How the “50 Shades of Grey” Franchise Promotes Unhealthy Relationships

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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.

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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.

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It’s Been Two Years and We Still Miss “Parks and Recreation”

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“Parks and Recreation” will always have a special place in the pantheon of great TV comedies. After 7 seasons and 125 episodes, it’s still hard to believe that it’s all over.

Yes, you can still catch the show on the Esquire Channel (if your cable provider carries it) or on a streaming service like Netflix, but let’s face it, what made the show so popular and such a cult favorite was that it was part of NBC’s Thursday night comedy lineup. For 7 years, you could literally pencil in 30 minutes every Thursday and know that you were going to laugh. You could quibble with NBC’s tagline – “Comedy Night Done Right” – but you couldn’t quibble with the comedy lineup they put together, year after year.

And, now more than ever in America, we need a show that will help us laugh (or cry) through the next four years. “SNL” perfectly captured the mood of the country during the election, but seeing Aziz Ansari hosting the January 21 “SNL” made us realize how much we missed Aziz (who played Tom Haverford) and all the “locals” who populated the fictional world of Pawnee on “Parks and Recreation.”

Remember all of Tom’s crazy business ideas that never seemed to work out as planned? And his friend Jean-Ralphio? For now, we’ll have to content ourselves with watching endlessly looping YouTube videos of them, or checking out the “Best Of” lists on BuzzFeed, where they’ve been immortalized as memes and GIFs.

There’s not a funnier comedy show on TV right now, and that’s a shame. “Parks and Recreation” – just like “The Office” – was filmed in that mock documentary fashion that made it seem so real. This wasn’t some comic sit-com based in a city like New York, San Francisco, Boston or Chicago. This was Pawnee, Indiana — the middle of nowhere and the center of everywhere. It was a normal, everyday town in the middle of the country. (Now, it’s the state of Mike Pence, but don’t get us started there…)

And do you know why else we miss “Parks and Recreation”? It was the whole ensemble cast of comedic talent that seemed perfect for the whole ethos of the Internet era. You could not get through a single week without seeing a meme created from the show. It’s been called the “endlessly GIF-able show,” and maybe that’s what it was – a vast reservoir of America’s emotions, thoughts and reactions, brought to you in larger than life style and delivered direct to the Internet for your enjoyment.

Is there anyone who can’t help but laugh about Ron Swanson’s life lessons? Ron Swanson (as played by Nick Offerman) was the perfect embodiment of what it means to be an Internet meme. Even if you’ve never watched the show (don’t tell us that, please), you’ve probably seen a Ron Swanson meme inserted into your social media feeds.

But, alas, that was 2015. It’s now been almost exactly two full years since we’ve seen a new episode of “Parks and Recreation.” Still so hard to believe.

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But we’re glad to see so many of the cast members of “Parks and Recreation” go onto bigger and better. Take Chris Pratt, for example. On “Parks and Recreation,” he played the goofy man-child Andy Dwyer. Who knew that he’d go on to play an interstellar hottie in “Passengers” next to a very lovely Scarlett Johansson? Every time we see a trailer for “Passengers,” we think back to that magic period in life when Chris Pratt was just goofy Andy Dwyer.

Of course, there are the haters, the people who look back on “Parks and Recreation” and claim that the show never really won any big awards. Ok, so no Emmys. But it was named “#1 TV Series of the Year” by TIME magazine back in 2012. And Amy Poehler did pick up 5 consecutive nominations for an Emmy “Best Actress” award. That counts, right? It would count in Pawnee, Indiana, and you know that for certain.

And speaking of Pawnee, it reminds us of a time when politics just seemed to be silly and maybe a little backwards, but never really scary or dangerous. It was a time when Anthony Weiner jokes sounded harmless, not the cause for an FBI investigation into the personal lives of people trying to become president of the country.

How much harm, really, could a bunch of wacky people in some backwater government department really do? That was back in the first term of the Obama administration, back in 2009. Flash forward to 2017, and mid-level government bureaucrats are trying to do a lot more than just build a community park in an empty pit – they’re trying to build a wall across the entire nation, for goodness sake. Who knows what else they’re up to these days, but certainly not the kind of amiable high jinks that they were up to on “Parks and Recreation.”

So, while “Parks and Recreation” was always intended as a political satire and a mockumentary about life with mid-level government bureaucrats, it was never mean or petty or angry. It was always well-meaning and irony-free. It was, in short, the type of comedy that we need more of today. Wouldn’t it be great to have Thursday night fun again, filled with such great comic actors and actresses?

It’s times like these when it’s time to think back to all the good time and all the little life lessons that we learned from such a stellar cast and such a great show. We’ll always have a special place in our heart for Rashida Jones, Paul Schneider, Aziz Ansari, Chris Pratt, Adam Scott and, yes, Nick Offerman, for making a comedy we could be proud of. And the biggest place of all is reserved for Amy Poehler. We’re sure she’s destined for great things in life, but we’ll always treasure her for her role as Leslie Knope, a bureaucrat in the Indiana Parks and Recreation Department.

