Fifty Shades of Black and White: Five Alarming Concerns

Written by on February 19th, 2015

In an age when sexual violence against women around the globe is at epidemic proportions and the leading cause of injury to women is violence at the hands of men, Hollywood has decided to gift us with the film adaptation of E L James’ absurdly popular book Fifty Shades of Grey. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson glamorizes the film, released to coincide with Valentine’s Day, as a “powerful and romantic love story.” In reality, Fifty Shades of Grey is nothing short of a horror story about a powerful and sadistic male perpetrator who preys on Anastasia Steele, a young, naïve, and virginal college girl. And though the screenplay is not worth the roll of toilet paper it was written on, moviegoers from around the world flocked to theaters, spending over 260 million dollars to see the film on its opening weekend. I have five primary concerns about this movie and its apparent mainstream appeal.

1. The story romanticizes sadistic perpetrators.

The male protagonist, Christian Grey, is the textbook profile of a sadistic perpetrator: possessive, hyper-controlling, bullish, volatile, caustic, broodingly jealous, narcissistic, manipulative, and fixated on inflicting pain, humiliation, and degradation on another human being. The abuse portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey is not an imagined scenario that only plays out on the pages of a book or in the frames of a feature film. Instead, it is a real and measurable offense that permeates our world. In an analysis of the book’s content published in the academic Journal of Women’s Health, researchers systematically analyzed the actual content to “elucidate patterns consistent with national definitions of intimate partner violence and associated reactions known to occur in abused women.” Consistent with the Centers for Disease Control’s definitions of intimate partner violence, emotional abuse was present in nearly every interaction and included stalking, intimidation, isolation, and humiliation; all strategies that collectively served to control Anastasia. Sexual violence, the use of alcohol to promote compliance, and intimidation were also pervasive. Throughout the course of the story, Anastasia experienced a range of reactions commonly reported by abused women, including perceived threats, difficulty managing stress, yearning, altered identity, disempowerment, and entrapment.

Despite this, the author excuses—even justifies—Grey’s exploitative behavior because “he is impossibly good in bed.” Sadly, actress Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia, has referred to Grey as a “hero character.” It is interesting that even Jamie Dornan, who plays Grey, recognizes the sordid nature of the character he portrays. “[T]here were times when Dakota was not wearing much, and I had to do stuff to her that I’d never choose to do to a woman,” said Dornan. “[I’ve] played a couple of sick, sick dudes, serial killers…and characters who don’t treat women the way society deems appropriate. [Still,] Christian was a massive challenge.” Despite such admissions and the fact that Grey is an abusive manipulator, the author and screenwriters spin his actions in such a way as to sanitize and glorify his sexual deviance and exploitation of Anastasia.

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2. The story reinforces and perpetuates a cultural narrative that renders women as a subjugated class of sexual objects that men use and consume.

Fifty Shades of Grey is merely an amplification of a toxic cultural narrative in which women exist as objects of male desire whose sole purpose is to be consumed by dominant, aggressive, and hyper-“masculine” men. The Fifty Shades of Grey directive to women is no secret as the film’s bold tagline encourages women to “lose control.” Tragically, in this narrative and in real-life scenarios all around the globe, countless women and girls are losing control as victims of rape and exploitation every day.

3. The story redefines love by replacing respect and compassion with abuse and narcissistic pleasure-seeking.

This film has been marketed by promoters as “a fairy-tale love story.” But I have to ask, “Whose fairy tale is this? And where does love appear anywhere in this picture?” Rather than expressing love through kindness or an empathetic interest in helping Anastasia achieve her potential as a woman, Grey treats her as nothing more than a sexual conquest driven by his own narcissism. The film justifies Grey’s abusive and obsessive behavior—including his illegal intrusion into a woman’s apartment—as justifiable acts of love rather than warning signs of a dangerous, exploitive relationship.

