I had never read anything like Fifty Shades of Grey before. Always the fan of a chic-lit, not one to blush too easily and a consumer of novels par excellence, I really had to do what any self-respecting all-of-the-above would do. I downloaded all three books, read them in one weekend and then re-read them over and over and over.
I will admit that the first book left me feeling quite unsettled but being able to plunge into Darker meant my discomfort was quelled by the first thirty pages or so. The love story triumphs over the sordid sex story. The light conquers the darkness. From being Ana versus Christian in book one, to Mr and Mrs Grey versus the world. That’s the part that got me hooked and like so many of my lit buff friends, if I had bought the first book in hard copy, as opposed to on my Kindle app, and had to wait for book two and three to come along, I would probably have donated it to the SPCA book shop and never thought of it again. Except that is not how it worked. I had the books ready to go and have re-read sections and entire novels repeatedly since the first time. Always swept off my feet when Christian tells Ana: “You. Are. Mine.” Always touched when he reveals part of his brokenness to her. Moved to tears when he proposes in a room filled with flowers with the line, “ You wanted hearts and flowers, well here are the flowers, and you have my heart…”
So I was willing to silence the voice in my head that told me that a movie never meets the book’s standards. I waited, like so many other fans for the film to open and come Valentines’ day 2015, I knew what my plans were.
That old expression, “hindsight is twenty-twenty vision,” has certainly proven itself a truism in my life on many occasions. This weekend was no exception. I need to expand the background story to explain that, like many of you, I'm sure, I was bombarded by social-networking articles from various sources and a cross section of view points that Fifty Shades of Grey was going to ruin me, my marriage, my faith, my children, my country and my generation.
My friends know that I have a naughty side and laugh when I refer to watching or reading things often deemed ‘off-sides.’ Even pupils I used to teach knew that they could share things with me they couldn’t necessarily share with most teachers because I had a slightly ‘more open’ world view. I love hearing that my (married) friends have an exciting sex life. I love knowing that my church friends listen to secular music. It thrills me getting together with mates and while we chat over coffee, we compare notes on the last episode of Orange is the New Black, Game of Thrones or The Big Bang Theory. Not because I believe these things to be wicked, but rather I believe them to be part of our world and therefore part of our life.
Which is why I started on the Fifty bandwagon. I did not want to be one of those critics who spoke out about the books and had never actually read them. I won’t even speak out about the lifestyle depicted in the books, of a dominant and submissive, because while I am all for “woman’s lib” and all that, I know really good people who have that rule in their bedrooms and it works for them. They have sane, consensual, kinky sex. If one were to film it, I've heard, it would make Christian Grey blush. I don’t ask about their levels of pain and the materials of the equipment. That’s personal and they both seem satisfied with a life that may be viewed as ‘out there’ but is actually quite common and, when lived in the parameters of SSC (safe, sane and consensual) should be met with the same amount of scepticism as those who choose to only make love in the missionary position. Which is none.
We should realise that certain stuff just isn’t our business at all.
But when these things are flouted and punted and shown on a big screen, they become our business and by doing so, also open themselves for criticism. I sat through Fifty, the movie, and honestly tried hard to love it the way I had loved the books. I pushed those warning texts out of my mind, pushed the negative press reviews out of my mind, silenced the voices of the three-hundred or so other cinema goers and watched. Why? Well, because I'm stubborn as all hell and once I sat down in that seat I knew that even if I got up for popcorn I would never go back.
I watched that movie and for the first time, saw the smut for what it really was. The writers have taken a novel that had potential to go either way and chosen the road more commonly taken – where the female lead is seen as weak and clueless and fragile, and the male lead is messed-up, sadistic and selfish. His stalking and psychopathic tendencies can be overlooked and are largely brushed over in the film, as it seems they are more eager to show him as a sexual bully. I read those books and even in reading them, Christian comes across as a damaged, but generally good soul. Hell, after reading the books I wanted him to have his happily-ever-after with Ana, he deserved it.
But seeing him force his will on Ana in the film, over and over, despite her protestations and despite her completely naïve and timid nature, was deplorable. And she, the heroine who physically defends herself from sexual assault in a confined space (spoiler alert!) and then later still shoots a man, is like a butterfly with two broken wings. Every aspect of her eagerness to please Christian is played out as a weak attempt to keep the man.
I have daughters, you see, and I would be horrified if they were ever to turn out that way.
I came home after the film and saw the barrage of negative press warning people against watching the film and why it would drag our souls to hell and damage our marriage and sex life forever and I thought long and hard about whether those were fair assumptions to make. I decided that they aren’t.
The producers have done such a shoddy job of making this film that if you left that movie thinking of the relationship depicted therein as anything resembling normal, you were pretty much doomed to begin with. As I said, people I know who choose the BDSM lifestyle have hated the movie just as much as those who choose missionary position with pyjamas-mostly-on every time. Even Ana seems embarrassed to talk to her best friend about her relationship with Christian. And it’s not his lifestyle that embarrasses her, but the shame she feels by his debasement. I guess, as is the case with all good best friends, Kate probably believed Ana to be worth more.
Yet, there seems to be some desperate need in our society to lay the blame at someone’s feet and wipe our own hands clean; E.L. James’ has been made the token for moral ineptitude and sexual sin worldwide. We forget that, although not as “in your face,” our levels of acceptable morality have been slipping for a long time. I would like to point out a few stepping stones which could be seen on our path to Fifty Shades of Grey.
