I’ve been meaning to write this review for a couple of months now, but somehow didn’t find the time (or the energy) for it.
It is still a puzzle to me how this book ever managed to become such a hit, because to say that it is a complete trash of a literature wouldn’t do it justice. I avoided reading it for as long as it was possible, thinking that it was probably something that bored housewives in trapped, unfulfilled marriages read for entertainment. But when it became a number one book to read among my generation (I’m in my mid-twenties), I figured that there must be something else to it. And when they announced the movie adaptation I finally decided to give it a try. I barely managed to make my way through the first 100 pages; I have never in my life read something so badly written. I immediately took back every bad word I ever said about Twilight saga books, because compared to that, Twilight was almost like reading Dostoevsky. However, all badly written dialogues aside, it quickly became apparent to me what the real appeal of this book (and film) is. This is not a story about love between two individuals and it is also not about sex – this is, more than anything else, a love story about capitalism.
When Anastasia Steel, a virginal college student from a regular working class family, meets a 27 years old multi-millionaire (who built his business empire all by himself, I may add; although we never get the information what exactly it is he does) it is not a love at first sight. She does, however, fall in love – but with his money and his luxurious lifestyle. This may not be so apparent in the movie, but in the book she endlessly obsesses over his wealth and lists label names with a dedication worthy of American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman: Calvin Klein, Apple, Audi, Gucci, Cartier; to name just a few. Put that on top of the fact that one of their first dates includes a ride in his private helicopter and that he buys her a car as a graduation present, and I think you will agree with me that those are the things that are supposed to turn the readers on, not the sex. And in return for this new, fabulous life that he provides for her, she is more than willing to accept a few of his kinks (that would be a no-go if he was poor, or even if he was an average, semi-successful middle class guy). He may be a creepy stalker-type who likes to hurt women (which is explained by some cheap psychology about his traumatic childhood and unresolved mommy issues), but she is hardly a victim here. When every sane woman would run for the hills if a man would start to stalk her (there is quite a few scenes when I felt I was watching a film about some long lost brother of Ted Bundy – he keeps showing up wherever she goes, he’s tracking her phone, he completely isolates her from her family and friends after the graduation and shows up unannounced at her mother’s house when she leaves for a couple of days to “clear up her head”), she chooses to stay. Not only that: she finds his stalking (which isn’t considered creepy and problematic, but as him being persistent) romantic. There has been a lot of talk about this story “being liberating” for some women (which is something that the writer herself continuously brags about), but this couldn’t be less true. It is possible that it inspired a few desperate housewives to spice things up a bit in the bedroom, but the whole message of the book couldn’t be less empowering for women. It’s actually quite the opposite – it completely diminishes every single thing the feminists around the world have fought for in the last hundred of years. But how is it even possible that so many women identified with that? I found the only possible explanation in this quote from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex:
Indeed, beside every individual’s claim to assert himself as subject lies the temptation to flee freedom and to make himself into a thing: it is a pernicious path because the individual, passive, alienated and lost, is prey to a foreign will, cut off from his transcendence, robbed of all worth. But it is an easy path: the anguish and stress of authentically assumed existence are thus avoided. Therefore the man who sets the woman up as an Other will find in her a deep complicity. And a woman makes no claim for herself as subject because she lacks concrete means, because she senses the necessary link connecting her to a man without positing its reciprocity, and because she often derives satisfaction from the role as Other.
Engels was one of the first ones who tried to show that there’s a connection between gender and class subordination and said that inside of a marriage (or rather, inside of a heterosexual relationship, considering it is 2015) a woman represents the proletariat, while a man represents the capital. This couldn’t be more relevant in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, especially if we look at one of the most iconic scenes of the film, a negotiation regarding a “sex contract” between Anastasia and Grey. “There will be no fist fucking, but everything else is okay” – and she walks out of the negotiation feeling like a strong woman who holds all the cards in her hands. But it is actually he who is the winner in the situation, because he got exactly what he wanted: her. She is the proletariat who negotiated herself the smallest amount of freedom and feels like a winner, and he is the capitalist; the one who owns her completely, without her even knowing how little control she has in the situation. The only case in which she would walk out as a free, strong and confident woman is if she would tear the contract apart, tell him to go fuck himself and never see him again. So no; this story is not about women empowerment. It’s about women willingly becoming slaves (or sex toys, if you will) to men in order to climb up the social ladder and getting a glimpse of what a life among the 1% looks like.
As far as their BDSM sexual practice (that was mainly criticized for all the wrong reasons: for not being “kinky” enough, for not including enough nudity etc.) goes – this were hardly the things that bothered me the most (or at all). What I found repulsive, however, was the way in which BDSM was portrayed. As far as I know (and I admit, this is not really my domain) such sexual practices are mostly based on mutual respect between two partners. While here we have an “innocent”, sexually inexperienced girl who lets herself get trapped into being Grey’s submissive (without knowing what this actually means, or at least so it seems) and a man who doesn’t so much enjoy sex, as he genuinely enjoys hurting women (true, with their consent – which can be, as we can see, bought). She is intimidated, but at the same time fascinated by him and by everything he represents, while he doesn’t value her at all as a human being: she’s a thing that he tries to conquer and control.
Dakota Johnson, who portrays Anastasia, actually does a good job and was, at least for me, one of the few things in this film that wasn’t completely awful. However, this was a really unflattering role and I hope she moves on to better projects after they stop filming these series, as Kristen Stewart did after Twilight. Jamie Dornan, sadly, does a pretty average job. Having watched the recent BBC series The Fall, where he plays a serial killer (who sexually abuses and strangles women – a role not so very different from this one!) I had high expectations about his portrayal of a sociopathic and sadistic multi-millionaire Dorian Grey, but he just seemed awfully awkward in his role. As for Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction: I think that she did what she could with the material that was given to her. What amazes me though is that she got involved with such a project at all, considering her past work as an artist.
The only thing that I thought was really well done was the fact that the entire film looks like a 2-hours long commercial – this film is, after all, an ode to capitalism and consumerism and the fact that it actually looks as such was a really nice touch.
Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Written by: Kelly Marcel (based on the book by E. L. James)
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan
Running Time: 125 minutes