Richard McCulloch (Regent’s University London)
After several weeks of critical derision, rowdy cinemagoers, and one bizarrely controversial fancy-dress costume, Fifty Shades of Grey now appears to have stepped into an elevator and walked out of our lives; at least until the sequel. Many people, I’m sure, will be relieved to see the back of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of E.L. James’s phenomenally successful erotic novel, but I am not one of them. I saw the film the weekend it opened, and have been arguing about it with my students, friends and colleagues ever since.
Yes, it is rife with contradictions. Its tone, for instance, appears playfully ironic one moment, deadly serious the next, while its gender politics seem to tread a peculiar line between misogyny and female empowerment. But it is precisely these contradictions that I think make the film so interesting and effective.
I cannot remember the last time I went to the cinema and left with such an overwhelming need to talk about what I had just experienced. I had absolutely no idea whether I had enjoyed myself or not, nor could I say how I felt about either of the protagonists, yet these ambiguities fascinated me.
Having now watched it for a second time, what I want to do in this article is to address some of the prevailing complaints directed at it by professional critics, and offer up a defence of sorts. It is not exactly a masterpiece, but I think Fifty Shades is far more sophisticated than has so far been acknowledged, and it certainly deserves better than to simply be laughed at and discarded. What many people have dismissed as a trashy mess – a tame, vanilla porno with unrealistic characters – I see as an entirely self-conscious romance, whose only major ‘failing’ is that it does too good a job of aligning us with its protagonist.
COUNTER-ARGUMENT: Ana’s reaction to the sex is far more important than the sex itself
When they weren’t competing with each other to see who could come up with the best headline (‘Porn again, Christian,’ ‘Making a bad fist of it,’ etc.), most critics spent their reviews of Fifty Shades explaining how dull they found it. The bulk of this criticism, however, had little to do with pacing or the romantic drama at the centre of the plot, and instead focused on the film’s sex scenes. Reviews were littered with lines such as:
‘About as erotic as an ad for Pottery Barn’ (Rolling Stone)
‘Porn for people who shop at Marks & Spencer’ (The Mirror)
‘Those looking for hot, kinky sex will be disappointed’ (USA Today)
‘Nobody in the film has visible genitals’ (Entertainment Weekly)
‘Anyone hoping the movie would really push the S&M envelope may find Christian’s tastefully shot toy room a little… vanilla’ (New York Daily News)
Clearly, critics not only wanted but also expected some kind of sexual ‘excess’, and became frustrated when the film apparently refused to give it to them (ahem). What these complaints demonstrate is a struggle over the film’s genre; Fifty Shades is implicitly being categorised as erotica/pornography above all else – sexually explicit material whose primary goal is to arouse its audience. One reviewer even went as far as calling it ‘the movie that promised to be the most titillating motion picture ever made.’
But where on earth has this generic expectation come from? It seems to me that this criticism has much more to do with the hype surrounding Fifty Shades (both novel and adaptation) than the movie itself.
Its marketing campaign undoubtedly has a lot to answer for here, with posters and trailers continually teasing prospective audiences about Mr. Grey’s ‘very singular’ sexual predilections. Promotional materials often chose to hide parts of Christian (Jamie Dornan) from the audience, depicting him from behind, through enigmatic close ups, or with his face partially obscured (Figure 1).
- Figure 1. Fifty Shades of Grey poster (2015)
Similarly, trailers gestured towards steamy sexual encounters without really revealing very much. Perhaps, then, some critics took those gestures as ‘promises’ of what the film would surely deliver – the equivalent of a TV episode delaying viewers’ gratification by demanding they ‘tune in next week’ for narrative closure.
I actually agree that the film is not especially risqué, but mainstream Hollywood has historically shown little interest in on-screen depictions of sexual dominance and submission. Why should we expect Fifty Shades to be any different?
While critics overwhelmingly bought into the idea that the film was trying and failing to be sexy, I would argue that those scenes were never intended to be focal points. Instead, they seem to function more as character identification devices than isolated moments of spectacle. In fact, there is ample evidence for this across various promotional materials. For instance, in spite of all the whips, restraining devices, and orgasmic writhing that the trailer fleetingly shows us, its clearest emphasis is on reaction shots of Ana (Dakota Johnson) (Figure 2).