4. The story mainstreams and normalizes BDSM.

Many people assume that the genre of sex called Bondage & Discipline Sadomasochism (BDSM) and glamorized by Fifty Shades of Grey is only about the harmless use of blindfolds, whips, and handcuffs to spice things up a bit. But I think this narrow view is a mistake. . .and a danger. Even a brief glimpse into the world of BDSM demonstrates a far deeper, more sinister significance. As part of my research regarding human trafficking and the commercial sex trade, I toured Kink Armory multiple times. The things I witnessed at this film studio and epicenter of the BDSM community were disturbing—even traumatizing. These experiences combined with interviews of numerous people immersed in this world have led me to the undeniable conclusion that BDSM is ultimately not about some erotic thrill but about the desecration of humanity. It is alarming that Fifty Shades of Grey is providing a gateway into this dark world of debasement.

While I was at Kink, they boasted of hundreds of sex slaves within their community who are subjected to the worst kinds of abuse. How do they subjugate these sex slaves? Their website boldly explains: “To train these female slaves, master trainers use everything from humiliation, bondage, whipping, caning, and corporal punishment . . . but…the primary means of training female sex slaves is psychology. Consensual domination increases each woman’s submission, remolding her mind and attitude until she is an obedient sex slave.” The site then emphasizes, “REAL SLAVE TRAINING, NOT STAGED.”

Public shaming is another way that Kink dominates their victims. Their website describes the process: “Girls are stripped naked and tied up in bondage on city streets and then f***** for everyone to see…[they] are humiliated in public…for everyone to see. Women become sex slaves to be used by groups of men and are turned into gangbang and bukkake cumsluts.” I’ll never forget sitting across from Cameron Bay, a former “actress” in the porn industry, as she recounted the horror of enduring such an experience at Kink. In Bay’s case, she was brutalized to the point of needing surgery to recover.

The BDSM community talks a great deal about “consent,” “trust,” and “play”—all terms carefully and intentionally crafted in order to imply some code of ethics, and more significantly, a legal construct in which one person can sexually assault another person. How this “consent” is achieved is another matter of scrutiny that I won’t go into here. Typically, the defense from those promoting and profiting from BDSM relates to the concept of consent of the victim. This defense fails to take into account the international law regarding torture. Instead, international law states that torture is illegal, regardless of consent. In simple terms, this means that BDSM is a human rights violation. Specifically, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 5 states that, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”1 Period.

Regardless of the laws and rulings concerning torture, assault, and consent, BDSM is on the rise. Ironically, some members of the BDSM community are speaking out against the exploitative nature of the relationship between the Fifty Shades of Grey characters. This should tell us something about the gravity of this so-called love story. Fifty Shades of Grey is not made as a cautionary tale of what to avoid, but as a romantically appealing journey for any unsuspecting young girl. It is a desperately naïve, dangerous, and reckless presentation of “romance” that lacks any conscience whatsoever and will sadly lead many people into the debased world of BDSM. Irrespective of concerns surrounding the film, Shades of Grey has mainstreamed BDSM; this is a disturbing development in a world already teeming with actual sex slaves and where sexual violence against women has reached epidemic proportions.

5. The entertainment industry and our society in general fail to acknowledge the real harm done to real women as a result of the consumption of sexually violent media like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Make no mistake. There is a tangible consequence that results from the dissemination and consumption of sexually violent media. We must recognize and take inventory of the harm that these so called “fantasies” are inflicting on real women in real time. In order to appreciate the depths of this concern, it is critically important to understand the way that sexually violent media changes societal norms. Studies have shown that there is a powerful and measurable phenomenon called the “media effect” which occurs when media influences our cultural norms and preferences.

Research done over the past 30 years has demonstrated that viewing violent sexual content has the effect of significantly changing attitudes of both men and women toward sexual violence, including rape. In experimental studies, after viewing violent sexual media where women were victimized, men reported that they thought women deserved the treatment (even rape), secretly desired it, and enjoyed it. Women who viewed violent sexual content began to believe that they should accept that behavior as normal, desire it, and enjoy it—or at least act like they do.

