Let’s say you’re a woman who wants to have a handsome man worship your body, desire you intensely, focus on you sexually with incredible skill, and bring you to earthshaking orgasm in about thirty seconds. You never have to exert yourself on his behalf—his satisfaction happens automatically as a byproduct of yours. If porn for women mirrored porn for men, that’s what it would look like. But let’s say, in addition, that you are marinated in a Christianity-inflected culture that inculcates women with sexual shame, insecurity about their looks and lovability and self-worth in general, and tells them in a thousand ways that men are superior, male power is sexy, and suffering is redemptive. Then you might end up with porn for women that looks a lot like Fifty Shades of Grey.
Unlike almost every other woman in America, I haven’t read the books, which started out as Twilight fan fiction. I did see the wildly popular movie—with $85 million in ticket sales, it beat the former champion, The Passion of the Christ, for the largest February opening-weekend box office. It’s basically an amusingly twisted variation on your standard cheesy romance: virginal graduating English major Anastasia Steele (the ravishing Dakota Johnson) has an offbeat sense of humor and more spunk than most; in twenty years, she could be running her own ironic-cupcake business. Twenty-seven-year-old billionaire Christian Grey (the tedious Jamie Dornan) is that familiar gothic cliché, a brooding loner with a secret: he’s got a “playroom” full of whips and contraptions and, we learn, a tragic childhood that explains it. He condescends to Ana and bosses her around; she wittily resists but finds him incredibly hot. It’s the eternal battle of the sexes: she wants to go out to dinner and a movie, he wants to stay home and spank her with a riding crop. “I don’t do romance,” he announces early on. But before you know it, he’s bringing Ana to his mother’s house for dinner and mournfully playing the piano late at night without his shirt on. Will Anastasia be able to turn Christian into a normal boyfriend? If it weren’t for the twenty minutes’ worth of sex scenes, who would care?
Those twenty minutes are what the movie is all about. In short order, Christian expertly deflowers Ana and introduces her to light bondage and whipping. The kink is played for camp and humor—Christian’s playroom looks like a Victorian bedroom full of exercise equipment. It’s pretty titillating, actually, perhaps because, in contrast to real sex, nothing happens that’s gross or crude or embarrassing. Still, you can see why a lot of feminists would object to a movie in which male dominance and female submission are presented as sexy to a mass audience. (How mass? For Valentine’s Day, the Vermont Teddy Bear Company offered a “Christian Grey” bear in a suit complete with handcuffs, satin eye mask and free chocolates.) The anti-pornography writer and activist Gail Dines started a not very successful boycott called #50dollarsnot50shades, asking people to donate the cost of an evening at the movies to a battered women’s shelter. “This was not just a movie about sexual violence,” Dines wrote on the Feminist Current website, “but a film that depicted, in unbearable detail, how to lure a lonely, isolated child into ‘consenting’ to sexual abuse.” Does it matter that Anastasia is not lonely, isolated or a child? Interestingly, the most domineering things Christian does are outside the bedroom: he orders Anastasia to go on the pill, replaces her jalopy with an Audi without asking her, shows up uninvited when she’s visiting her mother out of town and similar. It’s a little stalkerish and control-freakish, but the smitten man who won’t take no for an answer is a standard romantic trope.
It’s a little more surprising that many kinksters object to the movie too. I would have thought this was BDSM’s big breakout moment—how many sexual predilections have their own stuffed animal? But numerous commentators have complained that Christian violated the complex norms of consent as practiced in that community. Take the contract Christian wants Anastasia to sign specifying exactly what he can and can’t do to her. “Kinksters have problems with the fact that he presents her with a contract full of stuff she has no idea about,” Jessica Wakeman, who has written about BDSM and feminism, told me in a phone conversation. “In real life, they would talk about it first in depth.” In a funny scene, Ana demands a business meeting in his office to negotiate this document (anal fisting, vaginal fisting, definitely out). Despite his badgering her for most of the rest of the film, she never signs it.
From the point of view of a moviegoer, though, these complaints about misrepresentation are irrelevant. Fifty Shades isn’t meant to be a guide to BDSM as ideally practiced by serious kinksters, any more than Pretty Woman was a documentary about sex work. Maybe what its fans want is precisely not a long discussion about hard limits and soft limits and so on—how not-hot is that?—but the thrill of transgression and danger that is safe because it’s all in their heads.
To me, the troubling aspect of it isn’t the porn but the romance. Like the fairy tales of Bluebeard and Beauty and the Beast, to say nothing of a thousand Gothic novels, Fifty Shades romanticizes the angry, unpredictable, potentially dangerous man. It says that deep inside, he’s a victim (Christian’s birth mother was a crack-addicted prostitute), it is a woman’s job to heal him, and suffering in this cause is what love is. That’s the fantasy that keeps women with abusers, not the one about being tied to the bedpost with a fancy necktie.
Anastasia suffers for love, but not for long. When she finally realizes Christian is not going to change, she leaves. She even demands her original junky car back. The story isn’t over, of course—prepare for sequels, many sequels. Right now, though, what we have is a young woman who has the independent spirit and self-possession of that prototypical heroine of Gothic romance, Jane Eyre.