Firstly, shows with domestic violence and criminal violence have become commonplace. NCIS, CSI, Vampire Diaries, True Blood, the Mentalist, Vikings, Game of Thrones… these all have scenes where a crime or brutality of some sort is expected. Some of the historical shows make them as grotesque as possible to show the hardship suffered hundreds of years ago – but in any event, we still see the blood and gore. We still watch the punches and flinch at the jabs. What’s a little whip on the bum in comparison to a decapitation by sword or fangs? Why are we okay with seeing blood and guts but draw the line when a hand wanders below the panty-line on screen?
Speaking of which. Just because the sex is more overtly displayed in Fifty, is it more offensive than say, Satisfaction, Devious Maids, Game of Thrones, Sex and the City, Masters of Sex or Anger Management? Whether sex is alluded to, joked about or shown blatantly on screen, isn’t the effect equally damaging? A character like Barney Stinson or Samantha Jones can be applauded for promiscuity by the sheer virtue that she/he makes it look so glamorous and easy – yet a character such as Christian Grey is seen as a dark and evil force for his ‘specific’ tastes.
I don’t consider myself a prude in the slightest. In fact, I am sure certain folks wish I were more of a prude. You may also have already realised that I am the type of person who tends to test limits and bend rules. There are people like that (i.e. like me) in this world and then there are those who can be told the iron is hot and simply take your word for it.
Nonetheless, for those who tend to be a little less black and white when it comes to rules, here are a few of my opinions about navigating those ‘grey’ areas:
- If you don’t see the movie, you aren’t missing anything. It makes me sad that this film has outsold Avatar in ticket sales for it’s opening weekend. If you haven’t seen Avatar you have missed something special. But Fifty Shades of Grey, not so much. Even if you are a fan of the books, the movie is a pale and sordid version of the written material.
- Do you remember singing the Sunday School song, “Be careful little eyes what you see… be careful little ears what you hear… be careful little mouth what you say…”? I do. The repulsion I felt after watching this film has reminded me that I need to practise caution. Not just for the movie that was supposed to be blatantly sexual. For those shows that sneak it in under the radar too. I saw stuff my imagination had not shown me and now it is too late to un-see it.
- Understand that God is not opposed to fun sex. He encourages married couples to be intimate and for some that means adding a little (or a lot) of kink. (I really am trying not to turn this in to a religious debate because that is an entirely new can of worms.) It may be a sweeping generalisation but most folks don’t seem to have a problem with monogamous, consensual sexual relationships. A lot of people seem to feel that what goes on behind closed doors in ‘nobody’s business but yours.’ No one has the right to tell you what happens within your relationship is weird or abnormal or even, “too normal.” When drastic steps (i.e. being humiliated, hurt, tortured etc.) are taken in order to try to ‘keep’ a man interested (or a woman for that matter) something is very wrong. Attraction should not be based on how willing one is to debase themselves for another. Same applies to enduring pain.
- Try to maintain a consistent rule of judgement. An episode of Glee (for example, season 3 episode 5) that celebrates some of the main cast losing their virginities is as sordid as Anastasia Steele offering hers up on a platter to Christian Grey. Just because one cameraman filmed more of the exposed flesh than the other, doesn’t mean the message is in any way different.
- The true BDSM practitioners say that the depiction in the books and even more so in the film of the dom/sub relationships is largely erroneous. One friend even admitted to finding the portrayal of the female as such a weakling as an enormous turn off.
In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, (and please remember that this is coming from one who was in amid with the books to the point of obsession,) the movie left me feeling violated and ashamed. Two feelings that should only be brought about by wildlife documentaries where polar bears are fighting to find ice or children are hurt by cruel and unusual punishment. As consenting, generally intelligent adults, my husband and I wanted to go to a movie for Valentine’s Day and enjoy some entertainment aimed at a more mature audience. I was glad the theatres were dark. I was grateful no one recognised me entering the cinema. Those two facts alone should be enough to have warned me that there was something wrong with this scenario.
The fact that parallels have been drawn between the Lord of The Rings trilogy and E.L. James’ novels truly baffles my brain. Even in cinematic versions, they are worlds (and Middle Earth) apart. While Peter Jackson managed to win over more fans for Tolkein than one could ever imagine by creating the films, I fear E.L. James has ostracised her previously passionate audience. And rightly so.
I commented once that I pitied a world where Justin Bieber and Gangnam Style are the best that we could do. Now I long for the days when Sharon Stone provocatively opening and closing her legs was the biggest taboo. Alfred Hitchcock was a great director for the amount of stuff he managed to get the imagination to see. It was enough to merely show the shadow of a blade and add some scary, high-pitched music for people to imagine a gruesome murder. Sam Taylor-Johnson didn’t think much of her audience when choosing what our imaginations could concoct. It was all laid bare. And like the Biebs and PSI, I feel saddened that the world has “evolved” to the point that we need to see a virgin debased and humiliated before we realise we are watching smut. Where we need to see a man completely abuse his charm and sexual attractiveness to manipulate a lover into doing things she would otherwise probably have never considered. And where an age restriction of sixteen tells all people from the age of seventeen upwards, that the romantic movie for the most romantic day of the year is all about disgrace and warped sexual standards; the same thing that porn has been accused of for years, but now we see in our general cinemas.
Reading a book somehow still manages to hold the imagination accountable. When there are no pictures attached to the story, it allows for whatever moral code you follow ultimately to prevail. I mentioned that I read and re-read the books when they first came out, simply because I loved the fact that a dark, broken soul (Christian) could be healed by true love. It’s the same reason little girls love the story of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. It was never about the sex. And like walking in on your parents doing the nasty, or watching the home movie of your neighbour’s water birth, there are some things that are better left to the imagination. Or, (and I appreciate the irony of this statement,) probably best not thought of at all.