When I told fellow college students that I would be spending part of my Valentine’s Day weekend reviewing Fifty Shades of Grey, I came across a peculiar phenomenon. Most of my peers responded that their co-ed halls had made plans to see the film as a group. Some who weren’t attending with their halls expressed their jealousy at my having an “excuse” to see the film. It seemed to me that the hall-group-viewing trips were a protective mechanism that operated as an “excuse” for people to see the film – there’s safety from judgment in numbers, right? Interestingly, that was only the tip of the iceberg of the unspoken inability to face Fifty Shades with a straight face. Some of this attitude was even orchestrated by student publications that asked for volunteers to write high and drunk reviews of the film, whose publication would be accompanied by that of a themed drinking game. Indeed, a peer who attended an advanced screening warned me: “Whatever you do, DON’T see it sober!”
I didn’t heed that advice, but the attitudes that I encountered towards 50 Shades on my college campus – ones that seemed to attempt to camouflage both the curiosity and the inherent discomfort people felt – did convince me to do one thing. In the interest of exploring this behavior pattern of shying away from association with the taboo, one that likely reflects of the effect of the Fifty Shades phenomenon as a whole, I decided to approach my viewing and subsequent reviewing of the film as an experience.
If you, too, feel that you need a legitimate “excuse” to see the film, try these on for size: Fifty Shades of Grey is the first major motion picture to be adapted from a self-published novel. Couple that with the fact that The Imitation Game, one of this year’s hottest Oscar contenders, was the most popular Blacklist script of 2011, it’s pretty clear that 2015 has been an exemplary year in showing that the content sourcing of the film industry is evolving rapidly. Any skeptical and reasonable individual inclined to question your motives should be convinced of your purely cinematic – and not at all prurient – interest in the film. All kidding aside, though, Fifty Shades is a precedent-setter in that it marks the first major motion picture representation of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM). Concerns had already arisen about the danger of the book’s unhealthy misrepresentation of BDSM to many people who likely have not encountered it before. Should the film follow in the book’s missteps, the consequences of this misrepresentation could be worse.
There is something maddening about the patent recurrence of Fifty Shades’ fundamental storyline: innocent female longs for protection or vindication in the form of a powerful male, in spite of protestations of this same setup’s anti-feminism in Twilight. Fifty Shades began as Twilight fan-fiction, and the main characters fill now-predictable roles: the nondescript good-girl archetype meets aloof, adopted millionaire with a past – which, in the case of Christian Grey, is one of abuse. I felt that these character tropes worked better in this story than in the one by which they were inspired. Jamie Doran does his best to fill the infamous gray necktie, and for the most part delivers Grey’s domineering lines in a way that don’t sound entirely forced. Dakota Johnson’s constant rasp made my vocal chords hurt, but to her credit she delivered Ana as a more assertive character than I would have expected. One aspect of the film’s characterization that did not work, however, was the express statement that Grey embraces BDSM because he is “Fifty shades of f***ed up,” which incorrectly implies that participation in BDSM practices are the result of psychological damage – an entirely unfair slam to the subculture.
To me, the most surprising aspect of viewing the film in an audience primarily composed of college students was how much like a romantic comedy viewing it felt during the many non-sexually-charged moments in the film. The audience roared and hooted with laughter, and it was hard to tell exactly why. It could have been because the script was the definition of maudlin, and its patent presentation on screen was actually so bad that it was good – campy, even. It could have been because laughing was the best way to sublimate discomfort – or arousal – when viewing the more sexually intense scenes. Additionally, the film could have been a quintessential “hate watch” for many viewers. And sure, there were parts that were supposed to be funny; hearing Christian Grey, robotically and unironically remark “Laters, baby” was surely not intended to get the audience hot and bothered. Regardless of the real source of the laughter, the humor, intentional or not, made for a much more enjoyable viewing experience than I’d expected.
However, there were scenes that elicited little to no audible reactions from the crowd. No one seemed to find the most sexually explicit scenes quite absurd enough to be laughable. In fact, those that incorporated more intense BDSM elements seemed to shock the audience into complete silence – be it out of shock, horror, curiosity or uncertainty of the acceptable way to react. It is in these scenes that the issue of consent, and the conflation of BDSM with abuse, comes to light. Although Ana and Christian negotiate a consent contract in the film, a common practice in the BDSM community, and hearing them talk shop during this scene is nothing less than kinky good fun, Ana never signs the contract. The audience displayed obvious discomfort with these scenes perhaps because this consent was not as clearly defined as it could have and should have been.
There’s another issue at play here, and one that is perhaps more indicative of industry tendencies than anything else. Although the stories have been branded “Mommy Porn,” and are considered erotica geared toward a female audience, the camera spent entirely more time trained on naked Anastasia and her reactions during the sex scenes than the titular Mr. Grey. The books are told from Anastasia’s perspective, yet the film does not portray this. If this is intended for females, then why aren’t there more shots of the incredibly fit Christian Grey? Is the male gaze still directing cinema geared towards women?
In spite of the various issues that the film raises without resolving, the experience was not one that I felt ashamed to partake in. Viewing the movie in a theater filled with college students left me with more questions than it answered. Why were college students, generally not known as the world’s preeminent conservateurs, ashamed to express outright interest in seeing one of the most highly anticipated films of the year? Could this trilogy’s commercial success surpass that of Twilight, the one that inspired it, and if so, what does that mean for the future of fan-fiction? Will Fifty Shades open the door for the portrayal of other subcultures, and will these portrayals learn from this franchise’s mistakes?