I tried to go into Fifty Shades of Grey with an open mind. I’d heard a lot about the book, how it glorified an abusive relationship and missed the mark on real dominant/submissive relationships. But, I was willing to put that to the back of mind and instead look at is a parable on control and domination, in a wider context.
I ended up justifying it as ‘the new American Psycho‘. A hugely controversial work about murder, mayhem, personality splits and the high life of wall street. An extreme character study. Bateman is a quantifiably terrible person, but also has charming idiosyncrasies. An easy charm, a love of music and a need to fit in. This masks a need for control, homicidal tendencies and brutal exploitation of women. It was a parable on masculine privilege in a privileged world.
Grey, a CEO and BDSM-lover seemed to fit the type. American Psycho author, Bret Easton Ellis agreed, putting his name forward. But the film was a hot-potato and passed from director to director. They’d spent big due to popularity, but the source material was not up to scratch. It seemed they’d tried to pull off a serious psychological study. I was however, willing to submit myself to it. I wanted to know what it was, so I could understand it.
Within the film, several romance tropes were used. Big gestures, soft touches and brooding intensity. These, however, seems to slide off of Grey. It was ambiguous whether these tropes were being used ironically or badly. He’d use them, but they would always have a further goal. To use this girl sexually, controlling her from the get go.
His dominance is evident everywhere. His clothes, his ‘moves’, his name plastered on everything, his resources, his ginormous piano. This guy is in absolute control. Yet, the person he controls the most is himself. He is an extremely repressed individual. He became part of a sub/dom relationship at 15, he was the sub. His mother’s friend was the dominant.
This directly addressed as ‘child abuse’ within the script, but he brushes it aside, declaring her a ‘friend’ and taking her advice with Ana. She is still dominating him. He is dominating Ana. The film last words penultimate word is ‘no’. His control is taken from him. He is the submissive in his relationship with Ana too.
That’s how the film gets in your head. He is cold, emotionally unavailable, demanding, aware of his power and intimidating. Yet the ‘kinky’ sex is the only place warmth is present in anyway.
But even then, she is under his control. Her enjoyment is under his control. Submissives always have the true control. They pose the limits, not the dom. They have the final say. The safe word belongs to them. Dominants withdraw control within limits. Grey is completely dominant, in everything. The S&M is just a tool. An acceptable form of dominance because ‘it’s the name of the game’.
Yet, he convinces you that his actions have justifications. They’re understandable, so it’s okay on some level. That it’s something to be worked on. But it is his SOLE identifiable personality trait. You are placed within the mindset of the abused partner. ‘I could help him, I could change him, if I do the right things he will love me’. Yet, he is unwilling to change, or doesn’t deem it possible. Why? Because his ego is so bound by his own sense of control. He is an egotist of the highest order. She isn’t his equal, she belongs to him. His property. Another bit of ‘good business’.
His complete ‘greyness’ is a mask. He is Patrick Bateman with actual power. He is Bruce Wayne without Batman. He has been a victim of child abuse, but has reenacted it with Ana. A virgin, college senior. She’s as close to a child an abuser can legally get away with. He is forcing a young, impressionable girl into a highly exploitative relationship. The end of the film seemed important. An abrupt cancellation of his actions. A resistance, a shift in power. As a standalone film, marvellous. As part of an inevitable series, no fucking way. She MUST return to him, to fix him. To give him what he wants, so she can get what she wants. A power play in a power porn.
The fact that he is rich is all important to this. His charm is replaced by consumer goods. Cars, computers, a driver, champagne and glider sessions. He has nothing to offer her but pain. She is acutely aware of this, but accepts them as love regardless. His wealth is symbolic of his power.
His power is intoxicating. It is power porn. In every sense of the word. It doesn’t just romanticise abusive relationships, it normalises abuse in BDSM relationships & it sexualises domination in life. It makes ambiguity out of straight forward abuse, it muddies the water and it blurs the god damn lines. Keyser Soze says that the greatest trick the devil pulled is making everyone believe he doesn’t exist. This is so fucking true of Grey. The banality of evil is right there, underneath the surface, but you’re unwilling to believe it.
It forces you to recognise these behaviours in your own life, to want to see it as anything less the result of some trauma in your life. It allows the victim to become the victimiser on so many levels. His refusal to face his past honestly, to let go of control and to makes others submit to his will makes him the villain. The worst thing is, he’s completely honest about it.
He repeatedly tells Ana that he’s a danger to her. It’s at this moment, you remember very clearly that this is a Twilight adaptation. A badly written fan fiction of a badly written vampire series. We’ve basically had Anne Rice novels taken apart, separated into two distinct genres and stretched over entire franchises. This is what happens when you make a film of Fifty Shades of Grey, you get a shit film version, of a shit book, of a shit fan-fic of a shit book.
The BDSM element of this film is pretty vanilla, it doesn’t represent BDSM as all that damaging. It is the relationship outside of the BDSM that is creepy, scary and abusive. He stalks her, controls her, replaces her things with more expensive things, essentially kidnaps her at points and expresses a need to punish her for angering him. Within the safe confines of the BDSM context, this is more acceptable. In their non-sexy time, this is deeply unacceptable.
But, he is a vampire. He is an aspect of outdated, outmoded patriarchal romance trying to inhabit progressive sexual mores. It doesn’t work. It does a disservice to everyone and everything involved. It’s characters have little depth, little real psychology and are nothing more than fantasy. Perhaps that is the point of an erotic film, but this fantasy isn’t even that good. Grey represents very little apart from abusive, controlling & dominant power and Steele represents learned helplessness in the face of money, superficiality and pain. Porn, of any sort, never has a good storyline. This is not the new American Psycho, and more’s the pity.
What do you think of Fifty Shades of Grey? Have your say in the comments section below.