About Patriarchy and Misogyny In The Movie “Fifty Shades of Grey”

For decades Hollywood has been sexualizing female characters through suggestive costume design, makeup that enhances certain bodily features, and shallow character development, and these have become the standard components of a traditional blockbuster film. Moreover, the majority of films produced in Hollywood tended to be created predominantly for a male spectator. Today in 2018 the trajectory has shifted, and there have been an increasing number of films that appeal to the female spectator. However, the patriarchal society we have lived in for the past millennia in has dug its roots deep within the social norms and customs of western society. As an example of a film designed for the female spectator, the film Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) could potentially support societal notions of patriarchy and misogyny.

Through the analyzation of mise-en-scene and character interrelations we can begin to explore how the relationship between the male and female characters romanticizes intimate partner abuse. Before the film came the novel written by E.L. James, published in 2011. Since then, the novel has sold more than 50 million copies in the US and the $40 million budget film grossing over $166.2 million in North America $562 million worldwide. The film set new records for the US box office, making over $81 million in its opening weekend. It is known to be the highest-grossing President’s Day weekend opener in history (Lapidus 1601). The success of novel and film demonstrates that the story and concept is not only an interest for the audience, but may compel them to experiment in their own lives using the ideas and information they have received.

However, these ideas and expectations about BDSM culture may not be clearly articulated within the story of Fifty Shades of Grey. Specifically, regarding the concept of consent – which is a vitally important component of a BDSM relationship. This could pose as a potential problem if people are using the film as a guide to a world in which they are inexperienced (Doostdar 34). Moreover, given the film’s success, brings the question as to if there has been a cultural shift toward the ideals of abusive behaviors in romantic relationships as reflected in the contents of the film (Tripodi 98). Some researchers make an argument that the viewers and readers of Fifty Shades of Grey are using the content as an escort to navigate through the modern culture they are living in.

Contemporary “hook-up” culture has reached a new height where one-night-stands are common occurrences and relationships are more surface-level than ever before. Due to society-shaping mechanisms such as the internet and social media, the western culture is bombarded with other’s opinions and are constantly trying to paint a perfect-picture life to the unknown observer on the other side of the screen. Entertainment scholar Francesca Tripodi elaborates on the cultural research of the Fifty Shades book series, “Specifically, they argue that since women’s sexual knowledge and prowess can serve as a form of empowerment but also cause relationship problems, women are using the series as a way of navigating relationship uncertainties” (94). However, other scholars argue that the relationship between the main characters of the film is a form of intimate partner violence (IPV).

As Tripodi continues her comments regarding the 50 Shades audience, she raises the idea that maybe the fans are not “longing for an abusive relationship”, but they could be turning to the book and film’s messages as a way of managing the challenges of misogyny they face in their everyday lives (94). When specifically analyzing the portrayal and the relationship between the characters of the film, we notice some trends of how each character is presented. The first shot in the movie is the female character, Anastasia Steele getting out of the taxi. Then, there is a low angle shot as she is looking up at the enormous building she stands in front of. The building has the name “Grey” on it in big letters, immediately symbolizing the dramatic power the male character, Christian Grey holds.

During the scene where the Christian and Anna meet for the first time, the man immediately puts himself in the power-position even though Ana is there to interview him for a college research assignment. As she asks him the questions on her list, Grey sits down next to her, interrupts and says, “I’d like to know more about you…”. He is dressed in an immaculate, stylish grey suit and tie with a slick haircut that makes him seem very “clean” (as Anastasia comments). Ana has her hair in a ponytail and is wearing a white collared shirt with flowers, and a blue fabric jacket over top. She is underdressed in comparison to Christian, and she reflects her intimidation through her nervous behavior (i.e. stuttering and losing her train of thought).

Furthermore, as Altenburger et. all suggests, “The juxtaposed relation between Christian and Anastasia takes the form of a violent hierarchy, making Anastasia appear inferior to Christian—she is depicted as weaker, less assertive, more emotional, and less intelligent” (456). This initial meeting occurs within the first few minutes of the film and sets the tone for the developing relationship between the characters, and how they are presented and perceived to the audience. As the relationship between Christian and Ana progresses, Christian reveals his interest in BDSM relationships, a fascination of his that is unknown to the world and one that he wants to keep strictly private. Grey guides Ana (of whom has never experienced sexual intercourse) through the process of the contract, slowly exposing her to his world of dominance and submission.

