If it’s almost Valentine’s Day, it must mean that there’s another “50 Shades of Grey” movie ready to hit movie screens. Just as “50 Shades of Grey” was billed as a must-watch Valentine’s Day movie in 2015, “50 Shades Darker” is getting the same treatment this year. Hollywood seems to think that the way to add some romance to your love life is by watching these films, but the fact is that the “50 Shades of Grey” franchise actually promotes unhealthy relationships.
Let’s start off with the tagline of this year’s “50 Shades Darker” film – “Every fairy tale has a dark side.” There’s actually a lot to unpack here. The first idea is that every truly romantic relationship will start with a “fairy tale” filled with a handsome knight just waiting to whisk you off your feet. Women are told again and again that there’s a “Mr. Right” out there – you just need to find him and your life will be wonderful.
And Christian Grey (played by Jamie Dornan) is supposed to be the perfect man that every woman deserves – young, handsome, successful, and fabulously wealthy. He’s the type of daredevil prince who thinks nothing of going for a ride in a private helicopter or – completely unannounced – wiring $24,000 into your bank account. But how realistic is that image for women? Women shouldn’t have to settle, but they can’t wait forever for Mr. Right.
The second idea in the tagline is that you need to embrace your “dark side” in order to deserve Mr. Right. This is where the film franchise starts to go seriously wrong when it comes to relationships. The logic of the films is simple: you have to be the “bad girl” willing to do things in bed to please the mythical Mr. Right otherwise you might lose him. That, according to “50 Shades of Grey” and “50 Shades Darker,” means submitting to BDSM and a lot of controlling behavior, not to mention blindfolds and restraints.
That promotes a very unhealthy idea of what it means to be in a relationship. The only way for a relationship to work, the films seem to be telling us, is by establishing a master-servant dynamic. Christian Grey doesn’t just want to date Anastasia Steele (played by the very lovely Dakota Johnson) – he wants to own her, to control her, and to make her submit completely. He is the dominant, she is the submissive, but just how healthy is it to be in this type of ultra-controlling relationship?
Moreover, sex is seen as something that is contractual and as something that denotes power, marking the dominant and the submissive. Both aspects are dangerous – it either turns sex into something more akin to prostitution (perform these forbidden acts and you will be rewarded financially), or into something that turns women into “objects” that can be “owned” by men. And, make no mistake about it, Christian Grey wants to own Anastasia Steele. He gets off on the idea of power and control, not on the idea that he might have found a new soul mate.
Just take a look at the other models that we have for relationships in the movie. Everyone is damaged, everyone seems to have lost his or her way. What we see in the film is a lot of emotional emptiness. The Red Room of Pain is not just a room to experience physical pain, it is also a room to unlock the emotional pain and torment that Christian Grey has accumulated throughout his life.
And, it’s particularly disconcerting to see the whole stalker theme repeated throughout “50 Shades Darker.” Women are being taught that men are incapable of real courtship and love – they are only capable of lust and a desire to control. And it’s not just Christian. When Anastasia Steele moves to a new job at a new office, her boss (Jack Hyde, played by Eric Johnson) is determined to stalk her as a way of proving his sexual interest in her. Another potential male suitor obsesses over Anastasia by using her photos to decorate his art gallery. And, finally, Christian’s exes stalk him, determined to win him back.
But you can easily see here all the painfully distorted elements of a relationship. There is no sense of courtship, of learning to become soul mates and to experience true love. Instead, there is only lust and impure thoughts translated into action.
The film franchise also builds unrealistic expectations about what’s supposed to happen in the bedroom. Everything is supposed to unfold as if in a racy Harlequin romance – satin sheets, beautiful background music and perfectly formed bodies moving in unison. Sex then ends with a final orgasmic collapse in which both male and female are blissfully united and fulfilled.
But that’s not the way sex happens. As one movie reviewer at BleedingCool.com notes, the film portrays sex all wrong – it’s “sex as told by someone who has no idea what sex is.” It’s almost as if the filmmakers really believe all the hype and fantasy around Valentine’s Day, and are telling men and women they must strive for this impossible ideal.
The last way that the film franchise is unhealthy for relationships is that it reinforces the idea that women can “fix” guys – that they should stay through a long and difficult relationship and try to change even the most damaged of men. But that’s not the way the world works.
Even when Anastasia demands a new type of arrangement, in which she will be in control, things don’t work as planned. That’s a blow not just for feminists, but also for all women who are trying to take greater control of their relationships. They are being told, none too subtly, “it just won’t work. So give in and submit to the man instead…”
The problem is that submission can go too far. There’s a fine line between BDSM experimentation and domestic abuse. And the general feeling is that the first film went way too far in the direction of domestic abuse. Sex has to be consensual for both people, and if it’s not, then it has gone too far.
But the films make it harder – not easier – for women to get out of an abusive relationship. It suggests that shame and pain and humiliation are all just part of the bargain if you really want love. And that’s why “50 Shades of Grey” and “50 Shades Darker” are not just mistaken in their ideas about love and relationships, they are also darkly dangerous. There’s no grey here, just black and white. Stream the franchise online with an internet subscription from XFINITY.