire circumstances, with little chances for fulfilling her life’s purpose despite her best efforts, is rescued by a powerful man who thanks to his wealth is able to lavish her in a material lifestyle of her fantasies in return for her indulging him in his. And they lived happily ever after… on his terms.
.. until she stopped indulging him and decided what her terms were.
Let’s start telling those stories.