The last time two hours felt this long, I was in labour. Was I having a triple root canal sans anesthetic? Was I having a limb amputated? No. I was sitting through the dreadful movie Fifty Shades of Grey. Now, I wasn’t anticipating a great film. I had, after all, read the entire trilogy, written widely about the violent sex scenes scattered throughout, and had devoured the movie reviews that pointed to the stilted dialog, poor acting, and lack of chemistry between the “hero,” Christian Grey, and his hapless heroine, Anastasia Steele. So I was prepared for a bad movie that would make any feminist enraged at the way Grey manipulates and controls women.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the way the predatory behavior of Grey in the books looks so much worse when translated into images. Print allows the reader some wiggle room because you can project your own fantasies, longings, and desires onto the characters. Images, however, as media scholars have long argued, tend to be more compelling and all encompassing, and the viewer is thus rendered more powerless in her ability to “play” with the text — and, importantly, the subtext — that underscores the plot, the character profiles and the story arc.
As I sat in the movie theater on opening day surrounded by a full house of young women drinking cocktails (yes, they served cocktails during the movie), I braced myself for the scenes that were about to eroticize and glorify violence against women. (Full disclosure: as the architect of the #50dollarsnot50shades boycott, I broke my own boycott but gave $100 dollars to the local domestic violence shelter as penance.) Yet nothing prepared me for what I saw unfold on the screen.
This was not just a movie about sexual violence, but a film that depicted, in unbearable detail, how to lure a lonely, isolated child into “consenting” to sexual abuse. In the book, Ana is depicted as a student about to graduate college, but she sounds more like an adolescent with her “holy craps,” lack of knowledge about her body and sexuality, and her awkward demeanor.
On screen, these hints in the book become more sinister, and instead of an adolescent, you watch a pathetic child begging for some love and attention from a much older, experienced man who seems to have read the pedophile groomers’ manual from cover to cover. While Ana is played by twenty-five year old Dakota Johnson, her way of being in the world is childlike, as evidenced in her naiveté, lack of sophistication, and heartbreaking innocence.
Psychologist Anna Salter, a leading expert on predators, has argued that “The grooming process often seems similar from offender to offender, largely because it takes little to discover that emotional seduction is the most effective way to manipulate children.” Strip Christian Grey of his fancy duds, private plane, and expensive cars, and you are left with a run-of-the-mill predator who knows exactly how to worm his way into a child’s emotional world that is bereft of connection and love.
He hones in on Ana because she exudes vulnerability, immaturity, and loneliness from the moment he claps eyes on her. Faithfully following the predators’ manual, Grey pretends to be interested in her, showers her with gifts, tells her his deepest secrets, stalks her at work and at home (even while she visits her parents’ home), and gives her treats such as a helicopter ride. All the while he carefully studies her to find and exploit her weak points. And then he moves in for the kill.
The kill is when the predator makes the move to emotionally bind the victim to him, and Grey, being really good at what he does, knows just when to strike. Ana is dying for a close, intimate sexual experience because — wait for it — she is a virgin. Until this point Grey has been telling Ana that he doesn’t do “romance” but rather likes to “f*** hard.” However, on discovering that he has hit the jackpot, he does indeed do romance, and they have passionate sex that leaves Ana swooning. Now that he has her firmly in his grasp, he milks this power for all it’s worth.
In the sex scenes that follow we get to see what “f*** hard” really means. Whips, ropes, chains and pounding penetration replace kissing and intimacy, and soon Ana is lulled into compliance with the promise of a date or a fancy dinner if she submits to his sexual sadism. In no time Ana is perfect prey — in other words, a whimpering mess, having multiple orgasms one moment, followed by weeping on the phone to her clueless, neglectful mother the next, and then more orgasms, more weeping, more violence — and on it goes for what seems like a torturous Groundhog Day-esque nightmare.
Although the more violent scenes from the books were left out of the film (probably because all those along the profit food chain understood just how far they could go before fans ran screaming from the theater), the movie is so much more disturbing than the books. Watching a seasoned predator toy with his immature prey on the big screen, unable to skip through the pages of more violent scenes or project your own images of Christian Grey onto Jamie Dornan, you are left with a knot in the pit of your stomach that won’t go away, no matter how many cocktails you down.
And for all those who are reading this article, before you decide that this is some crazy feminist looking too deeply into a movie, think about a girl in your life whom you love. Think about your hopes for her, and what you want for her in the future.
I bet you that Christian Grey is not what pops into you head.
Gail Dines is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston. Her latest book, Pornland, How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality, is the basis of a new documentary by Media Education Foundation. Dines is founder and president of the non-profit group, Stop Porn Culture.