Opinion Evolution: A(nother) 50 Shades Thinkpiece

Over the past couple of weeks we have all been inundated with a zillion op-eds on 50 Shades, from reasons why you should boycott the film to reasons why it’s oh-so-harmless. I’ve read some brilliant pieces from every angle, and it’s been fascinating to watch the conversation surrounding Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele become a part of current culture. There are pieces I’ve agreed with, and pieces that have felt alien and sometimes offensive to me.

I make no promises that my words won’t be anger-inducing. The book, and now the movie, are definitely very divisive issues and my opinion might be a stark contrast to yours. There are rape, trauma, and stalking triggers in the 50 Shades books and it would be ignorant and wrong of me to gloss over those and attempt to deny you your agency to feel your own feels. But, even before I watch the film, I wanted to share with you the evolution of my opinions and how I’ve gone from a strictly “Boo, that’s dumb and promotes abuse” to a much more nuanced middle ground opinion that I hold today.

The other day I was asked to go on local news to discuss my thoughts on 50 Shades. I was edited slightly to say that I think the story promotes abuse but that wasn’t the full gist of my argument. I was also trying to stress that I think it’s very important that there are conversations being held right now that involve kink, consent, and sexual desire, and that we need to be careful about being so quick to shame people for wanting to enjoy these fantasies, especially if they’re new. I’ve been kinky now for almost 8 years and think that however you choose to define your own personal sexuality it’s wonderful that more people are beginning to find ways to do this for themselves.

That being said, of course it’s problematic that 50 Shades is being used as the big example right now of what dominance and submission looks like. I, along with many kinksters, have found myself up in arms about this in recent weeks and months, angry that the 50 Shades franchise doesn’t depict a healthy, consensual, BDSM relationship. As much as I felt steadfast in my opposition of the story, this argument didn’t sit well with me for long.

50 Shades is a work of fiction that started as unbelievably crappy fan-fiction, written by an unbelievably crappy writer. It’s undeniable that the unbelievably crappy relationship between Christian Gray and Anastasia Steele is imperfect, manipulative, and at times dangerous but why does it have to be anything but? A work of fiction and fantasy does not owe us perfection. Just because the masses have made a story popular does not mean that said story must set a healthy example, or else it’s to be considered irresponsible. Why does a work of fiction about kink, or anything for that matter, owe us this?

As Stacey May Fowles writes in her recent wonderful piece for The Walrus, that you should all make a point of reading:

The movie is certainly not about depicting a healthy relationship, but relying on entertainment to be appropriate, accurate, instructional, or ideologically sound is a sorely misplaced impulse. That’s not art’s purpose, nor should it be. Yet for whatever reason Fifty Shades has become an arena where we feel it’s fair game to police narrative, something that’s generally an agreed upon no-no for artistic expression.

We seem to place this huge burden of responsibility on fiction to guide us and to give us all the insight we need to make healthy choices for our own lives, but we’re also being ridiculously selective about it. Movies and stories are created all the time that show unhealthy relationships, abuse cycles, murder, racism, sexism, etc. etc. ad nauseam. We don’t find ourselves talking about boycotting those stories, nor do we place them on such a high pedestal of responsibility like we do with 50 Shades, especially when there are some interesting things to consider about the film adaptation.

Stacey writes:

If the primary objections around the book were the promotion of abuse and the downplaying of consent, the film seems to have made a considerable (though imperfect) attempt to tackle that concern. I would even go as far as to say Fifty Shades has some of the most comprehensive, active depictions of consent I’ve seen in a mainstream movie—certainly better than your average rom-com or erotic drama.

In the same way the Candy Crush creators aren’t responsible for the massive amounts of time people have wasted playing the game, 50 Shades, book or movie are not responsible for helping people fulfill their fantasies safely. Just because a story has been consumed by millions of people and happens to be the first kink story to be accepted by a widespread, mainstream audience, does not mean that story has to be educational, well written, well acted, or a perfect model for consensual kink. What we should be talking about instead is why society tends to gravitate towards terrible things so much and so often and why the media isn’t mentioning the bad along with the good. Are content creators to blame for our lackluster reactions to some things and rabid reactions to others? Are we destined to constantly get sucked up by the next Flappy Bird or throw all of our hard-earned money towards the next online-fundraiser for potato salad? And if yes, why, and who’s to blame, if anyone at all?

