(cw: bdsm, abuse)
A few years ago I started hearing about an infamous, divisive novel that started out as Twilight fanfiction and had morphed into an insanely popular novel about a woman who was in a dominant/submissive relationship with a billionaire. People were very nonspecific as to their complaints, so this sounded like a potential convergence of several prejudices I have little patience for. Namely, dismissive attitudes toward “chick lit” and prudish ones towards dominant/submissive relationships. Thus, I was determined to read this book for myself so I could better jump into these conversations like a human The More You Know star.
Goddess, was I ever mistaken.
First of all, the book is atrociously poorly-written. The narrative voice is distractingly bad, exactly the kind of overly-earnest and repetitive prose you would expect from fanfiction. And while I understand that’s where the novel began, I guess I rather naively assumed it was cleaned up for publication. But on top of that, I was certainly not about to use this novel to jump into conversations in defense of the BDSM lifestyle.
The book (and, by extension, its film adaptation) conflates BDSM with emotional and physical abuse in ways that are seriously damaging both for people who might find themselves interested in BDSM and as probably the most popular representation of that community in a lot of people’s minds at this particular moment. And while there are plenty of calls to “give people more credit than that,” the insane popularity of the book/movie compared to the general ignorance (whether from prudishness or just genuine lack of knowledge) about dominant/submissive relationships make it difficult to do so. Basically, the book/movie wouldn’t really be a “problem” if it weren’t for the fact that a lot of mainstream audiences might actually think that this is a fair and accurate portrayal of how dominant/submissive relationships (or kink in general) actually work. And… oh my goodness, no. Just no.
By the time I saw the film, I was having flashbacks to the midnight showing of Twilight. I was with a group of friends, huddled in a small circle staring at each other in varying states ranging from incredulity to stupefied amusement. You’d think we had just survived some horrific accident, but really we had just seen a movie. In the translation from book to movie, all of the book’s awkwardness, ugliness, everything about it that didn’t work was suddenly laid bare before our eyes. And I must confess, in the case of 50 Shades of Grey I found myself doing something I will rarely do with a movie: I found myself rooting for anyone who liked the book to have that exact experience. I’m not proud of it, but it seemed only fair. Surprisingly, the film disappointed me in that regard.
Unavoidably, the film has a lot of the same problems as the book. In fact, Christian being into BDSM being treated like a horror movie reveal is actually even more pronounced in the film than it is in the book. On the other hand, I do have to say that given what it had to work with, the film is actually much more successful as a film than the book was as a book. I know that isn’t a massive accomplishment or anything, but it’s actually pretty amazing how much of a difference just removing Anastasia Steele’s famously grating inner dialogue makes. For all its problems, the story is much less annoying when every third line isn’t “oh my” or something about Ana’s “inner goddess.” Actually, I can’t remember the words “inner goddess” being said once in the entire film. And whoever decided that deserves a medal.
I don’t want to praise this film too much, but for what it had to work with? I’m not going to argue that this is a great movie, but it’s a damn sight better than the book. As long as you’re adult enough to not think this is what BDSM is “really like,” you have realistic expectations, and you just want a trashy romance movie with some bondage in it, you could actually probably do a lot worse. I can’t believe I’m saying that, but it’s honestly true.