50 Shades of Dismay

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to radio four and they were discussing the new Fifty Shades of Grey film. The conversation involved two film critics, one male and one female, and the presented of the discussion show. What is interesting about this film is that it seems to have split opinion almost as much as the books did, but for different reasons.

The consensus of the male critic, who had already seen the film, is that the Director had managed to ‘rescue’ a good film out of a relatively poor book and managed to make something really rather credible. However the female critic, who hadn’t seen the film, seemed more interested in proclaiming that the books, and therefore by association the film, were anti-feminist pieces of filth that were derogatory to women, portrayed an immensely stupid and naive character in Ana Steele that undermined women everywhere and that Christian Grey is the worst kind of man imaginable. Her view was very much that there is no place for that kind of sexual relationship in society.

Now I have to take issue with her views on more than one level, but as a starter why don’t we focus on another feminist comment made very publicly recently. Yesterday Patricia Arquette used her OSCAR acceptance speech as an opportunity to make a point about equal rights for women in pay in the USA. Now this is a point that I can completely get on board with. The concept that because you are a woman that you should be paid differently to a man is abhorrent. The idea that your gender can in some way dictate your ability and skill level is laughable, at best and should have gone out with slavery. It certainly has no place in a supposedly modern and forward thinking world. My issue with this ridiculous film critic suggesting that 50 Shades of Grey is derogatory to women and that it is an anti-feminist story is that she has firstly completely failed to appreciate the fundamental focus of the book, and secondly she is using the feminist movement is completely the wrong way.

So let me examine this in a bit more detail. The premise of this woman’s objection to E.L. James’s book is that the story features a man exerting power over a woman. Her view is that it suggests it is ok for a man to use violence in the context of their sexual relationship and that the male is repressing her and taking her power away from her by degrading her, simply treating her as an object and possession. Perhaps she should read the book again and actually take note of what is happening.

There is no doubt that Ana Steele is a naive woman, but stupid? No. If you strip all of the sex out of the trilogy you end up with two things; a much much much shorter story and also a compelling look at how two characters, through love, completely change through their dedication to each other.

The interesting thing about this critic’s stance on 50 Shades of Grey is that she has completely failed to see that the power in the story lies not with Christian but with Ana. Unintentionally, and at times completely intentionally, Ana manipulates Christian. She puts him under a metaphorical spell that he has, by his own admittance, never been under before. She transforms his world, through a reluctance and refusal at times to engage on his terms, from one where he is always in control to one where he must accept the control, or at least involvement, of others. And by the end of the story Christian is a very different man, whereas Ana is by and large the same woman.

So what about the sex? There is a valid argument that Christian exerts his power and influence in order to coerce Ana into taking part in acts that she wouldn’t otherwise choose to do, but she does this mostly willingly. She certainly lets him know when she is not happy about it or when something has gone too far and the consequences are emotionally harder on him than on her. In fact in many parts of the story Ana is the one yielding the power, teasing Christian or suggesting that she would like to do things. She becomes the leader as her confidence grows and Christian has to sing to her tune.

The idea that the more risque end of the sexual spectrum is anti-feminist is simply unfounded. It is not at all unhealthy for a couple to engage in these sorts of acts if they wish to and to suggest that this should not exist in society displays a lack of understanding. Different people are turned on by different things and, as long as those are legal, there is nothing wrong with that. The reaction of thousands of women to the books shows the repressed attraction many people harbour for playing with their partners in this way. And the DIY stores did well out of it as well.

So what is my point? Well mainly this. Feminism has an important role in a society where women still do not receive the same professional respect and benefits as men to. It serves a valid purpose, one which Patricia Arquette quite rightly used her fame to make comment on yesterday. The problem though is when someone cheapens it by taking half-truths, misunderstandings and a completely lazy reading of a story to then try and suggest that a story is anti-feminist, when it clearly is the opposite. As a writer I find it amazing that someone can criticise a work so fiercely without understanding it, as a film lover I find it amazing that a critic could be so against the film without even having seen it, and as someone who believes in fairness I find it annoying that feminist movements that are doing a huge amount of good constantly get tarred with the same brush as this foolish woman!

At the end of the day this is a story that reveals a compelling lifestyle, one which clearly affects a large group of us in many ways. Like all good stories it gets us talking, we feel involved and we feel compelled to watch, read and discuss. We don’t need anyone telling us how we need to feel about it though, we can judge that for ourselves.

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