“Fifty Shades of Grey” is not a good movie. The script is clunky, the tone is inconsistent. Jamie Dornan is a snooze-fest. Its source material was poor literature, even as harlequin and romance writing traditions go, and the film's loyalties to the book's structure and characters is a real detriment.
The film — now a massive box office success after its opening weekend — does have its redeeming qualities. For one, Dakota Johnson is a trooper, providing some much-needed fun to the frequently strained story. Also, even and especially as large-scale release geared toward women, “Fifty Shades” treats sex differently than many commercial dramas and rom-coms (and not just because of the BDSM). For all its controversies, the film purposely eschews some of the book's pitfalls to hint at a much more complicated tale about the bedroom and consenting adults.
Below I outline some things the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie brings to the conversation about sex and women onscreen, and where those notions run into trouble in the film.
The woman doesn't orgasm
Not every woman “finishes” singing the sweet strains of “'Ah! Sweet Mysteries of Life.” And, in fact, 30% of women have difficulty reaching orgasm and some studies say as many as 25% of women cannot achieve orgasm at all. That's why it's interesting that a film such as this — that is centered on sex, sexual curiosity and experimenting in bed — doesn't focus on the “finish line,” but the journey. Perhaps Anastasia made her “O face” with all the gasping enthusiasm of the “When Harry Met Sally” diner scene at some point in their romance; however, for a film about a man who knows what he likes in the bedroom and a woman who hasn't a clue, the fantasy stayed firm on her arousal (and when she quit being aroused).
The problem: It's a shame that the story, as written, is about a virgin, and a girl who can't bring anything to the table (as it were) as to what arouses her.
Condoms and birth control
Christian Grey puts on a condom — twice — and it's no big deal. He doesn't open the condom packages with much fanfare, there's no lasting shot on his or her face nodding in flushed and self-satisfied approval, no lingering on the amount of time it takes to put the condom on. Safe sex is an ingredient of healthy sex and the film is just like, “We got this.” Rom-coms have made a romp of the dramas behind condom usage; and distinct lack of condoms in dramas is actually pretty stressful — either because the female lead can or will get pregnant or everyone in the audience is thinking “I hope they're STD-free.”
And Ana's totally down with oral contraceptive clause in her contract — cool! — and even makes a joke about it right before they get-it-on, just to mess with him. Kinda funny. There's clearly a lack of good birth control jokes out there.
The problem: The oral contraceptive clause could be conflated with sub-dom terms. And, sure, it could be part of that whole interplay, but more importantly safe sex between two consenting adults should ALSO include a mention on Christian's part that he's STD free and will not have sex other partners, including with his “friend” Mrs. Robinson, whom Ana does not trust. It seemingly shifts the impetus of safe sex to the woman's side, which considering Christian Grey's specific tastes and number of partners, deserves a fair agreement from both sides. Ana could've used a sex lawyer to negotiate that term, so the whole audience could benefit.
Also, doctors suggest waiting to have sex (or using additional contraceptive) seven days after first taking birth control.
Female arousal and foreplay
Yes, a sex contract is ridiculous. But the contract negotiation scene was HOT, and the pair barely even touched each other. The fact that Christian recognizes all the signs of Anastasia's arousal, and calls them by name, is hot. The fact that merely talking about sex can be a form of foreplay is really hot.
After putting a blindfold on wary Ana in his playroom for the first time, Christian explains that it's “all in your head” — pain, fear and arousal — and then he lightly swats her open palm with a leather switch. Her reaction is seemingly of surprise an relief.
At one point, as a “punishment,” Christian bends Anastasia over his knee and spanks her. This is new to her, and he's not exactly tactful about it, and it is hilarious. So she laughs.
The “Fifty Shades of Grey” film goes out of its way to reveal different levels of female arousal, and how a woman does not simply go from “zero to orgasm,” and that not all sexual play works off the bat. Christian's fantasies and tastes may drive the ship, but we most frequently see and experience Anastasia's different and varied levels of arousal, sometimes in her own apartment and in her own bed. His turn-ons are complex, and her being turned on looks, sounds and feels complex. Because sex can be extremely complex.
