Should ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ be Considered a Feminist Franchise?

On the back of International Women’s Day, Emma Watson’s Vanity Fair debacle and, of course, the release of the latest ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ movie, the air is rife with topics of feminism. You’ve read the comments and you’ve heard the murmerings. Some people seem incapable of finding the answers to the questions they so gladly pose. Questions like…

Why do we need an International Women’s Day?

Can Emma Watson release a semi-topless photo and still be a feminist? (Yes. The answer is always ‘Yes’).

Can you be a feminist and still like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’?

Even if you’ve never seen the movies, read the books, or even heard of E. L. James, you’ve probably heard something about the ’Fifty Shades of Grey’ franchise. Whether its comments on the lack of plot, obvious plagiarism, its abhorrent writing style, questionable morals, box office success and/or ‘saucy’ content, everyone seems to have something to say about it.

The first and most factual of the lot is that it’s pretty clear that ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ was an initial hit in theatres, making $571,006,128, and selling more than 125 million copies of the novel to date. The sequels have seemed to do well too, with the ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ movie making $369,093,272 so far. Obviously, it’s quite popular with a lot of people, but; does that counteract the masses of hate and criticism the franchise is receiving for what some believe is a glorified depiction of an abusive and unhealthy relationship?

For those who don’t know, Fifty Shades is the story of 21-year-old virgin and literature student, Anastasia Steele, who is caught up in the ‘handsome, yet tormented’ whirlwind that is billionaire Christian Grey. Unworldly Ana is enticed by Christian’s kinky, whip brandishing ways and the two enter into an erotic romance (or so we’re lead to believe). As the poorly written story goes on, Christian becomes more controlling as Ana becomes more love struck. Three novels and two movies (so far) later, they deal with one crazy ex-girlfriend, one villainous ex-boss, and an unplanned pregnancy. There’s even some unrequited love and a break-up, as well as a few really crappy sex scenes. Sounds thrilling! But trust me, it isn’t. I’ve had more fun watching paint dry.

So, what’s the problem with ‘Fifty Shades’ for feminists (and people in general)? Is there any problem at all? Being successful enough to make $571,006,128 doesn’t sound like a problem to me!

Fifty Shades is, really, a film about a woman embracing her own sexuality; knowing what she wants and going for it.  What could be more feminist than that? Anastasia knows she wants the guy and she goes and gets him, society’s preconceived rules about women and sex be damned! Shouldn’t we all be looking at Ana as our latest feminist icon?

Well, no. I don’t think so, because (and how do I put this nicely?)…ANASTASIA STEELE IS A WET BLANKET AND I DO NOT LIKE HER!

This character should be empowering and great and she’s just… not. She’s basically a cardboard figure with no personality and, frankly, no backbone. I found it painful to watch the movie because every time she spoke I cringed a little on the inside. Now, we could argue that Dakota Johnson just did a bad job portraying her in the movies but a) having seen her in other films I can state with some confidence that she isn’t that awful of an actress and b) Ana’s character is the same in the books: dull. But, if Ana was given a personality transplant and some strong will, would we have the epic heroine and pro-feminist film we all want? Again… No… Probably not. Why? Because the film is not ‘sexy’ and ‘edgy’ as the media would have us believe. In actuality, it’s a really poor portrayal of a BDSM relationship. In fact, a great number of people have gone further and suggested that Ana and Christian’s affiliation with one another is no more than an abusive relationship.

Let us put aside the topic of abuse for one moment and address the issue that’s on some people’s minds: why would you want your man to hit you? Well, I don’t have a definitive answer for you. I suppose there are a number of reasons, much like why some people would like to go bungee jumping and others wouldn’t. The fact is, whatever happens between consenting adults isn’t really anyone else’s business, is it?

I suppose it’s understandable to wonder if this kind of relationship truly upholds feminist ideals and the women involved truly are empowered figures. Usually, I would say yes. Anyone who is familiar with the concept of BDSM will know that, despite usually taking orders and following rules, it’s really the submissive party who has all of the power. Why? Because they’re the one with the power to say ‘No’. To use their given safe-word and stop everything, no questions asked. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. It only takes one look at the ‘Fifty Shades’ franchise to realise that’s not true in EL James’s representation. I mean, yes, Ana verbally consented to her relationship with Christian, whips, chains and all; but when she says ‘No’? Well, that always seems to be negotiable. Next time you’re watching the film or reading the books, notice how whenever Ana puts her foot down and says no, she’s always coerced into giving in and changing her mind? And that’s just one argument as to why her relationship with Christian moves away from being kinky and into abusive.

Ana doesn’t just have to deal with Christian’s dominating nature in the bedroom, oh no. She has to put up with it twenty four hours a day, seven days a week (despite the contract between them only stating it would be on weekends). As soon as she signs the dotted line, Christian begins to dictate his way through Ana’s life from her birth control, what gynaecologist she will see, to her diet plan and exercise regime, even going as far as to follow her on a trip to her mother’s a few states away. Multiple times she says no to these things.

“Excuse me, I have my own gynaecologist.”

“No thanks, I’d rather not live off celery and carrot sticks”.

But alas, Christian gets his way. And, after she calms down she sees that he only wants the best for her and that he only wants her to be happy and healthy for all the crazy sex they’re about to embark on; right?

