CONTENT WARNING: I am about to discuss Fifty Shades of Grey, which is not only a bad movie but also has a lot of sex. This is not typical content for The Atheist Experience blog, but hey, I have a soapbox, so why not. If you do not like hearing about sex or bad movies, please don’t read it. Thanks!
Ok, so… my wife Lynnea and I had a date last night, and we agreed that we were both curious enough about Fifty Shades of Grey that it was worth seeing. Ideally we would have wanted to see it with the comforting support of Rifftrax or Master Pancake, because we were not planning to like it. But it’s too new, so we thought we’d see the movie on its own terms. We’d both read plenty of material leading us to expect a thoroughly bad movie.
And it was bad, make no mistake. But the thing is, I was prepared for much worse, and with the benefit of low expectations, I was able to enjoy some of it. Some of the discussion that follows emerged from our animated conversation immediately after the movie, so a lot of this material is as much hers as mine.
First let me get some of the bad stuff out of the way. Being a couple of social justice lovin’, feminist, sex-positive atheists, we’re fully cognizant about how the story does not really understand the concept of consent, and gets downright rapey in some places. And while bondage is not really our thing, I’ve heard from people who would know, that it’s a bad and incompetent portrayal of bondage “best practices.”
Doctor Nerdlove wrote a good bit about the rapey bits. There’s a scene early on where young billionaire Christian Grey “rescues” naive college senior Anastasia Steele (side note: is that a great stage name for an adult film star or what??) from a bar where she has become falling down drunk. But instead of taking her home, or handing her off to her roommate who is RIGHT THERE, he brings her back to his hotel room, passed out, where he undresses her and then sleeps next to her. So while allegedly protecting her from people who might take advantage of her, he takes advantage of her. He didn’t actually penetrate her, but he put her through plenty of unnecessary stuff that she wouldn’t agree to while conscious. In Doctor Nerdlove’s words (I’m editing this heavily but omitting a lot of ellipses for readability):
“And nobody, not the doorman, not the staff, not the guests, nobody said a damn thing about it. Now in any place, people would notice this shit. This is not something you expect to see in a hotel lobby. Let’s be clear here: Christian Grey is the richest man in the Pacific Northwest. He’s no recluse – he’s, at the very least, Richard Branson-level famous. And here he is, bringing an unconscious college student back to his room like he’s bringing back a pizza. In any other world, this would be huge. TMZ and Perez Hilton would lose their everloving shit over this.”
Yeah, so that happens. And he stalks her, a lot. And he ignores her when she says “no.” In short, Christian Grey is either incredibly oblivious to the finer points of “consent,” or (more likely) he doesn’t really care. None of that’s okay. At all. So I hope we’re clear on all that.
Now here are my mitigating factors.
First of all, the movie’s a sex fantasy. You can entertain fantasies that you wouldn’t condone at all in real life, recognizing that they are fun to imagine but unethical in reality. There are a ton of dirty stories about students and teachers sleeping with each other. For some people, that’s a great fantasy. In real life, it should definitely get the teacher fired.
Here’s a brief thing Greta Christina had to say about criticism of the book version of “50 Shades” (which she says she hasn’t read).
“I don’t think every piece of fiction has to provide a model of what people should act like. That’s true if the fiction is aiming to be realistic and shine a light on real life — and it’s true if the fiction is aiming to be a fantasy. It’s okay to write about human reality in ways that are morally complex and acknowledge human imperfection. And it’s okay to write about fantasies that are entirely unrealistic, just fun things to imagine. Not every piece of fiction has to be a preachy morality play, in which the good are universally rewarded and the wicked are universally punished.”
The book and movie obviously appeal to a lot of women, most of whom I’m sure would no sooner accept Christian Grey’s abusive behavior in reality than Twilight fans would date a blood-sucking vampire. But I’m not inclined to feel all that judgmental about indulging the fantasy. There are plenty of even more ridiculous things in your typical action flick or superhero movie. Hell, Christian Grey is Batman. No, seriously. Imagine if Bruce Wayne, instead of dumping money into cool crime-fighting gadgets, had simply focused all his resources on his sexy playboy persona. Christian has got the giant mega-corporation with an ambiguous business model (not once in the movie do we ever hear what Grey Enterprises does; we only hear him occasionally yelling silly things into a phone like “You tell them they haven’t GOT 24 hours!!”). He’s got the cool cars. He has unlimited talents, except instead of being a super awesome detective, martial artist, and “scientist,” 27 year old Christian is an incredible piano player, has the world’s greatest network of creepy surveillance equipment, and he’s got piloting skills that would be the envy of the US Air Force. Instead of a bat cave, he has a bat sex dungeon. He’s just Batman, okay? Or Tony Stark. Just go with it.