The problem: Jamie Dornan's character is boring and so despite the fact that his character is traditionally good looking and (despite his protestations) has a pretty good handle on romantic gestures, it is being extremely generous as to how and why Anastasia is turned on by him except that he is “intimidating.” Jamie Dornan was miscast and his chemistry with Dakota Johnson (who is, given the circumstances, amazing) is nil. So this important foray into foreplay gets lost in the laughs.
She also seems to go from “virgin” to “let's hit the playroom and I'll stay in the sub guest room” in, what, like three weeks? I ain't judging her, but making that fast leap takes a little more care, cinematically, more than “they're falling in love, that's why.”
“Fellatio” was written into the contract, but we never see it. What we do see Christian going down on Ana. This is a shift from the male gaze to the female's.
It's crazy that there are sex-heavy dramas like “Love & Other Drugs” with a bag full of blow-jobs for Jake Gyllenhaal's character but no mouth action for Anne Hathaway's. It's kind of a trip that a film of this sort managed to make a cut clean enough for an R-rating, period, but especially after films like “The Counselor,” “Blue Valentine” and “Black Swan” had to fight for (or, in “Blue Valentine's” case, lose the battle) over cunnilingus.
“Fifty Shades” managed to depict Christian giving Ana oral sex without tripping that wire, and even made it so she didn't have to go tit-for-tat (as it were).
The problem: I have no problem with this.
“I thought it would be dirtier!”
More than any other movie I've watched and read about in the last decade, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is being decried for being both smutty and not being smutty enough.
There are writers and viewers who are genuinely mystified that an R-rated film created for the commercial masses and specifically women didn't get dirtier.
This has part to do with our broken, busted and misleading MPAA rating system. This also has to do with intention and audience, that perhaps the aim was not to create something “filthy,” but “fantastical” or “whimsical” or “dirty 101.”
What “Fifty Shades” has done differently and successfully is become a runaway box office success while existing in this MPAA… erm… gray zone. We can't have penis in R-rated films. We can't have clits or labia. We can't have realistic reactions on women's faces while a man's face is buried in her vagina. So it's not always pretty, but it had to work for the film to have its release.
The problem: Lines like “I f*ck… hard” thud on impact because we don't actually see him f*cking all that hard, plus ugh Jamie Dornan. There's some definite scriptural differences between what is said, what is seen and what is unseen, making its “promises” of kink, bondage, discipline, dominance and submission come off soft, if not outright campy.
Why Ana is a virgin
The societal obsession with women's virginity can be seen in the cruel, disdainful or downright dirty terminology around it: “first times” can be called “popping the cherry,” “losing” virginity, “deflowering,” “giving it up.” Those terms and our condescending/edifying views of the virginal take away the agency of the woman, that having sex is a loss, a less-than, a prize to be won, a passive activity, a plucking of the petals of a systematically and historically oppressed class of person, aligning their virginity to their worth.
Christian, for his sexual purposes, views Ana's virginity as being valuable, or worth more. Which is pretty predictable, very yuck. What I like though, and what I think the film does differently than other socially awkward romantic-interest lady-klutzes, is that Christian asks 21- or 22-year-old Ana why she is still a virgin. And her answer isn't that “nobody's ever asked” or “I'm a wallflower, what is sex” or “my family has experienced deep tragedy and I'm emotionally detached” or “I have a terminal illness so it's hard to get laid.” She said she hasn't slept with anybody basically because she hasn't been hot for anybody. Which may be one of the best reasons not to sleep with anybody ever.
The problem: I wish the “50 Shades” film had taken a different tack than the book, or like how “Cabin in the Woods” toyed with its “virgin” being “virginal enough” to build its character. But it didn't.
It stuck by Ana being a virgin and Christian (who was raped when he was barely a teenager and has had at least 15 other sexual partners by age 27) is super-psyched about it. OK, whatever, I could see a point being made about why their wildly different sexual comeuppances as a source of intensity, tension and compatibility. I'll take a leap for argument's sake. But within that argument, her virginity and it being her first relationship is also their Kryptonite as a functioning couple, and Christian's excitement around her virginity has more to do with his conditioning than it does about her as a person and a character. Lame.
Addressing the line between BDSM play and abuse
Anastasia gives Christian consent to show her just how hard he actually wants to hit her in his Red Room of Pain. She wants to know the boundary — and not in a flirtatious way. He warns her that she probably won't like it. She takes the six lashes anyway — all of them — delivered during a time where he is distressed about his job (or… something?) and the status of their relationship was coming to a crossroads. There is a lot of physical and emotional pain. It is at this point that Anastasia walks, and Christian recognizes a plain rift in their spoken and unspoken social-sexual contract.
