This is not a standard review of the Fifty Shades franchise, but is instead a frivolous commentary on BDSM, abuse, and Jamie Dornan’s hotness. Major spoilers are throughout. My usual caveats are: I haven’t read the books, am not a film reviewer, and don’t particularly care about offering more than surface analysis. I discuss all three films as a whole body of work.
There was interwebz gossip about Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson being terrible actors, but he was great in The Fall, and here’s Johnson being excellent opposite Depp in Black Mass.
Despite the cast, my expectation for cinematic brilliance was low, so I chose to hate-watch the films for entertainment. There are moments I laughed which aren’t supposed to be funny. In a particularly tense moment, Christian Grey mumbles into his shirt that he’s “fifty shades of fucked up,” and I howled with laughter. Ana bites her lip a lot, which I gather is supposed to be sexy, but all I could think of was “Lip Biting is two shots in the Fifty Shades drinking game.”
Some dialog in Fifty Shades is admittedly terrible, but it didn’t matter because I couldn’t quite hear over the sound of Jamie Dornan’s exquisite body.
Dornan’s body features quite a bit in the films. It’s one of its positive appeals, and not just for eye candy, but because it depicts the female gaze. Rarely do we focus on female lust or pleasure in films, and this franchise has both throughout. Ana’s eyes linger appreciatively over Christian’s body. She knows what it can do for her. In one shot, she quietly watches him exercise, a scene overtly capitalizing on Dornan’s athleticism. No one minds the deliberate manipulation.
Christian is clearly mimicking a traditional move by Canadian politicians.
On top of the bondage and flogging [because, really, this is actually BDSM Lite], Ana receives plenty of oral. I cannot remember the last time I saw that depicted in dramatic films or TV, even those with lots of sex. Despite many people’s aversion to BDSM itself, it’s clear that Christian is heavily invested in Ana’s pleasure, and safety. Safe words are clearly defined and respected, they use condoms before she goes on birth control—also something rarely depicted—and there is a concerted effort to demonstrate passion between the two.
Despite the farfetched plot, it’s still fun to watch.
I mean, I also want to have brunch sitting across from my hot billionaire boyfriend looking all fine in his navy shirt after a night of “kinky fuckery” (actual quote) where we’ve had sex twice, and he asks to me to accompany him to his parents’ charity ball that night and arranges a designer dress to wear and a visit from a hairdresser, but not before having sex in the afternoon while getting ready, and then go to the ball and sneak away to have more sex in his childhood bedroom, and then later on be nude in the shower together after which we presumably have sex yet again, for a total of at least five times in twenty-four hours. Who doesn’t?
Though I’d rather be the billionaire.
I’m glad I watched the first and second film back to back, then the last one a few weeks later in a theater, because had I met Christian Grey in the first film without knowing (via cast talk-show interviews) that there is an evolution to his character I would have dismissed it all. In the first film he is controlling and abusive. To be clear: it is not the BDSM practice that’s abusive—in fact, the film does a decent job of outlining how boundaries are carefully negotiated within BDSM practices, so that both parties fully consent to everything that happens during a “play” scene [the rest of us could learn a thing or two about consent from the BDSM world]. It is Grey’s behaviour outside of the Red Room that’s alarming: he’s jealous of every man in Anastasia’s life; he reacts with rage when she doesn’t ask permission to travel; and by and large exhibits classical warning signs of emotional abuse.
By the end of the first film, Ana actually leaves Christian, and I rejoiced. Because as hot as the (simulated) sex is, it’s not worth the constant compromises she makes, or the demands she is forced to continuously challenge.
Real talk: you cannot love-away the abuse. This part of the franchise bugs me the most. It reinforces that old narrative that If You Love Him You Can Change Him. It is a narrative that women are socialized to accept, and reemphasized in a thousand stories we’ve all absorbed.
Don’t believe me? Consider that Twilight, Tru Blood, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, are romantic stories about women whose love interests are constantly suppressing the urge to kill them, and the only reason they don’t is because of “love.”
No woman who has ever been in a situation where her lover or spouse is exerting more and more coercive control over her life has ever successfully loved him into being tender and considerate. If she gets out relatively unscathed she learns what to avoid for the next relationship. If she gets out at all.
After the first film, Ana could have joined some fetish clubs and continued to explore that aspect of her newly discovered sexuality, vetting potential partners with thoughtful care. And because BDSM is often (mis)understood as abusive by the “vanilla” world (think “muggles” but for kinksters), the first film muddies the distinctions between them.
I can forgive the all-too-convenient plot lines that get neatly resolved in unrealistic ways. I can suspend disbelief that a ridiculously sexy billionaire falls for a mousy virgin literature student in order to be entertained. But the idea that a man like Christian changes that much by love alone is dangerous. You cannot change an abusive man. He needs therapy. And lots of it. For years.
And even in some alternate reality, where Jamie Dornan the actor is not married to a stunningly beautiful woman and that by all appearances has a loving and stable family life, but is, in fact, single, looking, and has a pronounced fetish for chubby academics in their forties, even I would laugh and laugh and tell that hot man to fuck right off if he demonstrated such controlling behaviour.
As long as he was wearing a shirt.
I’m about as secure and self-aware as they come, but I’m not fucking blind.
Incidentally, when the above shot came on-screen I actually laughed. Not because I wasn’t altogether affected by its beauty (I was), but because when I saw the brief tuft of pubic hair I recalled a recent video of Dornan telling this embarrassing story on the Graham Norton show.
And don’t get me started on the fact that Ana’s a virgin! Feminist discourse 101: The Purity Myth, which posits that women’s value is attached to her sexual activity when society views female sexual activity as a stain that tarnishes a woman’s ostensible value (i.e. her virginity or “purity”). When Christian learns of Ana’s lack of sexual experience he’s overjoyed, “Where have you been?” he marvels, before taking her to the bedroom to “claim” her (she gives full consent; this movie has some issues but a violation of consent is not one of them). Her innocence is part of her appeal, because no other man has marked her, physically or sexually. The act cements Ana as Christian’s property.
Ana’s virginity functions as a way to make us, the prudish audience, comfortable with all the kinky sex; it’s okay because she’s not promiscuous, like those other girls. You know the ones, the ones that have sex with multiple people and dare to relish in and enjoy it. The hussies. Ana’s status as untouched absolves us of (secretly) judging her as a whore for engaging in so-called “deviant” sexual behaviour.
Let’s just stop being cynical bitches and allow for a fictional character like Christian Grey to sincerely be changed by Ana’s love, the films do indeed depict that well. In the first film Dornan’s playing of Grey is cold. In the second and third, he not only looks physically different (fitter, relaxed, older), he also smiles more at Ana. It’s a subtle but important shift in the character.
He goes from pale sourpuss…
…to this charming guy.
It’s refreshing to see Christian smile at Ana, and act genuinely happy to see the woman he claims to love. Imagine that?
By the third film they are married, and Ana becomes pregnant. “You missed your shot,” Christian admonishes. For those that don’t know, he’s likely referring to a Depo Provera injection, a drug that prevents pregnancy. Christian angrily admits to wanting her all to himself, that a baby would “take her away from him.” Because it’s a movie, and because it’s this kind of movie, this honest admission is soon resolved. Christian magically grows up and matures within a few days. But it happens because Ana lays her foot down, claiming her role as a parent and as a wife. They’ve both changed. Christian becomes loving and tender; Ana demonstrates strong agency. We are left with the impression that there is now balance in their relationship, kink and all.
This post contains no less than thirteen images and one video of Jamie Dornan, so to offset that, allow me to leave you with one of Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele just as she’s about to meet Christian Grey: