NSFW. Trigger warnings: abuse, rape.
It was intriguing to watch the various reactions to Fifty Shades of Grey play out online as the movie’s release date approached. I’ve seen many discussions breaking down how the story is a grossly inaccurate portrayal of BDSM. People are worried that 1) this will reflect poorly on people who engage in BDSM safely and with proper consent; and 2) people will hurt themselves and others. In my opinion, these are very valid concerns. On the other hand, I’ve also seen it pointed out that fantasy is just that: fantasy. Just because someone reads or watches a story about something doesn’t mean they want to try that something in real life. If that was the case, we would have a lot more serial killers. I think this viewpoint has merit as well.
Portrayals of BDSM in popular culture have been strange. I obviously have not consumed all media, and I often feel that my pop culture knowledge is inadequate, so keep that in mind…but Fifty Shades is the only high-profile example I can think of where the main characters engage in what is supposed to be BDSM. I can’t remember there being a mass-market motion picture advertised all over the place like this. And usually when I see BDSM in a TV show—often a police procedural or medical drama—it is engaged in by a suspect, victim, or patient. The main characters may raise their eyebrows, or even discuss how it’s perfectly fine, but they never seem to go so far as to dabble themselves.
While looking for examples of portrayals of BDSM in media, I read through this Wikipedia page, and it gives me the impression that two different things are being treated as if they are the same, when they obviously aren’t. The first thing is abuse: domination and punishment of someone who has not consented. The second thing is play in which all parties have agreed to certain rules and situations and which will stop at any time if any of the participants wishes it to.
I recently read a series of stories in which the characters engaged in BDSM. One of the characters wrote storylines that they all then acted out. In one ongoing storyline, the submissive characters were literal sex slaves of the dominant character. There was no consent involved whatsoever. But the characters who were acting out the storylines were all equals, and any of them could stop the play at any time. In other words, one of the characters pretended to own sex slaves, and two of the characters pretended to be sex slaves, but they were never actually those things. The stories spent a lot of time on after-care, as the dominant (or dominants, depending on the story) pampered the submissive(s) afterwards.
This meta-portrayal of BDSM really drove home to me the idea of fantasy. A person might, for example, have a rape fantasy. They might simply imagine it. They might read stories or watch pornography about it. They might go so far as to ask a partner to act out a situation with them. But they don’t actually want to rape someone, or to be raped.
In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, there is no meta level. The person having the fantasy is the person reading or watching. The fantasy is the book or movie.
I imagine there will be varying levels of response to Fifty Shades of Grey. Some people will keep the fantasy in their heads for their own private amusement. Others might decide they want to try acting it out. In the latter case, I think it’s good that so much has been discussed about the book and film—people who are interested in BDSM have plenty of resources to draw upon.
Ultimately, I think it’s important to give people as much information as possible, and then let them make their own decisions. It’s dangerous to look at any work of art as a guideline for how to live. Art is an expression of emotion and thought and possibility. It’s a way to explore ideas. It asks questions; it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) provide answers. Answers are up to the person experiencing the art.
I’m more interested in making sure people have the tools they need to critically evaluate the world around them than I am in trying to “protect” people by banning certain stories or types of story.
I do hope people take advantage of all the information that’s out there. I hope all the discussion of Christian Grey as an abuser will help people recognize abusive relationships and avoid being abused. And I hope that as the film raises the profile of BDSM, people research it instead of making snap judgments. I really hope people stay smart and take care of themselves.
Beyond the realm of fantasy vs. reality, there is the fact that individual works don’t exist in a vacuum. The stories we surround ourselves with do have an impact on our perceptions. Men have been told through culture, pop and otherwise, that they are entitled to women’s bodies; women have been told that they are worthless without a man’s approval. These are issues that go well beyond one work, but Fifty Shades certainly does nothing to change the situation.
I’m nervous about the movie, honestly; this author says that while the book is easily understood as fantasy, the movie plays out just a little too real. I don’t want to see that. I’m actually pretty sensitive about abuse. I won’t be seeing the movie.
I don’t plan on ever reading Fifty Shades of Grey, either. Beyond my ambivalence about the story’s potential impacts, there’s the simple fact that I’m kind of picky about writing. I tend to get tripped up by wildly improper punctuation, poor word choice, bad sentence structure, and a lack of smooth narrative flow. The story has to be really good for me to get past that sort of thing. I enjoy rule-breaking when it is intentional, but not when it obviously isn’t. Based on the excerpts I’ve seen, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t force my way through the book. (I can’t read Dan Brown novels for the same reason. Hell, I had trouble with the last few Harry Potter books because of all the ellipses.)
- Wikipedia: BDSM in culture and media
- Oh Joy Sex Toy: 50 Shades of Grey
- Feministe: Just a few reminders before you buy those “50 Shades” Valentines
- Huffington Post: Christian, This Just Isn’t Fun Anymore
- 50 Shades of Non-Consent: Editing BDSM Erotica as a Queer Top
- Huffington Post: What You Won’t Learn About Bondage In ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’
- Alternet: Kinky Sex: When Did BDSM Become So Wildly Popular?
- Tor: SFF Sexier Than Fifty Shades of Grey
- Daily Life: Male sexual entitlement is killing women
- the complainist vs. 50 shades (lots of essays here)