I asked Florence to write a piece about 50 Shades of Grey since she had both read the books and seen the movie. With her therapist and lawyer/professor background I thought it would an interesting and intelligent experience for us all. Did it turn out as I expected? Read and find out. If you dare.~Ronovan
Fifty Shades of Grey (’50 Shades’) – trilogy and movie – have caused quite a storm in the media. Its critics have labelled it anti-feminist, for glorifying abuse and violence, for normalising domestic violence, and the list goes on.
In the wake of socio-political discourses rippling through social and news media, I (and eleven gal pals) went to see it on the second day after it was released.
The story in a nut shell
A little about the trilogy and the movie for those who have not read or watched it. The trilogy is largely written in the first person – the voice of Anastasia Steele, the female protagonist, who is a twenty-something senior at university in the first book to a journalist in later books. Anastasia meets Christian Grey who is in his late twenties and a billionaire entrepreneur. There is a sexual spark in their first meeting which led to her being ‘pursued’ by the guy in question. What then transpires is open to interpretation (I will get to this shortly).
The movie follows the book closely, with a few inconsequential differences. As in the books, the plot is thin revolving around Christian’s past returning to haunt him and a typical separation and reunion of lovers. There are few heights to attain, except sexually J. This trilogy could have been contained in one book if the explicit sex scenes were removed, but then it would not be Fifty Shades, now would it?
The plot is simplistic – addressing the tension between the influences of the past on the present, and whether present lust and love can assure a future together; the conflict between what each of the protagonists consider right and wrong, normal and abnormal, pain and pleasure. Oft times, the boundaries are blurred, hence the grey metaphor. By the way, Christian describes himself as “50 shades of fucked up”.
Yes, it is a romance/fairytale, with a significant difference – a male protagonist with BDSM proclivities. Like any other romance, Christian Grey is ‘wooing’ Anastasia, except here, that means she is to ‘submit’ to him.
As a reader, I found the prose in the book lacking. Somehow I suspect EL James did not proffer the trilogy as a literary masterpiece. Then again, millions (around the 100 million mark internationally at last look) have bought this book. Why? Because most readers, I am led to believe, are focused on the emotional relationship instead of the sexual one between Christian and Anastasia. I found the trilogy an easy read, an enjoyable romp, and from these perspectives, entertaining.
The same goes for the movie. I did not go expecting the sensuality and mystery of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, neither was I expecting the arthouse production of ‘The Lover’, ‘Belle de Jour’ or ‘Sex and Lucia’. Fifty Shades is modern erotic romance/fairytale, pure and simple, with a screenplay very much in line with the first book in the trilogy. The actors are a surprise – Dakota Johnson’s portrayal of Anastasia is accurate though a little grittier. Jamie Dornan’s depiction of Christian – brooding, dark and with enough mystery to invite exploration – is attractive enough.
Overall, if I must, I will give this movie a 2 out of 5. And I guess if your child is sufficiently curious to want to see this movie, then perhaps it is time to begin those difficult and exciting conversations. It is unlikely to be suitable for those under the age of 16.
Now we come to the crux of this post – the controversy surrounding issues of abuse/violence.
But first, AN interpretation of the storyline.
I see a man traumatized by his past, who exerts controls to feel safe and secure. I see a young woman naïve in the ways of love, sex and relationships who fell in love with a man who is perhaps too complex for her. He wants her on his terms (the much referred to contract to be specific) and takes steps to ensure she understands the terms, urging her to research and also explaining what and how. She in her innocence believes she could be what he wants, who could satisfy him, and that love can surpass every obstacle. There are emotional conflicts and moral tensions.
What I have said so far does not justify the potential harmful effects this relationship could have on Anastasia. Not at all. Yes, Christian could be a predator. Yes, Anastasia could be a victim. And yes, the relationship could be fatal.
What bothers me about the Storm are these:
- As I read the many articles urging women, particularly young women, not to go see the movie because they would be drawn into romanticising abuse/violence, expecting violence to be ‘normal’, I feel disempowered. I feel angry.
- As I read of pronouncements of the negative impacts of Christian’s behaviour, and his all-powerful and manipulative personality presented as a given, and against whom women have no defence and so must hide, I feel fear then infuriation.