- Figure 2. Reaction shots of Ana, as seen in the Fifty Shades of Grey official trailer
These shots position her as audience surrogate, and suggest that her response to (and curiosity towards) BDSM is far more important than the sex itself. Significantly, the first full-length trailer for the movie ended with Ana’s coquettish request for Christian to ‘enlighten’ her, while posters generally led with the tagline, ‘Curious?’ In one sense, then, the film adopts a strangely paradoxical attitude towards its own sexual content: BDSM is presented as both non-normative and a central selling point – elusive yet alluring. And crucially, this is just as true for Ana as it is for the mainstream viewer, both of whom experience the sex scenes as ‘educational’ rather than titillating. They might be fun, but ultimately they are just brief forays into implicitly unfamiliar territory.
CRITICISM #2: It’s sexist
COUNTER-ARGUMENT: Christian is sexist, but the film is not
At one point in the movie, Christian explains his fondness for dominance/submission by telling Ana, ‘By giving up control, I felt free. From responsibility. From making decisions. I felt safe. You will too, you’ll see.’ On first viewing, I read this as blatant ideological conservatism – a barely-concealed dismissal of feminism, empowerment and individual agency: Be a dear and stop dreaming of freedom – if you do everything I want you to do, we all win! Similar concerns were echoed in a large number of reviews and think pieces, with writers variously proclaiming ‘misogyny never looked so mesmerising,’ or arguing that the film ‘idealises male power and emotional abuse as something seductive and sexy.’
My second viewing, however, made me realise that Fifty Shades’ ‘problematic’ moments are never actually presented as the ‘correct’ choice for Ana. Again, what many writers see as grounds for criticism, I see as psychological realism; Fifty Shades does such an effective job of aligning us with Ana’s emotions that we come out of it feeling just as conflicted, frustrated and unsatisfied as she does.
In the opening half-hour, for example, both Ana and the film are detached, cynical and playful, especially in their attitude towards Christian. When interviewing him near the beginning, she deviates from her roommate’s mostly deferential questions, calling him ‘lucky’ and a ‘control freak’. Importantly, her refusal to take Christian at face value is one of the things he seems to like most about her, as well as being one of the film’s central pleasures.
Ana also jokes that he would make ‘the complete serial killer,’ and in one of the film’s funniest scenes, drunkenly berates him for being ‘so bossy.’ Her subsequent impersonation of him undermines his hyper-masculinity (she adopts an exaggeratedly gruff voice) and his indecisiveness (‘Ana, let’s go for coffee! No! Stay away from me Ana, I don’t want you! Get away! Come here, come here! GO AWAY!’) Moreover, some of Christian’s most frequently-maligned lines of dialogue (‘If you were mine you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week’) are met with incredulity from Ana, who delivers a brilliantly deadpan ‘What?!’ on several occasions. Moments like these consistently construct Christian as a ridiculous, unbelievable character, whose desire to control Ana deserves to be laughed at or criticised, not celebrated.
It is no coincidence that the film’s detached, playful tone gradually disappears at the same time that Ana herself begins to take Christian more seriously. Their ensuing romance is characterised by an increasingly uncomfortable tension between their competing desires. Ana is clearly attracted to him and intrigued by the BDSM, but yearns for a fairly conventional romance that never fully arrives (‘Why do I have to sleep in [a different room]? We slept in the same bed last night, like normal people!’). Christian, on the other hand, only seems interested in their sexual relationship, and repeatedly shows that he is unwilling to cross the line into romance.
Because the film encourages such tight identification with Ana, the failure of the couple’s relationship is placed entirely at the feet of Christian and his refusal to compromise on his own desires. The tension between the two characters is manifested in the battle between her desire for ‘conventional’ romance and his desire for ‘unconventional’ sex.
The contract they negotiate throughout the film is thus very much a tangible reminder of Christian’s inflexibility, yet along the way there are plenty of hints that perhaps he isn’t really as stubborn as he appears: he insists, ‘I don’t do the girlfriend thing,’ but then sends her first editions of a selection of novels by her favourite author; he refuses to touch Ana until he has her written consent, but then declares, ‘Fuck the paperwork,’ and kisses her passionately in the hotel elevator; the first time the couple have sex is extremely conventional – nothing non-normative, a nice clean bedroom, and far closer to Ana’s idea of perfection than to his; and he sleeps in the same bed as her twice in the opening 45 minutes, something he claims he ‘never’ does.
In short, Christian seems to want Ana far more than he wants to stick to his own ‘rules’, which are held up as preposterous and antithetical to the film’s narrative. In order for the narrative to conclude as it ‘should’ (i.e. with the union of the final couple), it is him that needs to change, not her.
