Blame the common cold for what follows.
Kate Kavanagh was all set to interview the dashing young business magnate Christian Grey. The soon-to-be-journalism graduate had her questions at the ready, a recorder primed to catch every word and pause. But wouldn’t you know it, a virus turned Kate into a walking mass of sniffles and sneezes, and she knows the only interview she’ll be doing will be with a hot bowl of chicken noodle soup.
The interview still has to get done for the college paper. So Kate asks her roomie, Anastasia Steele, if she might fill in. Hey, the girl’s an English lit major, right? Close enough to journalism.
Thoughtful roommate that she is, Ana dutifully heads to Christian’s oh-so-chic Seattle offices. “Clean,” she later describes him—crisp in his gray suit and tie, precise in movement and language, Ken Doll pretty, intimidating. Flustered, she’s forgotten a pen. He gives her a pencil.
What’s the secret of his success, she asks. He has a way with people, he says. He can evaluate them quickly and utilize them to fulfill his needs. When she suggests he’s something of a control freak, he agrees. “I exercise control in all things, Ms. Steele.” What does he like to do in his spare time? “I enjoy various physical pursuits,” he says, a hint of a smile playing across his face.
And then he begins asking Ana questions.
“There’s really not much to know about me,” Ana says with a blush.
Christian won’t believe that. And perhaps in that moment, the young tycoon decides to know Ana in every way possible.
We are broken people living in a broken world, and Christian is a prime example. “I’m 50 shades of f—ed up,” he admits, and both Ana and the audience will ultimately agree.
Positive? Not even close. But Fifty Shades of Grey is actually a bit more than just a squalid exploration of one man’s sexual predilections. In Ana, it gives us a woman who wants to heal his brokenness. Let drop the sordid trappings in which Grey flails, and you’re left with a lopsided love story of sorts—a longing for real intimacy, a desire to partner with someone in every capacity. Ana longs for a bond far stronger and more powerful than the handcuffs Christian so likes. And Christian—as much as he tries to make the relationship all about sex—also finds that love is getting in the way.
Christian’s drive to inflict pain ultimately tears the two apart. Ana walks out, refusing to be treated as merely an object for his pleasure and reservoir for pain. We know from subsequent books that their estrangement is not permanent, of course. But this movie, at least, offers a small statement as it ends supporting self-worth and respect.
In the meantime, though, there’s not a thing about it that’s worthy or respectable. And there’s a lot in the movie that can’t (and shouldn’t) even be mentioned here. We will say this much: Ana, who is a virgin when the story starts, spends large quantities of screen time naked. Christian trades in his grey suit for his birthday suit quite often as well. The two have sex multiple (six or seven) times; sounds and movements are explicit, prolonged and repeated.
Moreover, Ana and Christian’s sexual relationship is predicated on bondage and sadomasochism. It’s a predilection extreme enough for Christian to make Ana sign a nondisclosure statement beforehand. Ana and Christian also go over a sexual-behavior and -expectation contract that prompts a conversation about specific sex acts too detailed and graphic to print. There are references to prostitution and necrophilia.
Sadder than all of that is Christian’s insistence that he wants all sex to be divorced from any sort of love or intimacy. He’s averse even to Ana touching him. And it’s worth noting that Christian’s violent and narcissistic approach to sex stems, it’s suggested, from sexual abuse he suffered as a teen.
Many of Christian’s and Ana’s sexual exploits have violent overtones, of course. We see him smack her body with a crop and flick a flogger down on her. He spanks her. He bites her lip.
All of that some might claim is done in the name of sexual stimulation. But then Christian flat-out “punishes” Ana by beating her bare backside with a belt—hard.
Christian’s and Ana’s relationship, clearly, is predicated on an abusive power differential. Even when the two are not engaged in sadomasochistic sex, their dynamic is fraught with a sense of domination and subjugation—of predator and prey. Christian is meant to come off as dangerous at times, which makes us fear at times for Ana even when no obvious physical threat is present. And there’s a sense that Ana’s psyche, even more than her body, is in constant danger at her boyfriend’s hand. “You’re mine!” he tells her in a severe tone. “All mine! Understand?”
When Christian buys rope, cable ties and duct tape at a hardware store, Ana jokes, “You’re the complete serial killer!” Christian’s chest has scars that he refuses to talk about—the insinuation being that his mother caused them.
Seven or eight f-words and one s-word. “D–n” and “h—” are used a couple of times apiece. God’s name is misused more than a dozen times.
Ana does shots and gets drunk, staggering a bit. Other characters drink wine regularly, and also quaff champagne and margaritas. Christian scolds Ana for having “another Cosmo” with her mother (excess alcohol consumption is forbidden under the terms of the contract). We learn that Christian’s mother was a crack addict (who died when he was 4).
While drunk, Ana throws up. When she wakes up the next morning, Christian tells her he’s sent his chauffeur to buy her new clothes since hers were covered with vomit.
In Fifty Shades of Grey’s most brutal scene, Christian—driven by a compulsion even he can’t understand—decides he must “punish” Ana. He forces the naked girl to bend over and begins hitting her with a belt, telling her to count as the blows land. “One,” she says softly after the first. “Two,” she sobs, tears streaming down her face. Her voice never rises, never finds a way past the very real physical and yet so very emotional pain.
When she reaches “six,” the punishment is over. She gets up, covering her breasts in embarrassment and humiliation—staring in horror at this half-man, half-monster she so cared for.
“Did that give you pleasure?” she hisses at Christian, each word covered in ice.
In the Bible, the number six is associated with man—his weakness, his imperfection, his fall. Strangely fitting, then, that Christian set the limit of his lashes at six, that his actions so clearly illustrate what happens when men try to fix their own brokenness. An imagined Eden is shattered, Eve covers herself in shame.
Based on E L James’ best-selling novel and nearly unrivaled cultural sensation, Fifty Shades of Grey gives us not one but two broken people hoping to find salvation in each other. This is a love story, it could be said. But any love story without God gets twisted into a broken, heartbreaking jumble. We go to extremes when we try to sate our leaking souls with the stuff of this world. When we don’t understand the love of Christ, we don’t understand love at all. We needlessly hurt the ones we think we love. We confuse words like honor and obey with subjugation and degradation. We have a monster within us, all of us. We make a mess of things.
And what a mess this movie is.
For men, it can push us toward fixation on dark and dangerous fantasies. And that’s before even mentioning the nudity. For women, we’re given the deceptive allure of an abusive protagonist who checks, it seems, many a literary fantasy box: a strong, good-looking, fabulously wealthy and (this is key) broken man who needs to be shown what real love is.
This is why Ana suffers such abuse. This is why so many of us are reading and watching. Never mind whether the content contained in Fifty Shades of Grey falls short of or crosses over a legal definition of domestic abuse or pornography; with a cancerous intensity it caters to the cravings and hungers that all pornography serves. Porn rips us away from the real, flesh-and-blood people in our lives. It feeds unrealistic, dangerous and hurtful expectations of what sex and love can be twisted into. As it becomes ever more pervasive in our culture, it damages and abuses us in ways that we’re just beginning to fully understand.
A postscript. There is much more to be said, of course, about Fifty Shades of Grey and its impact on all of us. And so we’ve covered both the books and the movie in our Blog. Link here to read:
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.