Monday, February 13, 2017

Are There Shades of Good in the "50 Shades" Trilogy?

I have read the original 50 Shades trilogy by E.L. James, and I recently watched the first 50 Shades of Grey movie (I tweeted my adventure watching the movie, which you can read about here).  
A sneak peek of my riveting commentary
Now that the second installment has hit theatres just in time for Valentine’s Day, it’s a good time to explore whether there are good things about these movies and books to balance their more problematic elements.

But first, a quick discussion of those problematic elements.

Problem #1: Christian isn’t a very good dominant.

Christian tells Ana relatively early in the story that he enjoys being in control.  When he shows her his “red room of pain,” Ana asks Christian if he is a sadist, to which he replies, horrified, “No, I’m a dominant.”  In my experience with BDSM practitioners, I’ve found them to be pretty self-aware, and willing to engage in introspection to figure out what motivates them and where their boundaries are.  Christian’s rejection of a sadist identity is at odds with his obvious desire and enjoyment around making Ana hurt, both emotionally and physically.
Christian introduces Ana to the Red Room of Pain

But his lack of self-awareness isn’t what makes him a terrible dom.  Christian does not respect Ana’s boundaries, ever.  When she calls him while out drinking, instead of listening to what she’s saying, Christian demands that she stop drinking and tell him where she is.  When Ana hangs up on Christian, he tracks her phone and shows up at the bar.  Later, he appears unexpectedly at her mother’s home in Georgia (the stories take place primarily in Washington state).  Christian buys Ana outrageous gifts (first editions of classic literature, a car, a computer), though she repeatedly tells him it makes her uncomfortable, and refuses to give her space to process their relationship, even when she asks for it.  These boundary violations are softened in the movie; in the book, they’re much more prevalent and stalkery. 

Another major problem with Christian’s style is his lack of attention to Ana after play.  We never see (or read) about Christian engaging in aftercare with Ana.  For many BDSM practitioners, aftercare is a vital part of the scene, where partners return to baseline, typically with comforting behaviors.  Engaging in aftercare can help the bottom through “sub-drop,” where the bottom may experience symptoms similar to depression due to the intense emotions and hormones elicited by the scene.  In this way, Christian shows that he doesn’t actually care about Ana; he just wants to control her.  This is in addition to the total lack of conversation about safety procedures prior to bondage play.
The aftermath of a scene
Problem #2: Despite the focus on the sub contract, Christian never really gets Ana’s consent to engage in a 24/7 relationship.

It’s arguable that Ana is giving informed consent for the activities they engage in, but though several chapters and scenes are devoted to the legalistic submissive contract (and NDA) Christian gives Ana, she never signs it, and therefore never explicitly consents to an ongoing D/s dynamic.  After the last discussion about the contract, Ana tells Christian that she’ll think about it (an important process, particularly since she’s not allowed to talk to anyone but Christian about the BDSM, as per the non-disclosure agreement).  Instead of honoring this request, Christian essentially says “screw the contract” and pounces on her in the elevator.  Thus ends any conversation of the contract, and the two embark on a problematic power exchange relationship.  Ana doesn’t actually seem to enjoy the kink (again, this is mostly shown in the book; the movie seems to imply some level of nonverbal consent). 
Problem #3: Kink is portrayed as super deviant, with a tragic etiology.