Yes, siding with Ana means that we want her to end up in a happy relationship with a ridiculous, controlling man, but this is not the same as saying that Fifty Shades of Grey endorses an abusive relationship. On the contrary, like Ana, we find Christian’s domineering behaviour both laughable and impractical. The closer their relationship veers towards the dominance/submission that Christian desires, the less happy Ana is, and it is absolutely significant that her final words to him are ‘STOP!’ and ‘NO!’
CRITICISM #3: It’s unrealistic
COUNTER-ARGUMENT: The film is consciously exposing the gap between the ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’ of romance
When reviewing a new release that also happens to be a widespread cultural phenomenon, it is easy enough to get swayed by the power of consensus. Reading several reviews in preparation for writing this blog, however, I was struck by how few critics seemed willing to take Fifty Shades seriously. The Daily Mail’s Jan Moir’s review is typical in this regard, describing the film as…
‘A tale of two lovers exploring a relationship that takes in the wilder shores of bondage, submission, dominance and terrible dialogue. “Laters, baby!” cries hero Christian Grey, as he leaves his lover, Anastasia Steele […] “That was nice,” she says, after taking a bit of a thrashing from Grey. Nice? You’d think he just gave her a half-hearted peppermint foot rub.’
Philippa Hawker of the Sydney Morning Herald spoke in correspondingly negative terms, insisting that ‘no one can make the trademark phrase “laters, baby” sound anything other than ludicrous.’
It absolutely baffles me that anyone could criticise the film’s dialogue in this way, quite simply because it completely ignores the way in which the lines are delivered, and the context in which they appear. ‘Laters, baby’ is said first by Christian’s adopted brother to Ana’s roommate. When Christian then repeats it to Ana shortly afterwards, he does so with a knowing smirk on his face, highlighting its ‘corniness’ and turning it into an inside joke. In this moment, even Christian is capable of drawing attention to his own artificiality. Equally, the use of the word ‘nice’ to describe their sexual relationship is explicitly marked as incongruous by Christian, who says, ‘it’s been nice knowing me?! Let me remind you how nice it was!’
In a wonderful article for Slate, Amanda Hess goes as far as reading the film as ‘a kind of fan-fic of Fifty Shades the book.’ She argues that, between Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction and Kelly Marcel’s screenplay, the source novel’s dialogue is laced with irony, which in turn makes its ‘bad’ qualities more palatable. While I am not entirely convinced that the film deems itself ‘superior’ to the book (fanfiction is not always resistant, for example), Hess persuasively demonstrates just how important tone is to understanding and appreciating the events on screen. Taylor-Johnson seems to want us to laugh at the silliness of love while simultaneously being swept up by it.
But Fifty Shades of Grey knows exactly what it is doing, and is extremely self-conscious and upfront about just how fantastical its romance narrative is. The clearest example of this is when the couple spends the night together for the first time, following Ana’s drunken night out in a bar. She awakens to find painkillers and fruit juice at her bedside, along with notes reading ‘Eat me’ and ‘Drink me’, respectively. These overt references to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland mark the couple’s relationship as dreamlike and fantastical from the start.
The movie’s soundtrack plays a central role in heightening this sense of fantasy, with lyrics often referring to escapist pleasures:
· The opening montage unfolds over Annie Lennox’s cover of ‘I Put a Spell On You’, acknowledging romance’s potential to mislead and distort our perception of reality
· Their first formal ‘date’, in which Christian whisks her away in his private helicopter, is accompanied by Ellie Goulding’s ‘Love Me Like You Do’. She sings, ‘I’ll let you set the pace / ‘Cause I’m not thinking straight / My head spinning around I can’t see clear no more / What are you waiting for? / Love me like you do.’ These words explicitly draw attention to Ana’s state of mind and the astonishing (albeit pleasing) unreality of this as a romantic experience, while the final two lines hint at her willingness to buy into the fantasy that Christian represents
· The other song at the centre of the film (and its marketing) is a slowed-down, sexed-up version of Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy in Love’. Again, this is a song that, as its title implies, is very much about the potential for love to alter our sense of normality (‘Such a funny thing for me to try to explain / How I’m feeling and my pride is the one to blame / ‘Cause I know I don’t understand / Just how your love can do what no one else can’)
If the film is signposting its own fantastical elements so consistently, there seems little value in dismissing its dialogue, characters, gender politics and/or sex scenes as ‘unrealistic’, let alone ‘harmful’. Taylor-Johnson’s goal is to not to see things objectively, but through Ana’s eyes, simultaneously finding Christian attractive and infuriating. The sex is an interesting distraction, but is certainly not the focal point of the film’s drama. By the half-way point, it is abundantly clear that Ana is less keen on an odyssey of sexual discovery than on a relatively ‘normal’ relationship. Her frustration and upset stems from her realisation that the relationship she yearns for is nothing but a fantasy, and impossible in practice.
