People...I like to think that I’m original. I like to think that my thoughts are my own and that what I have to say is a new and interesting take on existing topics. I like to think these things, but I know that they’re not true, at least not 90% of the time. What I’m about to tell you, I’m sure you’ve read across several different websites (which I can’t believe you’re cheating on me with) and probably heard from your friends, co-workers and possibly even family members.
What I’m going to tell you is this: Fifty Shades of Grey is the worst.
I could walk away from this statement, and let everyone else in the known world fill you in on why it’s the worst, but to be honest I need to write this. I need to write it because if I didn’t I’d be guilty of exactly what I’m about to accuse this franchise of being - negligent. I need to do this because I need to know that I did what I could to be part of the solution. And I need to do this because I’m too poor to afford therapy this month, so this is as cathartic as it’s going to get for me.
First, an introduction to BDSM. It stands for Bondage, Discipline & Sadomasochism. The bondage part is obvious, that’s there for people who enjoy tying up or being tied up by others. This can be an individual kink or it can be a component of the DSM. Discipline is a little murkier, but generally refers to the idea of consensual systems of punishment. So for example, if your partner tells you you’re not allowed to orgasm until they say so and you do, then they might punish you. The punishment might be something like being paddled or it could be public humiliation, it depends on the kinds of kinks that you’re into. Sadomasochism is for people who enjoy punishing or being punished, again this can take a variety forms. None of this is necessarily sexual in nature, it doesn’t have to be about sexual pleasure or orgasm, in fact it's predominantly psychological rather than physical.
To further clarify, there are a variety of different BDSM relationships, including (but not limited to) Master and slave, and Dominant and submissive. Master and slave relationships are normally a 24/7 kink wherein a Master and slave live together and don’t break character. They live in their slave and Master personas. A Dominant and submissive relationship can be anything from a purely business arrangement (e.g. where someone seeks the services of a Dominatrix) or it can be a casual kink where two people meet up once a week to engage in their fantasies, or it can be one component of an existing, otherwise normal romantic relationship. All of these dynamics are completely consensual and would not exist if both parties were not getting some form of pleasure from them. Pop quiz hot shot, how much of that did you learn from reading Fifty Shades of Grey?
Fifty Shades of Grey (FSG) is a franchise that has built itself up as a purveyor of BDSM erotica. This is true in the same way that Che Guevera built himself up as a purveyor of high quality t-shirts. FSG was originally penned as a piece of Twilight fan-fiction. As fan-fiction it had no obligation to explore the world and culture of BDSM. Fan fiction is quite literally fiction written by fans about existing works. There is fan fiction for absolutely anything you can come up with, most of it involving more fucked up sexual encounters than you’ll ever be able to imagine. Fan fiction is wish fulfilment, a place where you can adapt existing fiction into a world you want to live in and make an avatar of yourself to engage with your favourite characters. Fan fiction has no responsibility to do anything other than make its author happy.
FSG may have started as fan fiction, but that’s not what it is now. From the moment it got taken on by Random House and packaged up as BDSM erotica, it had an obligation. At this point the franchise started making money off a community that means a lot, to a lot of people. And when you do that, you have an obligation to educate as well as entertain. You have a duty of care not to misrepresent the people and lifestyle that you’re cashing in on.
There was a seminal film made in 1995, and like Fifty Shades of Grey, was also helmed by a female director. It starred a young Jewish thespian who showed us what it would be like for a young man with learning disabilities to have to go back to school and graduate. I am of course talking about Billy Madison.
In this spectacular film there is a quote that I’m just going to leave here:
....What you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.
That, right there, is how I feel about Fifty Shades of Grey. Every person who walked in knowing nothing about kink or BDSM, walked out knowing even less. Because now instead of accepting that there’s a world they know nothing about, they have been exposed to the message that a Dominant and submissive relationship involves stalking, breaking and entering, verbal abuse and the withholding of emotional support. Imagine for a moment that Christian or Ana was an on-screen representation of you, of your interests and your pursuits. Is that the person, the character you would want to be your avatar? To represent your community? Because as someone who has even a passing interest in BDSM it breaks my heart that this is how people might see me or my partners and playmates.
I know that many of you are smart enough to acknowledge that this is just an artist’s representation of BDSM, that it’s not how all or even any of us kinksters are in real life. And to those of you who are smart enough to realise that, I thank you. But for every one of you, there are a dozen others who will either consciously or subconsciously, forever associate BDSM with FSG.
Remember when the shorthand Hollywood image for gay people was over the top musical theatre types who spoke with an affectation that made them impossible to respect? Or when cinema’s representation of Asian people was Mickey Rooney in “yellow-face”? How cringe-worthy was it? How embarrassing to watch now with our politically correct sensibilities, realising how awful it must have been to be a gay man or an Asian person watching movies like this. That is what FSG has done for every Dominant and submissive, and every Master and slave.
