Is ‘Fifty Shades’ degrading to women? A look at the backlash and why it’s important

The Fifty Shades of Grey movie is upon us, and of COURSE there’s controversy because, Fifty Shade of Grey, you guys. What the naysayers are saying is that the movie is effectively endorsing sexual violence and degradation of women. As the Minnesota Child Protection League so bluntly put it, the movie “glorifies emotional and sexual abuse as love.” That’s a pretty complicated accusation, so let’s talk through it.

If you’re uncomfortable with the hellfire and brimstone brought down on the movie and the books that inspired them, you’re not alone and, to be honest, I am too. I’m always uncomfortable when a book or movie whose audience is mostly women is dismissed as “fluff,” or “trash,” or “smut.” That always seems like society’s very sneaky and creepy way of making women feel ashamed of their tastes and a way of discouraging their collective spending power.

I’m also always uncomfortable with policing women’s sex lives, and giving women the strictest parameters when it comes to having sex (what kind of sex they can have, who they can have it with, etc.). What I admire about Fifty Shades of Grey as a phenomenon (I haven’t read the books, so I say this as a bystander) is that the series and movie ignored, defied, and outright laughed in the face of so many of society’s strict rules regarding women and sexuality.

That said, with the movie now out after having shattered pre-sale records, it’s important to take a balanced look at this worldwide phenomenon, celebrating what is progressive about the story while also taking the series to task for what is problematic and upsetting.

As the Press Herald reports, several groups are protesting the movie, citing the way BDSM is used in the story as being not a sexual proclivity, but an act of abuse.

“What’s unique about it is the overall message is that they’re trying to glamorize and romanticize violence against women,” Amanda Smith, spokeswoman for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation which launched an online effort, told the Press Herald. “It’s such a lie, telling women that they should want to endure this kind of physical abuse and telling them that women want it, and also pushing the lie that if women are obedient and subservient enough, then they can fix a violent and controlling man.”

Meanwhile, in the Atlantic, journalist Emma Green explains why the BDSM in Fifty Shades is abuse:

“As several experienced BDSM practitioners emphasized to me, there are healthy, ethical ways to consensually combine sex and pain. All of them require self-knowledge, communication skills, and emotional maturity in order to make the sex safe and mutually gratifying. The problem is that Fifty Shades casually associates hot sex with violence, but without any of this context. Sometimes, Ana says yes to sex she’s uncomfortable with because she’s too shy to speak her mind, or because she’s afraid of losing Christian; she gives consent when he wants to inflict pain, yet that doesn’t prevent her from being harmed.”

Also mentioned in the Press Herald piece is the fact that the feminist Radical Alliance for Women will protest outside movie theaters by carrying “. . . rainbow-hued signs in contrast to grey and distribute Valentine’s Day cards with information about domestic violence abuse intervention.” Meanwhile, online protest efforts are going strong as well. A Facebook page promoting the idea of “fifty dollars not Fifty Shades,” requests that ticket money go to women’s shelters instead of movie tickets. The page already has close to 10,000 likes.

Of course, Fifty Shades author E.L. James has something to say about all this:

“Who is interested, as a woman, in reading about abuse? Why have these books taken off if they are about abuse?” James explained to the AP. “Domestic violence, rape, are unacceptable. They are not entertaining in any way. Let me be absolutely clear. Everything that happens in this book is safe and consensual . . . What do I need to do to convince people?”

If you’re a fan of Fifty Shades of Grey (there are, like, a hundred million of you, it’s likely a few of you are reading this) this is not intended to be a takedown of what you love. The reality is, Fifty Shades of Grey seems to be operating in a grey zone, in new territory. The further reality is we need to be able to have conversations about the books and movies we’re obsessed with, and we need to be able to recognize what’s potentially problematic in the stories we hold dear. Because if we’re going to love and champion something, we need to love and champion that thing while being fully informed about it. If, however, while doing your research you discover the issue is personally too problematic for you to reconcile yourself with, walking away from that thing is a completely acceptable choice too. At the end of the day it is all a choice, and these are choices better made educated — and these are conversations so very worth having.


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