ESSAY: Fifty Shades of Foul Play: Why This Critic Won't See the Movie

Author's Note: This piece was written for the Swarthmore Review, the student-run literary and culture magazine of Swarthmore College.

Trigger warning for mentions of rape, assault, stalking, abusive relationships.

“How did you find me?”
“I tracked your cell phone, Anastasia.”

I remember when I first read “Fifty Shades of Grey”; in fact, I bought it from the Swarthmore College Bookstore sometime around freshman orientation.  I’d heard, of course, that it was apparently this incredibly sexy and risqué book.  I’d seen people carrying it around, reading it in bookstores and airports, shoving it out of sight when they thought someone might be watching them read it.  Naturally, my curiosity about “Fifty Shades of Grey” grew, because if there’s one thing that inspires curiosity about anything (at least in my mind), it’s being given the message that said thing is taboo.  Alternate-universe versions of Edward Cullen and Bella Swan--with actual sex?  I didn’t see any problem with that, and the idea that women seemed to be gravitating towards “Fifty Shades of Grey” in droves, that it was being classified as “mommy porn”, also interested me.  As the budding feminist that I was back then, I was glad that a book that was centered on a woman’s sexual pleasure without apologizing for it had finally made it into the mainstream conversation.  What could possibly be bad about that?

“No,” I protest, trying to kick him off.
He stops. “If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet, too. If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you.”

When criticism of the book started gaining mainstream attention, my reaction, at first, was to defend it—it’s sexy!  It’s BDSM, you prudes! It’s harmless fiction! It’s female empowerment!  But the more I read and researched the opinions contrary to my own—looking at everything from personal accounts from people who had dated a “Christian Grey,” to information about domestic violence and abusive relationships, to studies and news stories that have linked consumption of the book to increased domestic violence against women—the more I realized that the narrative of “Fifty Shades of Grey” continually justifies and eroticizes Christian’s actions towards Ana, from the questionable to the disturbing. His actions are then wrapped up in clumsy, poorly edited prose and sold to consumers in the name of “sexy female empowerment” and “erotic kinky romance,” soon to be a blockbuster movie, arriving just in time for Valentine’s Day!

Many, many people have said it better than I have, but the analysis of “Fifty Shades of Grey” that really hits home (and cites many other analyses in areas in which the author is less informed, such as how healthy BDSM relationships should be conducted) is Alexis Bee’s* blog on the subject, entitled “50 Shades of Abuse.”** A therapist and survivor of abusive relationships, Bee has painstakingly chronicled, nearly paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, all of the ways that “Fifty Shades of Grey” fails to live up to the hype—and, indeed, normalizes what is ultimately an extremely unhealthy relationship.

“You wanted to know why I felt confused after you – which euphemism should we apply – spanked, punished, beat, assaulted me. Well, during the whole alarming process, I felt demeaned, debased, and abused.”

Simply put, Anastasia Steele, as written by EL James, is emotionally and physically immature for her twenty-one years, and is certainly not in any state to engage in a Dominant/Submissive relationship with Christian Grey.  While Ana does admit her attraction to the mysterious, older man, this attraction is couched with fear and intimidation from the very beginning; as she admitted to her roommate Kate, she found him “scary.”

As her relationship with Christian progresses (she sees him everywhere, because he is stalking her), she ends up displaying incredibly worrying and unhealthy behavior, including crying uncontrollably in the fetal position after their first date, drinking to excess in order to be around him (and to have the courage to sign his non-disclosure form and partake in certain sexual acts with him), and repeatedly thinking of him in terms of fear and discomfort.  Ana also demonstrates a total lack of knowledge about her own body. While there is nothing wrong with having never masturbated or being unable to refer to one’s genitalia by any other name than “down there,” these things ultimately mean that Ana is in no place, mentally or emotionally, to enter into Christian’s version of a Dominant/Submissive sexual relationship--a relationship she ultimately does not want, but will put up with in order to try and make Christian love her the way she thinks she loves him.