One of the most important considerations in any conversation about Fifty Shades of Grey should be the ability of films like this to alter attitudes about the harmful effects of exploitation and rape. Media produces “permission giving beliefs” that influence people—both perpetrators and victims—into believing that sexual violence is permissible. This means that because of the widespread production, dissemination, and consumption of sexually violent media, real women are being acted out against by real men, and both are seeing it as normal, deserved, and desirable.

Furthermore, the detrimental effects of sexually violent media and its ability to normalize abuse goes beyond the confines of “romantic” relationships, like the falsely-labeled romance in Fifty Shades of Grey. Sexually violent media is so ubiquitous in today’s culture that it actually changes the sexual templates of men (and women), meaning that it changes what kind of sex they desire. Women who are victims of prostitution almost unanimously report that violent pornography influences the abusive behaviors of pimps and sex buyers. Sex buyers begin to desire the kind of sex they see, and they demand it from trafficked, exploited, and prostituted women. When a sex buyer’s wife doesn’t want to be tied up, flogged, and sexually tortured, he will often fulfill his media-inspired desire with the women he purchases who are not allowed to refuse. Prostituted and trafficked women suffer traumatic brain injuries at rates as high as torture survivors; they are often burned with cigarettes, slashed with razor blades, anally and vaginally raped, tied up, punched, kicked, and regularly murdered. Many of these violent behaviors are often portrayed through violent media.

As I write this, Fifty Shades of Grey has recently broken box office records on a weekend that is traditionally supposed to be about love. My heart is heavy for the women and children whose experiences with sexual abuse are being undermined by this production. As a filmmaker, I care about the stories we tell in our culture through film and other forms of media. These stories shape our ideas and values. It is up to us to raise our voices and restore the conscience of our society and to reclaim our dignity from those who seek to steal it. We must take a stand and tell the truth about the impact of sexually violent films on our culture.

Footnotes

  • 1. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml
  • EM Keith

    You’ve articulated so many of my own arguments about this particular series and what it tells us about our current culture. I’m afraid it will have little impact, however, on the loyal “fans.”they are determined to defend and justify the series instead of subjecting themselves to any deep speculations that might lead to conviction. Nevertheless, truth must be spoken. Thank you for your words and all that Exodus Cry does to combat the pervasive idea that some people aren’t people anymore, but commodities. I’ve had the honor of working with survivors for 17 years. We can’t slow down our end of the fight.

    Blessings!

  • Allison

    I’m a Christian, but after seeing the film, I find your arguments incredibly disengenuous. Everything, EVERYTHING in this movie is consensual. It’s not rape. And it isn’t glorified. Had you seen the movie, you’d know that Christian’s background and history as an abuse victim plays into why he does the things he does. And it doesn’t have a happy ending. I fail to see how this in any way glorifies or romanticizes abuse. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with BDSM between two consenting adults.

  • Jean

    Unfortunately, the question needs to be asked: why you, stating you are a Christian, went and saw this movie? Forgo all the controversy about abuse for a second and just focus on the sexual content alone, you still went and saw this yet claim the name and blood of Christ?

  • Samantha Greif

    As a matter of fact, the vast majority of sexual and other situations in the books, and I assume the movie as well, are absolutely NOT consensual. Here is a good blog post about the inordinate number of abusive incidents in the first book and a half alone- http://theramblingcurl.blogspot.com/2014/02/fifty-abusive-moments-in-fifty-shades.html. Secondly, while this specific movie (and the first book) do not have a strictly happy ending, the overall series involves Ana marrying and having children with Christian. That is not realistic or healthy. Now to be fair, I do somewhat disagree with the author of this article’s point on BDSM. Yes I think it sounds dangerous and immoral, BUT, after having read a lot of literature on the topic, BDSM in its most basic practice is not dangerous or abusive if practiced correctly. The author is correct in her points about sexual trafficking and porn, as both are always exploitative and often abusive. That being said, 50Shades does not accurately portray BDSM by any definition I have found online. My understanding is that it is supposed to always involve two adults who are fully aware of the relationship parameters and have carefully discussed rules and boundaries in an in-depth way. Christian absolutely does not follow any of those guidelines during his relationship with Ana. He stalks, confuses, manipulates and humiliates her in a number of incidents, and none of that is ok, no matter what your background is, whether you were abused or not. The great problem with this franchise is that it reinforces to both men and women that sex is the most important part of the relationship, and that women need to do whatever necessary to please the man that uses them. Christian never shows respect, compassion or in any way honors Ana, and worse, she never demands those things, or even acknowledges that she deserves them. This is a dangerous message to send to the young women of the world, and I think it will negate all of the progress our country has made when it comes to “rape culture” in the last several years.

