Liskula Cohen brings an outsider’s perspective to the controversy over ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ … and finds that the outrage doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
This is an article by two people who haven’t seen or read Fifty Shades of Grey. That’s why—and we can’t stress this enough—this is NOT a review of Fifty Shades of Grey. It is, instead, an attempt to understand the controversy from the perspective of two total outsiders (and written from Liskula Cohen’s perspective).
Moving on …
The controversy with Fifty Shades of Grey stems from concern within the medical community that it promotes abusive relationships. “Our analysis shows that emotional and sexual violence is pervasive in the relationship,” writes Amy Bonomi, an Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Science at Ohio State University-Columbus and lead author of a recent study in the Journal of Women’s Health, “Double Crap! Abuse and Harmed Identity in Fifty Shades of Grey.” The National Center on Sexual Exploitation—which has launched a Twitter campaign against the film (#FiftyShadesIsAbuse)—shares this view, characterizing both the book and movie as glorifications of “domestic violence and abuse against women.”
It is important to note that medical professionals do not classify all BDSM relationships as inherently abusive. The key is that both partners need to consent and clearly define the boundaries of what each party is willing to do. “BDSM does not involve emotional or physical abuse,” explained Alexis Conason, a researcher at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital who specializes in body image and sexuality, “Emotional and/or physical abuse is no more common in BDSM relationships than in ‘vanilla’ or any other type of relationships.” Even some film critics—who have panned the film, which currently holds a 24% rating on movie criticism aggregator RottenTomatoes)—have noted that the attempts to make the story’s male protagonist seem less abusive only make him seem manipulative. “Ultimately, though, what’s smuttiest about the movie is the way Christian’s “dominance” involves fewer direct orders than emo pandering,” observed Meghan Daum of Slate. “He may be a slave master, but his commands often suggest he’s been secretly reading Our Bodies, Ourselves.”
A girlfriend of mine, who is also a mom (in her case of three), read the first Fifty Shades book and raved about how it was “great Mommy Porn, even if it reads like a 15-year old wrote it.” About a year later I bought the trilogy in digital form, read the first eight chapters, and had to put it down. I didn’t “get it,” which is fine, since I am sure a lot of people just didn’t “get it.” What I found more interesting was the commentary I was reading about the film before it even came out, weeks before it was even released. The opinions went from disgusted to downright outraged. I questioned some of my friends about their reactions to a film they had yet to see, and still do not truly understand. The two I found most interesting were from very young people, who are among the target demographics for this film.
Youth seemed to bring with it a more casual approach to fiction. “I’ve only read the first one and I did not find it offensive,” explained the 16-year-old model I mentor. “I don’t think it’s offensive at all. Why would I be offended by a fictional book?” Elaborating on ethical criticisms of the film, she argued that while “I understand the movie going against their beliefs/morals but getting offended about a fictional sexual relationship to me is just ridiculous. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but I just don’t get it.” Her laid back attitude toward sexual morality is hardly unique; the film critic for Playboy pointed out that “the movie doesn’t have the courage of its lurid convictions and its timid sex scenes.” Interestingly, my friend came to a similar conclusion about the film. “To me at least the movie was a toned down version of the book,” she said. “Not nearly as explicit as it could’ve been.”
My 21-year-old friend, meanwhile, had a more complicated relationship with the books (she hasn’t seen the movie). “When I read [the trilogy], I loved them, and only because I found what I sought out in reading them—hot sex scenes,” she told me. “At that time in my life I had just started having sex but I had already developed an interest in human sexuality, desire, and the intricacies of intimacy and pleasure. I found myself intrigued by bondage, and most of the scenes included it, so I look back and feel as though I read with blinders on (well, mostly).” As she became more familiar with healthy BDSM relationships, however, she came to the same conclusion as medical professionals—that Fifty Shades of Grey promoted abuse. “In terms of sex, a healthy BDSM scene is thoroughly discussed beforehand, and is followed by aftercare,” she explained, “In the preceding discussion, limits/boundaries, concrete and flexible, are set, and a safe word is established, among other details. Aftercare includes the Dom ensuring that their partner is all right, physically and emotionally, with questions and reassuring statements. Grey ties/spanks/teases Ana without her consent. Grey threatens to punish her, and does, without her consent. Grey has sex with her without her consent—meaning that he doesn’t, meaning he rapes her.” Unlike my 16-year-old friend, who felt that the stories can be viewed as harmless fun because they’re fiction, she insisted “these books, this story, is real. People in the real world are in abusive relationships disguised as Dom/Sub arrangements. Christian Greys exist, in many forms, and the popularity of the movies/books validates them in their ways and discredits and shames victims and survivors, just like rape jokes have been scientifically proven to.”
Again, neither Matt nor I have no watched the movie, and we’ll probably wait until it is on demand or on disc. That said, I do find it interesting that there are so many opposing views on a film, and to think people are protesting a fictional story makes me wonder if they protested other movies and or books. The bigger issue here for me is freedom of expression. I would hate to think that we will resort to censorship or silencing an art form.
None of this is meant to minimize the importance of fighting domestic abuse. That said, there is a tendency today to act as if stifling artistic expression in popular culture is an effective way of addressing these issues. If you truly care about addressing these problems, you should volunteer your time, donate your money, or spend your idle hours supporting causes that work toward directly confronting them. Focusing on a book or a movie may be more dramatic, but it may also miss the point.