Additionally, as Abbie Bee and others have rightfully pointed out, Ana demonstrates throughout the novel that she is not a Sub, nor is she comfortable in that role—she is notably frightened by the “Red Room of Pain,” likening Christian’s “playroom” to the “Spanish Inquisition,” and challenges, rather than salivates at, the prospect of being a Sub. She repeatedly demonstrates fear when any aspect of pain, such as caning or spanking, comes into play and realizes, upon seeing his playroom, that “[he] likes to hurt women. The thought depresses me.”

“Did you undress me?” I whisper.
“Yes.” He quirks an eyebrow at me as I blush furiously.
“We didn’t?” I whisper, my mouth drying in mortified horror as I can’t complete the question. I stare at my hands.
“Anastasia, you were comatose. Necrophilia is not my thing. I like my women sentient and receptive,” he says dryly.

Christian Grey is neither a “dark knight” nor a “classic romantic hero”.  What he is, however, can be summarized in a few short descriptors.  Christian Grey, as written by EL James, is a stalker, manipulator, and rapist, couched in Edward Cullen-esque terms, presented as tormented but sexy and ultimately worth seeking a relationship with.

In the beginning of the novel, he purposefully sends mixed signals to Anastasia, telling her to stay away, but also giving her gifts and following her.  He also tracks her phone without her permission, shows up at her workplace to see/tease her without being told where she works, and undresses her and puts her to bed, in his bed, while she is unconscious (which is presented as chivalrous, as is the fact that he didn’t rape her in her sleep).  He later ends up using the fact that she is sexually attracted to him to convince her to become his submissive, despite the fact that her temperament is not suitable for that arrangement.  He insists that Ana, as his submissive, obey him “without hesitation or reservation and in an expeditious manner” and he showers her with inappropriately expensive gifts to win her favor (a $14,000 edition of “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” after one date!).  He monitors her food intake and exercise regimen, demands she go on oral birth control without allowing her to have input, and, on one particularly memorable occasion, shows up at her house after she sends him a teasing “Dear John” email and rapes her.

Christian Grey regularly fails to ask for permission or consent to engage in sexual activity, instead relying upon his own desire, the amount of alcohol he’s plied her with, and his reading of her body language as permission to go ahead and do what he likes.  And yet Anastasia always manages to have an orgasm.  That is, when Christian permits her to.  His actions are all presented as romantic and desirable by the narrative, and Christian himself is portrayed as a troubled romantic hero, but a closer reading of the text and consideration of Christian’s actions outside of the lens of Ana (who, again, demonstrates clear discomfort with the relationship he wants them to have) reveal Christian to be a manipulative and abusive love interest who takes advantage of Ana’s inexperience and naiveté in order to make her his submissive.

“If you were mine, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week after that stunt you pulled yesterday. You didn’t eat, you got drunk, you put yourself at risk.”

No discussion of the problems with “Fifty Shades of Grey” would be complete without an outlining of the various ways in which victim-blaming occurs within the context of sexual assault.

We learn towards the middle of the novel that Christian was “seduced at […] a young age” by one of his mother’s friends, whom Ana refers to as “Mrs. Robinson.” The age? 15. For a grown woman to pursue sexual relations with a 15-year old is not seduction—it’s abuse, as a 15-year old cannot give consent to an adult.  While I am not condemning the way Christian refers to the experience, since it is his life and decision to call it what he will, it’s clear Ana at times romanticizes what happened to him. While in several chapters Ana refers to him in her thoughts as “sexually abused,” she also considers him to have been “seduced,” rather than abused, conflating the two, and even displays jealousy towards Mrs. Robinson—Christian’s attacker—and resents their continuing friendship.

In at least one scene, Christian ignores Ana's verbal "no" (though she is referring to him taking off her shoes, he has no way of knowing that). Though the imbalance of power in their coercive relationship would make even a verbal "yes" questionable in terms of consent, his blatant disregard for her "no" makes the fact that this is assault undeniable/even more obvious.  Christian merely takes her signs of arousal as consent, which is a definite no-no.  He later blames Ana for his actions, claiming that he cannot resist her when she bites her lip, because she knows what that does to him.  Such behavior also constitutes abuse, since Christian is trying to excuse his own actions and lack of respect for Ana by disguising it as a lack of self-control around her, while also making her feel special in his eyes and pulling her in deeper.

