That's Entertainment? Sold Into Bondage for 'Fifty Shades of Grey'

by Thomas Britt

20 February 2015

Network and cable programming both demonstrate overwhelming irresponsibility and contradiction concerning depictions of sexual violence and abuse.
 
cover art

Fifty Shades of Grey

Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle

(Focus Features/Universal Pictures)
US theatrical: 13 Feb 2015 (General release)
UK theatrical: 13 Feb 2015 (General release)
2015

When the devil came / He was not red
He was chrome and he said
Come with me
You must go / So I went…

—Wilco, “Hell is Chrome”

Fifty Shades of Grey is being celebrated as a record-breaking film, having earned more than $80 million in three days and more than $90 million for the four-day holiday weekend. Variety‘s Brent Lang sums up the film’s strength at the box office, declaring it “the highest-grossing Presidents Day holiday opener of all time and ranking among the biggest R-rated debuts in history.” The international total for the film’s opening weekend is just below $250 million. With a reported production budget of $40 million, the Focus Features / Universal Pictures film is doubtless a moneymaker, regardless of the drop in attendance that follows.

Network and cable programming both demonstrate overwhelming irresponsibility and contradiction concerning depictions of sexual violence and abuse.

Though box office trackers will remember this rollout for the Presidents Day frame, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s screen version of E.L. James’ hit novel was promoted as the must-see film for Valentine’s Day. The above statistics would suggest that the filmmakers and marketers successfully capitalized on the desire for romance that many within the culture associate with that particular holiday. And with all due respect to the freedom of moviegoers to see whatever they choose, there is value in critically examining what they are being sold, how that selling occurs, and what it all says about the condition of the heart in contemporary culture.

Media references to Fifty Shades of Grey were as ubiquitous in the run-up to the film’s debut as they were when the book trilogy was released to considerable sales numbers in 2012. Even in an age of personalized marketing, it was impossible to avoid the many mentions of the film in recent months. It pervaded news programming, tie-ins with other entertainment products and programming, billboards, posters, print and online ads, TV spots and trailers, and social media.

The starkest evidence of the film’s pervasiveness, widely circulated on Twitter, was an image taken at a Target department store. In the photograph, a display of movie-branded “pleasure” products stands directly beside the store’s selection of children’s toothbrushes and toothpaste. Fifty Shades of Grey competes with products featuring Sesame Street, Captain America, and My Little Pony for children’s attention.

The filmmakers, marketers, and retailers making money off of the property would likely say they are serving the wants and demands of a ready audience. While the placement of the products next to a kids’ hygiene section is a gross, gross miscalculation, the book trilogy’s popularity is evidence of demand. The root of that demand must be the plot that delivers the books’ fantasies. And what do those fantasies look like?

On her website, E.L. James synopsizes the book:

Shocked yet thrilled by Grey’s singular erotic tastes, Ana hesitates. For all the trappings of success—his multinational businesses, his vast wealth, his loving family—Grey is a man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control. When the couple embarks on a daring, passionately physical affair, Ana discovers Christian Grey’s secrets and explores her own dark desires. Erotic, amusing, and deeply moving, the Fifty Shades Trilogy is a tale that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever.

The author’s description of her work is revealing in examining how exploitation is branded as romance. Grey, the male object of desire, has sexual proclivities that are related to his “torment” and “demons”, He is “consumed by the need to control.” Those facts would make him a candidate for counseling, but here they are intended to contribute to his mystique. James’ wordplay of obsession and possession creates euphemisms for the character’s persistent stalking of Ana, the female object of desire.

Return to the summary. Notice Ana’s hesitancy regarding Grey’s sexual violence. Then notice the reference to his wealth. Then notice her change in attitude. The phrasing of James’ official synopsis spells out the sad downward spiral of a woman who accepts abuse at the hands of a wealthy man, and that abuse transforms her desires into something “dark”. What readers are meant to take away is the thrill of that so-called romantic adventure. If such a rewiring of desire gets passed on from Ana to the readers and “stays with [them] forever”, then what does that produce—an evolving attitude towards the experience and/or acceptance of sexual violence?

Yes, according to a study published in the September 2014 issue of the Journal of Women’s Health. “Fiction or Not? Fifty Shades is Associated with Health Risks in Adolescent and Young Adult Females”, a study by Amy E. Bonomi, Julianna M. Nemeth, Lauren E. Altenburger, Melissa L. Anderson, Anastasia Snyder, and Irma Dotto, concludes:

Problematic depictions of violence against women in popular culture—such as in film, novels, music, or pornography—create a broader social narrative that normalizes these risks and behaviors in women’s lives. Our study showed strong correlations between health risks in women’s lives—including violence victimization—and consumption of Fifty Shades, a fiction series that portrays violence against women.

