Sometimes we think it would be nice to ignore 50 Shades of Grey. Just for a few months, at least – maybe while we promote some other incredible erotic authors (like F Leonora Solomon or the people behind the fantastic Silence is Golden anthology). But 50 Shades has started a conversation around sex and kink, and engaging with the conversation can be a valuable way to look at what society currently gets right – and, of course, oh so wrong – about sex, relationships and BDSM.
The 50 Shades films – and books – are easy to slate. Ridiculous dialogue, unrealistically hyper-orgasmic sex scenes, and a hero whose shadowy business empire is never fully explained (what is he selling? How? And why does he never mention any specifics??) – there’s a lot to take the piss out of. But alongside the funnier critiques, there’s some serious writing out there about people’s kinks and identities, and the ways in which the 50 Shades series has either helped or harmed them.
So: let’s banish the ’50 ways to shag like Christian’ tips, and the tabloid-esque titillating reviews, and have a look at some of the more thoughtful analyses of 50 Shades Darker. Not just whether the film is any good (most people say it isn’t) but what messages it puts out, and the impact of those messages on kinky people in society.
Jo Ellen Notte – 50 Shades opened the door
Sex blogger and educator JoEllen Notte wrote a piece for Kinkly in defence of 50 Shades. She pointed out that while the messaging in the film is very problematic, it does offer an opportunity for sex toy retailers to start educating people on the basics of consent and communication in the bedroom.
“Along with toy sales, many shops have reported an uptick in class attendance, particularly when it comes to classes that teach skills related to what’s portrayed in “Fifty Shades,” such as bondage and BDSM. It seems people are feeling inspired to explore and they’re talking about it! … It’s about the tremendous opportunities that we all now have available to us.”
She’s certainly right about the influence of the film – in the UK the ‘50 Shades effect’ has been credited with a huge boost in sex toy sales, as well as a growing interest in erotica and BDSM porn. (And if you want to find out how kinky your area is, check out Kink.com’s ‘Kinky State of the Union‘).
True, this is essentially the start of a conversation, but it’s a conversation that many people would not previously have felt comfortable having. JoEllen points out that when people effectively ‘arrive’ on the BDSM scene, excited to explore the desires that they discovered they had after 50 Shades, sex-positive people should take it as a teaching opportunity and try to avoid scaring those people away.
50 Shades and female sexuality
Is the second film better than the first in the way it depicts sex? The first film was picketed by people understandably frustrated by the lack of clear consent in many of the scenes. Yet some have claimed that the second film puts more of an emphasis on female pleasure – Anastasia drives more of the action in 50 Shades Darker, and the film itself includes some things that are rarely seen on screen.
Jessica Wakeman in Glamour pointed out that:
“Fifty Shades Darker has not one but two scenes depicting male-on-female oral sex (and ben wa balls! and all that spanking!) and still earned a reasonably temperate R rating. Does this mean the MPAA [the US censor – like the UK’s BBFC] is loosening up on going down? … Hard to say, but those of us who want to see a woman’s sexual pleasure depicted as freely on screen as a man’s aren’t complaining about the MPAA’s mysterious ways, at least in this instance.”
Others have talked about the relationship changes in Darker – while 50 Shades mostly consisted of Christian Grey dictating the terms of his BDSM relationships (complete with lawyer-drafted contracts about butt sex, no less!) in the second film Ana does get a teeny bit more room to assert herself. The oral sex mentioned above, for instance, happens at her request – which is a refreshing change from much of the first film’s action, which only happened on Christian’s command. But that seems like a very optimistic way to look at it – Grace Mahino, writing for the Inquirer, explains that even when Ana has a bit more agency, she could still never be considered a powerful character, or a shining example of an equal sexual relationship:
“Christian always gets his way with her in the end, whether it’s selecting the gown she’d wear to a ball or making her bail out of an important work trip to spend time with him instead. Her ‘No’s’ are always negotiable, and that’s a wrong message to send.”
Similarly, in Bustle, Rachel Simon explained that, though it might come with a sexy soundtrack, the relationship portrayed on screen is far from romantic:
“Christian controls Ana’s every move, even as she protests and makes it known she’s uncomfortable, until Ana eventually gives in and forgives him without a grudge. Yes, they have a relationship in which Christian is expected to be more controlling than the average boyfriend, but in Darker, as in Grey, it’s taken to levels where Ana should, realistically, think of Christian as her stalker, not her lover.”
The Voice – pathologising BDSM is not helpful
The Voice points out that there’s an odd conflict in Darker that’s far more apparent than in the first 50 Shades film, thanks to its introduction of Christian Grey’s backstory of abuse.
“These threads — a crack-addict birth mother who appears in the mogul’s nightmares; a discarded submissive who shows up at Ana’s apartment with a gun — demonstrate the film’s conflicting attitude toward his sexual practices, which are simultaneously pathologized and monetized (available on Amazon Prime: Fifty Shades of Grey Hard Limits Universal Restraint Kit and Pinch Nipple Clamps).”
And it does sound odd when put so starkly – in the first 50 Shades book (and film) the audience wasn’t invited to join in with armchair pop-psychology that would explain just why and how Christian ‘became dominant.’ But as Christian Grey’s journey starts to show more backstory, notably an abusive mother, people are invited to look at that and see an explanation for his kink – and, as the title suggests, it’s a dark one. It’s also a very simplistic explanation, often jumped to by people who see kink from the outside and assume that it is all about pain and violence. If you’re looking for a more interesting discussion surrounding BDSM, and the appeal of it to kinky people, Nichi Hodgson gave a great overview in the Guardian before the first 50 Shades of Grey film came out:
“Put simply, there’s a science to spanking, to nipple torture, to candle waxing and to pretty much any other sex act you could name where prolonging the anticipation of touch or relief or safely manipulating blood flow causes the release of neurotransmitters – such as dopamine, adrenalin or serotonin – that result in a chemical high. It’s true that you have to be able to find that kind of physical stimulation arousing in order to be turned on, but if you do, having a person you find attractive putting you over their knee and spanking you in a way that encourages your body to release noradrenaline, adrenalin and dopamine in anticipation of the spank, and then opioids on point of contact is likely to be a pretty positive sexual experience.”
How do we solve a problem like 50 Shades?
So we come on to the million dollar question: what to do about 50 Shades? As so many critics have pointed out, the films and books paint a wildly skewed, and often damaging, picture of BDSM. One in which the dominant has all the power, smouldering looks replace honest communication, and consent is just a footnote in a long and boring legal contract. In fact, real life BDSM as practiced by ethical kinksters looks nothing like Christian and Ana’s relationship. While some people who practice BDSM have experienced trauma, the kind of pop-psychology explanation for Christian Grey’s kinks doesn’t take into account the sheer variety of reasons people get into kink – or the experiences they have when they’re there.
At the same time, though, 50 Shades has clearly affected millions of people, many of whom may not have had a conversation about BDSM with their partners before, or thought about acting on some of their desires. It has opened the doors to more nuanced discussion – like that of the people quoted above – and allowed sex educators to build on this interest to promote healthier and safer ways to practise kink.
It might sound a bit wishy-washy to say ‘well at least it’s started a conversation!’ because clearly not all conversations are valuable ones to start. But with 50 Shades, hopefully the conversation that began over a book or a movie can continue in a much more progressive way – with the film’s flaws acting as teaching examples to promote a better, more realistic kind of BDSM.