This morning, The Today Show aired the new “too-hot-for-morning-TV” trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey — a movie based on the book of the same name by E.L. James — set to release Valentine’s Day 2015. Apparently, nothing screams lusty, romantic holiday date movie quite like one centering around an emotionally abusive relationship that illustrates a severe misrepresentation of a BDSM lifestyle.
Truth be told, I haven’t read the book. Any of the books. I have, though, read summaries, criticisms, and reviews from both the pro and con sides. And, even without the extensive knowledge that would’ve come with reading the book, I was able to pick up on five troublesome lines that show glaring misrepresentations of life and relationships just from the trailer alone.
(Also, I can guarantee you people will see this movie without having read the books.)
1. “There’s really not much to know about me. I mean, look at me.”
Ah, the first words we hear our protagonist and narrator say about someone/thing other than Christian Grey nearly a minute into the trailer. This is the girl to whom we’re all supposed to relate. This is our narrator, telling her story, and so far all I know is how wonderful yet scary the businessman is she’s interviewing. The remaining minute and a half or so does little to clear up any information about Anastasia, but it does show us Grey’s lavish lifestyle, introduces his “complicated” backstory, and gives us a sneak peek at his less than mainstream bedroom habits, for which the series has become so popular.
Now, this could be an allusion to Bella’s “relatability” in Stephenie Meyer’s The Twilight Saga, the series on which E.L. James based her own trilogy. The argument surrounding both female protagonists is that, by giving them bland and vague personality traits, female readers — whom the books are geared toward — would be able to place themselves into the roles of either Bella or Ana, providing a more exciting reading experience. A fair argument, but instead what we see are female protagonists who don’t have a story — technically thereby giving up their rights to be protagonists — without their love interests. This presents to viewers and readers that a woman’s own personal story is incomplete — not even worth telling, as is the case in some parts of The Twilight Saga — if the “love of her life” isn’t around.
And to connect “there’s nothing interesting about me” with “because look at me?” Really? Because this woman doesn’t find herself attractive there is nothing else to her? Are we (because, remember, she’s relatable – we’re supposed to put ourselves in her shoes) really supposed to discredit everything that makes us up — our strengths and weaknesses, our likes and dislikes, our passions — because we might not believe we’re attractive? Yeah, that’s really an idea we want to put into the heads of movie viewers.
2. “I exercise control in all things, Miss Steele.”
This line is creepily uttered by Christian Grey in response to Ana’s question, “To what do you owe your success?” Clearly, this is foreshadowing to his secret (but not really anymore) BDSM lifestyle. We’re led to assume he will be the future Dom to her sub, thus she will become another thing he controls.
This is one of the things about BDSM relationships that the story gets wrong. While Doms do exercise a certain amount of control over subs (in the bedroom and sometimes in other life situations), it is not, to my understanding, complete control. Good Doms who understand the nature of a BDSM relationship respect their submissive partners. In this line, Grey is alluding to his want for complete control over Ana, for her to be a new “thing.” We can gather from the rest of the trailer that, up to this point, he’s already shown an interest in grooming her for the submissive role he needs to fill. He wants complete control over her life, but he doesn’t have any respect for her or her wants and needs. For any relationship to be successful, mutual respect is needed to be given and received by all parties.
Autumn Lokerson runs the website www.servingmaster.com, a blog style website that centers on the BDSM lifestyle she shares with her husband, Jason. In a post about what it takes to be a good Dom, she quotes her husband/Master who says:
Remember that BDSM is pretend. It is. We pretend that you’re a slave and I’m the Master, and we like to live that lifestyle, but the only reason it works is because both participants choose to make it work. Out of love. Out of mutual respect. The love and respect is what’s real, the bondage is an illusion. A healthy BDSM relationship is a healthy mixture of fantasy and reality.
Based on my impression of Christian Grey thus far, he has no interest in respecting Ana, as a submissive or as a person.
3. “I’m incapable of leaving you alone.”
This line is another example of Grey’s inappropriate control over Ana’s life, AND is an example of phrasing abusers use to keep their significant others from leaving. In fact, this sort of codependence — particularly when exhibited by men in relationships — is frequently seen as the epitome of romance. “How much must this person love me that I’m apparently all that they think about, all that they want to think about?” In reality, this is a manipulative technique used by abusers to isolate their victim: if you’re all they can think about, is it not fair then that they should be all you think about? In extreme cases, this could mean that the abuser doesn’t even see the victim as his/her own person, but rather as an extension of themselves.
4. “I had a rough start in life. You should steer clear of me.”
This one kind of goes hand in hand with the last one. I was unsure of Christian’s backstory when I first saw this trailer. And, unfortunately, for the sake of this article, I did some research on his character. Through the Fifty Shades of Grey Wiki page, I found that he was, as I suspected, exposed to physical and emotional abuse of the women in his life as he grew up. According to Dr. David M. Allen, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus, University of Tennessee Health Science Center:
While it is important to realize that not all abusers were abused as children, and that many if not most people who are abused do not go on to become abusers themselves, child abuse is most likely the single largest risk factor – biological, psychological, or sociocultural – for later adult abusive behavior.
We’re not explicitly told that Christian himself was abused. He did, however, see the women in his life — who were all in different sorts of relationships — “dealt with” by the men in their life with physical and emotional abuse.
Now, ideally, Anastasia Steele would have listened to Christian Grey say this, dropped him, and gone about her life in search of a healthy relationship, should that be what she wanted. However, she didn’t, and two more books were written and a movie was made. Instead, the viewer/reader is made aware that Grey acknowledges how his presence could be harmful to Ana, yet still allows himself to take up space in her life because, here’s the kicker: he hasn’t learned anything about emotionally stable relationships.
The Wiki page says that he learned to deal with controlling his emotions and channeling his anger through the BDSM lifestyle, which was introduced to him by his first Domme, a friend of his adopted mother’s. However, the Wiki page also alludes to the fact that he still hasn’t dealt with his internalized hatred for women, citing how he calls his mother “the crack whore” and how therapy never quite worked out for him. This could point to why he is abusive and ill-fitted to be a Dom: instead of forming healthy BDSM relationships with consenting submissives, he seems interested only in controlling and torturing the girls who had been chosen for him. Ana, the Wiki says, was the first submissive he chose for himself. At the beginning of the series, she’s a virgin, and I have a hard time believing that he took the time to explain to her how respect and consent work within the confines of a BDSM relationship (although, please, correct me if I’m wrong on this).
5. “I don’t do romance… My tastes are very singular. You wouldn’t understand.”
Christian Grey says this line just before a montage of his collection of blindfolds, ropes, whips, etc., are shown as a new recording of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” builds in the background.
Again, the story gets BDSM relationships wrong. The presence of BDSM in a relationship does not mean the absence of romance. In fact, arguably, for Dom/sub relationships to be successful, a certain amount of care and romance must be present — especially provided by the Dom — in order to utilize proper communication during a tryst and proper care for the sub after.
He also makes it a point to tell her that she wouldn’t understand his interests. However, statistics show that 2-3% of American adults play with BDSM — that’s around 5 million people — and 20% of adults report some arousal from BDSM images or stories. Even people who don’t subscribe to the BDSM lifestyle admit to its influence in their own bedrooms: a Playboy poll from 1998 found that 18% of men and 20% of women have used a blindfold during sex, 30% of men and 32% of women have tied someone up/have been tied up during sex, and 49% of men and 38% of women have spanked/been spanked as a part of sex. The statistics show that Grey is hardly alone in his sexual desires.
By dismissing her intrigue in adding, “You wouldn’t understand,” he’s effectively making sure she can’t and won’t understand. Lacking this understanding, Ana could in no way know that the way Christian treats her in the guise of being a Dom is not acceptable.
Long story short (too late), Fifty Shades of Grey is not (and should not be) an example of a healthy relationship, sado-masochistic or otherwise. If the BDSM lifestyle interests you, please look for more accurate accounts of what that relationship should look like (again, I point you to “The Good Dom” and “The Good Submissive” articles from servingmaster.com for an idea). And if you or anyone you know is in a relationship that seems a bit too much like Christian and Ana’s, please reach out to one of these hotlines (US and international numbers are available through the link).
And, please, if you like me even a little bit, don’t spend any money on the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. Ever.