Once again I, a woman, am being told to do this but not that, be this or else. Once again I, a woman, is considered incapable of caring for myself, to make decisions that are right for me. Once again I, a woman, need to be protected from my own actions.
And because I am potential prey, potential victim, then I must behave as one – disempowered and in fear.
In the name of protection, and dare I say it, paternalism is alive and well. Oh, just to clarify, I am not referring to men or male persons, but rather paternalism.
So not much exhortation of the behaviour of men in this respect. Much less empathy for a man in Christian’s situation. Yet lots have been said of what women (we are all Anastasia it would seem) should or should not do.
Take for example the movie ‘The Hangover’. I find it offensive in its portrayal of what is acceptable men behaviour, it normalizes binge drinking, drug taking, ‘lad’ behaviour and despite some criticisms (it is crass and has a rather thin plot line), the majority opinion falls onto the side of ‘boys will be boys’. Any calls for men not to watch this movie? Somehow the underlying message may be that men have and can make choices, or that it is fine for men to behave so. Regardless, it is just a hilariously funny comedy. Well, 50 Shades is a romance story with a twist. It does not agree with our consensus reality of (i) damsel in distress being rescued by the knight in shining armour or the all-powerful woman who fully knows her heart and mind; and (ii) ‘normal’ sexual expressions for a woman.
Heaven forbid that a woman desires sensuality. Is it shocking that a woman might choose to explore? To entertain the possibility of engaging in something beyond vanilla sex? To have emotional conflicts or doubts about a sexual relationship? It is perhaps more palatable to explain this ‘aberrant’ behaviour from a place of victim than choice.
Here is a twenty-something young university graduate with a major in English Lit but somehow she cannot be responsible say, for her alcohol consumption vis-à-vis this man? Ok, that is not the point, maybe it is. We have at times in our lives been naïve, we have battled our emotions, our rational thoughts, our lust; and we have made decisions that are not for our well-being.
I am not perfect. It is alright to not-know, to grapple with my emotions, my desires, my rational mind. Yes, if Anastasia was my daughter, my protective instinct would have me say ‘stay away’ yet somehow, I suspect in the seduction of passion, my words may fall on deaf ears.
To demonize Christian as THE predator and to portray Anastasia as THE prey/victim do not allow space for the grey-ness that is life. Most importantly it suggests in this instance a given immovable power of men over women.
I am a mother of a young daughter. I know to prohibit would most likely have the effect of arousing her curiosity. To prohibit imposes my values, my views on her. Most importantly, it disempowers her.
The books and the movie show the conflict Anastasia is confronted with, of having to decide ‘will she’ or ‘won’t she’. Ultimately what matters more is the process and what ‘tools’ she has to make this rather significant decision.
So, I will teach my daughter the difference between love and lust, romance and real life, sensuality and violence. I will teach her that to understand a man (or anyone) and the reasons for his flaws does not mean we have to accept them, that for everything we do sexually merely for the sake of sex, we lose something precious within ourselves. I will teach her to listen and trust her instincts.
I will guide my daughter as she discovers love does not require self-sacrifice or compromising her self-worth, her pride; love does not demand mindless giving in. I will journey with her in her life which will have conflicts and tensions she needs navigate, difficult decisions she will have to make.
And all these I will also teach my son – respect for self and others, self-love and compassion.
My daughter I trust could hold to this – to resist the decisions and consequences that make her small. To quote a wise woman, that which would cause her ‘to bonsai herself’ – small and bound. No pun intended here.
Perhaps the storm is a storm in a teacup, if we could speak another story, another narrative that unites rather than judges and separates.
My final words
As a professional woman of a certain age and a feminist who has read the trilogy and watched the movie, I will say that I enjoyed them all, for what they are.
This need not be just a story of BDSM and abuse/violence and a woman who fell prey to the ‘evil’ man, a victim. I will privilege a different narrative. It is a story of both protagonists’ journey of manoeuvring through the confusing states of being human – our desires, our wants, what’s good for us, what’s not, what do we value, what we are willing to compromise – and the outcome.
Ah, the outcome is like a fairytale. And like watching any fairytale, I leave with a smile and return to my real world.
I AM capable of distinguishing which is which.
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