feminist film theory

The Feminist Message of Fifty Shades of Grey


fifty shades

(photo from moviepilot.com)

I, like so many other crazy cat ladies, rushed to the theater to see Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), the film adaptation of E. L. James’ erotic novel.   Large popcorn and diet coke in hand, I tiptoed into the dark room—ashamed to be seen. What would my social justice peeps think? But on a Wednesday afternoon, the only other attendees were an elderly couple snuggling a few rows from the front. Nobody I knew. Whew! *Wipes sweat from forehead.   I could indulge in this guilty pleasure without fear of ruining my feminist street cred.


(photo from eonline.com)


In a world where sexual violence and domestic abuse are rampant, widespread, and normalized—I can see why people might oppose a film that centers on BDSM—a largely marginalized sexual practice that ventures far beyond the vanilla foreplay to which your pastor or parents might give their blessing. Negotiating hard and soft limits, playrooms with—cough—no x-boxes, silver tie restraints…WTH? However, what I saw on screen was not torture-porn or a girl falling into mortal sin. What I witnessed was a woman asserting her sexuality, exploring her passion, and deciding for herself what she craves in the bedroom and in a relationship. All relations that took place were entirely consensual. Entirely sober.   And entirely pleasurable.  So I’m going to take a bold stance, one that many of my comrades are sure to disagree with. As a woman who graduated with a Women’s Studies Minor, I think Fifty Shades is feminist.

(photo from variety.com)

(photo from variety.com)

How many films feature a heroine who boldly pursues and negotiates pleasure to her liking? How many movies reward a woman who doesn’t hide from her desires while not painting her a harlot? Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele—our good girl protagonist—is an undiscovered gem. Without the cinematic baggage attached to famous actresses, she is un-encumbered by previous expectations.  Her subtle humor and unique brand of vulnerability endow the role with fresh-faced vitality. What could have been Lifetime cheese becomes a tale of exploration, growth, and heartbreak.   Ana does not blindly sign a contract, selling her soul to some hotshot billionaire who seduces with helicopters and melancholy piano soliloquies. She forces the emotionally-distant control freak out of his comfort zone and into her realm of courtship and commitment. Rejecting his fancy gifts and holding out on the signature, she is the real power-player. She drives Christian crazy with anticipation. Jamie Dornan as Mr. Grey, while attractive, comes across as cold and robotic. Fitting for a man who doesn’t do hearts and candy.

(photo from justjared.com)

(photo from justjared.com)

Most romantic films today are beyond formulaic.   Warm-hearted guy woos quirky girl. They almost kiss, but don’t. Somehow she has a plane to catch. He stops her by whipping out a ring. Tongue-kisses along with declarations of love ensue. And they live happily ever after!!! Christian Grey, although rich and handsome, is no Prince Charming.   He is not about romance and roses. As Mr. Grey honestly tells Anastasia, he’s fifty shades of f—ked up.   Finally, we are exposed to the scenario: What happens when you fall for someone who isn’t storybook perfect?

(photo from etonline.com)

(photo from etonline.com)

I’m not saying Fifty Shades is Oscar-worthy cinematic genius. Or that I think everyone should grab some handcuffs and rope and go to town. (But the Beyonce “Crazy in Love” remix, Danny Elfman score, and soundtrack are fabulous).  I’m not saying Christian is perfect. In fact, he is the antithesis of perfect.  And Anastasia despite her English nerd naiveté recognizes his flaws.  Ana decides to leave Christian NOT because of what her friends and family think or due to what evangelical and feminist bloggers post, but because SHE can’t deal with Christian’s instability. It is her choice. She does not let the man control her.  She walks away…and that is power.


Blog Post #1: Male Fantasy, Female Nightmare


*Picture from “ashleygriffinofficial.blogspot.com”

In her essay, ‘The Image of Women in Film,” Sharon Smith discusses the problematic portrayals of women in film.  According to Smith, women are most often presented as pretty playthings to satisfy the desires of the male hero.  The central mission of female characters is almost exclusively tied to finding a male love interest.  Written by males, women are either frigid shrews, frustrated by repression, or sexually savvy, bodacious babes.  The shrews, inevitably, are “saved” by the suave charm of the virile male lead.

Sexuality in men is applauded; their conquests seen as badges of erotic esteem, while pleasure in women is deemed unnatural.   Females who enjoy sex are commonly depicted as femme fatales—vixens whose beauty poses obstacles to the morals and mission of the protagonist who is, of course, male.  Think of films like Carrie.  After reaching puberty, the girl’s powers manifest in horrific ways, leading to the destruction of the student body.   Or Bedazzled, in which the devil is played by bombshell Elizabeth Hurley.  Sexual potency becomes a recipe for evil.  Then think of films like Wedding Crashers.  The protagonists are depicted as likable, fun-loving buddies, who are well-intentioned despite their promiscuous playboy ways.

With women on the screen, intellect and individuality are subservient to fulfilling fantasies of heterosexual men—an observation made more troubling when one recognizes real world parallels.  There are men who, indeed, grow to view women as sexual objects rather than flesh and blood beings who deserve equal representation in the political, business, and domestic sphere.

Smith believes:  “Films use all their powers of persuasion to reinforce—not the status quo, but some mythical Golden Age when men were men and women were girls” (17).  This is where we disagree.  She believes film representations are more grounded in fantasy than real world roles.  I, however, believe it is the norm—the “status quo”—for women to be expected to rely on appearance to advance in society.  I believe it is the “status quo” that fuels a culture in which rape is trivialized and glamorized; that women are deemed ditzy inferiors incapable of political prowess and business expertise.  Films are more than just fantasies; they are social scripts.  This provides a dangerous challenge.  For how are we to overcome this cycle?  Merely adding female filmmakers to the mix won’t suffice since women, too, are brainwashed by sexist ideology canonized in motion pictures.

The problem is not that women are presented sexually; it’s that they are ONLY presented sexually.  Men, contrastingly, are shown in a variety of lights, highlighting a diverse, more complete human experience.  Women in film are designed by male filmmakers to bring their fantasies to light.  Until we have women representing uniquely female fantasies, the same tired tropes are bound to appear again and again and again.  Like Smith, I believe studying females in the field is instrumental in providing models.  But effective change, I believe, is impossible without massive action on the part of female viewers and creators alike.

Source: Smith, Sharon. “The Image of Women in Film: Some Suggestions for Future  

          Research.” Ed. Sue Thornham. Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. New York: New York

          UP, 1999. 14 – 19. Print.