Movie Review: Fifty Shades of Grey (Yeah, yeah…), Part One

Friday night I flew down to Los Angeles to join my cohost from Your Book is Why Daddy Drinks Tyler. My wife, who delights in my suffering, had offered to pay for the plane tickets if I saw the movie and I figured with the rest of the weekend spent at a gaming convention it’d be worth a little pain.

Oh, I don’t know if I was right or not. Let’s just get to it.

Fifty Shades of Grey (from here on 50SoG) is the story of Anastasia Steele and how she comes to be in a relationship with the millionaire (maybe billionaire) Christian Grey.

First, I will note that this story originally started out as a Twilight fanfic called Master of the Universe so you can already guess at the quality level of the fiction (let’s just say, at one point, E.L. James has Ana going up at “terminal velocity”, something that’s not possible), which is not to say that fanfic is bad per se, but that when you’re starting with a turd it’s difficult to craft a diamond.

Moving on, as you have probably heard the relationship in both the book and the movie involves what many would consider “BDSM”, being tied up, being blindfolded, some spanking, some flogging. At one point Christian insists that if Ana is going to be in a relationship with him then she needs to consent to a very formal and “legally binding” contract that stipulates all kinds of kinky and sexual things (which leads to, in both movie and book, a scene where they have a business meeting to discuss and revise the contract). Ana never actually signs the damn thing but Christian still does a whole host of things to her.

Both movie and book progress until the end when, after having a lot of conflict over Christian being unable to have a “normal” relationship (such as sleeping in the same bed, having normal sex (despite there being a lot of fairly normal sex as far as most couples are concerned), or doing things like go out on dates), Ana pretty much demands Christian show her what it would be like for him to punish her. This apparently involves six slaps with a belt while she is bent over a table. Which is somehow different from all the other spanking that happened in the movie, so different that Ana apparently is horrified at what Christian is and storms away from him after telling Christian he was never going to put a hand on her again.

Now, a lot of hay has been made about the books already about how they illustrate an abusive relationship and, I’m not going to lie, they do in my opinion. Christian does shit like show up places unannounced where Ana is, even after she’s asked him for space (including flying across most of the US to get away from him), selling her car and replacing it with one of his choosing without any input from her, more or less breaking into her apartment. Then there’s the usual Edward schtick of “Stay away from me, but I’ll stalk you, but no really you should run because I’m bad for you, but I’ll keep chasing you until you have no other option than to be around me.” He’s physically, emotionally, and mentally manipulative (calls her outright stupid several times), physically abusive in several instances, and he’s got some pretty severe anger issues in the book.

How was the movie?

From the perspective of the book, it is both accurate in the meta/grand scheme of things and lesser in the details. The anger is toned down a lot, the insults are mostly nonexistant. The scene where Ana gets drunk and her friend Jose doesn’t take no for an answer and creepy Christian swoops in to save her (while apparently MAGICALLY finding the one bar out of all the bars in Portland where Ana was opposed to all of the multitude she wasn’t) is mostly accurate, although in the movie he comes off as more concerned/creepy because he’s never seen her drunk before and in the book he’s outright furious, how dare this grown ass woman decide to get drunk at a bar. The physical abuse and anger were more or less written out until the scene where she tells Christian and her family that she’s going to fly out to Georgia; Christian’s hand is on her thigh under the dinner table and, when she reveals her trip, his fingers dig into her leg and he angrily asks her “I didn’t know about this. When were you going to tell me?”

For as toned down as the anger might be, he’s still fucking creepy. He still sells her car and, at one point, she texts him a message that is basically “Thanks for everything, bye.” which any normal person would’ve taken as a “break up” (in so much as they weren’t actually dating), but not Christian. Nope, the dude breaks into her apartment without asking with a bottle of wine and two glasses, tersely confronts her about her text message, and then proceeds to have sex with her.

Which is after her virginity, it seems, was a “situation” that need to be “rectified”.

As for the BDSM, it really wasn’t that prevalent in the movie. Yeah, Ana gets blindfolded twice and she’s restrained a few times (twice with the now famous tie). Ice cubes are used briefly in one scene, some light spanking (apparently punished by being spanked over Christian’s knee bare-assed with the flat of his hand is ok but with a belt isn’t). Honestly, the “kinkiest” the movie gets is when he uses a flogger on her and I say that only because the rest don’t require a level of investment that any vanilla-sex couple wanting to spice things up a little couldn’t easily do. I mean, if you wanted to see a movie featuring a couple heavily involved in BDSM with an emotionally unavailable male lead, watch Secretary. More about this later. Back on topic, the sex was kind of meh but I will give the movie credit in that Christian was very good about using condoms. Safe sex, in a movie like this? Good show!

