“Oh, I’d let Jamie Dornan tie me up. Absolutely.” My friend and I were having coffee at the Starbucks around the corner from the AMC Lincoln Square, where we’d just come from an all-media screening of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, and we were hashing out the movie. I’d asked her to come with me for one simple reason: because she’s the closest person I know to Anastasia Steele, the book’s heroine. She’s young, attractive, intelligent, and (by her definition, at least) a submissive. What she thinks about this movie is way more interesting than what I think about it.
But here’s the thumbnail traditional review, for the record: your film editor wishes it had either been much better or much worse. It’s not, as you might’ve heard, this year’s Showgirls, a deliciously terrible so-bad-it’s-good retelling of the notorious novel. There are some interesting scenes, some strong supporting performances (particularly by Marcia Gay Harden, who breezes in for a couple of scenes and really classes up the joint), and a flat-out terrific leading turn by Dakota Johnson, who knows this material is basically ridiculous and plays the comedy of it, to great effect. But it’s also too flawed to recommend — much of the dialogue is irredeemably goofy, the sex scenes are straight out of Red Shoe Diaries, Dornan is a cipher, and the slicked-up portrait of the lives of the rich is straight out of an early-‘90s Michael Douglas movie (not one, but two sequences amount to flying porn).
There’s my two cents. My friend’s take is a bit more complicated. She is, first of all, not precisely the same kind of sub that Christian Grey is trying to turn Anastasia Steele (gawd, those names) into: “I’m never in a situation where I’m saying, ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir,’” she explains. “It’s not that traditional, it’s not that formal. For me, it’s more giving up physical control. It’s saying, I am willing to be 100 percent physically vulnerable in front of you, and to allow you to push the limits of that vulnerability — because I enjoy it, and you enjoy it, and me, in that moment. But it’s never a situation, for me personally, where it’s punishment.”
And does the film manage to capture that kind of intensity and pleasure, to replicate and convey it? “I dunno. It is titillating, and it is exciting,” she grants. “And look, I think it’s great that they pumped so much money into something that is purely targeted — for all intents and purposes, whether they ever wanna say it or not — on getting women off. I think it’s great. But…”
But. That “but” is where things get scrambled when you’re talking Fifty Shades of Grey, where the concerns of kinksters merge with those of anti-porn types and sex-positive feminists and people who are generally sensible. Because even someone like me, someone not in The Scene, can feel something going horribly askew the deeper we get into this narrative, which eventually crosses over from normalizing kink to, arguably, normalizing abuse.
My friend is inclined to give a lot of leeway here. “His tying her up and hitting her with a flogger or a whip, isn’t abuse. She said yes, she gave him permission, and he did not cross a line with her.” But what’s tricky, she says, it what it takes to get her to that point. “He coerces her. She may be into it, she may find that she enjoys it, but her initial shock and dismay at his proposition? That’s honest. And he then coerces her.” Growing up, my friend read enough romance novels to understand the fantasy: “The shy, innocent girl who doesn’t know how beautiful she is meets the worldly man who is famous or wealthy or in some position of power, and he sweeps in, and he changes her mind, but she changes his heart.”
But what’s harder for her to swallow is how Fifty Shades makes it clear that a BDSM relationship is not, for Christian Grey, a kink but a requirement, and a requirement borne out of a past of abandonment (by a mother who was, no kidding, a literal crack whore) and abuse. In other words, the book and the film promote the notion that you’d have to be broken in some way to get off on this stuff.
“For me, personally, what makes this hard to dismiss is that — and this is going to sound melodramatic — in some real way, [E.L. James] pulling this general perception out of the air that everyone who does this wants to just hurt people, and is doing it because of some deep psychological trauma… that makes it harder for someone like me to negotiate my own life,” she says. “Because what if I meet some great guy whose mom or sister or ex-girlfriend has read these books and raved on an on about them, and given him the bits and pieces? And what’s formed his idea about women like me is a combination of Fifty Shades of Grey and the shit that’s out there — that’s legitimately, 100 percent abuse walking around with a ‘bondage’ sign on it — on porn sites? Does it raise my hackles a little bit? Yeah. And this makes it easier for the bad people to take advantage of [submissives] who are inexperienced, or maybe don’t have as firm a grasp on what their own limits actually are.”
And this, when you get down to it, is the fatal flaw of Fifty Shades of Grey: that it wants to be edgy and kinky and titillate us with a scene, but only to the degree that it can smash that scene into the traditional beats of a good girl/troubled guy rom-dram dynamic that’s as old as the hills (she’s honest and good, and he’s gorgeous and troubled and has to be fixed). Ultimately, James and Taylor-Johnson want to have their cake and eat it too, to revel in the sexiness of a fetish while simultaneously looking down on those who partake in it as, in some way, damaged goods.
Fifty Shades of Grey is out tomorrow in wide release.