Is there such a thing as irresponsible cinema? Is the relationship presented in Fifty Shades Of Grey an example of it? And is Christian Grey a domestic abuser or simply the latest in a long line of romantic anti-heroes?

Around 40 minutes into Fifty Shades Of Grey, millionaire businessman Christian Grey asks virginal literature student Anastasia to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement. It’s easy to see why he does this: he’s about to show Ana his BDSM play-room, something he’d prefer to keep out of the public-eye. It’s also a sinister turning point in their relationship: the Agreement effectively cuts Ana off from her family and friends. She has no-one to confide in about Christian’s next request – that she become his live-in ‘submissive’ four days a week in a relationship that’s entirely sexual. This isolation enables him to pressurise and manipulate her unchecked.

If the alarm bells are not already ringing loud and clear, the rest of the film is spent discussing a contract between the ‘dominant’ and the ‘submissive’ which outlines the boundaries their relationship. The contract goes beyond butt plugs and genital clamps, reaching into wider aspects of Ana’s life to include what she will eat and how she will take care of her body.

Fifty Shades Of Grey Jamie Dornan

© Universal Pictures

The film follows a ‘will she, won’t she’ plot as Ana decides whether to sign on the dotted line. Christian creates a facade of ‘free-will’ but employs a range of dubious tactics to pursue and persuade Ana:

  • He stalks her, finding out where she lives and works;
  • He asks her to spend time researching the lifestyle but demonstrates impatience when she does;
  • He says one thing (their relationship is just sex) and does another (takes her on a date);
  • He attempts to make her jealous by having dinner with another woman;
  • He shows up uninvited at family gatherings and takes Ana away;
  • He demands Ana goes to the play-room when he’s angry.

By applying pressure under the guise of free-will, isolating Ana from her family, Christian makes it easy for us to accuse him of psychological and emotional abuse. As I argued in my earlier review of the film, it’s not the sex acts that are abusive (these are consistently photographed to emphasise female pleasure and safe sex), but Christian’s treatment of Ana outside the bedroom that causes concern. Christian wants ultimate control in all aspects of Ana’s life – he even decides what Ana will wear and what car she will drive.

When Ana asks what she’ll get out of her role as ‘submissive’, Christian answers ‘me’. But how much of him will she actually get? His messages are confusing. The contract outlines a purely sexual relationship, yet he introduces Ana to his family and behaves like a ‘boyfriend’. This behaviour can be read a number of ways: as deliberate, manipulative enticement; or, from a more romantic perspective, as the actions of someone falling in love. The tone of the film suggests the latter and, to frustrate the issue further, the film is told from Ana’s perspective which means we’re unable to explore Christian’s character in depth. It seems E.L. James and director Sam Taylor-Johnson view Christian’s ambiguity as a key part of his appeal and attractiveness. They strike on one of romantic fiction’s most popular fantasies: that love can change a man (just look at Mr Darcy in Austen’s Pride And Prejudice). But is this a dangerous, even irresponsible, fantasy in the context of Christian’s abusive behaviour?

“Christian Grey is not the first romantic anti-hero”

Christian Grey is not the first romantic anti-hero. We need look no further than the Brontës for two of literature’s famous examples: Heathcliff and Mr Rochester. Indeed Christian has a great deal in common with Jane Eyre’s romantic hero who:

  • ‘Asks by way of command’ (a line from the 1997 adaptation of Jane Eyre that’s closely mirrored when Christian demands Ana eat her cake);
  • Attempts to make Jane jealous by leading on another woman;
  • Deliberately manipulates Jane…
  • …attempting to trick her into a bigamous marriage;
  • Bestows expensive gifts which affect Jane’s identity and sense of self.

A few years ago at a Cheltenham Literature Festival event with Jane Eyre (2011) director Moira Buffini, the audience was asked an interesting question: is Rochester attractive? And, if so, what is so appealing about him?

The crowd was polarised in two camps: those infatuated with Rochester; and those viewing him as a cruel, domestic abuser. A member of the audience suggested that, perhaps, readers views of Rochester are affected by the age at which they first discover Brontë’s book. A number of audience members admitted that, approaching the book for the first time in their thirties and forties, they found Rochester deceitful, dangerous and extremely unappealing, being themselves more compassionate to the plight of Bertha (Rochester’s insane first wife). Those discovering the book as teens, on the other hand, admitted finding Rochester irresistible.

Could this argument about the age of readers apply to our interpretation of Twilight’s vampire hero too (Edward Cullen famously inspired the character of Christian Grey and was the centre of similar accusations of abuse)? And if so, how can we explain Fifty Shades Of Grey’s status as ‘mommy porn’?