What kind of messages are E. L. James and the film industry sending? Is this is the kind of message that they endorse? Are they saying that only skinny, healthy girls should be allowed to have sex? Are they saying it’s okay for your partner to tell you that you should lose a few pounds before he sleeps with you? In a world where we’re constantly battling issues regarding body positivity, is that really the message we want to send? Personally, if my partner said those things to me, I’d tell him to go f**k himself.

But of course, it’s okay for Christian to treat Ana like that because he loves her; right? It’s okay he’s a bit stalker-y and controlling because he loves her. The franchise is continuously shown to have Christian save Ana from herself because she is young and naïve and apparently cannot be trusted to make decisions. But if that’s true, how was Ana capable of consenting to her relationship with Christian in the first place? Spoiler alert: she wasn’t.

Christian’s behaviour is consistent with that of obsessive and abusive males.

The ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ franchise uses BDSM to smokescreen abusive behaviour. How do we know this? Because Christian and Ana are not equal outside of their sexual relations. From the beginning of the story there is a clear power imbalance and that is the franchise’s most fundamental issue. Christian is rich, powerful and worldly, whilst Ana, who is starting her first ‘adult job’, is young and naïve, and that imbalance is never removed in the bedroom, the boardroom, or even Ana’s home or place of work.

This is the real problem with the Fifty Shades franchise, not just for feminists, but for everyone. The characters are never equal, and anytime Ana tries to find and hold onto a piece of her own identity Christian obliterates it. Their relationship is not based on mutual trust and respect, because Christian clearly holds neither of these things.

So, this raises the question: why does Ana stay with him? Obviously his dashing good looks are a factor. Probably the money, too. I know Ana was never portrayed as a superficial gold digger, but let’s face it, would she really put up with all his crap for so long if he was ugly and poor? Probably not. Even so, the biggest reason is because Ana believes that Christian was the victim of abuse from his own ‘Mrs. Robinson’ and that she can change him. Oh how all women believe they can change ‘him’.

Why, oh WHY, did Christian Grey have to have been abused? Was it necessary to the plot? If you ask me, E.L James was asking for trouble and being so immaturely reductive of the BDSM stereotype it’s almost beyond comprehension. I don’t think the abuse story line was at all necessary, and it does nothing but send a questionable message about BDSM and sex, not to mention how it trivialises child abuse too.

Firstly, you have to remember that the ‘Fifty Shades’ franchise is one of, if not the first, movie to publicise the BDSM scene on such a big scale in the mainstream media and therefore, for a number of people, this was their first experience with the concept. So, does the movie really need to imply that people are only into kinky sex as a result of a traumatic childhood? Or that if someone is into those things then, clearly, they’ve got problems? No, probably not, because it sends a terrible message. Furthermore, no time or care was taken to develop the abuse story line and it appears to just be stuck in as a plot device. But E.L James (and literally everyone involved in the movies) seemed unfazed by this.

It’s clear Christian suffered through trauma as a child (his Mother; his Mother’s boyfriends; ‘Mrs. Robinson’, for example) and really, he should have had some help dealing with it. But, to suggest that that is the only reason for his interests is… wrong. And, what’s more wrong is for Ana to think that if she just shows him a little bit of love and romance she will magically ‘cure’ him, and take all his problems away, a theory that is flawed on so many levels (and let’s face it, this is just another reason she’s not going to be winning any awards for feminist of the year anytime soon). It seems to me, someone who has clearly looked very closely at this franchise in recent times, that E.L. James is not the height of knowledge on either BDSM or abuse (of any kind) and just wanted to add more depth to her ‘Mr Fifty Shades of Fucked Up’ in the most immature way that offered nothing to the narrative of her projects nor the wants and desires of the character she assigned them to, managing to enrage several groups of people while doing it.

I’m sure I could go on and continue to make more criticisms about the horror that is the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ franchise, but it seems they’re never ending. A writer with much more talent than Ms. James could write novels about how bad James’s novels are, but the purpose of this article is to answer the question: do these criticisms mean that ‘Fifty Shades’ is not a feminist franchise?

Well, it’s quite clear it goes against some key feminist (and ethical) ideals – for example, Christian moving past dominating in the bedroom and essentially taking over the 24/7 ruling of Ana’s day to day life without her consent – but it also holds to some of the more essential parts of feminism, such as Ana taking control over her own sexuality, something we simply don’t see any of in mainstream Hollywood films.

On one hand, the film can be regarded as a work of art (though I use the term loosely) and it is therefore there to be interpreted and understood in many ways, often in contradictory ways: to inspire, to spark controversy and to make a statement. Admittedly, it does all these things. At the end of the day, feminism means different things to everyone. For some women, it’s about being able to take their clothes off, for others it’s about being able to embrace their sexuality, and for others it’s about being able to have a career. For some, it’s about all three. The point is that feminism is fundamentally about choice, no matter the nationality, race or religion. Therefore, I think it’s up to our own personal judgement as to whether the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ franchise fits in with what we believe to be feminism. My opinion is that the movies and books are a really crappy portrayal of what could have been a healthy alternative relationship and, no matter how the writers, the media or, its fan-base spins it, ‘Fifty Shades’ will NEVER be a love story.

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Sophie Grant

Currently a psychology student with a crazy range of interests. I'm a massive book lover and I'm always overjoyed (and terrified) when I find out one of my favourites is about to hit the big screen. I won't lie, I'm horribly picky when it comes to book to film adaptions. But hey, you'll learn to love it!

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