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The sexual politics of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Dakota Johnson stars as Anastasia Steele in Sam Taylor-Johnson's "Fifty Shades of Grey." Courtesy of Universal Pictures and Focus Features.

Dakota Johnson stars as Anastasia Steele in Sam Taylor-Johnson's "Fifty Shades of Grey." Courtesy of Universal Pictures and Focus Features.
Dakota Johnson stars as Anastasia Steele in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures and Focus Features.

The other day, I was casually flitting through my Facebook feed when I came across a close relative’s post advising women, young and old, to steer clear of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Adapted from E.L. James’s bestseller of the same name, “Fifty Shades of Grey” has recently aroused a more-than-healthy amount of controversy due to the film’s treatment of women and, more specifically, Taylor-Johnson’s portrayal of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), the female lead. Needless to say, I was not wholeheartedly surprised by my relative’s online declaration, yet I found myself disappointed by her seemingly blind cautioning; she had not seen the film, nor did she have any plans to view the contentious work.

To get to the heart of the matter, she was just so damn wrong. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” is by no means an anti-feminist parable of domination and enslavement but is instead a powerful exploration and exaltation of female sexuality, pleasure and self-determination. I don’t mean to imply that “Fifty Shades” is entirely without fault: Taylor-Johnson’s film frequently strays into problematic territory, especially in its characterization of the stony Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Yet, these sporadic flaws are not exactly Taylor-Johnson’s errors but are instead foreseeable holdovers from E.L. James’s oft-misogynistic novel: My understanding regarding James’s debut work — which I admittedly have not read — is that Taylor-Johnson’s efforts were persistently undermined by the nature of the source material and a novice author given unprecedented control over the film’s production. Further, to place undue emphasis on these infrequent missteps is to ignore the potency of a compelling and — in this day and age — rare film about about the liberation and independence that comes with embracing one’s own eroticism.

For those of you unfamiliar with the film’s plot, “Fifty Shades of Grey” revolves around a naive college student, Anastasia Steele, who becomes entangled in a passionate dominant-submissive (read: BDSM) relationship with a wealthy entrepreneur, Christian Grey. Initially a virgin, Ana ultimately finds her sense of self in Christian’s kinky schemes. As things get heated between the two, however, Christian shuts Ana out, prompting her to leave her lover for good.

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in "Fifty Shades of Grey." Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures and Focus Features.
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures and Focus Features.

This narrative of sexual exploration is, in and of itself, deserving of praise: Without hesitation, Taylor-Johnson foregrounds Ana’s process of discovery. With Taylor-Johnson at the helm, Ana comes to accept her carnality with a boldness often dismissed as taboo. Surrounded by a barrage of sexual imagery — a phallic pencil, a sperm-like glider, orgasmic rain — Ana transforms into a stellar example of a woman learning to embrace her sexuality. After Christian stirs something inside her, Ana comes to view her sexuality as natural, an intrinsic part of her surroundings. When Ana covers herself with a sheet after intercourse — as women in prudish Hollywood films so often do — Christian tugs at the linens around her body, prompting Ana to relax and see the normality of her nakedness. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that Ana independently elects to embark on this carnal journey.

Christian, Ana’s sexual consort, does not force Ana’s hand in any of their many encounters. Instead, each time that they join each other under the covers, Ana makes the distinct decision to partake in sexual intercourse. As a colleague of mine pointed out, Taylor-Johnson’s camera is enamored with elevator doors. Each time they appear onscreen, their transience underscores Ana’s autonomy. When the doors open, Ana is offered the chance to turn back, yet, each time, she elects to proceed. In one scene, in which Ana arrives at Christian’s offices to debate the terms of a written sexual contract — she desires the control afforded to her by a strictly corporate setting — Taylor-Johnson frames Ana in a striking low angle as Danny Elfman’s score climaxes triumphantly. Taking part in a torrid affair with Christian is Ana’s decision, and her self-governance is of the utmost importance to Taylor-Johnson.

Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures and Focus Features.
Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson star in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures and Focus Features.

Some might argue that the injurious nature of Ana’s relationship with Christian renders her apparent independence irrelevant. But to view Ana’s relationship as abusive is to ignore the partnership’s apparent emphasis on Ana’s pleasure. Ana might appreciate a shade more romance, but she still utterly enjoys herself with Christian. Each roll in the hay is an exercise in her titillation, not Christian’s violent ecstasy. There are three major sex scenes in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and Taylor-Johnson pairs each with a female-driven ballad. Beyoncé, Sia, more Beyoncé — each song returns the attention to the woman, to Ana.

Further, Taylor-Johnson always captures each scene so as to best illuminate Ana’s stimulation: her labored breathing, her hairs on end. Framed in full-frontal close-ups, Ana gets all the attention while Christian, either in profile or removed from the image, sinks to the background. Christian might as well just be a slab of marble with arms and a penis: He never makes a sound, never demonstrates even the slightest shred of enjoyment. In the end, he is just another tool for Ana in her carnal voyage.

