Who knew BDSM on the big screen could be so boring?
50 Shades of Grey is the first in a trilogy of Twilight-fan-fiction-turned-erotic-bestsellers by E.L. James. In the movie adaptation, which premiered in theaters yesterday, Dakota Johnson plays Anastasia Steele, a young college senior who runs afoul of the cold and controlling billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan.) Christian becomes obsessed with Ana and attempts to usher her into a BDSM relationship, which Ana at first consents to but ultimately resists and despises. Christian is portrayed as a tragic and broken man who uses BDSM as a way to keep from connecting, while Ana is the self-sacrificing virgin who will save him (this is literally true—much is made of Ana being a virgin in the first sex scene of the movie, and her complete ignorance of kink is alternately played as laughable and kittenishly sexy.) After the first sex scene around the 15 minute mark, the film devolves into nothing so much as soft-core porn, with tepid dialogue and little action leading into the next opportunity for the two leads to get naked. While some of these scenes are titillating, the complete lack of chemistry between Dornan and Johnson made many of them mechanical and boring. The plot creaks through the romance-novel trope of “chase/evade,” with the heavy-handed direction helping the audience to understand that OH MY GOD THIS LOVE STORY IS EPIC.
Case in point: the film is saturated with water imagery—after Ana first meets Christian, she walks into a Seattle deluge. She’s wet, get it?
Christian’s early warnings to Ana that “you should steer clear of me” and “I don’t do romance” seem prophetic in light of the end of the film when, in a truly disturbing scene, Christian beats a sobbing Ana with a leather strap in order to show her what being in a relationship with him would truly be like. Ana picks up the pieces of her dignity and leaves him—a triumph for which audiences should cheer. But within the story, this is portrayed as a road-bump on the way to true love. Indeed, the other two novels will continue on the innocent-heroine-who-rescues-the-tragic-hero-from-himself theme.
Much ink has been spilled on the abusive relationship in both the book and movie adaptations, and the unselfconsciousness with which James and audiences have adopted Ana and Christian as a kinky love story, rather than Christian as an abuser and Ana as his victim. The real problem is not that this is a bad movie; the problem is, as Emma Green at The Atlantic notes, a story with “the power to shape sexual norms.”
As Dom actively involved in Seattle’s (where the movie takes place) kink scene, I’d like to focus on three major problems I see with the movie.
- This is not how consent works.
In the movie, Christian hands Ana a BDSM contract and tells her to “do research” and meet him to negotiate the terms. When they meet to do just that, Christian alternately shames, denigrates or overrules Ana’s objections. While the movie plays this scene as flirty rather than the book’s petulant and wheedling tone, the goal is clear—Ana will sign the contract and then must adhere to it. She will sign over her consent. Indeed, the contract contains clauses like:
15.2 The Dominant accepts the Submissive as his, to own, control, dominate and discipline during the Term. The Dominant may use the Submissive’s body at any time during the Allotted Times or any agreed additional times in any manner he deems fit, sexually or otherwise.
15.14 The Submissive shall obey the rules (“the Rules”) set out in Appendix 1 to this agreement.
15.13 The Submissive accepts the Dominant as her master, with the understanding that she is now the property of the Dominant, to be dealt with as the Dominant pleases during the Term.
The message of this scene is that Ana becomes Christian’s property once she signs, that her consent doesn’t matter after that, and since she signed once she has consented for all time. Indeed, even without having signed the contract, Christian believes that he can control how much Ana drinks, how much she eats, which doctor she sees, what sort of birth control she takes, when she visits her family, and who she talks to about their relationship. All of this behavior is non-consensual. All of this behavior is shrugged off as just the way BDSM relationships operate.
But it’s not. What Christian is asking for is called a Master/slave relationship, and is considered a rather extreme form of BDSM. While many successful Master/slave relationships exist, this is not the type of thing a good Dom springs on a person new to kink. It is certainly not something a good Dom demands from someone who isn’t even sure she wants a BDSM relationship at all. This is not romantic; it’s coercive. Christian is not just a bad Dom; he’s an abuser.
