Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Defending Fifty Shades


Like 99.5 percent of American men, I never read Fifty Shades of Grey and never will. Nonetheless, like many other members of the 99.5 percent, Valentine's Day found me sitting in a movie theater watching the film adaptation. The lovely Erika -- peruser of the entire three-book series -- was very happy with my choice of what we would do this February 14th.

When I bought our tickets a couple weeks ago, I did so with no real desire to see the movie. However, thanks to the events of the 48 hours leading up to Saturday, I was very interested by the time we sat down. Those 48 hours were chock full of anti-Fifty Shades scolding by people who: a) never read the book, and b) were too arrogant to entertain any suggestion that their non-reading might mean they didn't know what they were talking about.

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It began on Thursday, when a friend of mine triggered a flood of comments by using her Facebook status to encourage people to boycott the movie. It continued on Friday when I listened to several radio shows while driving home from Atlanta to Tampa.

The first thing that struck me was the bipartisan nature of the anti-Fifty Shades crowd, which churned out loud voices from both sides of the political spectrum. On the one hand, my boycott-encouraging friend is one of the biggest liberals I've ever known. On the other, many of the critics I heard on the radio were speaking on Christian stations in Georgia, which means it is likely that they vote Republican every other November.

The second thing that struck me was the uniformity of the criticism. There was talk of Fifty Shades promoting BDSM (i.e., sexual activities that fall under the categories of bondage-and-discipline, domination-and-submission, or sadomasochism). To an even greater degree, there was talk of the movie making BDSM seem normal. Either way, the critics all said pretty much the same thing, and the problem I had was that they had no way of knowing if what they were saying was true; they leveled charges simply because their knees jerked and told them to.

There was also commentary suggesting that if people with daughters were to watch the movie, they would be betraying their daughters and erasing every word of counsel they ever gave them about valuing themselves, protecting themselves, standing up for themselves, etc. Such criticism might be valid if the movie did indeed promote or normalize BDSM -- but like Stephen King once noted, "If is the only word a thousand letters long," and once again I could not remove from my brain the knowledge that the noisiest Fifty Shades critics had neither read the book nor seen the movie.

Once the point-counterpount exchanges got going and the people making counterpoints (also known as "people who actually read the book") started making very strong arguments, I noticed that most of the people on the anti-Fifty Shades side had no reply other than to basically say "it doesn't matter, I still believe that (fill in the blank)."

Then, some people from the anti-Fifty Shades crowd changed the subject by alleging that the writing in the book was terrible. Perhaps those who said this did in fact read it, which would make them a minority within their crowd. However, I'm not even sold on the notion that they read it, because not a one of 'em said what was bad about the writing; they simply stated it was bad, as if their opinions represent the voice of God, then walked off the proverbial stage as if there was no need to back up their claims or to answer logical questions from their audience.

One person managed to defame God knows how many of her personal friends by declaring, in writing, that "I never read the book, but I spent many hours running with women who did. I know more about the series than I care to and it only made me not want to read it more for the mere fact that I watched intelligent women choose to read a book that contradicted everything they believed and said they stood for. Not for one minute do I believe it's about a love story." Um, ok. So these women are intelligent and they actually read it. Perhaps their opinions about it are worth more than the opinions of those who have not. Perhaps they know, rather than "believe," whether it is or is not a love story. Perhaps they, being intelligent, are unlikely to have been hoodwinked into compromising their morality by a supposedly talentless hack hammering out allegedly crappy prose.

With this much foam in the water, I could not wait to watch the movie so I could develop an informed opinion. Yes, the idea of seeing Dakota Johnson in the nude was intriguing, but what I wanted most was to figure out if the squawking members of the anti-Fifty Shades crowd have any idea what they are squawking about. And what I determined was: They do not.

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Granted -- and this is a very big grant -- I don't know what happens in the final two books/movies, so there is a chance that something might be in them which could change my mind. But then again, the anti-Fifty Shades crowd isn't sure what happens in the book/movie they are currently stumping about.