Ana felt like she had a LOT more agency in the film than she did in the books, even to the point where she straight up mocked Christian to his face for pulling an Edward, but when you’re starting out from almost zero, raising the agency factor by even a little feels epic. The other good thing that didn’t happen in the movie was that they DIDN’T USE THE ZIPTIES! Ana, in both movie and book, works at a hardware store and Christian surprises her at work soon after their first meeting and buys a number of things used for restraint, electrical tape, rope, and zipties/cable ties, which get used later in the book if I remember correctly.

Please, if you take away one thing away from this review, is that under no circumstances should you ever, EVER, use zipties to restrain a person directly (as in on their skin). The reason for this is that zipties ONLY tighten, they do not loosen, and in order to get them off you have to cut them. Now, imagine that you’re playing with your partner sexually. They have zipties around their wrists. They’re into the moment, so into it they don’t realize until after it’s happened that they’ve started to lose feeling in their hands. Maybe the zipties are dug into their skin. You think it’s going to be easy to cut those off quickly with a possibly panicking partner? Would you really want to try to cut them off with a pair of kitchen shears or a knife with the zipties dug into their skin, their flesh possibly swollen around it? Most professional dominants keep a pair of safety shears (also called paramedic shears) with them at all times and even with those they still wouldn’t use zipties because of how easy they are to tighten too much.

Something I was imminently thankful for was that character’s internal dialogue can’t be conveyed in a movie the same way as it can in a book and the reason I was thankful was because Ana’s internal speaking is annoying as hell. She reuses lines constantly, especially referencing her “inner goddess this” or “her inner goddess that.” Her inner goddess cheered, her inner goddess danced the samba, her inner goddess decided to file a restraining order against E.L. James to get her to stop referencing her.

As for other good things, that’s it. That’s the best I can say about that movie specifically and, in general, that it wasn’t as bad as the book, which isn’t saying much. As for the movie watching experience, that was incredibly positive and I’ll write about that in another post.

The thing that still gets me about this movie and book is how they present BDSM. They present it as this all or nothing thing, that Christian (supposedly) can’t get along without it in his relationships (despite the first time they have sex having NOTHING to do with kink). There is no nuance and, while a lot of actual kinky things are discussed, like electricity and fire play and fisting or the contract (which can and do happen depending on the kinky person), what is shown is so tame that it might’ve come from a sex advice article from Cosmo.

And while it is so tame, it’s presented as being bad. Christian is constantly referring to how his life started hard and in a bad way and that his kink is partially from that and, also, partially because he was sexually abused at the age of fifteen. Those who practice BDSM in mature, safe, consensual ways will talk your ear off about how good it can be (something I know from personal experience) and yet 50SoG manages to make some of the most mild expressions of BDSM look to be the workings of a fucked up person.

Indeed, the movie version makes the final scene even worse than the book, almost rape-like IMO. Ana is bent over the table, her face twisted to the side, her expression kind of sad, even a little dead like she’s just waiting for it to be over. She counts out each swat of the belt in a monotone, “let’s get this over with” voice while Christian stands behind her, swatting her across the ass, his eyes closed, looking incredibly turned on. While Ana did consent to it, specifically asked to experience it, it’s very, VERY clear it’s not what she wanted and a real top should have refused to do it. A real top and/or dom wouldn’t have lost touch with their bottom/sub the way that Christian did, would’ve seen that they weren’t into it and ended things. Hell, a mature person, let alone a kinky one, wouldn’t have gone there.

The movie very much makes it clear that Ana is uncomfortable with kink. In the moment, a few times, she might enjoy it, but over all she’s not happy with the things Christian asks for or the boundaries he expresses, wanting to violate those almost as much as he violates hers. The whole relationship isn’t a healthy one. While I would hope that this movie would get people thinking, get people asking questions, maybe even act as a normalizing influence on people who are kinky but are a little freaked out by their desires, it’s upsetting and unfortunate that a lot of people who haven’t ever experienced anything remotely like that kind of BDSM-influenced relationship (such as it is in the movie) will now have this as a point of reference.

Honestly, if I was going to recommend a more mainstream movie centered around kink, go watch Secretary. While Secretary does have a male lead (who is also the top/dom in the relationship) who is unhealthy, he’s not unhealthy because of his desires but because he doesn’t know how to handle emotional intimacy. In many ways, James Spader’s Mr. Grey (I’d forgotten that was his name, how funny) uses his kink to keep Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Lee distant from him, using the structure of that relationship (as well as their business, boss/employee relationship) as a wall. It’s only when she uses that kink, uses his own tools against him by taking control of the situation as a sub, that she forces him to confront his feelings for her. Kink is shown as something they actively, positively participate in, even with Lee doing things intentionally to make Grey punish her because she likes it and is into it. She gets pleasure out of the act and she, as the sub, enjoys what he does to her and enjoys the fact that he also likes doing it and that he gets pleasure from it. Their play is mutual and cooperative. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Please, skip this movie and just rent or buy Secretary instead.

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