Editor's Note: Every once in a great while, there's a particular need to bring in an expert here at The Signal Watch. I posted on Fifty Shades of Grey on Monday, and mentioned I'd seen the movie with longtime pal, AmyC. She was game, and I hadn't had opportunity to hang with her in a long time, so it seemed the ideal opportunity. I want to thank Amy, because not only did she go to the movie, she brought a perspective to the whole event that made it all seem like less my usual descent into madness with a movie like Santa with Muscles, and, instead, she was a fantastic sounding board as we discussed "what does this movie mean?" en route and on the return trip from the movie.
Without further ado, here's Amy's post...
Fifty Shades, Forty-three Dollars
Ever since The League pitched the idea of going to see Fifty Shades of Grey, I’ve been excited about going to see a movie that I would have otherwise done my level best to ignore, mostly because I think that bad movies transcend themselves when shared, and become transformed into good experiences through the alchemy of shared derision. I actually consider myself something of an aficionado of horrible movies, having snickered my way through The Room, Showgirls, Goblin 2, and various other legendarily bad pieces of dreck. And while I hadn’t managed to get through the book, despite a heroic effort on my part, I’d managed to absorb enough of the story indirectly to be dead-certain it was NOT going to be a good movie. Most of my exposure to the content was through YouTube videos featuring parody-readings of excerpts from the books.
I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that I have spent a good portion of my professional life teaching classes about sexuality. Generally, most of my time was spent talking about sexually-transmitted infections, birth control, and the ins-and-outs of human reproductive anatomy, but I also took every chance I could get to talk to people about consent, the value and power of mutual pleasure, and respect for one’s self and the person or people one becomes intimate with throughout one’s life. I’ve also had the great privilege of helping some people deal with the aftermath of sexual assaults and abusive relationships, which has made me wary of how our culture portrays love and sexuality in our entertainment.
However, since I knew I was going to be seeing it with a friend, in a theater full of people that would mostly be sincere fans, instead of ignoring it or tut-tutting it, I started psyching myself up for seeing it by actively looking for information about tie-in (heh!) products and things that fans were hoping to see in the film. I got a good chuckle about the sex toys, lubricants, and various other odds and ends for sale at Target , and an actual belly laugh out of the existence of a Christian Grey teddy bear in a wee little grey suit, kitted out with a little Venetian mask and a tiny pair of handcuffs. I read a surprisingly thoughtful essay about the transition in the Anastasia character’s make-up and styling from the film’s makeup artist (the lip color gets darker throughout the film since it’s part of the book that Christian is fascinated by Anastasia’s lower lip) that accompanies a set of cosmetics assembled by a high-end cosmetic company Make-Up Forever that’s being sold through Sephora. There’s a lot of official product out there, and it’s fascinating in its variety and far-ranging price-points.
And, then, of course, there’s Etsy, the homemade goods marketplace. No joke, if you type “Fifty Shades” into their search bar, you’ll get thousands of results —everything from dainty little resin-sealed quote necklaces to hand-stitched lockable leather cuffs, and so much more. None of it licensed, but all of it intended for fans of the books… and now, of the movies. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that a lot of it is made by fans, for fans, which probably somewhat enhances the attachment to the story on both sides of the transaction. Similarly, if you go to any “adult toy” sites, you’ll find many products that promote themselves using the movie in their description, even if they aren’t formally associated with it. You could spend all day and night shopping relentlessly in every nook and cranny of the internet, and you’d never be able to find everything that’s being sold in conjunction with this story.
And it makes sense, in a way, since a lot of the Fifty Shades narrative is centered around wealth and specific items, and the meaning that those things carry separately and together. It’s not an original observation to say that one of the few reasons, if not the only reason, that Anastasia Steele spends a large chunk of the film wavering over signing a “submissive contract” instead of paperwork for a restraining order is because Christian Grey is incredibly wealthy and powerful. He can move quickly from one side of the country to another with no problem, buy and sell things in Anastasia’s name without her knowledge or consent, and has no apparent regard for other people’s locked doors or personal space. Some fans of the book might claim those are signs of passion, but they look to me like the signs of someone who does not view the other person in the relationship as an individual of equal value and dignity. I was very curious to see how the movie would handle Christian’s behavior, specifically whether it was going to make him seem charming, obsessed, or dangerous.
Two days before Ryan and I went to go see Fifty Shades of Grey, I got a late-night call from a friend of mine, completely out of the blue. I answered it cheerily, thinking that she was out on the town and wanted to see if I could pop out and join her, but her voice was shaky, and she told me that she was moving out of the house she’d shared with her partner of many years. During this time, he had brow-beaten her into quitting her job (which required a professional degree, and carries the requisite debt load that so many people struggle with well into their adult lives under the best of circumstances), had completely controlled her financial life, demanded that she be available to him at all times, and had actively tried to get rid of her vehicle so that she would only have his to drive at times of his choosing. He had a vibrant early career that has ensured his financial comfort for life, but he demanded that she account for every penny she spent in maintaining their home and alternated between giving her “really nice” gifts and telling her she was worthless and no-one would ever care about her or want her. I was shocked to hear about this, because she’s a sweet, intelligent, accomplished person, and I didn’t see her often enough to realize that she was living under such a burden.
I spent a bit of time with her on the phone, and we talked through some things she’d need to do to get ready to move out, and made plans to get together the next day so we could talk more in person. One of the things I did for her, as I have done for other people in situations where they needed distance from someone who had a lot of emotional power over them, is purchased a little phone for her, and a phone card that had some talk time and texts included in a flat price. I picked it up at a Walmart around 3:00 a.m., and spent around thirteen dollars on the phone, and thirty more dollars for some talk time and texts. Forty-three dollars altogether, which is probably similar in cost to a couple of movie tickets, a couple of sodas, and some snacks in the theater—but we’ll come back to that later. I just wanted to give you a little glimpse into what else was on my mind while I was in the theater.
Upon entering the packed Alamo Drafthouse theater, I noticed that there was a lot of happy chatter and laughter coming from the other people in the audience. It was a woman-heavy crowd, but there were quite a few couples there, as well. The pre-show wasn’t overly mocking, and the vast majority of the people in the audience seemed to be sincerely excited about the movie. I felt a little trollish, sitting there with my notepad and pen ready to scrawl down notes about how crummy this was. So, I tried to relax and open my mind to the possibility that this was worth being excited about. Around the time I made that cognitive shift, the pre-show ended and the trailers and announcements began.
The trailers that were showed before the movie were an odd mix—the ones I recall most clearly were for The Exotic Marigold Hotel 2, Magic Mike 2, and Pitch Perfect 2. I remember thinking that it was odd that there were so many sequels, and there was perhaps a bit of irony there since there have been consistent rumblings that the stars of Fifty Shades of Grey were balking at doing sequels.
When the movie started, I remember thinking that it didn’t seem that bad. The first scene involves our Everygal character, Anastasia Steele, a.k.a. Ana, a.k.a. not-Bella, comforting her sick roommate before leaving to cover for her by doing an interview with Christian Grey, the young, yet successful, man who will be speaking at their school’s upcoming graduation. The interaction is sweet, really, and was filled with dialogue that sounded like things that real people would say to each other in both content and delivery, even though it stretched credulity a little bit to think that the roommate couldn’t find anyone else who actually worked for the student newspaper to cover for her, instead of sending her “English lit major” roommate. What I found a bit more odd was that a “successful businessman” wouldn’t just have a canned biography prepared and sent out in response to interview requests from student journalists, but maybe he agreed to the request to meet and subsequently seduce a nubile young journalist. I was still trying really hard to avoid cynicism about the whole thing, so I tried to let go of that, too.
My valiant efforts to try and embrace this experience came to an end when the two main characters met. The fateful first meeting of Anastasia and Christian involves an almost immediate trip-and-fall that establishes Anastasia as physically graceless, and then showcases her inability to read questions that range from insipid to rude without stumbling over the printed words and then fuming and huffing. This, of course, renders her fascinating to Christian, presumably because hot rich sadistic boys only like overly-nervous girls whose bruises can be explained by their already-established tendency to fall into doorknobs. Or something. It’s a little hard to parse why they are attracted to each other narratively, because there’s no apparent chemistry on-screen, and everything from the positioning of their bodies to the way they look at each other when speaking seems to imply distance, discomfort, and âdistaste.
In fact, if I didn’t know anything about the story, and only saw the first two scenes, I’d probably think this was a movie about a young woman coming to terms with her burgeoning love of her female roommate. As it stands, I feel confident in assuming that, at the time the book that serves as the source material was written, the author had more experience showing friendship and caring to friends and family than she did with trying-and-failing to banter with a rich sadistic businessman who spent his spare time stalking college students.
After the initial meet-not-so-cute, Christian pops up at her work, is able to track her down from a drunk-dial call, and is generally always underfoot quite a lot more than you’d expect an executive to be. These things happen in a cascade, and there’s never a clear sense of time or place for where the characters are at the time, or how much time has passed since the previous scene. It’s just a tumult of events, but it’s a bit dull since there’s no obvious arc or character development. It’s the story of an all-consuming romance that verges on obsession, as told by a five-year-old who was mistakenly given an espresso instead of a juicebox—“ And then they had coffee! And then he hit that guy! And then they were in a glider!” Lots of things happening, none of them all that interesting.
Eventually, after far too much yapping, the story finally gets to the “good part”—which was presumably the part that people flipped forward in the books to read—wherein the characters make it into the playroom, also known as the Red Room of Pain. There’s some pretty serious stuff in there, honestly—I made note of several canes of various thickness which got some screen-time, and several of them looked like they could put a pretty serious hurt on someone if wielded correctly (or incorrectly, depending on intent). However, most of the sex portrayed in the film was fairly standard-issue and even the relatively kinky bits (“Ooh, handcuffs!” *yawn*) were things that did not require a special room with dedicated equipment to perform.
Then, there was more yapping about dumb, insipid things, and somehow we got to meet both of the main characters’ families, which was boring and dumb and not terribly sexy or interesting. Literally the only thing interesting about meeting the families was that I wondered how much Marcia Gay Harden got paid (I hope it’s measured in wheelbarrow-based units) and I was making jokes to myself about how having a Cylon involved (Callum Keith Rennie, who I usually adore) in all of this would explain why it was so hard for these folks to understand human romantic love.
Most of the time, though, I had no idea when it would end, how far we were into it, or why any of the characters cared about the things they cared about… instead of the things I thought they should care about.
The climactic scene-- well, climactic-ish scene, anyway, I was a bit bewildered at the emotional weight given to it-- involved Anastasia challenging Christian to show her “how bad” things could get. He then proceeded to hit her bottom a few times with a belt. That was apparently a bridge too far, for some reason. She didn’t use her safeword, she didn’t ask him to stop, but once it was over she was out of there pretty quickly, and the movie ended abruptly. The whole thing felt very jarring and bewildering, but I was glad it was over.
As we were heading out, the happy chatter and laughter that had preceded the film didn’t resume. There was no applause, which I’ve seen happen at many opening weekend viewings of popular films. I think a lot of people found the ending as abrupt as I did. I’m not sure if the book ends that way, or not, but it felt very unusual and unsatisfying.
A few random notes:
I couldn’t help but snicker when, in an early scene after the main characters’ initial meeting, Anastasia was lost in thought and poking herself in the mouth with a “Grey House” pencil. For a brief, fleeting moment, I had hope it was going to get campy, and then (sad trombone).
At one point, the Christian Grey character said something like, “I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard.” I seriously lost it laughing at that line, to the point I almost got up and left the theater to avoid getting kicked out. Jamie Dornan does not have the grit, sex appeal, or implicit menace necessary to deliver a line like that in a way that could be taken as darkly erotic. I’m not sure who does, but he surely does not.
I actually liked Dakota Johnson in this. I wasn’t expecting to. I don’t like most of the choices her character made, but I like many of the choices she made with her character. I hope she has a career beyond this.
Spending forty-three dollars on buying a Walmart burner phone for a friend who has been hiding years of abuse and finally breaking free is surely the polar opposite of spending a similar amount of money on a couple of movie tickets and the traditional foods and beverages that are part of the theater experience, or teddy bears with wee little handcuffs and carefully-curated luxury brand make-up palettes. Or maybe they are connected more closely than I care to admit, since our culture so often conflates wealth with charm, and disrespect with passion. I don’t think this movie (or the book that inspired it) is single-handedly responsible for anyone’s abuse or assault, but I can’t help but wish that more people were as eager to put time, effort, and money into embracing healthy sexuality (in all its glorious variety, including kink, bondage, role-playing, and any other thing that people can do to, for, or with each other that is mutually agreeable) and good storytelling (erotic and otherwise) as they apparently are to spend money on cheesy movie tie-in vibrating cock rings and massage oil candles.
It’s hard to write about this movie because there are so many levels on which one might feel compelled to engage with it. Do you look at it from a perspective of trying to understand why people who like it feel that way? Do you engage with it as a text, or as a film, or as a cultural phenomenon? Do you assess it as a “how-to” for BDSM, or a “how-not-to”? What does it tell men and women (and anyone else) about how to show love to each other? What does it mean that so many people have glommed onto it as either a marketing gimmick or a shopping filter? Why aren’t these folks reading Kushiel’s Dart instead? I have a lot of questions, but not that many answers.
So, for now, I think I’ll just go back to reading comic books.