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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Fifty Shades of Grey// A horror movie about consent

The first thing you should know about this review is that I haven’t read the books. The second thing you should know is that, in the theater where I watched this movie on Valentine’s Day, there were many people laughing much harder than I was.

Fifty Shades of Grey stands out as a horrible film for reasons both standard and disturbing. I’ll spoil the standard ones: bad acting and no chemistry. Actually, Dakota Johnson, who kills the whole bangs-in-her-eyes aesthetic as Anastasia Steele, shines brightly in a few inconspicuous moments of the film—notably, bits where she gets to be spunky and weirded out by Christian Grey. Mostly, though, the dialogue is thick and hard to swallow. Pun intended! Sorry.

Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey has a stellar closet, but that’s the most I can say for his character. Not only is he square in forehead shape and countenance, but his all-star moments of supposedly orgiastic romance feel like foreboding scenes in a horror movie.

Why, you ask? Because Christian Grey is an emotionally abusive stalker! This much-hyped drama of sexual tension and release was so stressful for me that I actually developed a pimple on my face from covering my eyes so much.

At times, I laughed along with the ill-fated middle-aged patrons of the theater because, in all fairness, a lot of this movie was awkward. But mostly I squirmed and felt anxious because it’s viscerally difficult and scary to watch a hyper-glorified sex-symbol man enact subtle-yet-sure domestic abuse upon a woman, over and over again. It’s uniquely difficult and scary to do so in a blockbuster Hollywood movie, in a jam-packed multiplex.

I don’t know much about BDSM, but I know that people have all kinds of kinks and take pleasure in all kinds of sexual activities. It’s deeply troubling to suggest, as Fifty Shades does, that a totally valid sexual preference is justified solely by a dark past. Moreover, Christian Grey explaining that his birth mother was a “crack addict and a prostitute” doesn’t convince me that he’s an innately messed up person (although his other behavior does). That scene does a fabulous job of shaming addiction, sex work and BDSM in one brooding monologue.

For a good deal of the movie, Anastasia mulls it over: Is Christian Grey dangerous because of the way he likes to have sex? She doesn’t understand why he wants to “punish” her in their sexual encounters. The problem is that Anastasia is asking the wrong question. Yes, Christian Grey will handcuff her and whip her and whatever flashy BDSM shit Hollywood decided to throw in there. (And if the cinematography is any indication, his gaze will linger lustfully on her breasts). But his most frightening acts—there are many—occur while his pants are firmly zippered.

Here’s an incomplete list of things Christian Grey does that Anastasia apparently never considers dangerous or violent: stealing her personal property, finding her place of work and showing up there, putting himself in charge of her sexual health decisions, telling her how to eat, walking into her apartment uninvited, showing up uninvited at her mom’s country club in Georgia (?!), continuing to initiate sex after Anastasia has said no, and proceeding with a sexual activity that Anastasia initially agreed to before she began to cry.

For a film in which the plot hinges so much on a “contract” and “rules” regarding sex, there’s an appalling lack of consent in Fifty Shades. Consent is about more than agreement in the moment or in writing—it’s about managing harmful power dynamics and fostering mutual respect. Consent is also about treating sex as more than just genitalia rubbing together, but rather as something that extends outwards into our lives and should therefore be reciprocally positive and fulfilling.

Creepy billionaire Christian Grey straight-up stalks innocent-virgin-with-bangs Anastasia. He exerts control over her far beyond their sexual encounters, and he seems to revel in his power over her (in a way that doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be connected to his role as a Dominant).

But Anastasia and Fifty Shades don’t seem overly concerned about those things. Sure, Christian Grey is a little odd, but that wild BDSM stuff he’s into seems terribly violent. Red Room of Pain—ouch!

Without knowing the source material, I can still see why Fifty Shades took off. Women and girls (and really everyone besides cisgender-heterosexual men) internalize so much shame surrounding sexuality that I agree—it would be incredibly refreshing to see non-G-rated sex being celebrated in the mass media. It would be incredibly refreshing, however, with a caveat: that the sex occurs within a relationship that is consensual, mutually pleasurable and not laden with disgusting power dynamics. No one should break into anyone’s apartment. Honesty should be standard procedure, not reserved for confessions when the other person is asleep. No one should say things like “you’re all mine.” I’ll be waiting.

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