Where there is heroism, there is good representation of women. Coincidence?
As you've likely gathered by now, Fifty Shades Darker opens in theaters today—chosen, of course, as the closest Friday to Valentine’s Day. I guess marketers are still selling this story as some sexy romantic outing, but I couldn't be more turned off. Spending an evening watching the character of Christian Grey? Nothing could sound like a less appealing date night.
But, aren’t there countless women out there who enjoy reading E. L. James’ trilogy? Well, sure. The series has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide; the 2015 film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, featuring Dakota Johnson as Anastasia (“Ana”) Steele and Jamie Dornan as Grey, earned $81.7 million on its opening weekend. But when I think about its popularity, I realize that clearly people aren’t having the same experience I have with Grey and Steele. In my view, this book could legitimately come with a trigger warning: Do not read this book if you’ve experienced sexual assault, domestic violence, controlling partners, or if you don’t want to see any of the above painted in a positive and sexy light. By the look of the ads, it seems like the same could be said for this year's movie.
I for one could have used such a warning. When Fifty Shades first came out, I, too, wanted to know what the craze was all about, so I read the books. But it didn't excite me. I have met my fair share of Christian Grey types (albeit, without the billionaire trappings). I was date-raped while in college. During that time in my life I was active in the hookup culture, and I found unwanted sexual advances to be a regular occurrence. Since removing myself from that lifestyle, I have connected with larger communities of women and realized I'm not alone; these are real problems many women face. So it’s disturbing to me that films like the Fifty Shades franchise are selling damaging messages wrapped up as romance on the big screen, directly to the minds of young women and men.
As I read it, this was a story of a man who was raped as a 15-year-old child, who has severe psychological problems as a result, and who instead of seeking help to resolve them, copes by imitating the aggressive, violent sexual encounters of his childhood abuse with other people. In this case it’s with Steele, a naive girl whom Grey forced himself on in an elevator to deliver his first kiss. So started their relationship, which he proposes should be one of bondage/discipline, sadism/masochism (BDSM)—a relationship where she must be "submissive" while he, the "dominant," can beat her for his sexual gratification. All the while, Grey pours lavish gifts on Steele from his excessive wealth, serving to sweeten the deal while reminding her he is much more powerful than her. Accepting them, Steele falls deeper into the rabbit hole of Grey’s strange and enticing world, growing in hope that maybe she can change him.
The fantasy continues at the start of Fifty Shades Darker. The book starts with Steele having left the relationship with Grey. In 2015, Gail Dines, author and professor of sociology and women's studies at Wheelock College in Boston, explained how unrealistic that is—how in fact most women who meet real-life Christian Greys end up battered or in graveyards. But this is fiction, so we see Steele acting as a free agent and forging her life without him. Shortly into the story, we see that Grey won’t let her off easy. He literally buys out her new employer, wielding his control over her all the more; all the while, the story sympathizes with his controlling tendencies, harking back to how he was abused as a child.
This is completely disturbing. Yes, women can put up with a lot of crap hoping things will change, but especially when it comes to real relationships with abusive partners, romance and an abuse-sympathizing plot are a really bad combination. Fifty Shades sells it as a good thing. In effect, it's a pornified story—not only in explicit content, but in its submission to fantasy over reality. It takes the dysfunction of child abuse, aggression and control over women, and effectively says “it’s all better now.” Just sign on the dotted line to repeat.
Rape against boys in our society is sadly not treated with the gravity it deserves. In Fifty Shades Darker, Steele meets the woman who raped Grey, and a strange jealousy ensues. Steele calls her “Mrs. Robinson” as a humorous means of evading the reality of what happened to him and is now part of her own life. As someone who has experienced rape myself, I shudder. Hollywood gave the rapist in this story a name, Elena Lincoln, not a mug shot, and invitations to fabulous parties instead of inclusion on sex offender lists. She’s a big player in the story, a rival of Steele for Grey’s attention.
No doubt the idea of women competing to please a man is one that fits nicely in the fantasy world of porn. Whether the influence is porn or something else, when I look back at my years of participating in the hookup culture, most of the encounters involved me being on the receiving end of a man’s unwanted advance. The guy I was studying with, who had a girlfriend, who unexpectedly went for my pants. The guy who tried to sneak into my bed after a night of partying. The guy who quickly rounded the bases to intercourse before I knew what was happening, who then became a long-time boyfriend. The guy who date-raped me while I was crying and unable to move. The good guy friend whose couch I slept on while passing through town, who made a move after swearing multiple times he would never do such a thing.
I endured these experiences, brushed them off, hoped for a better tomorrow. And with the exception of the date rape, I know I have myself partly to blame for submitting to unwanted encounters. But now, I realize they weren't easily brushed off. I am saddened when I think about how much of my sexually exploratory years involved aggressive men dictating my first impressions of sexual encounters; my agency over my sexuality became a passive role.
Steele’s role as submissive in the sexual relationship and passive in the interpersonal relationship reminds me of my agency-numbing past. The only difference is that in the Fifty Shades world, this is somehow sexy and liberating for her. I can speak to the fact that, in reality, it's not. She may go along with things and technically consent in the relationship, but she’s not writing her sexual history as much as letting someone else. Her sexual experiences will be forever shaped by Grey’s distorted thinking.
In a healthy relationship, two equal parties write the script of their complementary engagement together. There is no power-over-another element obstructing that. But Fifty Shades Darker calls such healthy relationships “vanilla.” When Steele returns to Grey and insists on no more sexual “punishment,” the two joke about their new relationship status as the most boring flavor of ice cream. He even gives her a charm featuring an ice cream cone, and she wears it. But a relationship based on viewing each other as equals is not a step down from a more exciting flavor, it’s the building block of anything good in human interaction. Instead of different ice cream flavors, a more accurate metaphor would be to call a healthy relationship food, and anything close to abuse poison.
A story where any fruitful relationship can happen after one party has assaulted the other is false and dangerous. Possibly the main reason Fifty Shades hooks female readers is because it holds out hope for a fruitful, healthy relationship, albeit vanilla, between Grey and Steele. But in real life, good things don’t come from unhealed abusive relationships.
Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer stories that, even if they're about difficult topics, help me to see the beauty in real life. Where Fifty Shades touches on reality at all, it reminds me of the darkest moments I've lived in real life and relishes in them. If my bad experiences equip me to better see how destructive these messages can be, then I guess they’re not for nothing. But I sure hope those of us who have had the misfortune to see these abuses first hand can start writing better stories than this—stories that don’t sexualize assault, trivialize rape, or demote safe relationship dynamics to boring.
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures