You may be wondering why I’m writing about Fifty Shades of Grey on CHUD. We certainly haven’t given it much coverage. It’s sparked some debate on the boards, though. I don’t expect many of you have invested any genuine interest in it, and that’s fine. CHUD’s readership is overwhelmingly male, and this is film targeted at female audiences. But I think we need to talk about this stuff from time to time. It’s all well and good to talk about fun genre films and summer blockbusters here on CHUD, but I if don’t talk about other things, I start to feel like I’m pandering. And you guys are smart enough to know pandering when you see it. Also, I think exposing yourself to art that challenges you is a crucial experience, and not an experience that you can have just once. You need to re-up. Keep experiencing art that wasn’t made for you to like.
So yes, I saw Fifty Shades of Grey. Why? First and foremost: because it’s an important film. I can hear some of you scoffing, but look: it wasn’t my decision to call it important. It was the decision of the tens of millions of people who bought the books. Like it or not, this turkey is important on a cultural level. It had, has, and will have impact on culture. Come Monday morning, it may be the top February opening of all time. You can stick your head in the sand all you like, but there’s no arguing that the novels and film franchise have affected people far and wide. I want to explore why and how. I want to be a participant in the conversation.
Secondly, the film is controversial. Again, that’s not my opinion. It’s the fact that it portrays kinky sex in a way many films don’t and that it’s selling the film with said kinky sex. It’s also the opinion of people who claim that the film glamorizes and promotes stalking, physical and emotional abuse, and spreads dangerous information about kink. Some people who feel that way are going so far as to boycott the film. I get that, and I don’t entirely disagree with how boycotters feel about it. But when you’re trying to construct such an argument against the film, someone’s eventually gonna ask you if you’ve actually seen the damn thing. All you’re going to be able to do is say “No. I’m just going off what I’ve read and heard.” That’s not a position I want to be in. And if you think that by buying a ticket to a movie that I’m promoting domestic violence, sexual and emotional abuse, or bad sex in general, that’s just not true.
All sorts of awful things are glamorized for the sake of entertainment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the film is endorsing the behaviors it depicts. Violent movies are not endorsements of murder, and Fifty Shades of Grey is not an endorsement of stalking. The way Christian infiltrates and attempts to overtake Ana’s life is really fucking creepy, and it’s played that way. The only problem is that despite Christian’s frightening need for control, Ana is still overcome with the desire to bang this dude. Is that a smart or safe decision on her part? No, but the fundamental nature of narratives demands that our protagonist make some poor decisions. Safe, risk-free romance isn’t exactly titillating on screen — though the film makes an effort to show us that Christian uses condoms, even in the heat of the moment. Look, neither Christian nor Ana is a role model. They’re just pretty people in pretty clothes, doing pretty things in pretty places. You’d be surprised at how much of cinema boils down to that. Fifty Shades is a surface level portrayal of kink/BDSM, just as many violent films are surface level portrayals of violence. It looks good on screen, and cinema is, in many ways, ABOUT what looks good. It’s about surfaces, which brings me to how the movie actually looks.
You can’t really tell from the trailers, but Fifty Shades looks expensive and glossy. I was worried it would be dripping with the soap-opera-motion-blurry digital video look, but it’s an attractive and cinematic picture. Some have said it looks like a Lifetime Channel movie, and I think that’s bullshit. That’s not to say this is good art — it isn’t — but when it comes to surfaces, they’re at least well lit and photographed. The helicopter and glider scenes don’t look like CGI, so I’m sure a nice little piece of the film’s reported 40 million dollar production budget was spent shooting the exteriors for those sequences.
The film’s better qualities don’t stop there, either: unlike the humorless, odious Twilight franchise that inspired this film’s existence, Fifty Shades of Grey has a sense of humor. I’ve never read the books, so I have no idea what their tone is like, but the film is quippy in a way that isn’t grating. It’s not without its groan-worthy moments, but the stuff that happens between the lengthy sex scenes and before the big drama doesn’t take itself too seriously. The humor is often at Ana’s expense, because she’s an impossible character: progressive yet stereotypical. Blissfully virginal, but not afraid of sex, really. She’s bookish and demure, but she swears. She’s clumsy, but still likes to get shitfaced and dance like a manic pixie dream girl. She doesn’t own a working computer (how quaint!) and comes accessorized with a Flintstones era flip phone. She’s never had so much as an awkward backseat fingerbang, but responds to Christian’s lovemaking like someone who knows sex. Oh wait, I forgot — Christian doesn’t “make love”. He likes to “FUCK. HARD.” as told to the audience in a line that elicited a deafening silence. I involuntarily grimaced at the screen.
Like I said earlier, this is bad art. It’s smut, but I’m all for smut. People need smut. It’s trashy, but I think we at CHUD have an appreciation for trash. The main reason Fifty Shades is bad is that at its core, it is no more than a kinky rearrangement of common stereotypes and ugly tropes that don’t speak well of women, but somehow still resonate with them. It’s a disappointingly traditional and regressive look at romance. Is it dangerous, like boycotters say? After seeing it, I doubt its effect will be as dangerous as some fear. It’s certainly bringing kink into the public eye, and it’s opening up a dialogue about what kink is and is not, and these are good things. But I take issue with the outright dismissal and boycotting of the film, because in order to truly understand why bad art can be bad for us, we need to subject ourselves to it. We need to understand it from within, and sometimes you have to spend the price a movie ticket to do that.