  • Ashley

    I’m not an expert, by any means, in the world of BDSM, but I did end up taking a couple capstones in college (in history and literature) on the “decadent” period, it’s origins, and spread throughout Europe and America. So, I had to read Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Furs,” studied Baudelaire, Huysmans, and countless other sundry characters to examine the origins and trajectory of their ideas, as well as the cultural implications. Anyway, one of the major driving forces behind why humans behave/develop in certain ways is appetite (desire). The decadents basically put appetite on the throne made it the exclusive motive… Finding the “law of diminishing returns” to be true (the more they satiated a desire, the less pleasure it gave them, and the further the plunged into more and more extreme activities, with more recklessness, until they were utterly mastered and destroyed by their appetites). Death was the aesthetic goal of the movement. Consider this quote from Baudelaire, “If rape, poison, daggers, arson
    Have not yet embroidered with their pleasing designs
    The banal canvas of our pitiable lives,
    It is because our souls have not enough boldness.”
    So, for me, seeing how “chasing desire” has played out in an exclusive subgroup of aristocratic people previously in history, I am not happy at all to see the same types of unnatural appetites and “desire chasing” entering our mainstream culture now. Because BDSM is about chasing desire, and it is unnatural “against nature” (turning healthy expression of love on its head) I cannot see any (consensual or non-consensual) BDSM as anything except another point on a trajectory which will eventually lead to the destruction of a human being.

  • Ashley

    I’m not an expert, by any means, in the world of BDSM, but I did end up taking a couple capstones in college (in history and literature) on the “decadent” period, it’s origins, and spread throughout Europe and America. So, I had to read Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Furs,” studied Baudelaire, Huysmans, and countless other sundry characters to examine the origins and trajectory of their ideas, as well as the cultural implications. Anyway, one of the major driving forces behind why humans behave/develop in certain ways is appetite (desire). The decadents basically put appetite on the throne made it the exclusive motive… Finding the “law of diminishing returns” to be true (the more they satiated a desire, the less pleasure it gave them, and the further the plunged into more and more extreme activities, with more recklessness, until they were utterly mastered and destroyed by their appetites). Death was the aesthetic goal of the movement. Consider this quote from Baudelaire, “If rape, poison, daggers, arson
    Have not yet embroidered with their pleasing designs
    The banal canvas of our pitiable lives,
    It is because our souls have not enough boldness.”
    So, for me, seeing how “chasing desire” has played out in an exclusive subgroup of aristocratic people previously in history, I am not happy at all to see the same types of unnatural appetites and “desire chasing” entering our mainstream culture now. Because BDSM is about chasing desire, and it is unnatural “against nature” (turning healthy expression of love on its head) I cannot see any (consensual or non-consensual) BDSM as anything except another point on a trajectory which will eventually lead to the destruction of a human being.

