Fifty Shades of Grey has been a polarizing novel since it first hit shelves back in 2011. It was soon followed by two sequels, and now a movie franchise, leading people to rekindle the debate about the myriad issues it has concerning sexuality, consent, and what defines going too far. With its top-ranking box office release this past weekend, the Internet has caught fire with complaints from both fans of the books and opponents of its core concepts.
The issues with the Fifty Shades of Grey novels run deep. It depicts a BDSM sexual relationship that many within the BDSM world claim is insulting to their way of life. It challenges the idea of female consent, and yet carries a predominantly female audience, as BoxOfficeMojo reports. It’s even managed to stand alone as its own work despite starting out as online Twilight fan-fiction. Now it’s free of vampires, but still chock full of controversy.
The debate swirling around the movie is one that we didn’t see reach anything close to this heated in the four years since the book was released. Generally, it was regarded as a series that people who were opposed to could ignore, and that fans could soak up to their hearts’ content. But now it’s gracing screens across the country, and virtually everyone has an opinion concerning its less than savory premise. It’s a story plagued by issues of abuse as much as poor writing and a snooze-worthy story, leading to most reviews splitting the difference and talking about either one or the other.
But the deeper issue here revolves around a study done at Ohio State, where researchers came to the conclusion that the fictional relationship between Christian Grey and his live-in submissive follows with common characteristics of an abusive relationship. The criteria involves things like “intimidating verbal and nonverbal behaviors” and “initiating sexual encounters when he’s genuinely angry, dismissing her requests for boundaries, and threatening her,” unraveling the core relationship of the novel and movie.
This in turn has led to many within the BDSM community attempting to distance themselves from a story that represents the only widely marketed representation they’ve ever had. The line between a consenting and negotiated sexual relationship and an abusive one is what separates this community from Fifty Shades, something that’s been made abundantly clear the days following the wide release of the film. The Ohio State study concluded that “abuse is not meant to be a part of genuine BDSM relationships,” leading to the controversy we have on our hands now.
Gawker’s review of the film runs through the core issue that puts this movie on such shaky ground. On one hand, it’s a representation of a wildly under-represented community in the mainstream. On the other, many are voicing concerns that it’s the wrong representation:
I love that something exists to push conversation about kink and alternate ways of having sex into mainstream discourse. I hate that it’s something as stupid, dull, and toxic as Fifty Shades of Grey. Stupid, dull, and toxic is not a very surprising combination in blockbuster filmmaking today, and yet this one was particularly infuriating.
According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film opened to over $81 million at the box office, outstripping the next highest grossing movie by almost $50 million. Whether it’s positive or not, people are listening. Many have protested the movie altogether, while some have braved it out of a sense of curiosity. What we can see with absolute certainty though is that this is a talk we need to have, even if it’s spurred on by a “stupid, dull, and toxic” movie. The film may offer up the wrong depiction of consent and female autonomy, but now there’s a soapbox available to bring this discussion the forefront. It’s just up to the general public to come to the right conclusions.