BDSM on the whole has been dismissed because of the lack of belief that somebody who is caused pain, whipped, made to submit, or held in bondage can experience sexual pleasure. Practitioners of healthy BDSM play will beg to differ.
The book on the whole has been dismissed similarly, with the additional and very important note that Christian Grey does not respect Anastasia Steele's agency over the pain she can and will endure; this means that their sexual relationship is not only unhealthy, it is abusive. The film addresses this course in its final playroom scene, heavy with the weight of Anastasia and Christian's frustrations.
The problem: The script and storyline don't make this zone exactly clear — where the line for Anastasia is drawn, whether by pain or circumstance. It is in part because of the greenness of her character, and partly because the script is written in way that in no way resembles how two people actually talk to each other in real life. Christian Grey's anger and his arousal in this final playroom scene is extremely complicated, but the scene does a poor job in explaining this convolution because the film only lightly grazed these ideas.
No fewer than four scenes in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” film address consent directly, with Christian repeating that Ana can not only say “no” to their play, but can change her mind at any time.
I heard that, originally, Ana was going to say “red” instead of “no” to Christian as she gets in the elevator in the last scene; I like that they went with “no” instead, shying away from the “cute” thing to do in a circumstance where a woman says exactly what she thinks, under her own necessity and rule.
The reality is that in America one out of four women will be sexually assaulted, sexually abused or raped in her lifetime. Claims from victims of assault, abuse and rape are frequently dismantled if the victim has previously consented to sex or consented to prior sexual contact; this false notion is a blight on freedom, stripping women of their self-efficacy and their ability to decline sexual activity whenever and however they want, even while they're in the midst of sex.
Intoxication and drugging also underlines sexual assault from national-scale athlete-rapes at universities to Bill Cosby's alleged assault tactics as told by about three dozen victims.
Now more than ever we need our political, cultural and creative leaders to engage with the problem of sexual violence and assault. A portrayal on-screen of two individuals pointedly discussing “yes” and “no” and — yes — even “I don't know” is not only refreshing, it's apparently very necessary. Many romantic dramas and rom-coms films skip the scene where the man and the woman discuss or second-guess their sexual desires and needs, where any baggage, fears and “don'ts” go straight out the window BECAUSE THEY'RE JUST SO INTO EACH OTHER (or drunk). The fact that there is such a confusion and needed discussion around consent makes scenes like these in “50 Shades” so important. The fact that Christian doesn't have sex with Ana when she's drunk is directly spoken. And why “yes means no” “jokes” like those featured in the “Pitch Perfect 2” trailer so off-base.
The problem: That final scene. As mentioned in the point above, there is a hazy line between abuse and sexual play, and Christian crossed it even with Ana's consent. That makes it a problematic depiction of consented sexual contact and its repercussions, redirecting and confusing that question of consent to “was that a sex act” and “what is bad sex” and “was that sex?”
Christian tries normalizing his abuse
Victims of sexual trauma and abuse can turn to BDSM as a source to normalize their baggage and behaviors. It can be a way to go back to the source of pain revamp it into a source of pleasure.
Christian bears the scars of physical abuse, and while he's not ready to admit to himself or Anastasia that he endured sexual abuse as teenager as a sub to an older dom, he was very clearly abused then. He admits that his fetishes and kinks have a clear lineage to that trauma. As evidenced particularly in the latest scenes, he further reveals that his fantasies can frighten his partners, and even scares himself. But here, a male sexual assault victim is trying to harness those traumas into something that is empowering to him.
This isn't something we see very often in plain view in film and, in turn, isn't always in plain view of survivors of sexual assault.
The problem: The keyword “attempt.” Just because Christian knows he's trying to supplant past pains with pleasures doesn't mean he's particularly good at it. He's a poor communicator, wishy-washy in his pursuit of Ana, and unclear in his intentions of having her as a “kept woman” and as his Actual Girlfriend. Christian is a sexual assault victim who is dangerously manipulative and stalkerish with a vulnerable woman. He needs therapy more than another sexual partner. This notion of sexual healing is far too advanced and complex for this movie, which isn't even about That.