CONCLUSION: Fifty Shades and women’s cinema
The reference point I keep coming back to in relation to all of this is Paul Verhoeven’s infamous Showgirls (1995). Roundly dismissed as trash? Check. Implausible characters, dialogue and acting? Check. Sexual content that ‘fails’ to titillate? Check. Yet Showgirls has enjoyed a modicum of critical re-evaluation since its release, with a growing number of people entertaining the idea that its ‘unpleasantness’ is actually intentional satire, not incompetence (Hunter, 2000; Mizuta Lippit et al., 2003; Nayman, 2014).
Also like Showgirls, Fifty Shades of Grey already has all the trappings of a stone cold cult classic – a chaotic production process (James and Taylor-Johnson argued extensively), critical derision, passionate fans, wildly divergent interpretations, and cultural notoriety. Yet the criticism surrounding the film has been so vehemently gendered that anyone who actually likes it has to either call it a ‘guilty pleasure’ or keep schtum. It is significant that, when I first told my students how great I thought it was, the reaction was overwhelming laughter, followed by disbelief. It is also significant that I knew such a reaction was likely.
The idea that movies aimed at women are inherently less valuable than those aimed at men is as pervasive as it is ridiculous, making it difficult to avoid being taken in by the cultural narrative of critical haughtiness. Debates around both novel and film have, for example, been characterised by a sneering condemnation of female sexuality (particularly regarding older women and ‘mommy porn’), and accompanied by a succession of news stories about unruly women behaving hysterically. One widely-publicised report even described how a woman watching Fifty Shades in Milton Keynes literally lost control of all her bodily functions, causing the cinema to be evacuated.
Of course, when you read past the headlines, it becomes clear that this admittedly unfortunate incident had more to do with the lady in question being heavily drunk than the film she happened to be watching at the time. But it’s not a story if it’s reported like that, is it?
Like Christian Grey himself, critics have remained fixated on Fifty Shades’ sex while refusing to take its romance seriously. Pejorative references to Mills & Boon novels, daytime soap operas, and uncritical female audiences position the film as ‘lowbrow’, and romantic love stories as intrinsically worthless. Needless to say, there is a great deal of hypocrisy in criticising something for being anti-feminist while simultaneously deriding a genre traditionally associated with female audiences.
Significantly for this website, Fifty Shades of Grey’s opening weekend in North America broke box office records for a female director. Not only that, but this cultural phenomenon has been built on a rare degree of female authorship. Between Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels on which E.L. James’s based her fanfiction and subsequent novel, Kelly Marcel’s screenplay, Taylor-Johnson’s direction, and a widely-praised performance by Dakota Johnson, this is by some distance one of the most prominent examples of women’s cinema to come out of a major Hollywood studio in recent years.
Irrespective of all the hype, critical backlash and commercial success, however, Fifty Shades is also a really sophisticated piece of filmmaking. I admit I went in expecting a load of trashy nonsense that I could laugh at. What I didn’t expect was a film that was in on the joke, but also smart enough to slowly reel me into the narrative without having realised it. I left the cinema despising Christian Grey but somehow also annoyed that he and Ana do not end up with each other, and it took me a good 24 hours of introspection and discussion with others before I managed to come to terms with that contradiction.
After Ana first meets the much-hyped but mysterious Christian, she tells her roommate, ‘He was very smart and intense […] I can understand the fascination.’ I’m saying the same about the film as a whole. If you stayed away because of the bad reviews, or if you saw it once and hated it, I urge you: cast aside your preconceptions and try again. I can’t promise you won’t end up like Ana – frustrated and yelling for it to stop – but find out for yourself what makes it tick rather than just believing all the rumours you’ve heard.
Hunter, I.Q., ‘Beaver Las Vegas! A Fan-Boy’s Defence of Showgirls’. In Xavier Mendik and Graeme Harper (eds.) Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film and its Critics (Guildford: FAB Press, 2000): 189-201.
Mizuta Lippit, Akira, et al., ‘Roundtable: Showgirls’, Film Quarterly, 56.3 (Spring 2003): 32-46;
Nayman, Adam, It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls (Toronto: ECW Press, 2014).