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A Sociologist Goes to the Movies: 50 Shades of Grey

No nipple clamps – no problem. In this post, Bridget Welch reviews THE MOVIE 50 Shades of Grey and is very surprised to find it a lot less offensive (and sexy) than she expected. SPOILER ALERT!

“Well, I’m flummoxed.”

Those are the words I spoke as the credits started to roll after 50 Shades was FINALLY and thankfully over.

To say that my reaction to the flick was a tad different from what I expected is like saying the sex in the film is BDSM — an astronomically huge misrepresentation. The film was neither misogynistic (hatred or prejudice against women) nor was the sex anything kinkier than what most couples try in a luke-warm attempt to spice things up. Instead, one of the core messages of the film is the message of consent.[1] (I’m not going to spend the time on the plot — of what little existed. If you aren’t familiar, read here).

Before talking about how the movie highlights the importance of consent, it is important to know what consent is.

A few key points (for our purposes here) made in this video is that consent needs to be given explicitly prior to a sexual relationship emerging. This is contrary to our sexual scripts which are ideas largely shared in our society about how sex should occur. The term “script” here is used on purpose. We live social life as a play following scripts to perform behavior and make sense of others’ behaviors. Our common (heterosexual) script reads something like this:

Boy and girl go out on date. Boy makes sexual advance towards girl. Girl plays demure and says no. Boy says, “you know you wanna.” Girl demures some more. Boy keeps kissing girl and eventually girl gives in to her real desire — to have sex.

Note here how having sex is really also what the girl really wants once she is freed from social expectations to remain pure (remember the whole kerfuffle over Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”?).

Examining this sexual script should set off alarm bells for anyone capable of critical thinking and is why consent needs to be given explicitly as discussed in the video. A real “opting in” rather than simply the lack of “opting out.” Research on sexual assault by Burgess & Burpo (2012:752) makes this problem clear; our sexual scripts are the same as the script of most “date” rapes[2]:

  • “While she clearly does not give her consent, it is typical of a date rape situation where there is some mutually desirable sexual contact (kissing), verbal resistance (she says no) and some physical resistance (she tries to pull his hand away) but no screaming or fighting on her part” (Burgess & Burpo, 2012: 752)

Our sex scripts give teeth to ideas like Robin Thicke’s that women “really wanna” and are just playing “hard to get.” These scripts that we see in many MANY of our films support understanding “date” rape as a miscommunication rather than rape.

Now back to 50 Shades.

Absolutely nothing happens to Ana without her prior consent. While much of the consent for the “vanilla” (read non-BDSM* — an asterisk cause of calling this BDSM deserves to be problematized) sex that does occur is the “lack of opting in” — indeed an issue — there are also real honest to goodness conversations about what Ana is willing to do and what she is not.

In fact, Christian and Ana sit down at a faux business meeting (faux I say because as real as she tries to make it there was still a lack of overhead lighting!) and go over a contract about what Ana (“the submissive”) is willing and not willing to do. For any BDSMie* sex, Christian repeatedly reconfirms the importance of Ana’s consent. Prior to showing her the sex room, he tells her that she can leave at any time (“the helicopter is on standby!”). In the room, he tells her they would negotiate and discuss everything and only do what she is willing. Prior to having sex in the room, he asks her to review the safe words (“Yellow” – getting close to wanting to stop – “Red” – stop NOW) and makes sure she knows that she should use them if she wants. Even though they never get around to signing that contract he tells her that he will abide by the rules and only do to her what she consents to. And the only time Christian does anything to Ana that she does not like, she still consents to it being done and consents to it throughout the entire act.

Even when the movie heads towards sex-stereotype-land, it ends up surprising us. She indicates her desire to leave the “business meeting” and he comments, “Really, you want to leave? Your body tells me something different” and then goes on to explain how her body is sending “Yes” signals. In most other movies his notice would result in her shrugging her shoulders in a “you got me” type of way and result in sex. In 50 Shades? SHE GETS UP AND ACTUALLY LEAVES!

Most importantly, the movie highlights the downside of sex without real consent. Here I am referring to Christian being sexually abused by a friend of his mother’s when he was a teen. While he refers to it as not a problem, Ana calls it out as what it is — sexual abuse (RAPE) of a child. The movie as a whole treats this early rape as THE REASON that Christian is “50 Shades of” messed up and not capable of a real meaningful relationship.

While I totally understand the reason why people in the BDSM community would have a huge problem with this movie (because what they do is really not BDSM in any real way AND because the desire for a BDSM lifestyle is represented as the result of being raped as a child and not a healthy, real, and legitimate sexual desire), I honestly am flummoxed as the reason for the abuse outcry to it.  There are a few problematic moments (e.g. Christian “rescuing” Ana when she doesn’t need to be and him showing up a few times in a almost stalker-type way), but most of the movie highlights the importance of her consent AND focuses on her sexual pleasure rather than his.[3]

In fact, as horribly written and acted as this movie was (I would not see it again nor recommend it to anyone – the sex wasn’t really even worth cost of admission), it had more positive messages about females having the right to full, explicit, and enthusiastic consent than I see in most mainstream, non-controversial flicks. Nowhere is this clearer than the end of the movie.

The script for most heterosex relationship movies EVER MADE ever go like this:

  • Girl decides to leave boy. Boy rushes up to girl. Girl says “Stop! No!” Boy rushes up anyway, grabs her and kisses her in a grand display of affection against her wishes. Girl melts into kiss giving herself over to boy. The end.

In 50 Shades it goes like this:

  • Girl decides to leave boy. Boy rushes up to girl. Girl says “Stop! No!” Boy stops. Girl leaves. The end.

I leave it to you to decide which script is healthier.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Think of movies you’ve seen that focus on the sexual relationship between a man and a woman. What type of sex scripts did you see play out in those films? Did they reflect the “date” rape script?
  2. One of my early introductions to 50 Shades was this cartoon. View the cartoon and compare it to what I described happening in the film. How does the cartoon draw attention to the problem with our common sex script?
  3. Read about affirmative consent laws. Given our sex scripts, why may these laws be an important step towards changing the way we understand how sex should be done (i.e. changing the script).
  4. Read the lyrics to “Blurred Lines.”  Relate these lyrics to the two endings described (the general ending and the one to 50 Shades). What can you conclude about the messages of many mainstream movies and that of 50 Shades?

[1] Quick note for the people who are shocked and amazed by the last sentence — I am talking about the MOVIE ONLY. I have not read the book.

[2] I put “date” in quotes here because “date” rape is not some special kind of rape. It is rape. In fact, most rape victims know their perpetrators.

[3] I suspect the outcry is really directed towards the book. I think there probably is a lot to be said about how it is problematic to support a movie that provides support for a book that sexualizes the domestic violence of a woman — which I have read the book does. For example, in the film Christian shows up to “save” Ana at a bar. It’s not clear how he found her (she doesn’t tell him which bar). My reading (see above link for an example) suggests this is because he it monitoring her somehow without her knowledge. In the movie, this isn’t developed at all. Other charges of abuse are based on the contract (e.g. forcing her on birth control and controlling her diet), but she never signs the contract in the movie and we never see him controlling her food (though he does show displeasure at her drinking). I think to fully explore these questions, I would have to read the book. At this point, I’m not sure if I’m willing to give up that much of my time to 50 Shades.