It is still a puzzle to me how this book ever managed to become such a hit, because to say that it is a complete trash of a literature would not do it justice. I avoided reading it for as long as it was possible, thinking that it was probably something that bored housewives in trapped, unfulfilled marriages read for entertainment. But when it became a number one book to read among my generation, I figured there must be something else to it. And when they announced the movie adaptation I finally decided to give it a try. I barely managed to make my way through the first 100 pages; I have never in my life read something so badly written. I immediately took back every bad word I ever said about Twilight saga books, because compared to these books, Twilight was like reading Dostoevsky. However, all badly written dialogues aside, it quickly became apparent to me what the real appeal of this book (and film) actually was. For this is not a story about love between two individuals and it is also not about sex – more than anything else, it’s a love story about capitalism.
When Anastasia Steel, a virginal college student from a regular working class family meets a 27 years old multi-millionaire it’s far from being love at first sight. However, she does indeed fall in love – but with his money and luxurious lifestyle. This may not be so apparent in the movie, but in the book she endlessly obsesses over his wealth and lists label names with a dedication worthy of American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman. Put that on top of the fact that one of their first dates includes a ride in his private helicopter and him buying her a car as a graduation present, and I think we can all agree that those are the things that are supposed to turn us on, not the sex itself. And in return for this new, fabulous life that he provides, she is more than willing to accept a few of his kinks (that would be a no-go if he was poor, or even an average, semi-successful middle class guy). He may be a creepy stalker-type who likes to hurt women (which is explained by some cheap psychology about his traumatic childhood and unresolved mommy issues), but she is hardly a victim here. When every sane woman would run for the hills if a man would start to stalk her, she chooses to stay. There is quite a few scenes when I felt I was watching a film about some long lost brother of Ted Bundy – he keeps showing up wherever she goes, he is tracking her phone, completely isolates her from her family and friends after the graduation and shows up unannounced at her mother’s house when she leaves for a couple of days to “clear up her head” – and yet in spite of all that, she decides to pursue their relationship. Not only that: she finds his stalking romantic; as him not being creepy and problematic, but simply persistent. There has been a lot of talk about this story “being liberating” for women (which is something the writer herself continuously brags about), but this could not be less true. It is possible that it inspired a few desperate housewives to spice things up in the bedroom, but the whole message of the book could not be less empowering for women. It is actually quite the opposite – it completely diminishes every single thing the feminists around the world have fought for in the last hundred of years. But how is it even possible that so many women identified with that? I found the only possible explanation in this quote from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex:
Indeed, beside every individual’s claim to assert himself as a subject lies the temptation to flee freedom and to make himself into a thing: it is a pernicious path because the individual, passive, alienated and lost, is prey to a foreign will, cut off from his transcendence, robbed of all worth. But it is an easy path: the anguish and stress of authentically assumed existence are thus avoided. Therefore the man who sets the woman up as an Other will find in her a deep complicity. And a woman makes no claim for herself as subject because she lacks concrete means, because she senses the necessary link connecting her to a man without positing its reciprocity, and because she often derives satisfaction from the role as Other.
Engels was one of the first ones who tried to show that there is a connection between gender and class subordination and who said that inside of a marriage (or rather, inside of a heterosexual relationship) a woman represents the proletariat, while a man represents the capital. This could not be more relevant in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, especially if we look at one of the most iconic scenes of the film, a negotiation regarding “sex contract” between Anastasia and Grey. “There will be no fist fucking, but everything else is okay” – and she walks out of the negotiation feeling like she won and now holds all the cards in her hands. But it is actually he who is the winner here, because he got exactly what he wanted: her. She negotiated herself the smallest amount of freedom and feels like a winner, but it is still he who is the capitalist; the one who owns her completely, without her even knowing how little control she has in the situation. So no; this story is not about women empowerment. It is about women willingly becoming sex toys to men in order to climb up the social ladder and getting a glimpse of what life among the 1% looks like.
As far as their BDSM sexual practice (that was mainly criticized for all the wrong reasons: for not being “kinky” enough, for not including enough nudity etc.) goes – this were hardly the things that to me seemed the most problematic. What I found repulsive, however, was the way in which BDSM was portrayed. Such sexual practices are almost exclusively based on mutual respect between two partners, but here we have an “innocent”, sexually inexperienced girl who lets herself get trapped into being Grey’s submissive (without even knowing what this actually means, or at least so it seems) and a man who does not so much enjoy sex, as he genuinely enjoys hurting women (true, with their consent – but which can be, as we can see, bought). She is intimidated but at the same time fascinated by him and by everything he represents, while he does not value her at all: she is simply a thing that he tries to conquer and control.
Dakota Johnson does a good job portraying Anastasia and was, at least for me, one of the few things in this film that was not completely awful. But there is no doubt that this was an awfully unflattering role and I hope she moves on to better projects after the series. Jamie Dornan, on the other hand, does not seem to excel as Grey. Having just recently watched the BBC series The Fall where he plays a serial killer (who sexually abuses and strangles women), I had high expectations about his portrayal of a sociopathic and sadistic multi-millionaire, but he seemed awfully awkward in the role. As for Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction: I think that she did what she could with the material.
The only thing that I therefore considered really well done was the fact that the entire film looks like a 2-hours long commercial – this film is, after all, an ode to capitalism and consumerism and the fact that it actually looks as such was a really nice touch.
Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Written by: Kelly Marcel (based on the book by E. L. James)
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan
Running Time: 125 minutes