There is no attempt made by Christian to educate either Ana or the audience watching on. The only point at which research is mentioned is when Christian tells Ana to Google “submissive”, which is about as helpful as that time you Googled that weird rash and realized you had a rare form of cancer and would most likely be dead within the next ten minutes. The internet can be a great resource for research, but only when you know what you’re looking for. If Christian wanted to completely alienate Ana and convince her that he’s a fucked up weirdo, he couldn’t do a better job than leaving her alone with the internet and a single kink term. Unfortunately the audience is now as ignorant and put off as Ana initially was. She stumbled across some images of a woman engaging in rope play or shibari, and while this can be a component of some forms of BDSM relationships, it certainly isn’t the only element and it’s not present in every relationship. It’s also a very confronting image for your first dose of exposure to the topic.
Rather than correcting the misinformation that Ana finds online, the film goes out of its way to avoid addressing it. It doesn’t talk about what the actual relationship between a Dom and sub is (which is what Christian is inviting her to be), it doesn’t talk about the vital importance of trust in that kind of relationship and it certainly never talks about experimentation or education. The first thing that most people do before they dive headlong into BDSM activities is go to a safe play space and observe. Almost every city in the developed world has a kink scene. With that comes a welcoming and supportive community striving to make a safe place for people to learn about sexual exploration without the risk of injury or abuse. Christian lives in Seattle. He didn’t suggest that Ana google “BDSM clubs Seattle”, because if he had the first result would have been the “Center for Sex Positive Culture”. Not exactly the same as seeing a woman bound head to toe is it?
What the franchise does a fantastic job of is giving us a snapshot of an abusive relationship predominantly brought about by a lack of communication. And there’s nothing wrong with shining some light on a non-conventional relationship dynamic like that, in fact I applaud anything that isn’t showing us tired old rom-com tropes as though that’s what real life is meant to be like. The problem with the way the franchise displays this though, is that all of these issues are inextricably linked with the kink lifestyle. It implies that a Dom is not naturally inclined towards these kinds of desires, but instead comes to it through a history of abuse. Likewise it tells us that a sub could never willingly want to be dominated, that they must be groomed for the role or even brow-beaten and coerced into it. We learn that Christian was a sub for several years before becoming a Dom, which in the BDSM community makes him a switch, but in the world of FSG implies that there’s some kind of hierarchy and that he has merely graduated up the ranks into the role of Dominant.
FSG does not distinguish between BDSM kink and an abusive relationship, it amalgamates the two inextricably so that the average viewer will not know where one begins and the other ends.
Let me make this inescapably clear; domestic abuse, whether physical, emotional, verbal or otherwise is NOT part of BDSM culture. It is not encouraged and it is not a pre-requisite. When a Dom talks about “punishing” their sub, it's about both of them getting pleasure and it's consensual. Throughout the film, Christian talks about causing Ana pain, he talks about hurting her and he talks about punishing her. These are three different concepts, but they are used interchangeably throughout the film, making it impossible to tell what he’s actually referring to. In their final sexual encounter, when Christian is whipping Ana with a belt, it is not about her pleasure. It's barely consensual and at the end of it Ana is clearly traumatised. That's not kinky, that's not BDSM, that's abuse.
Given all of this, it’s hardly surprising then that since the first book launched in 2007, the number of sex toy related injuries in the U.S has doubled. When you don’t give people enough information or even worse, you give them the wrong information, it’s no surprise when they end up injured. Or in the absolute worst case, as victims of sexual assault.
What frustrates me about FSG is that it is a wonderful reminder how fascinated we remain with sex. The book sales alone are enough to tell us that people everywhere are genuinely interested in alternative sexual lifestyles, they want to know more about how sex can be for different people and some of them are even interested enough to experiment. The film grossed $81 million in its opening weekend, that’s a pretty good sign that people are happy to watch softcore porn if they think they can get away with it under the guise of popular culture. It frustrates me that a franchise like this can make so much money and yet we still have to fight tooth and nail to get decent sex education in schools. It frustrates me that this franchise is so well known, and so passé, and yet resources for genuine sex education and information can’t legally advertise on most social media or in mainstream channels. FSG can do all of these things and yet they misrepresent an entire community and squander an opportunity to give people more information about sex in an erotic and entertaining vehicle.
FSG does not care about BDSM and it does not care about its audience. Even the actor who played Christian Grey could not refrain from kink-shaming BDSM practitioners after watching a session stating “…Going back to my wife and newborn baby afterwards… I had a long shower before touching either of them.”
There is so much I could say about this franchise, about this film, but I know that the damage has already been done. All I’m asking is that if you are exposed to this, if you do happen to read the books or watch the film, please remember; this isn’t who we are. This is not how we would choose to be represented. If you are interested in BDSM or kink, for the love of leather and lace, don’t just google image search the word “submissive” and give up! Because there's a whole community of people out here willing to teach you the ropes, if you want to learn...
That is all.
You may go now.