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.
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.
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.
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?
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.