It’s Not So Bad: Give ’50 Shades of Grey’ Is Actually Pretty Darn Good

06.02.15 2 years ago
Our weekly column in which writers defend the indefensible
I”ve never read any of the “50 Shades of Grey” books because the internet pre-educated me about the “my inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves” material. I knew I wouldn”t be able to handle the novels the way I can”t handle the acquaintance in my Facebook feed whose posts are 99% Zumba class reminiscences.

When the movie first came out in theaters, the Internet informed me that it was bad for women because it glamorizes an abusive relationship. Anastasia Steele loses herself and her power under the control of billionaire Christian Grey (I would have named him Christian Greye, but that”s me). This may be the case with the books– I”ll never know because all quotes I”ve seen point to Anastasia”s narration being the literary equivalent of feather hair extensions, and I can”t do it. But I did watch the movie recently on VOD… and I think it”s pretty good.

When I say the movie is good, I mean not only that I enjoyed it far, far more than many other movies I”ve watched with higher Rotten Tomatoes ratings, but also that I think it”s pulling some very interesting maneuvers. I would go so far as to say that I think this is an excellent movie to rent for your teenage daughter and her friends at a birthday sleepover. In my day that movie was “Just One Of The Guys,” and we had to rewind the breasts to study them after we walked five miles in the snow. But with this movie, there are both multiple opportunities to explore feelings about breasts and additionally male pubic hair.  

I came into this movie hearing that it was about a man who tries to break a woman into being what he wants her to be. In fact, this movie is delightfully about a woman who keeps showing an overly curated man that he”s a tool (the hardware motif running through the film is no joke).

This dynamic certainly has something to do with the fact that Dakota Johnson brings friction to her role whereas Jamie Dornan is the guy at the party who nervously hugs the corner while wearing a glazed smile that says, “I”m loving it! This is cool!” At every turn, Dakota”s Anastasia lets Christian know that his persona is a bunch of dopey theater. In no way is this movie a straightforward romantic fantasy.

Filmic Christian is a character who doesn”t know himself. He says he “doesn”t do romance” when this is essentially all that he does. He says he”s unable to share a bed with a woman, which is exactly what he chooses to do the first time he gets Anastasia to his hotel room (he”s super rich; do not tell me that he couldn”t either get a second room or order up a cot). He acts like he”s really good at Business, but his seriously presented sex contract is such a joke to Anastasia that [spoiler alert!] she never signs it, despite this device functioning as the only ticking clock of the film.

Christian is like the aesthetics of the film itself– stylish, upscale, moody– but he”s a walking blind spot, a Kenny Powers on the inside. There are plenty of movies about a woman saving a man with her good, good love. But this movie is ballsier than that because Anastasia isn”t trying to pull something soft out of Christian. The softness is already there, on display from their very first meeting. She keeps rolling her eyes at him, laughing at him, messing with him, sighing at him. It”s a lot of fun. And, at the same time, extremely far from a glamorization.

Anastasia is a character who does know herself. She knows that she doesn”t want to lose her virginity until she finds a guy who makes her vagine sing Bailomos (there”s my audition to ghostwrite the “50 Shades” prequel). She knows that she wants to bone Christian Grey, and she”s very straightforward and unwavering about this. She knows she has an aptitude for hardware. She knows she thinks Christian”s contract is really dumb, and by god, she tries to wrap her head around an alternate mindset on the subject but ultimately finds she has to stick to that belief.

Christian”s arc is when will he self actualize. In response, the movie is like “…ehhh, hold on.” But Anastasia”s arc is self-actualization. She begins the movie not sure what it”s going to take for her to say yes to sex. That query gets resolved pretty quickly; what turns her on is a hot ass, rich, quiet guy with a helicopter and not some creechy photographer friend who can”t read body language. I think this is totally fair. But then the question evolves and transforms into where will she discover her “no.” Which brings me to what I find to be a pretty stellar ending.

In short, Christian whips Anastasia with a belt six times because she wants to see the worst of him. She cries during the whipping. She spends the night in her own room, and then walks out on Christian in the morning. Credits roll– you realize you”ve just seen a harsh and amazing parting shot, particularly for a studio film. Detractors say this last playroom scene shows the breaking of Anastasia: she gives into something she doesn”t want to do and is literally wounded for it. But when I watched this scene, I felt that it was Christian who takes the beating.

My reading of the scene is this: that Anastasia allows– allows!– Christian to hurt her so she can show him what a poser he is. It”s her being willing to incur temporary physical pain in order to out the falseness of his persona. Because when Christian is whipping Anastasia, does he look turned on? He doesn”t. He looks like he has a lot of childhood anger issues that are definitely not resolved by sexual kinks. He looks like Anastasia has called his bluff, and he”s staring into the vacuum of his own personality. She gives him one more chance that night when she tells him she”s fallen in love; in code, she is asking, are you ready to be a person and not just a penis?

But Christian can”t do it. He can”t be himself, which is a self that incorporates both cuddling and fairly light S&M. He can”t defragment, unlike Rick in “Just One of The Guys” when Rick is ultimately able to reconcile his attraction to both feminine and masculine traits. So Anastasia walks right out of the movie, knowing she can do better. And the fifteen year-olds at your daughter”s slumber party have an animated 3 a.m. discussion about sex, wealth, and power while they finish off the leftover pizza you thought you were going to eat cold for breakfast– goddessdamnit, you forgot to say your Papa John”s safe word.

Andrea Seigel is the screenwriter of Laggies and the co-author of the new YA novel Everybody Knows Your Name.

Check out other columns in this series at: hitfix.com/not-so-bad

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