Like so many people I went to see 50 Shades of Grey this past Valentine’s Day weekend. I wasn’t expecting much and gave the movie a 6 out of 10 for the overall portrayal and entertainment factor. But that’s not the real story of this film based on the tens of millions of copies the book sold worldwide. You have to have been on Mars for the last few years not to have heard about the three books that made up the 50 Shades trilogy. The book was a poorly written fairy tale of a young virgin and a predatory dominant called Grey, and their ongoing relationship both in and out of the bedroom. In my professional opinion, Grey was far less of a dominant and far more of a sadist with a borderline personality disorder. What the book did was spark the conversation about the mainstreaming of domination and submission play. It offered up the first written contract between the Master and Slave ever produced in a widely read book. It was a portrayal of a fairly dysfunctional relationship with some hotly written sex scenes. But at the end of the day it was farfetched fiction.
What the movie did was show all those warts in high definition.
It certainly wasn’t a love story. In my opinion it wasn’t the least bit erotic. I have been stimulated by many movies in the past and this one didn’t rate on the Sue tingly scale. And mostly it certainly wasn’t an accurate depiction of healthy BDSM play. I went to the movie with 43 friends in our fun social group we affectionately call The Ducklings (read more details about the Ducklings here). We debriefed afterwards and anyone who is or has been in a BDSM relationship (including a number in our group) was left feeling angry and debased. Angry that their desires to exchange power with a willing, consensual and equal partner done without coercion was misused and shown as perverted. Sex happens between equals. In the story Grey has the power, the experience, and decides how and when the relationship (and the sex) takes place. That’s not equal. The heroine Anastasia has to navigate his moods while learning about sex, power, degradation and being a girlfriend all at the same time. I thought as a character she was put in a near impossible situation to hold onto herself. It was her portrayal of that conflict between power and powerlessness that saved the movie. I disagree with many movie reviewers that have said that Anastasia didn’t have a voice. I thought she said no many times, didn’t use her safe word at anytime and set her limits and stuck to them. Including up to the time when she walked out of the relationship.
I was interviewed last week about the controversy surrounding this movie.
I said that I hadn’t seen it but was happy that we were collectively discussing sex and power as a culture. Given the Jian Ghomeshi assault charges here in Canada where Ghomeshi tried to pass off sexual assault as consensual BDSM play, it’s great that this conversation continues with a widespread audience. But as depicted in this movie, or any other assault couched as BDSM play, should in no way imply that anyone who wants to play in the BDSM space is sick or abusive. And you would be astounded at just how many people have these fantasies of being taken, being dominated or to have someone take over complete control in a sexual situation. Being taken by a faceless stranger (or past or present partner) is the most common female sexual fantasy. The fantasy is hot for most women. The reality would be terrifying. It’s okay if we want to be spanked, tied up or taken. Its okay if we desire to do just that to a willing partner. Despite how we choose to think, sexual desires are NOT politically correct. Fantasies aren’t edited. They are what they are, and sexual desire never works when you simply try harder to be something that you are not. It doesn’t work with sexual orientation, it doesn’t work with sexual chemistry and it doesn’t work to control what you find sexually compelling. You can control your behaviour, not what authentically turns you on. Provided sex play is safe and consensual, however you choose to rub your genitals together should be nobody’s place to judge.
But many people continue to judge without information. Listening to morning talk show hosts, or Fox news anchors it would appear that anyone who has these fantasies were being marginalized by most of the media I heard discussing the movie. Broadcasters might think twice if they knew how many of their audience have thought about or engaged in some kind of kinky play. 50 Shades of Grey tapped into those powerful fantasies and impacted a HUGE group of people who wanted to act them out. There is a 50 Shades of Grey makeup line, line of lingerie and a widely distributed try-this-at-home bondage gear and sex toy kit.
50 Shades of Grey may have perpetuated the imbalance of power and makes me cringe as a feminist. But the floodgates have opened. Look for more mainstream movies and books to come out that explore varying sexual tastes. Especially those with a power exchange.