Ah, young love.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” was released Feb. 13, just in time for loving couples to buy tickets and wallow in shared discomfort. Thankfully, the movie’s racy content is utterly unsupported by anything but a lavish production budget. The script is often self-serious to the point of comedy. The plot lumbers along like some rare Hollywood species of erotic water buffalo, prodded by unconvincing characters and implausible scenarios.
Both protagonist and antagonist, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, are isolated from family and friends. Neither have any substantial history or ties to place (other than a brief and unbelievable attempt to give Grey a troubled past). They are stock characters, devoid of nuance: Grey is an intense, attractive billionaire playboy giving a speech at Washington State University; Steele, the fumbling and naive Washington State literature student who interviews him.
She is intimidated. He is fascinated. Grey proceeds to lavish her with gifts, toy with her emotions, and track her movements with the competence of the NSA. He also initiates her into the world of sadism, known broadly as bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism, or BDSM. Grey introduces Steele to his “playroom” (not made, mind you, by Little Tikes) by slapping her gently on the palm and asking her if it hurt. When she says no, he tells her that pain and her anticipation of the pain is all in her mind: There is nothing they cannot do, nothing they should not do, except what is judged physically undesirable. Grey and Steele conditionally address each other as bodies, not as persons. This is “play.”
When in “play,” both are supposed to be engaging on a physical level only. The meaning of the sex has been negotiated and clearly defined beforehand. Safety is predicated upon proactive, comprehensive definition of the relationship. Both parties agree to acknowledge the precise limitations of their engagement, both physical and emotional. This is “consent.”
This is where the film’s portrayal becomes problematic: BDSM as a practice relies on clear psychological and emotional boundaries. But a major element of the plot is that Grey and Steele are not in a clearly-defined relationship. It is precisely this ambiguity that keeps Steele open to Grey’s emotional manipulation, to being abused even by her own consent.
Steele fails to make the distinction between “play” and reality, and rightly so. The demarcation between your person and your body, between a role and reality, cannot be drawn as absolutely as it appears to have been drawn in Grey. In BDSM, there is a relationship of trust between the parties engaged before anything is undertaken. Sexuality is never merely a game: It is one person addressing another person in their entirety, in their total significance. Pleasure and pain are important determining factors in a BDSM relationship, perhaps even primary, but not the only ones. Practitioners acknowledge each other as persons first, bodies second.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” ignores this. It contrives to depict Grey as absolutely physical: he is an appetite, not a person. His morality is that of pleasure and pain, consent and non-consent. Grey, desperate to be sure of his access to Steele, tells her, “I want you.” He does not mean a desire for her as such, but a desire for the pleasure she offers.
Steele’s involvement with Grey is entirely consensual, but it is her inability to reduce herself to appetite, to think and communicate only in terms of pleasure and pain, that is her flaw. She fails precisely because she remains whole. This deep conflict might have been plausible were the characters given more depth, but Grey and Steele are made out to be little more than complementary parodies of sexuality.
Handled more competently, “Fifty Shades of Grey” could have been a tragic spectacle. As it is, the film is little more than a visually sumptuous and intellectually bankrupt representation of modern sexuality, a byproduct of popular culture in turns amusing and saddening.