Additionally, in an early chapter, Ana’s friend José (also known as Jacob from “Twilight”), a rather offensively stereotyped Hispanic character, encourages her to drink one night and tries to kiss her twice, despite her repeatedly saying “no.” Christian, who has been tracking Ana’s whereabouts, shows up to rescue her, and promptly blames her for José’s actions by condemning how drunk she was.

In these instances, EL James demonstrates that she does not understand how consent works.  The inconsistent terminology surrounding Christian’s abuse at the hands of Mrs. Robinson creates a sense of ambiguity of what happened, an ambiguity which cannot and does not exist due to Christian’s age at the time.  The scene between Ana and Christian to which I have repeatedly referred is in fact a rape, despite the fact that Ana is eventually aroused and achieves orgasm.  And lastly, Christian blames Ana for what José attempted to do to her—and he is never contradicted by Ana or by the narrative, giving the impression that Ana was in the wrong by getting drunk around José.

“You’re mad and turned on because I said no?’ I breathe, astonished.
‘And I’m mad because you closed your legs on me.”

While you might be shaking your head at this essay, thinking, “gee, what a feminist killjoy,” let me state here that I’m totally okay with being a “feminist killjoy” who also thinks critically about the media she consumes. In my mind, it’s a much better and richer way of living in the world rather than taking in the messages we are flooded with by various forms of media on a daily basis unquestioningly.  Ultimately, with “Fifty Shades of Grey,” many of the problems of the novel could have been mitigated had EL James and the narrative of the story condemned Christian Grey’s actions, setting him up as the predator he is and making “Fifty Shades of Grey” a horror story rather than the sexy romance it is marketed as.

Why write this essay now?  Why am I now standing up (or, rather, sitting down) and shouting out my opinions on “Fifty Shades of Grey” to the heavens, rather than rolling my eyes and muttering about its issues under my breath?  Because just in time for Valentine’s Day, fans of the original series were able to relive the “sexy” “kinky” “romance” in movie format, and people who maybe didn’t read the books will be pulled in—some by the advertising, some by an interest in the soundtrack, some by the appeal of making fun of the movie—and the film made over $500 million at the box office worldwide.  What does that tell Hollywood?  That people are interested in this kind of film—a film where the need for consent is ignored, and where abuse is normalized and sexualized, disguised as a female empowerment fantasy, and what does Hollywood do but go where the money is?  Depending on the success of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” we could see EL James’ sequels adapted into films of their own, and, perhaps, a whole host of new projects with similarly “dark” “sexy” “erotic” “romances.”  And while we don’t often like to admit it, media matters.  As society shapes media, media in turn shapes the world around us, creating a feedback loop.  If there’s a demand for more films in the vein of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” there will be more movies like it, leading to more people consuming the media and taking it to heart—after all, it’s only ever been advertised as a kinky romance rather than the chronicle of abuse and unhealthy relationship dynamics that it truly is.  (More has already been written about how the novel is harmful to practitioners of BDSM and portrays such relationships inaccurately; I am not qualified to address those concerns.)

Therefore I urge the readers of this piece to speak with their dollars.  Don’t go see “Fifty Shades of Grey.”  Send the message that we, as consumers, want and expect more from our media—that we want films with actual female empowerment and healthy relationships, not abuse dressed up as love and romance.  It’s not subversive, it’s not empowering, it merely sugarcoats narratives of uneven power dynamics that already exist in abusive relationships, normalizing them and presenting them as desirable.

*Correction: this article originally stated Alexis Bee's name is Abby Bee. I regret the error.

**Author's note: Alexis Bee's 50 Shades blog is no longer active, but can be viewed in part on the Internet Archive.