By Kyle G. King. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this summer, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws remains a movie whose psychological effects on mainstream culture are as prominent as ever. “Don’t go in the water”, is a tagline that echoes the very real fear that one movie can create. A movie’s message, regardless of intention, can have serious repercussions on society as a whole. Tortured men, perilous women, and stalking predators are all themes carried through one of this year’s most talked about releases, one that carries a similar potential for reshaping American ideals (or phobias).
Fifty Shades of Gray, the hit novel written by E.L. James and released in 2011, has an explicitly sexual subject matter that places it halfway between grocery store romance novel and hardcore pornography. Due to its immediate success and capturing the err… imaginations of a predominantly female fan base across the world, it was picked up by Universal and optioned for a feature film of its own. Tickets were as good as sold.
It seems to be an easy if not inherently flawed tactic: propagate a story you know will sell on a format that is overly censured and controlled. While the original screenplay garnered an NC-17 rating, the final product that made it to theaters was merely rated R. Many of the scenes of extreme sexual nature were removed and what we were left with was a hacky script without the tantalizing sex that made it its money in the first place. It’s popularity is a byproduct of a sexually repressed society, specifically targeted towards women, and the tragic irony is that its backwards (or rather, its unintended) goal is creating an even more repressed and controlled community of male-scrutinized women.
With Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy) directing a screenplay adapted by Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), the power of female voices within a tale of supposed sexual liberation is welcomed and refreshing, but fulfilling a feminist agenda (or extreme lack thereof) is not what stands out as the most disturbing facet of Fifty Shades of Grey. What does stand out is the potential it possesses to validate unhealthy male agendas within abusive relationships.
The story between 27 year-old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and college grad student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a text-book case of an abusive relationship, make no mistake. Many can dress it up as a kinky BDSM dominant-submissive sexual relationship if they’d like, but the bottom line is that Christian Grey manipulates, steals, controls, stalks, gaslights, objectifies, and blatantly disrespects Anastasia in nearly every scene they have together. He takes that dominance that she hardly agrees to and brings it outside of the bedroom and into her life whether she likes it or not. This story not only promotes awful ideas, but it makes for extremely boring chemistry and increasingly trite scene dynamics. These are bad characters in a bad relationship in an incomplete and bad story. As a book, you can mentally connect the dots and fill in emotional gaps. As a film, all you’re left with what’s on screen, and what’s on screen is an abusive relationship coupled with softcore porn.
As far as characters go, Anastasia and Christian are cut from the instantly recognizable Beauty and The Beast standard, plus or minus a few slightly heated sex scenes. Christian Grey is the beast who takes no guff, a man with a tortured and mysterious past, a large collection of grey ties, and the worst baggage for a boyfriend you could ever imagine. Jamie Dornan can effectively sell a serial killer in the BBC series The Fall, but as Christian Grey he employs all the same tricks, only this time it amounts to a predatory high school boyfriend with unlimited resources.
Dakota Johnson is the beauty who aims to tame him. Through an exasperating abundance of lip biting (that may have stemmed from E.L. James’ on-set influence), she still manages to make Ana slightly appealing, something that makes you hate Christian and the world she lives in even more. Make no mistake, these characters are written with a soap opera shallowness, never coming even remotely close to originality or intelligent writing (its only saving grace is the voyeuristic thrill of “it can’t get any worse than this… oh, yes it can”). Having a character speak her mind and establish their own sense of agency is not a well crafted climax, it’s a basic human right.
BDSM is a culture steeped in vulnerability and trust, but these character dynamics are never explored or utilized in Fifty Shades of Grey. Instead, through Anastasia, the potential power found in female characters are dismissed thusly: She reveals to Christian that she is a virgin (one of the only points of agency Ana gets), and Christian immediately takes her to bed to strip her of it, as if a woman without sex is useless. A moment of fantastic vulnerability is squandered all for the sake of selling steamier sex, in which Johnson is always found completely naked while Dornan is merely shirtless in jeans (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a movie not explicitly about sex, features more male nudity).
Sure, the movie has source material to which it owes its namesake, but just as certain hammy lines from the book don’t translate to the screen (re: “I’m fifty shades of fucked up”), telling a story in a different format allows creatives to exercise artistic license in telling the same story with a deeper meaning. The first two acts find that Anastasia’s decisions are robbed from her and anytime she has a moral thought of her own, Christian (or the filmmakers) swiftly strip her of it.
Try as they might, captivating cinematography and an apt contemporary soundtrack cannot rescue Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s odd that a film about sex can become so utterly boring, yet with the source material as it is and with Hollywood censors as they are, this is what we get stuck with: Male characters who take what they want and female characters who don’t realize their independence is below a presumed right. But with a highly lucrative opening weekend and an ending that screams for more (and two more books that will supply exactly that), it is highly likely we will have another appointment with Mr. Grey in the near future, an appointment I’d recommend you call ahead and cancel.