The “Fifty Shades” series, originally written as “Twilight” fanfiction by author E.L. James, according to Forbes, took off as a best-selling trilogy and now movie franchise about the protagonist Anastasia Steele’s fraught BDSM — bondage, dominance, submission, and masochism — style relationship with the super wealthy, super moody millionaire Christian Grey. The second movie in this franchise, “Fifty Shades Darker,” was released on Feb. 14.
A movie about this sort of relationship — especially given its “Twilight” background and massive appeal with middle-aged women — naturally garners criticism from a whole range of parties, from religious groups to feminists.
Asking whether or not a movie is feminist isn’t necessarily simple; a movie may have a female main character and still not be feminist. A movie can have a female main character and depict her enjoying sex, even unusual sex, and still not be feminist. “Fifty Shades” is one of those series.
There are, generally, three arguments about the “Fifty Shades” series:
- Anastasia and Christian are in a sexual relationship, and people enjoy reading about them having sex (or watching them have some classy R-rated sex), so the movie is “sex positive.” Feminists shouldn’t complain about it.
- “Fifty Shades” shows an inaccurate version of BDSM, which harms women in the BDSM community.
- “Fifty Shades” doesn’t show a BDSM relationship, it shows an abusive one. It’s not feminist.
The books and movies of the “Fifty Shades” series are supposed to be sexy, and brought sex into the mainstream conversation with the explosion of the book’s popularity. It depicts Anastasia Steele’s “sexual awakening,” and was extremely popular with adult women. As an R-rated movie, “Fifty Shades” wasn’t marketed to children or teenagers. Although minors may have seen advertisements, especially on Youtube, children under 17 can’t actually watch the movie — unless they have parental permission. The adults consuming “Fifty Shades” won’t be surprised by anything in it, especially after the intense media fervor surrounding the series.
As described in a 2017 People magazine interview, the BDSM community has heavily criticized “Fifty Shades” for its inaccuracies, especially because Christian sometimes acts without Anastasia’s full consent. Although “Fifty Shades” brought BDSM into the mainstream, some argue it didn’t bring an accurate view, and some think that this reduces the sex-positive argument.
The most compelling argument against “Fifty Shades” addresses the abusive aspects of Anastasia and Christian’s relationship. As described in the Huffington Post, “An analysis of the first book found that the so-called romantic relationship between Christian and Ana was characterised by intimate partner violence. Using the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definitions, researchers found that emotional abuse and sexual violence were pervasive throughout.” The relationship in “Fifty Shades” is an incredibly unhealthy one, reflecting domestic abuse more than it reflects any real-world relationship dynamics. This, more than the BDSM argument, removes any possibility for “Fifty Shades” to be feminist. It romanticizes an abusive relationship, and intimate partner violence impacts far too many women.
But does that mean that people shouldn’t see “Fifty Shades Darker?”
I won’t, but that doesn’t mean that other people shouldn’t. I am, after all, not appointed by some mythical International Cabal of Feminists to speak to the ultimate virtue of pop culture movies, and I don’t believe in telling other people what to do — especially when those people are adults. It’s not a feminist movie, but acting like the women seeing it are anti-feminist, or like they can’t complain about real-world oppression, is a false argument for one key reason.
“Fifty Shades Darker,” and everything else in the “Fifty Shades” series, is fiction. It’s not real. Anastasia Steele isn’t really being hurt by this relationship, because she’s not a real person. Her sexual relationship isn’t real, the inaccurate BDSM isn’t real, and — most importantly — the abuse she faces isn’t real. “Fifty Shades” isn’t a good representation for women, but it is at its core a fictional work. As long as the adults viewing it don’t adopt the negative aspects into their own realities, “Fifty Shades” stays fictional. “Fifty Shades” — like “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings” and “Legally Blonde” — only has as much power as we grant it.
It’s not feminist, but it also isn’t real.
You shouldn’t use “Fifty Shades” as a BDSM guide – or a relationship guide – but what’s the harm in seeing a kind of boring sequel for your own entertainment? There have been movies that are worse for women, there will be movies that are worse for women, and people are going to see “Fifty Shades Darker” for their own reasons – like actor Jamie Dornan’s beautiful face.