Director Moira Buffini herself commented that Rochester is capricious, cruel, rude and deceitful but ultimately values truth, recognising Jane’s own truthfulness and seeing to her core. Buffini highlights, here, the morality that lies at the centre of Jane Eyre and the more traditionally ‘heroic’ qualities that are also possessed by Rochester. Such qualities are not immediately apparent in the character of Christian (during this first instalment of the Fifty Shades trilogy). Instead we’re given a brief insight into an abusive childhood and a strong indication that Christian is extremely troubled.

“Where do Ana and Jane fit into these accusations of domestic abuse? Should we view them as victims?”

So far we’ve made little mention of the women at the heart of their own stories. Where do Ana and Jane fit into these accusations of domestic abuse? Should we view them as victims? When Jane meets Rochester, she is already without family or friendly connections yet she succeeds in matching him blow for blow intellectually. She refuses to be a bird in a cage, or to submit to Rochester’s demands. Jane is embarrassed by his demonstrations of wealth, declining an expensive wedding dress and sticking rigidly to her own ‘plain’ identity. The text frequently refers to Jane and Rochester as equals (‘I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!’). This is a key part of their attraction.

Ana, on the other hand, seems impressed and enticed by Christian’s wealth. We’re frequently reminded that Christian is a rich man. He flatters Ana with expensive luxuries – a MacBook and an Audi A3. Ana says she wants ‘more’ from her relationship with Christian and for a while we can assume that she means love. But, when Christian takes her for a flight in his glider and asks ‘isn’t this more?’ Ana’s reply is a surprising ‘yes’. It’s not the first time wealth has played a part in attraction (even Elizabeth Bennett fell a little more in love with Darcy when she saw Pemberley) but in Fifty Shades Of Grey Ana allows wealth to act as a substitute for love and it distracts her from the potentially dangerous relationship Christian offers.

Her acceptance of fine dresses and expensive adventures crudely symbolises sexual awakening but also suggests Christian’s actions are changing her sense of self. Something she appears unable, or unwilling, to resist. Where Brontë eschews wealth in Jane Eyre, Fifty Shades Of Grey plays into the ‘fetishisation of capitalism’ (Sophie Morgan). By confusing love and materialism, Ana appears naive and impressionable, far from the strong, capable and resourceful Jane. Does this make Ana a more likely victim? Perhaps we should view her materialism as savvy instead? If it weren’t for the films overtly ‘romantic’ tone and Ana’s obvious distress, this might be a credible option.

Fifty Shades Of Grey Dakota Johnson

© Universal Pictures

Actress Dakota Johnson has refuted claims that Ana is a victim of domestic abuse, arguing that she is “fearlessly exploring herself emotionally and sexually”. Ana frequently voices her opinions. Yet it’s difficult to view Ana and Christian as equals, something that brings us back to those ideas of ‘free will’ and the degree to which Ana is manipulated by Christian behind the scenes. Ultimately, it’s the film’s conflation of dominance inside and outside of the play-room, combined with its romantic tone, that leaves Fifty Shades Of Grey open to so many accusations of domestic abuse.

At the time of its publication, Jane Eyre on-the-other-hand, offered fiercely modern, feminist views. Despite both her gender and social standing, Jane is consistently presented as Rochester’s intellectual and spiritual equal. Only when Jane has her own wealth and Rochester is both disfigured and morally redeemed (by accepting culpability), does Jane consent to marry him.

Perhaps we will see Ana make similar choices in the next instalments of the Fifty Shades trilogy. Ana’s decision to leave Christian at the end of this first film is somewhat overshadowed by the implication that she will return, but we are left to wait and see on what (and whose) terms.

Does any of this really matter? It’s only a film and, in the words of my cinema companion, ‘it’s so stupid it doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously’. Or does it? Fifty Shades has opened to $237.7 million, something I feel makes it’s messages impossible to ignore. Behavioural Psychologist Jo Hemmings says this:
 
“Does reading a thriller involving murder makes us more likely to commit one? Or even consider it? Of course not.”
 
But are there dangers with normalising, even romanticising, abusive relationships on the big screen? It would be naive to assume that young people won’t see Fifty Shades Of Grey merely because of its 18 certificate (it’s even been given a 12 rating France).
 
It might be an art form, but can cinema be irresponsible? And if it can, is Fifty Shades Of Grey an example? Should cinema be free to create anti-heroes without restraint? And is Christian a more dangerous one than his Victorian counterparts? Let me know what you think in the comment box.
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