As a woman, a feminist, a person with eyes, and a human being who has had sex more than once, I can say with complete transparency that I hated Fifty Shades of Grey. It is an important movie, not because it is good, but because in Fifty Shades we have a great American cultural salon — a place where we can discuss what the heck is going on with us in 2015.
Based on an unaccountably popular softcore paperback by fanfiction writer E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey is the tale of a 22-year-old, virginal English lit major, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who falls in love with 27-year-old billionaire businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Grey is also hot for Ana, but he "doesn't do" romance. He is a BDSM dominant who would prefer to keep Ana in his shiny bachelor pad and perform unmentionable things on her naked body. Only problem with that plan is that Ana is a born romantic, and Grey just might be in love. After some happenstance and hijinks, Grey lures Ana to his sleek pad, where he asks her to be his submissive. When Grey lays down the terms of the BDSM contract, Ana asks: What might she receive in exchange for her freedom? Grey answers: "You get me."
No reasonable human woman could think this is a good exchange. The problem is not that Ana might waste several good years trapped with a weird guy in a track-lit kitchen somewhere above Seattle, it's that Christian Grey is not sexy. Somewhere between Justin Timberlake, our most neurotic pop icon, and Mark Zuckerberg, our most visible example of a successful, white, American male in 2015, we find Christian Grey.
Dornan's success as a romantic lead rests on the premise that he is a troubled, hot dude with a couple of jets and a slick apartment. Archetypically, he should impress with a panty-twisting mix of vulnerability and control. He should do coke. He should carry a gun. But he doesn't do anything bad, or even interesting. This is partially E.L. James' fault and partially Dornan's. When Grey assures us that he is "50 shades of fucked up," it's with all the deep darkness of a 20-year-old who's seen Trainspotting.
The only evidence that Grey is anything but the tilapia option at the bad billionaires steak club is that he likes BDSM. He likes to tie women up; he's bad. Never mind that most internet-possessing tweenagers could imagine more lurid scenes than what we see in Grey's playroom. (Floggers and rope, lots of boobs and butt, a little pubic hair and thrusting, no full nudity.) What really irks is that Fifty Shades of Grey pathologizes BDSM so much as to make it Grey's exciting flaw.
I don't buy it. This movie is not about sex or even romance. It is about privacy. Grey is not merely interested in Ana. He admits early in one scene that he is "incapable of leaving her alone." This, after we see him track her location from her cell phone and essentially kidnap her from a bar where she is drinking with her friends. That's only the first in a line of actions that, to the impartial observer, are just plain stalking, but Ana seems only mildly miffed that her former independence has been replaced by his totalizing attention.
What in all holiness is my demographic (hi, ladies!) supposed to find alluring about this? It's not sexy, so all we have left to ferry our deadened souls from one scene to the next are the displays of money and power.
How does Grey fund his elegant lifestyle? He's 27 and lives in the Pacific Northwest. He's bad at dating, and he's into alt sex. He's too sleek for hardware, but he could be a software guy or an app developer, though he seems too chilly for social media. Surely, Grey is a Google man.
This is a flick about power, which in 2015 means tech. Grey is a walking embodiment of it — an exciting, little-understood, but all-powerful force that promises us safety in exchange for the small matter of our privacy. We are all virginal English majors in the face of the Goog.
The romantic fantasy at the heart of Fifty Shades of Grey is that we are capable of negotiating with tech power. "You can leave at any time," says Grey to Ana, before they enter the red room of expensive handcuffs. We see Ana parsing over details in her submission contract and telling him no-way-José can he suspend her from the ceiling using genital clamps. He pushes, she pulls. He eventually tells her that she is the one changing him. They are each other's totally healthy and normal project, wink wink.
I'll join everyone on the internet in saying this is not a picture of a healthy BDSM relationship between two self-selecting adults. Anastasia and Christian's affair is a coercive situation that masquerades as an even-handed exchange. This year's defining fairy tale is that the Anastasias of our world are capable of convincing the tech-moneyed powerful not just to control us, but also to care about our needs. Yeah, right.