The release of the “50 Shades of Grey” film has renewed controversy over the bestseller erotic novel’s subject matter, which includes bondage, domination and sado-masochism. While some have described the book as merely the actions of consenting adults, the film normalizes abusive relationships. There are clear elements of rape, stalking and abuse in Christian and Ana’s relationship. During a sexual encounter, Ana protests and tries to kick Christian off. He ignores her obvious resistance and threatens to restrain her if she does not cooperate. He controls what foods she eats and tracks her cellphone usage — both classic signs of abusive behavior. Since almost one in five women in the United States say they have been sexually assaulted — a number which increases to one in four women on a college campus — “50 Shades” does not exist in a vacuum. Even though some have pointed to ways the movie is less harmful than the book, movie-goers are still exposed to unhealthy and downright dangerous relationship dynamics played out as acceptable on-screen.
Some think that “50 Shades” is harmless because it is fiction. This is not true. We have been imitating other humans since infanthood — it is how we learn basic skills. We look to stories in books, TV shows and movies to learn social cues, so it is harmful when those stories frame abusive actions as romantic. This is particularly concerning in light of the MPAA giving the film an R rating rather than the more stringent NC-17 rating, which would have prevented children under the age of 17 from seeing the movie.
While erotic literature is not a new genre, “50 Shades of Grey” is an uncommon mainstream success. Defenders of the series say the book is unfairly criticized because it is a positive representation of female sexuality. This is not the case. While it is possible to display a healthy, consensual relationship that contains elements of BDSM, “50 Shades” goes far beyond this into the realm of abuse. There is a line between consenting dominating relationships and intimate partner violence. “50 Shades” is on the wrong side of it.
Some have called for a boycott of the film, telling people instead to donate the cost of a movie ticket to a woman’s shelter, a real-life refuge for those abused by their intimate partners. The campaign, under the slogan “50 Dollars, not 50 Shades,” points out that humiliation, cellphone-tracking and isolation are not just the stuff of novels, but common experiences shared by victims of abuse. We must realize that movie-goers may internalize the behavior in “50 Shades” as being normal or acceptable in a relationship — anything else is willful ignorance. It is past time to admit that “50 Shades of Grey” perpetuates intimate partner violence, rape and stalking.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 17 print edition. Email Tommy Collison at [email protected]