Let’s talk about Fifty Shades of shame

Dakota Johnson as Anastasia "Ana" Steele and Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey PA/Universal Pictures
Dakota Johnson as Anastasia "Ana" Steele and Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey PA/Universal Pictures

As the sadomasochistic love story by EL James arrives in cinemas for Valentine’s Day, JOANNE SAVAGE finds the elevation of male domination worrying

The now globally over-read trilogy of BDSM sex thrown together with the merest of narratives, in which our heroine, Anastasia Steele, may emerge from clinches with the domineering Christian Grey with bruises, welts and other insignia of what most sane people would consider common assault, has been given a high gloss film adaptation by darling of the London artworld Sam-Taylor Wood in the director’s chair.

The trilogy of ‘books’ (I use the word with reservation, as these should really just be used as kindling and Salman Rushdie was not far wrong when he described them as being so bad as to make the Twilight series look like Tolstoy) was bad enough, now this whole brouhaha around the film, which opens in cinemas tomorrow, is unfathomable and risible.

Based on the first steamy instalment, it intends to apply good lighting and expensive leather to the seedy mess in order to get women to drool over Jamie Dornan wielding riding crops and buying duct tape and rope for distinctly non-DIY purposes (if he weren’t young, hot and rich this would be the stuff of Crime Watch, and if it weren’t so messed up that this is how a man chooses to express desire for a woman it would actually be funny, because who, seriously buys cables ahead of a tryst?)

Dornan who, while very pretty, is no Laurence Olivier in the acting stakes (to wit, The Fall) has had something terrible done to his hair for this role - bouffant, foppish, dragged through hedges - while his love of jazz and accent (terrible faux American with Holywood, Co Down inflexions) is all wrong (the love of jazz is always wrong and he has a jazz poster in the lift in which he hurls himself upon the heroine like one demented).

And here is the wilting, winsome Dakota Johnson - a generally cool actress who has shone in cameo roles in The Social Network and The Five-Year Engagement - flinching in a series of dodgy cardigans, eyes dewy with near-tears. This then is the coy Anastasia who is basically little more than a physical prop for her twisted lover to enact his desires upon. Oh, but they say, this is a love story - how many aspirational love stories end with someone being so over zealously beaten with a belt that they flee the object of their affections in fear? And why has our leading man, Ulster’s own gorgeous Dornan, already explained that he apologised to Dakota before they filmed certain of what he describes - to use his own adjective -as the more ‘heinous’ sexy bits?

The fact is that the entire Fifty Shades trilogy and presumably the film (in so far as it will be faithful to the first book) is clearly anti-feminist in spirit, about female disempowerment and a form of pseudo sex slavery rather than autonomy before a domineering lothario with doey eyes and Eighties hair. Anastasia Steele’s level of consent to her lover’s sadistic behaviour is never about enthusiasm but rather collusion with a man because she appears to have lost her heart to a blackguard (as well as her reason).

Some have argued the franchise glamorises domestic abuse and these concerns, based on the book, seem legitimate; James’ work flirts with dangerous ideas, namely that it is basically OK to whip a woman provided you are rich, handsome, wearing a nice suit and the submissive demurs from vociferous complaint.

Fifty Shades suggests female sexuality should involve a degree of punishment and pain, a damaging concept that implies female desire is something to be controlled and whipped into pliancy.

The trailer alone sent commentators into a tailspin about Christian and Ana’s warped love and the overblown furore surrounding the movie suggests a public disappointingly hungry for titillation. But, please, the trailer was laugh-out-loud terrible with a moody Dornan staring out of too many plate glass windows. And then appears an awkward Anastasia terrified by the inside of a lift before being introduced to his ‘red room of pain’. Probably our virginal doormat goes along with all these sadomasochistic exchanges because she is so desperate for this man’s validation.

It’s incredible what some people will apparently suffer for love, even beatings with belts. I would argue this is not love at all but simply sexual violence masquerading as bad romance - an expression of sugar-coated hate in fact - love’s opposite.

Bondage-domination and sadomasochism are nothing new, but projecting these as important details of an aspirational love story is like taking a bright and beautiful fairytale or legend of romance - the kind poets have devoted innumerable stanzas and sonnets to - and subverting the gleaming Romeo and Juliet narratives into something dark and unsettling.

It’s tasteless, crass and focuses on a horrible aspect of male sexuality, the kind that wants to control and punish women for the desire they elicit.

I for one will be attending the cinema all the better to savagely critique the film, and especially to try once more to understand what the hype is about and why indeed such a sadomasochistic dynamic should have to be so central to a love story. It is a sad reflection of our society when a movie that basically zooms in lecherously on unbridled lust and the infliction of pain on a female body should prove so popular; this is surely not a dynamic worthy of glorification in a world in which women have sexual agency.

This is an anti-feminist franchise and its message sets female empowerment in the bedroom so far backwards that I cannot believe EL James’ work has garnered any sort of popularity never mind a multi-million dollar movie of plush sets, flash cinematography and the optimum stylisation of a master-slave dynamic that should make all devotees of gender equality apoplectic.

Don’t be fooled, this movie is promoting female subjection. Fifty Shades of Grey? No, this is Fifty Shades of shame.

Is this the kind of love we want young women to aspire to, to being tied up and whipped and controlled and dictated to? Should love not be gentle and kind rather than a rampaging whirlwind of punishing lust? Certainly you can have both if that’s your bag, but do we want the latter elevated so that it becomes the defining point of a romance?

The problem is that Ana’s character is never so enthusiastic about the kind of behaviour her lover metes out; rather his vanity makes a welcome of indifference and his advances, if unreprooved, require no encouragement.

Fifty Shades of Grey will be in cinemas from tomorrow, February 13.