  • Samantha Greif

    I do actually agree with you. I am a Christian and because of that, I see certain practices of our day (such as BDSM) as degradation of the soul. But here’s the thing, even if we put aside the cultural cry of “political correctness!”, there is still a fine line between one’s sexual rights, and my (or your) religious rights. I do not like that any and all rights are now on a nearly even playing field, but that’s just how it is. So, I have a very hard time arguing that BDSM or any other sexual practice should be discussed only in the light that it is destructive in every shape and form, because there are plenty of Americans out there that argue my religion is destructive in every shape and form. Sure, their argument is rooted in pragmatism and misinformation, but if I don’t fully understand a topic like BDSM (which I probably never will simply because I have no desire to be more familiar with it) then how can I make a blanket judgement against it?
    What I can do, however, is work on a moral plane that is shared by the majority of Americans. Most of us still believe that rape is wrong, as is manipulation, exploitation, and mental abuse, all of which are present in 50 Shades as I understand it. I am a woman who like many others, has faced sexual assault, and therefor want to make a point that others can actually understand. The majority of our culture does not take well to anyone laying blanket judgements against a type of person (especially based on their sexual proclivities) so instead of arguing that BDSM is wrong between consenting adults, I would rather argue against the potentially harmful effects this so called “film” could have on young women like me. I do firmly believe that a movie like this directly influences young men and women to engage in certain kinds of behavior; not specifically BDSM, but it may change how certain young people see their role in a relationship. I think young women will look at Ana and start believing that goal submission, even if it hurts somehow, is sexy. I thin young men will watch this and think that women want them to take complete control and that pushing around a woman can be sexy instead of abusive.
    I cannot morally mandate someone’s consensual sexual behavior, however, I will do everything I can for me, my sister, and friends to recognize whether they are entering into any kind of relationship willingly, or through coercion, manipulation and abuse as Ana did in the book.

  • Allison

    Yes, Jean, I did. Seeing this film gives me more of a platform to speak to the pros and cons than those who speak out of ignorance and gossip. I know what happens in the movie, and I don’t run my mouth about what did or didn’t happen based on what other people have told me.

  • Jean

    Allison, I did not intend to put you out as a bad person for seeing this movie so I apologize if it came across that way. Actually, I have strongly pushed back against believers who are “attacking” those who have gone because apart from His mercy and love in my life, I very well could be living a life where I see no problem in allowing that kind of material to be my entertainment.

    So please know I am not trying to point out how bad you are. I am honestly trying to plead with you. I have not seen it, nor plan to, and I do not know any specific details except from what I have read in news articles or on IMBD (which both tend to be pretty accurate, though not perfect). Based on that, as a believer who loves the Lord passionately, my heart is grieved over the influence the enemy has on the people of God, especially through media. I’ve been thinking of Luke 11:34-36 and that what we take in through our eyes effects our whole frame.

    And my only thought on the stance of seeing it creates a platform to speak: as believers, I just wish we spent more time praying than debating. If we all spent 2 minutes of prayer for every minute of debate, I am fairly confident that the topics to be debated would dwindle greatly!

    So, sister to sister in Christ, I am only asking the above questions as a plea for you to think about what is coming in through your eyes so that you may be made a glorious, worthy bride…not to attack or condemn you.

