Fifty Shades of Hollywood

In Beastly & Beautiful, Film & TV, Film/TV-General by Louisa Leontiades

With the tumultuous release of ‘Fifty Shades’ to coincide with Valentine’s day, I like many others went to the cinema to see it. Having read many angry reviews of the movie (but having not read the book) I saw the movie fully expecting to hate it and feared my buttons would be pushed by Christian Grey, someone who was described by many as a controlling, abusive man. There’s been abuse and adoption in my past too and those are issues which ring deep inside me.

But what I saw contradicted the popular feminist opinion and my would-be scathing review tumbled to the ground unwritten. My buttons were pushed altogether differently. Are we influenced by Hollywood as to the ‘ideal’ romantic relationship? Of course. Is Fifty Shades (the movie) ever purported to be the ideal? No.

Yet there are several problems, and not the ones shouted to the four corners of the earth. That BDSM is positioned as something indulged in by Christian because he’s ‘fifty shades of fucked up’, is a pity and also not true (outside of Hollywood). Newsflash, you don’t have to be abused to enjoy BDSM. Nevertheless Anastasia seems to like the light bondage and being tickled by a peacock feather which Hollywood thinks constitutes BDSM, and she – as per the movie – isn’t fucked up, just a confident girl dazzled by a the power of a wealthy handsome man who has first been abused by his mother, then adopted into a rich family and sexually molested by an older woman.

Who’s the victim again?

Then Anastasia forces Christian to act out his desire to punish just because she wants to see ‘the worst he can do’. Yes, she demands he do it. The worst turns out to be six of the best, trousers down and it’s not pretty… but she asked him to do it, she’s not tied up and she has two safe words (which she doesn’t use). Why Anastasia? After it’s over, she demeans his behaviour and walks out with the justification she appeared to need to leave. It’s not okay by me that people see her as the victim just because he is the one into BDSM. They both create their relationship, but Christian is the one dealing with nightmares which she finally exploits to satisfy her own morbid curiosity. It’s not a healthy relationship by any stretch of the imagination, but patently, obviously so.

This weekend ‘The Breakfast Club’ also came up for its thirty year anniversary. In it one of the protagonists John Bender, has been abused with cigar burns and beaten by belts and fists by his asshole of a father. John belittles, abuses and controls everyone in detention with him, threatens his classmate with a knife, makes highly inappropriate advances on Claire – ‘the princess’ – under the desk and emotionally undermines her in front of her schoolmates. His reward? A date with her and one of her diamond earrings.

Was ‘The Breakfast Club’ ever shouted down from every corner of the internet as romanticizing abuse? No, on the contrary it was effusively hailed as a testament to the human condition. How is it different to ‘Fifty Shades’? Well for one, Anastasia leaves after the beating she actively demanded, she calls him on the unacceptable nature of his actions but Claire goes out with her abuser. Isn’t it movies like The Breakfast Club which are more dangerous? After all movies like ‘Fifty Shades’ places the issue of consent prime and center and sparks off discussions across the globe about what is an abusive relationship.

Let’s face it, Hollywood is not a great teacher when it comes love. There’s ‘Dirty Dancing’, which romanticizes a relationship between a naive 16 year old and a 25 year old man of the world, ‘Grease’ where a high school student is taught that in order to get her man, she must learn to smoke and fuck in black leather, ‘Love Actually’ – chock full of cheaters, a woman who gets fired because her boss is attracted to her, and another who prefers to stay by the side of her mentally ill brother instead of getting a life of her own.

Then there’s ‘Pretty Woman’ featuring a woman who demands permanent commitment after one week of living the dream because she wants ‘the fairy tale’ and ‘High Fidelity’ where we are supposed to sympathize with the protagonist who has treated his girlfriend like shit but who still ends up getting her back because she’s ‘too tired of missing him’.

And yet these movies are billed as the top romantic comedies of all time. Abuse, low self-esteem and coercion pass under the radar and seep into our subconscious as what we should also expect in the films of our lives. The ones which need proper review are those which remain unquestioned, not the ones like ‘Fifty Shades’ who expose pain, control and abuse for us all to examine. The world has jumped on the bandwagon of criticizing this ‘rom-com’ because it contains (a false depiction of) BDSM… and no other reason. It’s our own sex negative prejudice which makes us shout so loud about this so-called ‘abuse’.

To my mind the world needs movies like ‘Fifty Shades’ because they create necessary discussions (and maybe more excitement in the bedroom). But these discussions are necessary for so many more movies which don’t include BDSM as a vehicle for depicting abuse. In fact the real discussion to be had is why we only associate abuse with whips and handcuffs and literally don’t see it – going so far as to glorify it – when it isn’t.