Meanwhile, Ana is… let’s say Luke Skywalker. A boring person with a boring life who just happens to be The Chosen One. But not chosen to have The Force, just chosen to see the Bat Sex Dungeon.
The relationship between Christian and Ana is thoroughly unhealthy, although I’ve read a trashy romance novel or two before, and this is not necessarily worse than that. Christian is a total creep, and if Ana had her shit together she would pick up the warning signs within a few minutes of meeting the guy, and get the hell out at once. She does not have her shit together, which is something that real life predators count on to keep their victims around. That’s terrible. Hang on a minute though, I’m about to say some things that were actually good about the movie.
Wait no, not quite yet. First I want to mention that the dialogue was hilarious. It was badly written, many lines sounded like nothing any normal human being would ever say, and the delivery did not help. I’m not really sure if Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are bad actors, or if they were just doing the best they could with lines like “NO. YOU CAN’T LOVE ME.” or: “Why are you trying to change me?” “I’m not. It’s you that’s changing me.” But trust me, they sound awful.
But despite the arguably bad acting, the chemistry between them was actually decent. There were some pretty fun sex scenes too, which is fairly important for a movie like this. Actually, I’m mildly surprised that it managed to swing an R rating instead of an NC-17. Having seen This Film Is Not Yet Rated, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what you can’t get away with for the MPAA, and this movie seemed to hit a lot of no-nos. There were multiple scenes of a woman receiving oral sex quite enthusiastically. There was not quite full frontal male nudity, but it skirted that line pretty closely.
Anyway, here’s the thing. I have been known to enjoy some adult entertainment from time to time… and I hope that will not shock or embarrass anyone. One way to ridicule bad acting is to compare it to porn. Sometimes porn movies have kind of a story, but at best the acting rises to the level of very talented high school students in a play.
And that’s kind of a shame, because I’d say there is a niche for more movies with good stories and acting, which also happens to include well done explicit sex scenes. Context is sexy. A sex act is more interesting if you know how and why the people got together, even (or perhaps especially, depending on your tastes) when they’re strangers. Most movies that go there, fall short in one of two key areas. They either have a decent story but use laughably prudish tropes to hide the sex, or (with porn) they have really explicit sex with almost no context.
And I’d like both, please. I know it’s a tall order to fill, but I’d like some decent sex scenes combined with some good actors who are believably hot for each other, and a plot.
This is not that movie. But it’s not a complete failure either. It is just good enough to give me that glimmer of a reminder that a well-made and enjoyable dirty movie is something that would be nice to see more of. So my time watching Fifty Shades of Grey was not a complete loss. Interestingly, in a story that is mostly bad at handling consent, one of the hottest scenes is actually about discussing the consensual terms of their relationship. Christian puts Ana in a board room and they go over a “contract” he’s drawn up, where they discuss their conditions and she vetoes some things, and he throws in some promises to sweeten the deal. And they’re not having sex in that scene, but there is a lot of build-up to it. Which is cool.
Also, even though Christian is super creepy a lot of the time, there is at least the mitigating factor that Ana verbally tells him on several occasions that she agrees to continue. Even at the end, where he makes her cry, he does so only after repeatedly making sure that she wants him to do what he is doing. It doesn’t excuse the abuse that he is committing, but it makes the whole thing marginally more tolerable.
Anyway, at the end of the movie, she walks out and the elevator shuts and we fade to black. And for a moment, I was ready to applaud the story for its boldness in finally recognizing that Christian is a shitty guy, and she should leave. But no, it turns out that there are going to be sequels, so apparently she comes back. Maybe I can reject that and pretend that she really dumped him. She’s been mistreated, but it wasn’t completely traumatizing, so now that she’s got more experience let’s pretend she is ready to move on and get in a healthy relationship with somebody who is totally not Christian Grey. Just like those last two Matrix movies. They’re not canon, right?