But more importantly–this is not how consent works. A submissive (or anyone else) cannot simply sign away their consent. A dominant (or anyone else) cannot simply pull out the contract and say, “But, you signed here!” and that’s that. Consent is an ongoing act of permission, which can be rescinded at any time and for any reason.
- Dominants (and submissives!) do not practice BDSM because we are damaged.
In addition to the deeply problematic way that Christian practices BDSM, is the reason that he does so. The main story-line of the movie is that Christian has been deeply damaged by both his abusive mother and by a female dominant who preyed on him at the age of 15. As he says, he is “fifty shades of fucked up.” Christian practices BDSM because he’s hurting and wants to hurt others. Ana is rightly horrified for Christian and of his demands. In true bodice-ripper fashion, the Beauty sets out to save her savage Beast from his inner demons.
This movie feeds into the idea that BDSM is something that damaged people do. Indeed, sadism and masochism still appears in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR). While some effort is made in the DSM to differentiate between those like me who want to simulate violence, dominance or humiliation during sex, and those who actually want to hurt, humiliate and brutalize non-consenting partners, the fact is that such careful delineations do not cross over into the real world, and often not even to many psychological specialists. For instance, in a 2008 survey, 37.5% of kink folks believed that they had been discriminated against or experiences harassment because they practiced BDSM. Of those discriminated against, the majority said it was by a medical doctor, councilor or other healthcare practitioner.
This is why people like me hesitate to come out. When I first joined the public kink scene in 2006, I remember being told by an older Dom man that he’d lost custody of his children after a judge found out he practiced BDSM. A sub woman once told me that she was fired after her boss noticed bruises on her body. Many more have shared that their activity in the kink scene—even in a liberal place like Seattle—puts them at risk for jobs, housing and other forms of discrimination. While some of these are illegal (not all; legal protections do not extend to sexual orientation in many states in the US), they are so ubiquitous that kink folks don’t bat an eyelash when people go by obviously assumed names, wear wigs or other disguises at meet ups, or refuse to be identified publicly.
Writing the most popular practitioner of kink as someone who practices BDSM because he is emotionally damaged affects how people see us.
- Please don’t.
But more importantly, it affects what people coming into the scene expect from us and how they interact with us. As a female Dominant, I watched the frenzy for the books with bemusement—there were much hotter, more kinky, more sex-positive books about BDSM that had never received as much attention or drooling adoration as these tepid, awkward and badly written paperbacks.
But then the influx began.
Into BDSM spaces came people who were interested in the books and wanted to learn more. And this is all fine; it’s great. A lot of these people learned the basic tenet of BDSM practice—that all play has to be Safe, Sane, and Consensual. These people either tried it and liked it, or tried it and found it wasn’t for them.
But there were others who insisted that their scenes look like what is outlined in the books, who did not learn to play in safe, sane and consensual ways, who wanted a Magic Dom who would figure out their secret desired without negotiation or even discussion. And these people are DANGEROUS. It is dangerous for a Dom to play with a sub who won’t use their safeword, or won’t tell you when they are upset or traumatized by what you’re doing. It is dangerous for a sub to play with a Dom who won’t listen when a sub has had enough, or doesn’t pay attention to the sub’s limits, or doesn’t stick around for aftercare.
The BDSM practiced in 50 Shades of Grey is dangerous. It isn’t sexy or fun or romantic. It is dangerous, both to those of us who’ve been in the kink scene for ages, and newbies who can be preyed upon by abusers. It gets consent—the most basic doctrine of BDSM—completely wrong, and it teaches that BDSM is practiced by damaged people who just need to be saved by a long-suffering person who will put up with being hurt and abused. While the film’s stilted dialogue and boring sex made for some unintentional, laugh out loud moments, the implications of the movie are anything but funny.