One frequent response to observations such as this, as well as to the characterization of what occurs in the book and film as “abuse”, is to say that there is no exploitation in the text because of mutual consent. And while that might be accurate on the most basic, superficial level, the kind of relationship depicted in Fifty Shades of Grey fails to meet fuller conceptions of consent.

For example, the state of California recently enacted an affirmative consent standard, which was added to the Education Code and affects state-funded colleges and universities. The text outlining the policy runs in excess of 1,000 words. There are a lot of conditions to parse, including “policies and protocols regarding … dating violence and stalking”, two activities that drive the plot of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Moving beyond definitions of consent strictly related to sexual activity, we could apply the standard of informed consent, which is commonly used in medicine and human subjects research. In “Ultimately We Are All Outsiders: The Ethics of Documentary Filming”, Calvin Pryluck writes, “consent is not valid unless it was made (1) under conditions that were free of coercion and deception, (2) with full knowledge of the procedure and anticipated effects, (3) by someone competent to consent. The requirement that consent be truly voluntary is a recognition of the fact that there is typically an unequal power relationship between investigators and subjects.”

It is here that the character of Fifty Shades of Grey and the consumers of the book and film begin to face some shared quandaries. The victimization of the character Ana occurs through coercion. The unequal power relationship between the book’s two lead characters also complicates the issue of consent voluntarily given. Likewise is the outsized influence of corporate media and their effects on individual viewers. The social narrative and normalization cited in “Fiction or Not?” might be understood as a relentless wearing away of consumers’ better judgment. This is a symptom of our media age, in which the bought and sold omnipresence of a thing shapes its perceived importance.

And neither Ana nor her potential readers/viewers could ever attain “full knowledge of” any “procedure and anticipated effects” before the fact. It’s only in retrospect, after an experience that the effects begin to set in. By then, the power to consent is functionless.

Accordingly, there’s an inadvertent thematic cohesion between Fifty Shades of Grey‘s content and its cultural effect. Both the character and her readers/viewers are deceived into a fantasy that surrendering their power to resist will lead to fulfillment. By giving in, they become distant from higher standards of love or respect that could exist on the other side of saying “no”.

At present, corporate media are very effective in keeping viewers in a state of distraction or confusion regarding healthier and/or more fulfilling ways of living. Network and cable programming both demonstrate overwhelming irresponsibility and contradiction concerning depictions of sexual violence and abuse. The night after Fifty Shades of Grey debuted in cinemas, CBS aired a Valentine’s Day episode of 48 Hours. The timing of the episode, called “Dangerous Games”, was a ploy to appeal to fans of Fifty Shades of Grey on the film’s opening weekend.

The official synopsis for the episode reads, “A bright college student lured into the world of bondage and domination by a friend. She said no—and didn’t survive the night. Was it murder? Troy Roberts investigates.” On one hand, the program memorializes the victim, Lizzi Marriott. On the other, it associates her persona and the tragedy with a book and film that popularize the very lifestyle that contributed to her death.

The next night, Bravo aired an episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, in which an abusive husband threatens his wife and young children on the day he is supposed to report to prison. After reviewing his threats to burn down the family’s home and his expression of anger palpable enough to kill, the episode builds to a climax in which he furiously approaches his wife with a power drill in his hand.

There’s a way to defend the content by saying it accurately depicts an abusive situation. But given that the show’s premise is the protection of a wife and children from the negative realities of a husband/father going to prison, there’s no need to shoot or exhibit such footage, much less turn it into the high point of the hour’s entertainment. Reality shows regularly have security officers on staff to prevent dangerous encounters. But in this case, the potential entertainment value overrode an intervention.

So Fifty Shades of Grey ruled the box office across three days in which abuse, exploitation, and/or sexual violence were the nightly entertainments on network and cable television. Making the picture hopelessly greyer are accounts of ongoing atrocities of abuse, exploitation, and/or sexual violence that occupy the same corporate media space. In a bit of sadistic synergy, the “More from CNN” links that accompany the article “Explaining Fifty Shades’ wild success” include “ISIS holding American female hostage”, “Leaked video gives glimpse into Saudi beheadings” and “At age 10, she was a human guinea pig”.

All of these links involve violence against women. The first two, link to stories from January of this year and feature women doomed to their deaths by male captors and executioners. The third tells the story of Eva Mozes Kor, who encountered and endured unspeakable evil as a prisoner in Auschwitz.

In all likelihood, no one at CNN chose to intentionally associate these stories with a puff piece on Fifty Shades of Grey. And to get upset at the adjacency is to miss the point. What is most disconcerting is the media’s celebration and perpetuation of sexual slavery and violence as entertaining or liberating. Not so for the women in the above headlines; preyed-upon college students, threatened housewives, and millions of individuals enslaved in the sex trade, for whom the longing for freedom and power and love finds no fulfillment in captivity. 

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