This emphasis on the importance of Ana’s experience is also evident in Dakota Johnson’s expert turn as Anastasia. An actress with great comedic instincts, Johnson manages to draw every last ounce of attention away from the seemingly boring Christian Grey. Rolling her eyes and throwing out absolutely marvelous quips at every turn, Johnson’s Ana assures anyone who might care to listen that she is simply not being forced into anything. As Christian takes Ana across his knee, Johnson giggles through the affair, making it abundantly clear that, despite what Christian might like to think, Ana does not actually view herself as being punished. Ana is not sacrificing anything — her independence, her happiness — to be with Christian. She’s just along for the ride.

Dakota Johnson (at right) plays opposite Jamie Dornan in "Fifty Shades of Grey." Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures and Focus Features
Dakota Johnson (at right) plays opposite Jamie Dornan in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures and Focus Features

Thus, when Christian actually begins to pose a threat to Ana’s well-being — both mental and physical — Taylor-Johnson quickly cuts the relationship short: Ana refuses to be injured by Christian’s detachment. Hoping to understand Christian’s violent tendencies, Ana asks Christian to punish her with imprudence — to do his worst. Bending her over in his chamber, Christian removes Ana’s clothes in a swift — and clinical — long shot, uncharacteristic of the film’s intimate fascination with foreplay. Then Christian whips Ana with his belt, asking her to count the lashings aloud. Filmed in a canted angle, this exchange highlights the disruption of Ana and Christian’s equilibrium. Here, Taylor-Johnson underscores the change in dynamic: Since Christian no longer prioritizes Ana, their relationship, like the image, is no longer balanced.

With the emphasis on this critical shift, Taylor-Johnson rapidly moves to Anastasia’s abandonment of Christian. Pushing Christian away, Ana allows the elevator doors to come to a close with finality. Grey has become the abuser, and Taylor-Johnson re-emphasizes Ana’s self-governance, her will to leave an increasingly debasing situation. In this regard, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is replete with cogent implications. A woman’s sexuality matters, her autonomy matters, her pleasure matters and if that’s no longer clear to her, that is, by no means, acceptable.

Fifty Shades of Grey
Dakota Johnson, director Sam Taylor-Johnson and Jamie Dornan on the set of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures and Focus Features.

That being said, the film is not without its flaws. For instance, “Grey” has the tendency to put forth Christian as some perfect paragon of masculinity, the type of man who can get a clumsy woman to trip before she even enters the room. Christian’s clear sex appeal — Dornan is an underwear model — becomes problematic when coupled with his coldness. In an early scene, Grey bluntly claims that he does not possess a heart, and, dressed in wardrobe of icy silvers, it’s obvious that Christian is the type of guy that would not be caught dead in anything even remotely garish. Christian’s frigidity is just about as certain as his allure. Although superficially insignificant, this association of “toughness” with “masculinity” is incredibly dangerous, not only for men, many of whom already subconsciously link stoicism to machismo, but also for women, who, through “Grey,” are implicitly reminded that such detachment is somehow indicative of a Mr. Right.

Even more objectionable is the stark contrast between Ana, the ingenue, and Christian, the sophisticate. “Fifty Shades of Grey” assumes that Christian knows what Ana wants and that Ana, the silly virgin, is downright oblivious. Here, Christian is paraded around like the chiseled Mr. Miyagi to Ana’s feeble Karate Kid. Sure, Ana ends up using Christian to understand her sexuality, but the film depicts Ana as knowing less about her body and hedonism than Christian — a notion which doesn’t mix well with the film’s otherwise feminist leanings.

Again, however, these gender issues are minor quibbles. Their strong ties to the narrative structure of the book seem to suggest that they were drawn directly from the pages of James’s novel. In this regard, working with a stubborn and uncompromising writer and a nearly inadaptable piece of erotic fiction, Taylor-Johnson truly manages to build a rather politically sound film atop an astonishingly poor foundation; “Fifty Shades of Grey” — the film, not the novel — may not be an absolutely foolproof feminist text, but at the very least, Taylor-Johnson’s second directorial effort deserves to be commended, not reprimanded. Reminding women that their sexuality is of actual consequence, “Fifty Shades of Grey” bears a vital — and necessary — message.

Contact Will Ferrer at wferrer ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Will Ferrer

Will Ferrer

Will Ferrer is a junior at Stanford, a current member of The Editorial Board, and a former Executive Editor, Managing Editor of Arts & Life, and Film/TV Desk Editor at The Stanford Daily. Will is double-majoring in Film and Media Studies and English Literature. After a childhood spent nabbing R-rated movies from his brother’s collection, Will is annoyingly passionate about all things entertainment. Heralding from Northern Virginia, Will abhors Maryland drivers and enjoys saying he is “essentially from Washington DC.” Contact him at [email protected]