50 Shades of… Consent?
A critical look at the movie that has everybody talking
As someone who was unable to get past the first 100 pages of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey without angrily tossing it across my room and never opening it again, I knew what to expect when going to see the movie. In fact, I had originally planned to title this article “50 Shades of Rape Culture.”
However, what shocked me the most about this film was not the blatant sex scenes or the romanticising of stalking (like I said, I expected that), but the one thing I never thought to find in Fifty Shades of Grey: consent.
What? Am I talking about the right movie? Trust me, if it weren’t for the already established stalkerish and abusive tendencies of Christian, I would have thought I was in the wrong theater. But it’s true! There is consent in the movie, at least to some degree (which is more than I thought I’d find).
I don’t claim to be any kind of BSDM expert, and I know there’s been lots of outcry from the BSDM community that the film misrepresents them as consent-ignoring, sociopathic sex fiends.
From the viewpoint of someone unfamiliar with the relationship dynamics of BSDM culture, what I saw is that a huge plot point of the film is a contract between them that lays out clear rules for stopping any activities that are too much (saying yellow for being close to the limit and saying red for complete halting of all activities).
The contract is essentially one big question of consent. Although the contract is eventually forgotten about with “the rules” still applying, Christian frequently pauses to ask if the generic, clumsy, woman is okay and makes sure she consents before proceeding. When he “shows her how bad it can be,” it’s because she asks him to.
During the whipping scene, she is clearly not okay, but she chooses not to use either of the established safe words. It is her choice.
Furthermore, the final and most memorable scene of the movie is Christian marching toward Bella/Ana/Whatever (in case you hadn’t heard, the book was originally a Twilight Fan-fiction) about to pounce on her presumably to have some more kinky sex, when she screams, “No!” And guess what? He actually stops. No threats, no arm twisting, no nothing. He just stops. The elevator door closes and the film ends.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of rape culture propagated by this movie and not every “no” is listened to; the film is certainly a far cry from promoting the feminist ideal of enthusiastic consent where sex doesn’t occur unless all parties verbally agree.
Also, Ana doesn’t have much else going on in her life (outside of Christian) aside from a job at a hardware store and a handful of relationships with her college friends. Christian imposes on all of these. In a different genre, Christian could be a fascinating psychologically character because of his obsessive, controlling and sadistic attributes (serial killer, anyone?). However, having him with these traits as a love interest is problematic as it makes stalking, obsessing and controlling seem romantic when in reality they are often signifiers of abusive relationships. These are just a few of many problems.
My point is, Fifty Shades of Grey is terrible, but it wasn’t nearly as terrible as I anticipated. I even laughed when Ana innocently asks, “What’s a butt plug?” just as Christian’s Barbie doll assistant walks into the room.
I’m pretty sure that the writers actually wanted me to laugh there too! All in all, it’s still a horrendous movie. I mean, it’s essentially a porno, except without a plot, plus there’s Christian’s rapey traits, and Ana’s lack of…well, really anything, and for this reason, I give Fifty Shades of Grey one butt plug out of five.