Erika has not indicated that the subsequent volumes shift the story line beyond where it is already going in this one, nor have the scores of other intelligent, ethical mothers I know who have read the series. What I have been told about subsequent volumes is that the main characters pull each other away from their opposite poles and towards the center, ending as "a normal married couple with a healthy sex life, maybe a slightly larger toy box" (in the words of a personal female friend who is a wife and mom). So my cards are on the table -- you know my level of ignorance and my level of knowledge -- and I am comfortable "putting my name on it" when I publish this post.

And the main thing is this:  Fifty Shades of Grey does not promote or normalize BDSM, nor does it encourage young women to succumb to it. The movie simply doesn't do what most of the critics assume it does.

Anastasia Steele (the lead female character, played by Johnson) makes no secret of her aversion to the brand of sex preferred by the the egomaniacal Christian Grey, and her aversion is often full-blown revulsion.

Steele does as much to throw Grey off of his game as he does to throw her off of hers. She persistently makes it clear that she wants more than the "sex is business and I'm the boss" arrangement that Grey proposes, and she consistently gets him to compromise.

He sleeps in the bed with her after sex, despite having never done that with anyone else. He agrees to go on dates, which he had not done in any previous relationship. These achievements of hers (for extreme lack of a better word) take place before she agrees to spend even one second of her time engaging in BDSM.

At the beginning of the story, Steele is a virgin about to graduate from college and Grey is a prodigal 27-year-old billionaire. Yet it is the awkward Steele, with no business experience, who off-balances Grey by insisting that they discuss his written relationship proposal in a business setting. When the meeting takes place, she gets him to forego activities that he, being a "dominant" in his relationships, is not used to having eliminated from his list of options.

Eventually she agrees to sample a taste of Grey's brand of sex, with the understanding that there is a code word she can use to instruct him to stop, and that he will always honor the instruction immediately. The sex scenes that include whipping do nothing to glamorize, soften, or in any way minimize its nature. The crack of leather on flesh, in tandem with scenes of Steele's feet clinching and face contorting as the leather strikes, makes it clear that she is terrified and that few people would want to engage in such behavior. We see her tears and sense her pain.

At the end of Fifty Shades of Grey, Steele refuses to continue their affair. Given that there are sequels, her refusal must turn out not to be permanent; but the lasting impression is that if Grey wants to get her back, he will have to move farther from his baseline than he has so far.

The portrayal of Anastasia Steele shows that she has insecurities (don't we all?) yet remains true to herself in spite of them.

Conversely, Christian Grey is depicted as powerful, controlling -- and sad. Despite his immense financial success, he is unsatisfied and bitter as he charges through life not realizing (or simply refusing to accept) that human intimacy is the only ticket to happiness.

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My daughter is ten years old and most certainly will not be watching or reading Fifty Shades of Grey any time soon; but seeing as how I'm not a fool, I am glumly aware that there aren't many years remaining before she hears about whip-and-chain fetishes. When Erika and I discuss the topic with her, we will make it clear that any man who wants to bind a woman and make her his "submissive" is almost certainly a slave-driving tormentor if not an outright rapist. We will tell her to steer a thousand miles clear of such men and such relationships.

I am not here to say Fifty Shades is a great story or that you should run out and spend your money on it. The story line is better than I expected, but the movie's dialogue is average and its soundtrack borders on cheesy.

I am here to say that you should not make any judgments about Fifty Shades without taking the time to read or watch it for yourself, because the story line is not what you've been led to believe (assuming you woke up today thinking it is nothing more than pornography or Harlequin trash).

Always remember: In just about every walk of life, those who protest the loudest tend to be the ones who are least informed about whatever it is they're protesting.


Addendum: In fairness to my boycott-encouraging friend, I should mention that a boycott was not the only thing she encouraged. She suggested, as have others, that instead of spending money on the movie you should donate $50 (the approximate amount of tickets and concessions for two) to a shelter for battered women. It goes without saying that such donations are always worthwhile. Local battered women's shelters exist coast to coast, but if you happen to live in the Tampa Bay Area and wish to donate, here is one you might consider.

Note: This post has been edited since it was initially published.