Going back to that NDA, the mystery Christian builds up around these desires of his, what makes him (per the worst line in the story) “fifty shades of fucked up,” is ultimately pretty unspectacular.  In the movie, we see him using a riding crop, but mostly to run it over Ana’s bare body, striking her a few times; it’s the same with a flogger, used mostly for sensation play, not flogging.  Even the worst thing, the final (BDSM) scene, when Ana asks Christian to show her the worst thing he could do, is only six hits with a belt (not to judge, but in this context, that seems a lot more like punishment than erotica).  For a story that’s supposed be dropping panties, I found it to be pretty mediocre.  Not that there’s anything wrong with light sensation play with feathers, or that every scene needs to feature elements of blood play or edge play!  But from the hype about 50 Shades, one would expect something more extreme than what Christian has to offer. 
Christian gets his dom on
Further, the reason that Christian has this innate need to dominate and control Ana (and women in general) is that a) his mother was a sex worker and suffered from addiction, which messed up his childhood, particularly when she died when he was a young child, and b) he was molested by a family friend while a teenager and was groomed to be a submissive.  Christian rejects the idea that “Mrs. Robinson” abused him, and while Ana pushes back on that apologia, it’s never really resolved.  Regardless of her label, though, Mrs. Robinson’s inclusion turns Christian’s introduction to and interest in BDSM into a tired trope, that kinky people are kinky because they’re acting out past abuse from childhood.  Lending more support to this interpretation is how Christian “grows out” of his need for kink throughout the series.  Ana’s good, vanilla heart “saves” or “cures” Christian right out of his desire to use that belt (though light bondage seems ok).
Ana seems to enjoy some light bondage
Problem #4 (applies only to the book): Christian rapes Ana.

This scene is very different in the movie.  But in the book, Christian clearly rapes Ana, and everyone seems to just be ok with that.  Earlier in the story, after Ana’s first foray to Wikipedia’s “submission” page, Ana decides that kink is not right for her, and tells Christian “peace out.”  From Christian’s perspective, Ana has just broken up with him.  The normal, boundary-respecting thing to do would be to not contact her again, or at the very least, not pressure her into a relationship she doesn’t want.  Of course, Christian instead shows up unannounced in her bedroom, and despite her saying “no,” he rapes her.  E.L. James has denied that the trilogy glorifies an abusive relationship, but it’s really hard to find a different interpretation to a man holding down a woman and penetrating her while she struggles and says “no.”

However, though I am obviously a critic of the series, its explosion into popular media has brought some good things, too.

Silver Lining #1: Kink is stepping out of the shadows.

Now that 50 Shades has been a best-seller and a successful franchise, other media are exploring their kinky sides.  There are now many successful romance and erotica writers writing about kinky characters.  TV shows and movies are depicting kink as less a feature of a serial killer or rapist and now more a feature that gets some people hot in the bedroom.  Commercials and print advertisements wink slyly at customers, alluding to power exchange and leather.  This is great!  Destigmatizing kink is one of the central goals of our team, and I am really happy that previously closeted kinksters can feel safer in the open.
Family Guy gets kinky

Silver Lining #2: It’s easier to talk about consent.

College campus programs focused on affirmative consent had an uphill battle at the beginning.  Lots of critics complained that asking for consent and talking about what sexytimes would entail would dampen the sexiness.  Enter BDSM negotiation and consent norms.  We’ve found in previous research that members of the BDSM community report lower rape-supportive beliefs than people in a general online sample and a sample of college students.  While those data are correlational, we speculate that the community norms of affirmative consent in BDSM can challenge inaccurate beliefs about rape, such as women ask for rape by wearing revealing clothing, and that men can’t stop having sex once they reach a certain point.  We hope that the normalization of discussions of consent and negotiations about sexual activity will help stem the epidemic of sexual assault, on college campuses and everywhere.

Silver Lining #3: 50 Shades as a gateway to better sex.

As I said earlier, plenty of new media are getting into kink.  That is encouraging to people who never considered engaging in kink play before.  People are letting their freak flag fly, so to speak.  They’re asking their partners to try new things and increasing their sexual satisfaction.  And that is super!  We’re happy that people all over the world are able to expand their sexual horizons. 

As long as people can spot the problematic elements of 50 Shades, the overall message that kink can be hot, and it’s something that anyone can get into regardless of how much sexual experience they have, should win out.  Whether or not you’re a fan of the trilogy, it’s had an impact on popular culture, and we can help make sure that the impact is a positive one.

Better sexytimes for all!

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