So as we head into 2017, there’s only thing left to do. Yes, we’ve been waiting a long time to tell you this, but in the immortal words of Donna and Tom: TREAT. YO. SELF. That’s the only way you’ll get over not having “Parks and Recreation” back in your life this year. Be sure to catch reruns of Parks and Recreation when you have a reliable cable television subscription.

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Film Review: “Manchester By the Sea”

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By the time Oscar award season kicks into high gear, everyone will be talking about “Manchester By the Sea.” Casey Affleck, who plays the role of Lee Chandler in the film, has already picked up a Golden Globe award for Best Actor and the film has already been nominated for a number of different awards, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Director. Kenneth Lonergan’s film engages viewers in the intimate lives of a very damaged family trying to make the best of unspeakable tragedy.

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This could be the film that launches Casey Affleck into Hollywood superstardom and out of the shadows of his older brother Ben Affleck. He plays Lee Chandler, a brooding loner who’s a handyman for a Boston apartment complex. He seems short on words, and his everyday existence is filled with what seems to be a self-imposed exile from the world around him. But as much as he attempts to put up emotional walls around him, viewers are treated to signs that there might be a much richer layer of emotion and feeling beneath.

And that is really the pivotal focus of the whole movie – how viewers are brought into his life, little by little, to see how he became such a damaged person. There are flashback scenes from an earlier life, when he was once outgoing and fun. In fact, the movie opens with him on a boat, having fun with his family. But then we begin to piece together the events that led him to his miserable current existence – an unspeakable family tragedy that separated him from his children and from his wife.

A real American tragedy

The genius of the screenplay, though, is that each level that we peel back from Lee Chandler’s character is based around an event that happens literally out of nowhere – one day Lee Chandler receives a call telling him that his brother had a major heart problem and may not make it. He races back to Manchester-By-The-Sea, but it is already too late. But there is one more wrinkle of fate waiting for him – he has been named as the guardian of his brother’s 16-year-old son, Patrick (played brilliantly by Lucas Hedges).

“But I was just a back-up” protests Chandler, who obviously has no idea of how to parent a teenager. And, in fact, scenes of Casey Affleck dutifully trying to act out his appointed role as adoptive father forms the few comedic moments in the film. He seems intent on leaving the city as soon as possible, eager to return to his nondescript existence in Quincy.

Something else emerges, though, the more time that Lee Chandler spends in Manchester-By-The-Sea: we discover more of the back story that led him to the current situation. And, by chance encounter, Lee meets his wife Randi (played by Michelle Williams). The deep, dark secret that Lee Chandler has been trying to keep from even thinking about is now out – without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the event was so dark and so terrible that Randi felt that she had no option but to leave him and start over. But when she does re-emerge in Lee’s life, he tells her, “There’s nothing there.”

You begin to see the dimensions of this American tragedy play out, piece by piece, as it affects everyone. Patrick may be a good kid, but his father is now dead and it turns out that is mother Elise (played by Gretchen Mol) has been absent from his life due to alcohol and drug use. When Patrick goes to see her, potentially to ask her to become his appointed guardian, he is dismayed at what he finds and how he is treated. So he has no other option but to rely on Lee to help him get on with his life.

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The sensational Lucas Hedges

The one glimmer of hope in this tragedy, of course, is the 16-year-old Patrick. Based on any casual observation, he’s what you might expect a typical teenager to be like – he lives a suburban existence, pursues two girls that he’s thinking of getting into a relationship with, plays hockey and spends his spare time playing in a basement rock band that’s not particularly any good.

Thus, the fate of Patrick and the fate of Lee are intertwined: they are one and the same. The ability of Lee to find some type of peace and redemption in his life means that Patrick will be able to get on with his life, but the only person who seems to be able to bring any sort of peace or normalcy is Patrick himself. The steady routine of parenting, the little bits of bickering and arguing, the teasing about Patrick’s love life – by themselves, each doesn’t add up to much, but taken together, they are powerful – and may be enough to bring redemption to Lee. If this were a Greek tragedy, we would call them cathartic moments.

The epic scale of a modest drama

The big question that seems to run throughout “Manchester By the Sea” is a simple but powerful one: Are there some events in life that are so damaging that they ruin you forever? We see this question answered through several different personas – those of Patrick, Lee and Randi. In their own way, Patrick and Randi have found some way to deal with overwhelming heartache, but it is Lee who seems to be permanently damaged. (It even gets to the point that people in the town point to Lee and nod, “So that’s the Lee Chandler.”)

The irony is that only a tragedy equal in size to the original tragedy may be enough to pull Lee over to the other side. In other words, the untimely and unexpected death of his brother might have happened at the right time, to give him another exit strategy from his grief.

The Atlantic has called this film “a stunning meditation on grief,” and other film critics have written that “Manchester By the Sea” is “almost operatic in the heartbreak it chronicles.” Without a doubt, this is a film that will make your heart break at time. It seems that no family should be subject to so much tragedy.

But it perhaps the normalcy of how people deal with this tragedy – such as a spirited argument of whether it is better to bury the body of Lee’s brother in Winter or Spring – that should give us so much hope. Spring is the time of rebirth and re-imagining, and that might be the final parting message of the film: no matter how bleak things may look, life is inherently cyclical, and there is always another springtime coming. If you have a cable television subscription, you can see Manchester By The Sea whenever it airs.

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