Fifty Shades of Grey: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Plymouth Arts Centre film programmer Anna Navas considers issues of feminism, domestic abuse and freedom of speech in Fifty Shades of Grey.

Well, I have done it. I paid my money and watched the film that everyone told me not to. Did it shock me? Did I feel sullied? Did it induce me to send money to a domestic abuse charity? Well, no.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a bit contrary so I went into the film willing myself to like it. I’m a bit sick of the media furore about it to be frank and I’m not willing to have strangers (who, by the way, haven’t seen the film) tell me what I should or shouldn’t see. I’m a big old Feminist and freedom of speech, widening the debate, turning an unpleasant affair into an opportunity to educate is what I’m about. As a film programmer and a person.

So, did I like it? Not really. Do I think it’s damaging? Not at all.

The Good.

The opening credits were quite nice. Dakota Johnson is very good (with piss-poor material too). There was some humour (unlike the book). It wasn’t toe-curlingly terrible. There was thankfully little dialogue (again unlike the book – EL James has an ear for dialogue like I have an ear for Mongolian throat singing). There was luxuriant pubic hair which makes a nice change from the normal Hollywood.

The Bad.

Jamie Dornan isn’t bad, it’s just that he is given nothing to work with, nothing. The soundtrack is sub-70’s porn/swoony pseudo romantic (now let’s make that a proper genre people). It is very, very Mills and Boon with deeply vanilla sex and if that’s what perverted looks like I must be positively depraved (along with pretty much everyone I know). Anna’s mum? What’s the point? Did I mention the sex is awful? Seriously, when Grey is whipping Ana in the Red Room it looks like he is doing some pretty desultory dusting – which might explain why everything looks so clean. The student flats? These places are like no student accommodation I have ever seen. My digs were mouldy, damp, cold and cramped and I know my Uni days were a long time ago but have things changed that much?

The Ugly.

So we get to the real issues with the film. I’ve been reading a lot about the perceived representations of domestic abuse in the central relationship and how Feminists and Women’s Groups should be campaigning outside cinemas to get people to donate their ticket money to charities instead and who am I to disagree? But the point is I just don’t see much evidence of the issue on screen. So Grey is a bit controlling – that’s the whole point of the story. And it’s pretty much a given that everyone who goes to see the film already knows that. He finds out where she works? A lot (and I mean a lot) of perfectly normal, well-adjusted, non-threatening people Google new partners to find out all about them. I know I’ve done it. We live in the age of social media where everyone knows everything about each other – the information is just a mouse click away. I’ll admit that the book is closer to the representation being talked about but if I’m honest I think that’s more down to the execrable writing than the author’s intention and the film changes that.

On screen, Ana is funnier, more thoughtful, more forceful, more knowing and more in control by far than she is in the book. And much less of a simpering wimp too. The point is that she decides what she will and won’t do, she doesn’t sign his contract, she becomes unhappy and she leaves him. And frankly, I’ve seen far more dubious sexual politics on screen in pretty much every mainstream cinema release in the last 20 years – Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Anniston have built their careers on it. Does anyone remember Pretty Woman? Cold-hearted multi-millionaire business man buys sex from a street sex worker, they fall in love, live happily ever after. I don’t remember the campaigns outside cinemas for that beautiful little story.

The biggest problem I have with the film is that it has become the marketing man’s wet dream. I’m sick of hearing daft stories about B & Q needing to increase stocks of rope and cinemas having to cover their seats with plastic. Really? Really? It’s all nonsense and the media equivalent of fourteen year-olds giggling in the schoolyard. And more than this it totally demeans an audience which is savvy and knowing and perfectly capable of differentiating between fantasy and reality. That’s why they go to the cinema in the first place.

So the big question really is why have so many women read it? What have they found in it that makes it such a success? Has it damaged them in any way? Is it likely to incite sexual violence? Or non-consensual sado-masochism? I really doubt it. It’s bad, but that doesn’t automatically make it damaging. There is clearly a gap in the market for pulp-porn for women because it has been flying off the shelves for some reason and I don’t for a minute think that it’s all because we love a man who treats us badly. If you read Bruno Bettleheim, Marina Warner, Angela Carter you can see the most incredible analysis of the human need for archetypal fairytales and the beautiful flowering of a feminist interpretation of that desire. You will also find a real understanding of the depth and breadth of human sexuality and some of that includes the darkness. I’m not for a minute comparing Fifty Shades to The Bloody Chamber but you get my drift – women clearly want porn too right? Can we honestly say, as thoughtful, responsible, freedom-fighting feminists that we want to shoot down something before we know what it is? I sure don’t. That sounds too close to censorship to me and who am I anyway to tell people what they should or shouldn’t see? Well, actually, that is exactly what my job is (after a fashion) – I programme the cinema at Plymouth Arts Centre and at Peninsula Arts and I have programmed Fifty Shades at PAC at the beginning of March. What I have also programmed with it is a film called The Duke of Burgundy and The Philadelphia Story because I thought, rather than tell people what not to see, what I ought to be doing is widening the debate and creating a programme where an audience can see for themselves what representations of sexual women on screen can be. And let’s invite the audience to have a debate about it at the same time. This feels hugely important to me and while I understand the issues around Fifty Shades, I am far more concerned and frightened by the insidious and clearly almost invisible representations of sexual violence and disempowerment of women that I see in mainstream media every single day. That feels infinitely more damaging to me.

Anna Navas

Make up your own mind: Fifty Shades of Grey is showing at Plymouth Arts Centre cinema from 13 – 19 March

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