To suggest that people don’t see the 50 Shades movie or read the books because it’s a terrible relationship example is also not a helpful narrative. It is not my place or your place to shame others for things that turn them on, however problematic we might personally find the content. It is not my place or your place to end conversations before they begin, simply because we’re disappointed as kinksters that our hopefully healthy relationships aren’t being portrayed accurately on screen or in books. And it is not my place or your place to suggest that whatever bad behaviours we see in the story will automatically be embraced by the newbs who are taking it all in for the first time, because obviously they can’t think for themselves about what is fantasy and what should be their own personal realities.

Can there be danger in kink fantasies coming to life? Absolutely. When I first started discovering submission, the longing that I felt in my chest, heart, and cunt meant that I wasn’t always standing up for myself or making the best decisions for my personal happiness and safety. Submissive desire, especially if it’s a new feeling you are realizing, can be an unbelievably overwhelming one, and of course there will always be people out there who might take advantage of that. I was often simply going along for the ride which didn’t always work out in my favour. I hadn’t learned yet what I didn’t like so I was easy to manipulate into doing things that they liked. It’s possible that I could have encountered dominants who would have abused my naivety as Mr. Grey does with Miss Steele; thankfully I am lucky that this didn’t happen. I’ve come to realize though that suggesting that would have been the fault of my fantasies is a bit too much like victim-blaming for my liking.

Fantasies and desire can be overwhelming for sure, but if people are realizing things about their sexuality through their enjoyment of 50 Shades, then this isn’t a bad thing, even if the delivery system is unfortunately offensive and/or triggering to some. As Shanna Katz, sex educator and author, said in a recent Facebook post:

It is our responsibility as social workers, counselors, educators, kinksters, community members, etc., to direct them towards books like Playing Well With Others, Kinky As You Want To Be, SM 101, etc., and classes from educators and kink experts, as a way to flesh out that interest and have good talks about boundaries and consent.

Through realizing my true feelings on the 50 Shades franchise, I have decided that I still have anger but this anger is directed at how the story is being promoted. The marketing team behind the movie is selling it as a romantic and sexy tale, driving their point deep into your eyeballs by releasing the movie on Valentine’s Day. Mainstream media isn’t doing any better by constantly avoiding the negative aspects that really do deserve attention, instead choosing to focus on creating a narrative of idealized sexual fantasy. It would probably be strange to have a disclaimer at the beginning of the film, but there could easily be mentions made of where people can learn about this stuff from a healthy perspective, either at the end, or via the media. While I don’t agree with assigning responsibility to the story itself as being the ultimate guide for safe and consensual kink, I am thoroughly disappointed that the marketing and media are selling it as is without suggesting that there are dangers within its fictional script.

As frustrating as this is however, it just means that there are more conversations to have which, in a mainstream world so focused on sex yet so determined to not talk about sexual pleasure, can only be a (baby) step in the right direction. Baby steps aren’t always perfect. Babies fall down, they need to be guided, they need support. The same is true of cultural shifts.

Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to go and ogle me some Jamie Dornan – who by the way plays a dominant serial killer in The Fall and people, rightfully so, praise the absolute ever-loving shit out of that.

  • mindbendersupreme

    Absolutely accurate examination of the good, the bad and the ugly truths surrounding the 50 Shades Phenomenon. Thank you for establishing this position and publishing these understandings, because when I went to the theater last night, there was SO much nervous laughing and inappropriate commentary that I nearly had to bound myself in my chair with leather restraints to keep still and gag myself with a tie to keep quiet. I have NEVER seen such an immature audience, but at the same time, there were points of REAL learning created with the movie, that I could see the audience absorb. For the most part, people seemed very immature about it all, and ALL these conversations are necessary to avoid pain, confusion, abuse and chaos from being the outcome of this dark fantasy exploration. Bless you for this article, Samantha!