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Popular culture has always been able to influence people’s perceptions of both commonly accepted and controversial topics. The medium of cinematography is not an exception to this rule. Through its visual representation of ideas and themes, a film can introduce new subjects to people and challenge their views about virtually anything. The impact can be either positive or negative depending on the quality of the movie itself and the audience’s understanding of its purpose and themes. In 2015, Universal Pictures released Fifty Shades of Grey, a movie based on a book with the same name written by E.L. James in 2011 (“Fifty Shades of Grey,” 2015). The original trilogy of novels attracted the attention of many readers and introduced BDSM concepts to them. The movie had a similar effect, leading to various debates and raising concerns in the BDSM community. This essay aims to analyze the impact Fifty Shades of Grey has on people’s understanding of BDSM practices and show that the movie’s plot confuses consensual and abusive activities.
The events of the film and the book revolve around Anastasia Steel, referred to simply as Ana by most characters. She is a young literature student who is asked by her friend to interview a young billionaire and businessman, Christian Grey. Christian becomes interested in Ana and starts pursuing her by sending her gifts, appearing at her workplace, and inviting her on dates. Later, Christian explains that he is interested in BDSM and asks Ana to sign an agreement describing the nature of their relationship. The woman declines the contract but continues to see Christian and expects a mutually trusting relationship to develop. Because she is interested in understanding more about BDSM, Ana asks Christian to demonstrate what punishment means in practice for him. Christian whips her, and Ana, disenchanted and upset, forbids Christian to seek her out again and leaves (“Fifty Shades of Grey,” 2015).
Throughout the movie, a number of concepts are introduced to the audience. First of all, as this picture is marketed as a romance, the theme of love is a central part of the story. The relationship between Ana and Christian is – or is at least expected to be – affectionate and romantic. However, this is not a romantic comedy where the tension between the characters is usually driven mostly by their feelings towards each other. In this film, the romantic aspect of the drama implies that both individuals experience problems with determining whether they are interested in a relationship. Ana does not know if she wants to engage in the practices that Christian proposes, and he possibly has an underlying fear of trusting people.
The next major themes are control and consent. During multiple scenes, Christian is confused about Ana having personal interests, hobbies, and responsibilities. He appears at her workplace and other places, suggesting that he finds information about her without her knowing. Furthermore, he asks Ana to keep their relationship confidential. When the characters see each other, Christian describes the nature of BDSM as fully consensual. However, he refuses to listen to Ana’s concerns multiple times and disregards her refusals.
Another theme, sexual interests, can be distinguished as well. Ana is a naïve and inexperienced young woman who the movie contrasts with the personality of Christian, who is portrayed as a man indifferent to romantic relationships. Both characters have areas in which they do not possess enough knowledge. Ana does not know anything about sex, while Christian does not know how to reciprocate one’s feelings. Thus the main story follows Ana as she learns more about the world of BDSM and becomes familiar with the roles of submissive and dominant partners.
According to the IMDb website, Fifty Shades of Grey has a rating of 46 out of 100 (“Fifty Shades of Grey,” 2015). However, one can see that it was well-received during its box office release. While many reviews are negative, giving the movie the lowest score of 1 out of 10, more than 12 percent of viewers believe that it deserves the highest rating. Some points that are mentioned in these reviews are the movie’s mediocre acting, the close adaptation of the book, and the lack of chemistry between the main characters. However, two issues attract reviewers’ attention the most – the contract and the concept of a consensual BDSM relationship.
The modest percentage of positive reviews reveals that the majority of watchers were not familiar with BDSM prior to watching the film and are now interested in exploring it further, noting that some scenes from the movie were romantic and arousing. Therefore it can be assumed that Fifty Shades of Grey introduced many people to BDSM. The impact of the movie on this community has been substantial, bringing such notions as bondage and role-play to public attention. Thus the representation of these practices needs to be analyzed further to understand whether this impact is negative or positive.
The Response of the BDSM Community
The full significance of the BDSM acronym needs to be explained. It stands for three types of dual relationships: “bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism” (Pfeuffer, 2018, para. 2). All activities in these relationships are strictly consensual and require two or more adults to establish a set of rules that must be followed and cannot be broken under any circumstances. For example, the introduction of a stop word into the practice is essential, as it allows all participants to end the interaction without needing to explain themselves. According to Barker (2013), the BDSM community was perceived as violent or perverted for a long time and has made significant efforts to explain the idea of consent to the general public. Therefore, rules play a crucial role in upholding the community’s morals and representation.
The movie’s interpretation of these practices received many negative responses from the community. BDSM practitioners mention that while BDSM was introduced into the mainstream media, the core idea of the activities was entirely changed in the movie (“What do members,” n.d.). For example, the film misinterprets agreements as flexible, ignoring a central pillar of the group’s rules – SSC (“safe, sane, consensual”), and portraying Christian’s stalking and possessive behavior as affectionate (Barker, 2013, p. 898). Thus the general public may assume that finding information about a person and following them home is a romantic gesture and a part of BDSM culture. Furthermore, many community members note that the movie views BDSM as an unhealthy practice that can be interesting only to people with psychological problems. Indeed, in one of the scenes, Christian admits that he is interested in domination because of his relationship with his mother. Thus BDSM becomes thematically linked to mental health and the concept of deviance.
Other comments also connect the lack of clear rules and agreements in the movie to potential dangers that could follow an attempt to engage in BDSM without knowing the basics. For instance, the film does not mention safety and aftercare, focusing instead on the shock value of the practices. In fact, a study by Bonomi et al. (2014) found that young women who had read the trilogy were more likely to be in unhealthy relationships with violent or aggressive partners than people who did not read or enjoy the books. The movie could potentially have a similar effect on the audiences, confusing dominant and submissive role play with stalking and abuse. As Illouz (2014) notes, sexual arousal that results from the physical or emotional pain caused by BDSM comes not from a lifestyle or a relationship model people are forced into but from an activity with a beginning and an end. Thus Fifty Shades of Grey provides an example of an abusive relationship, which it misleadingly depicts as dominant-submissive role play.
After analyzing comments from BDSM community members, it has become clear that the influence of Fifty Shades of Grey on their representation was and continues to be predominantly negative. The movie depicts BDSM as a practice that can be imposed on others without their consent, while consent is seen by the main characters as flexible and optional. Christian’s behavior is not recognized by Ana as dangerous, although he shows multiple signs of misunderstanding relationship boundaries. Therefore one can conclude that Fifty Shades of Grey exposed the public to the ideas of dominance and submission without teaching the audience about the fundamental ideas behind these practices – consent, safety, and sanity. This representation can damage both the community’s image and people who attempt to join it without knowing what is considered appropriate and what is potentially harmful.
Barker, M. (2013). Consent is a grey area? A comparison of understandings of consent in Fifty Shades of Grey and on the BDSM blogosphere. Sexualities, 16(8), 896-914.
Bonomi, A. E., Nemeth, J. M., Altenburger, L. E., Anderson, M. L., Snyder, A., & Dotto, I. (2014). Fiction or not? Fifty Shades is associated with health risks in adolescent and young adult females. Journal of Women’s Health, 23(9), 720-728.
Fifty Shades of Grey. (2015). Web.
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Illouz, E. (2014). Hard-core romance: “Fifty Shades of Grey,” best-sellers, and society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Pfeuffer, C. (2018). Fifty Shades versus BDSM: The reality of consent. The Globe and Mail. Web.