Concerning the reactions of people or are involved in the BDSM community in the real world, scholars suggest that while the film does include some of the BDSM relationship components (such as contracts and safe-words), Case et. all suggests, “Much of the distaste that this book inspires is ‘blamed’ on the portrayal of BDSM practices within the text. However, this explanation fails to capture the full concerns that the book series inspires. Many do not view this series as an accurate representation of BDSM sexuality but as a work that uses the BDSM culture to depict IPV practices.” (Case 636). Furthermore, the portrayal of the BDSM relationship in the film involves less communication that is required for healthy relationships, ultimate painting a picture whereas the lack of verbal confirmation constitutes approval for various acts that one of the parties may not be entirely comfortable with.

Important details of how these relationships work in reality are simply left out of the context of the story. This could result in the viewers of Fifty Shades of Grey (specifically the female spectator) in getting a misguided conception of how to respond to the recurring problems of contemporary sexual relation standards. Other researchers suggest that female viewers are not watching the film because they share the views of and common situations found in a patriarchal society. Author Eva Illouz uses feminist cultural studies to argue that 50 Shades acts more as a “self help” for women who are looking for closeness and understanding in an era when values regarding sexuality and empowerment are “more closely aligned with consumerist ideals” (i.e. social media and peer approval) than with romance. Illouz’s theory is that “Fifty Shades provides women with a text enabling them to navigate cultural expectations that women be sexual but not domineering”. Additionally, another way to look at the way the female spectator is experiencing the story is an idea that author Lenora Lapidus advocates, that the film and novel effectively detach the female audience from their world as a form of escapism (1609). Of course, the reality of the situation is that the effects of the film depends on the unique, subjective experience of the viewer.

Regarding the blossoming relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, not only is the female portrayed as submissive, but she begins to accept this lack of control due to her falling in love. For example, Grey uses Ana’s attraction to him as leverage to persuade her in accepting the contract in which she would agree to be his submissive. After reviewing the contract Ana asks, “So what do I get out of this?” Grey responds, “Me.” He is aware that she wants a relationship with him, so he entertains this in the contract by agreeing to take her on a date once a week. As the plot progresses, Ana agrees to do much more than she was originally comfortable with. Case et. all describes this situation as female protagonist giving in to demands to keep her lover happy, “It becomes problematic, according to this current debate because it is marketed to and consumed by women who appear to accept this male centered devaluation of this young woman as ‘‘romance’’(635). This could have some dangerous side effects to the female spectator’s conception of a relationship, especially if they are still attempting to discover their place in this world as young adults.

In a culture where casual, non-dating sex has become the social normality, some scholars suggest that Fifty Shades of Grey helps the female audience understand and navigate through this “sexualized culture” emerging in the twenty-first century. However as previously suggested, the misrepresentation of the process of the highly sexualized relationship is a component of the film’s story that may have some rebounding effects (Doostdar 55). Specifically, how the story effectively erotizes lack of control for the female character. Portrayed not only through the interrelationship of characters, but through mise-en-scene such as blindfolds, ropes, restraints, etc. Anastasia is compelled to give up her control to receive pleasure. Given the tendency of the female spectator to identify with the female heroine, this poses a threat to their independence and agency when it comes to a relationship with a dominant male in the real world.

It appears one of the clearest problems presented within Fifty Shades of Grey is the relationship between and portrayal of characters. There is a lack of communication and consent between parties, but this is easily dismissed by the viewer. In addition to this, the romanticizing of the submissive role of the female character may pose as an influence on the young female spectator. This influence is a misrepresentation of how these roles work in real life, and how a healthy relationship is conducted. Regardless if the viewer is interested in participating in the BDSM relation practices as shown within the film, the sub-text of the story and character relation dynamics can dramatically influence a young developing mind. However, further research is necessary to determine if the ideals in the film have a significant effect on the audience, and if they reflect the views of modern society. It could be just another form of escapism and entertainment.

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