  • Ashley

    I think I understand what you’re saying about the difficulty nowadays that can occur when moral value judgments are attempted. Our culture is steeped in moral relativism and political language, and there seems to be a lot of hostility and defensiveness on all sides of almost every moral issue. I also quite honestly don’t know what should be done when it comes to lawmaking and individual rights and all of that. But, in my above comment, I wasn’t attempting to make a moral value judgment about BDSM. I was more trying to point to the fact that with every cause, there is an effect. That there is an origin of choice, a trajectory that comes from that choice, and a destination. This, I believe, is a major blind spot for many people living in Western culture today. We hardly ever understand the trajectories and consequences that may come from our actions. However, the “decadents” that I spoke of above were intellectuals, highly educated, and completely informed about the destination of the choices they were making. As I said, death was an aesthetic goal. The “destruction of a human being” that I spoke of, is not my opinion about what was happening to these souls, but the actual physical, mental and emotional sickness that occurred because of the choices that were made in these lives. To me, it seems so important to take these sorts of examples into account. Sacher-Masoch, the man whom masochism was named for, and the Marquis De Sade, the man who sadism was named for, both died in insane asylums, their lives, bodies and mental and emotional states in complete shambles. Decadent writers often name “ennui” or boredom as one of their chief traits. Meaning you lose the ability to sense pleasure, happiness or joy of any kind. And doing some of my research, I remember modern-day screenwriter Diablo Cody writing about similar experiences in the strip clubs in which she worked. Men whose lives had been so taken over by their lusts that they could not physically “get it up” under any circumstances no matter how many of their fantasies were filled. Anyway, I guess my point is that demonstrably, there are real consequences of engaging in perverse sexual behavior, and fulfilling any and every lust. And I don’t think that kind of conversation is the sort that is confined to the “worldly” versus “religious” pulpits. When I was in junior high and high school, many years before I ever became a Christian, I remember being offered meth many times by some groups of not so great friends. If I looked at the kids who were offering it to me, they seemed to be fine and enjoying their experiences. If I looked at their older siblings, I saw some clear pictures of the destruction those choices could cause a few years down the road. Probably not everyone who has tried those sorts of drugs has ended up with their life in shambles, but everyone I knew of had. For me, religion-less though I was, a clear picture of the possible consequences of that choice made me want to reject any and all offers. Does that make sense? I guess I am saying that I think acknowledging possible consequences to choices is really, really important. Several years ago, I had the privilege of meeting a man named Stowe Campbell who does a lot of work sorting through the consequences Bermuda triangle of modern media in the west. His work is pretty interesting, here’s a link to his site: http://www.knowconsequences.com (he is a Christian, but I believe his work is helpful even outside of evangelical purposes).
    Also, I have had many profitable conversations with atheists, agnostics and people from all moral walks of life on these topics. When cause and effect are talked about in rational terms, everyone I’ve had the ability to converse with about these topics (regardless of their moral stance) has been pretty open, receptive and interested. Anyway, I hope that’s a little clearer than I was before.

  • Sofia Lizarraga

    Was it consensual when the moms older lady friend taught him (raped him) in to being a pig?

  • Sojourner Grace

    This is NOT a BDSM relationship, Allison. Perhaps you should see what those in the community are saying about how their lifestyle is being portrayed…? As a matter of fact, the majority of the commentary I have read that is criticizing the relationship in the books/movie as abusive is from the BDSM community.
    Edited to add: I, personally, find any monogamous, consensual sexual activity to be allowable. If your husband wants you to put a dog collar on him and lead him around the house, OK. But, in the appeal of these books, consumers are missing a vital point about true BDSM. A submissive WANTS to submit. Ana is very clear throughout the books that she does NOT WANT to have this type of relationship and is not prepared for what it entails. Christian bullies her into it via sexual manipulation (her physical desire for him) and control. If she does not agree to the relationship on his terms, she has no chance to be with him. And while his past abuse may not be a reason to stay away from him, his perspective on his past abuse as a “relationship” and more importantly, her insane JEALOUSY of his abuser are extremely good indications that this is an unhealthy, sick relationship.

  • Sojourner Grace

    And how do you answer people who have seen this movie and read these books and have the same opinions of them?

  • Sojourner Grace

    Amen.

  • K. Marie King

    come on Allison that’s Christiany 101, you wanted to see the film no? because you wanted a clear platform to address the naysayers who out of good conscience won’t indulge in this kind if debauchery… hmmm…I don’t need to witness in wide screen was is meant as Holy and undefiled in a marriage covenant… to effectively comment on the psychhe of those participating in a sex act…that is NOT for my eyes to see nor yours nor anyone’s…How is that entertaining in any way…its adegradation of our society and you paid $ in support of it…and stand in defense of it…in love I tell you..it was a mistake and you fell headlong to a cultural sink hole…I’m sorry you are a victim of the old bait and switch…Satan has you sympathizing with a perverted narcissistic while feeding you the lie that pain is pleasure no matter how defiling as long as its consensual… laughing sadistically he reels you into the deception that you are above this madness…as you indulge wide eyed in the cesspool of immorality.