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50 Shades of Grey: a film
about male power, idealising
emotional abuse as sexy
when it isn't
All good relationships are built on respect, trust and consent - and the one at the centre of this film contains
none of that.
Watching 50 Shades of Grey at my local cinema offered a somewhat prescient and serendipitous beginning.
The trailer which preceded the movie was for The Boy Next Door, a film about a man who stalks, threatens
and emotionally blackmails a woman, whilst coercing her into sex. A truer representation of the film which
followed it, there could not be.
50 Shades has been portrayed as a love story which has BDSM as central to its narrative. I disagree. The sex,
kinky or otherwise, is actually irrelevant. This film, like the books, is solely about power - specifically, of a
man having it and a womannot. It uses BDSM as a inaccurate metaphor to drive the story, but the sex is
just a distraction for what is at its heart: an abusive relationship. 50 Shades is not about kink, but about
Let me be clear: Christian Grey is a stalker. An aggressive, jealous, controlling man. He is someone who,
after meeting Anastasia Steele once, finds out where she works and shows up there unannounced; discovers
her private home address and sends gifts to her; tells her to stop drinking when she is out celebrating her
graduation; traces her cell-phone and turns up at the bar she is at. These are not romantic acts, they are
abuse red flags.
Later, Grey breaks into Steele’s new apartment (the address of which she did not give him); he inserts
himself into the group of friends she is with at her graduation show and demands she is photographed with
him; he turns up at the hotel bar that she is drinking at with her mother and insists he is introduced as her
boyfriend. Grey gives Steele no escape from these situations and she is forced into accepting his presence in
I had hoped that director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel would remove the books’
abusive storyline and give Steele more agency, but the only place she has that is in the playroom - the place
where Grey stores all his kink tools. In there, she is able to order him “don’t you dare come near me”, and
he abides by her wishes - but outside of their sexual activities, she has no power at all, and he violates her
boundaries over and over again.
This despicable behaviour has nothing to do with BDSM. Ironically, the most consensual activity that takes
place in the film is the sex. Clearly, Taylor-Johnson had decent BDSM consultants: the sex scenes are
carefully considered and show both kinky and non-kinky activities to be sensual, respectful and realistically
portrayed. It was also refreshing to see female pleasure as the central focus, not just in Steele’s obvious
enjoyment, but in the framing of the sex and the camera resting on Dornan’s physique in such an erotic and
titillative way. (Though it’s worth noting that even with an18rating we still don’t get to see his penis).
Yes, it is positive to have films which openly position female sexual desire at the core. Yes, it’s a good thing
that we get to see a womanenjoy sex (albeit in a submissive role, not a dominant one, so that sexist double
standard is still intact). Yes, it’s nice that consensual BDSM can cross into the mainstream and be
considered an enjoyable activity, rather than weird.
But beautifully-shot, female-gaze-oriented sex scenes do not excuse a storyline which allows a man to
completely abuse and violate a woman’s boundaries and privacy. The fact that Grey is dominant in the
bedroom has nothing to do with his need to control and manipulate every aspect of Steele’s life. The
conflation of these two things is what makes this film (and the books) so critically problematic.
It is not acceptable for a man to stalk a woman, harass her, and to drive a wedge between her and her
friends and family. Showering a woman with expensive gifts does not make it okay that a man can break in,
then hide in her home waiting for her. Emotionally manipulating, thenharassing, a woman to agree to a
man’s relationship terms (or have no relationship at all) is not, in any sense, alright. All good relationships
are built on respect, trust and consent and this one contains none of that. Grey’s abusive behaviour is
excused, because he is “a dominant”, as if enjoying a sexual kink removes the need for a man to be a decent
The film will undoubtedly be as successful as the books, with sold out screenings all over the globe. But as
much as I want to applaud a movie written and directed by women, I can’t condone one which idealises
male power and emotional abuse as something seductive and sexy. They're not. With the kinky-sex as a
saucy distraction, the central message of this film - that it’s okay for men to control and manipulate women
- remains unquestioned, and that’s not just bad, it’s dangerous.