May 18, 2015

Queer Review: 50 Shades of Grey (2015)

50 Shades of Grey
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Writer: Kelly Marcel. Based on the novel by E.L. James.
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Marcia Gay Harden

In spite of what has been written about 50 Shades of Grey, it is difficult for me to argue that the final product that reached movie screens represents anything other than an anti-BDSM, pro-abuse propaganda piece. I have nothing against BDSM and although I don't consider myself a pro-BDSM advocate or anything, I support peoples right to engage in such activities. As it stands, there is nothing pro-BDSM about 50 Shades of Grey, which presents the activity as something that practitioners should be ashamed of.

Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson) is an ordinary college student about to graduate with a degree in English Literature, who ends up interviewing the mysterious Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). In spite of her clumsiness, or perhaps because of it, Christian appears attracted to Ana during the interview, and afterwards, she finds herself thinking about him during quiet moments. Eventually, Mr. Grey starts to stalk Ana, showing up at her place of work, buying expensive gifts for her, and generally being a creep. Which Ana oddly enough finds attractive. After being mysterious, and vague about what he really wants with her, Christian eventually reveals that he is a BDSM Dom and proposes that Ana could be his sub. In spite of not being interested in BDSM, Ana naively continues to think that she and Christian can maintain a normal relationship. Unsurprisingly, what develops is about as unhealthy as unhealthy can be.

The Queering
50 Shades of Grey was originally developed as a fan fic based on The Twilight Saga before being published and released as it's own book series. Only rather than featuring vampires, 50 Shades of Grey has BDSM. While I have never read any of the books in either series, I did watch the first Twilight film and the similarities are striking. The female leads are both underdeveloped and both find themselves falling for mysterious man-childs. Stylistically speaking, both adaptions appear to have been influenced by the Chris Columbus School of Adaptation. This means remaining as faithful as possible to the source material, while including as much stilted camerawork, stilted dialog, and as many stilted action/sex/singing scenes as possible.

As for claims of 50 Shades of Grey being pro-BDSM, it's hard to reconcile such a view given what is on screen. Ana consistently seems repulsed at the thought of being a submissive to Christian. For his part, Christian expresses extreme self loathing because of his partaking and getting off on doing BDSM. There is no indication that this self loathing is caused by anti-BDSM stigma but rather appears to be the result of a writer who legitimately believes BDSM to be a bad thing.

This is a critical point to understanding if a work of art is for or against LGBTQ folks, when such a work shows us engaging in self loathing: What is the cause of the angst? If the work in question shows that the loathing is the result of societal prejudice, and the character has overcome the self-loathing to become confident with regards to their sexuality and/or gender identity, then the work should not be considered anti-queer. However, if the work shows the character needing to be "cured" or otherwise overcome their gender identity or sexuality, then it absolutely should be reviled for being a transphobic or homophobic crapfest.

Given the ending of 50 Shades of Grey (and having read what others have written about where the series ends up) I get the impression that this particular story is following the latter trajectory.

Otherwise, there are a few other parallels between BDSM and queer identity present in the film. For starters, the way Mr. Grey gradually builds up to the reveal of his sexual proclivities strongly suggests an individual who is coming out of the closet. In fact, that's where most of the BDSM activities take place in the story, in a locked closet (or rather dungeon as it's called by the characters).

Then there is the idea of sin and seduction that parallels ones anti-LGBTQ narratives are built upon. Specifically, the way sin, in the religious sense, is frequently shown to require a recruiter to lure people into engaging in a sinful activity. Once the victim has given into the temptation of a sinful lifestyle in question, the victim can thus be punished for their weakness and even start to engage in luring others in as well. Consider the ultimate fate of Eve in the story of Genesis or how in the 1961 film Boys Beware has the underage protagonist being punished for having sex with a pedophile, in spite of the fact he had been the victim of statutory rape. Note how the sin narrative erases the idea that anyone would have a natural inclination towards an activity that society has deemed as sin. Also note Ana's frequent incredulity at the idea that anyone would enjoy subbing for a dom.

For those interested, here is the film Boys Beware for you to... enjoy.

In 50 Shades of Grey, Christian is mentioned as having been seduced into the BDSM lifestyle by an older woman when he was all of 15. Of course, now that Christian has been seduced into the lifestyle he is now both a lurer and a sinner who should be ashamed of what he is. Again, the idea that anyone would be naturally inclined towards engaging in BDSM is all but assumed to be impossible.

Ultimately, given the way both films ignore actually abusive behavior -- be it stalking, sexual assault, or statutory rape -- in favor of condemning sexual activities frowned upon by society, 50 Shades of Grey becomes the equivalent of Boys Beware with regards to BDSM films.

If you ever have the misfortune to hear the line: "Mr. Grey will see you now." - take it as your cue to leave.

The Rating
0 stars out of 4.


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