50 Shades of Hell No

It’s around Valentine’s Day, and that means Valentine’s Day movies are coming out for you and your honey to cuddle up in front of and watch. There are a lot of options of stuff to do and movies to watch this Valentine’s Day, but one movie is coming out that I’m going to avoid like the plague. 50 Shades of Grey is hitting theaters on the (supposedly) most romantic day of the year, and I’m hoping most people will just say no. Or, preferably, hell no.

Okay, before we go any further, I need to get a few things out there. First off, I’m not trying to police anyone. I’m not a god and I do not – nor should – have the power to tell people what to do. I’m just trying to provide information and, hopefully, at least someone will look at 50 Shades in a new light and maybe change their mind about going to see it. That’s my hope, but I’m not gonna tell you what you have to do. I’m just trying to raise awareness here. Secondly, content warning, this article is going to discuss rape, abuse, the BDSM lifestyle, self-harm, and general violence in more detail than some will be comfortable with. Some of this article will take points and examples from my own life. So, Mom, you might want to stop reading now. Anyone who might have triggers regarding the above topics, proceed with caution and be safe.

One last thing, for anyone unaware. The arguments presented here are not, as I’ve had others sarcastically state, because I’m a mind reader or got a special invitation to the advanced screening of this movie. There’s a whole book series which this movie is based on. It’s pretty easy to look at the books and form arguments against seeing the movie. The entire book series deals with glorifying abusive situations, so it’s not likely that the movie is just gonna go a different route. If they did, it wouldn’t be based on the books.

Recently, I was involved in a debate, on a friend’s Facebook status no less, about this franchise. My friend was kind enough to give me permission to reproduce her status in this article, so thank you, Mandie! You can see the status here:

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It reads:

“Maybe this is overreacting, but I’m going to put it out there anyway. If you’re considering seeing “Fifty Shade of Grey” this weekend, please reconsider. It’s not that it’s a badly written story (it is) and not worth your money (it isn’t). My concern is hot it so shamelessly glorifies domestic violence and tries to pass it off as not only normal, but desirable. Ten years ago I left my abusive relationship. I know what domestic violence looks like, and 50 Shades is TEXTBOOK. It pretends to be about BDSM but it is NOT. Not even close. Money talks and if you refuse to pay for stories like this maybe they’ll eventually stop being told. Please use your hard earned money for something valuable. -feeling vulnerable.”

Mandie, all I can say is thank you so much for being willing to share your situation and put yourself out there in the way you did. I’m also so glad that you’re not in an abusive situation anymore, and I hope that others will be inspired by you.

I agreed with Mandie’s status, but others did not, leading to a lot of comments and probably more notifications than Mandie could shake a stick at. One fan of the franchise argued that 50 Shades is about BDSM and you shouldn’t bash someone else’s sex life just because it’s not for you. This is really the main point I want to address today, as 50 Shades markets itself as being about BDSM culture, but it’s not in the slightest. So let’s talk about BDSM and what it actually means to be in the lifestyle.

BDSM is actually a very wide and diverse subculture. The actual origin of the term BDSM dates back to 1969, though the exact original meaning of the term is unclear. Most take it as an acronym for bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism, as well as dominance and submission. Today, it’s the umbrella term for a wide variety of preferences that may be considered abnormal by some. BDSM communities traditionally accept everyone from cross-dressers to rubber aficionados. Though sub-communities exist, being a member of this subculture tends to rely only on self-identification as a BDSMer.

Dominance and submission are some of the most well-known traits found in a BDSM relationship, and these aspects of BDSM culture are said to be used in 50 Shades. However, 50 Shades terribly misrepresents this aspect of BDSM culture. For instance, there are multiple cases in the book series where Anastasia, the woman protagonist, tells Christian Grey no, and he just doesn’t listen. He has moments where he actually threatens to shut Anastasia up when she says no just so he can continue doing what he wants. This is not BDSM. This is, at the very least, abuse. When your partner tells you no, you listen, or you’re breaking the law and making them a victim.

Some would argue that she should have used her safeword. True, in some BDSM relationships, no doesn’t actually mean no. In such cases, a safeword is employed so that a person knows that their partner actually wants to stop. Typically, this is a word that you would never regularly say during sex, but something easy to remember. In situations where a partner is gagged, the safeword becomes a hand signal or other movement. So, yes, there are cases when no doesn’t mean no within BDSM scenes. And yes, Anastasia and Grey do wind up having a safeword in the book series. But, when Anastasia uses that safeword, he still ignores what she wants. When you add all of that up, plus evidence that at least one time he used alcohol to change Anastasia’s no to an okay, you get rape and domestic abuse. That’s not what BDSM is about.

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In BDSM culture, the submissive partner actually holds all the power. Sure, they give up the illusion of control of a scene (scene being the term used for when a couple partakes in a BDSM scenario; can be a noun or verb) on paper, but a submissive partner never actually loses the control. This is because the submissive partner has the ability to say no or the safeword whenever the dominant partner pushes things too far. Trust is a key feature of any healthy BDSM relationship, and can’t exist if a dom doesn’t listen to their sub. In 50 Shades, Anastasia has no power. She’s even forced to sign away her ability to ask questions or talk to someone besides Grey about what he does to her.

This brings up another key feature of a healthy BDSM relationship which is missing from 50 Shades. A healthy BDSM relationship can’t exist without communication. A couple (or however many people participating in the scene) need to talk about what they like, what they don’t like, what they’re willing to do, and what is 100% off limits. A safeword should not be utilized in every scene. It should actually be a fairly rare occurrence to use the safeword, because the dom and sub should be completely aware of their partner’s (or partners’) expectations and limits. In 50 Shades, Anastasia is an inexperienced virgin who has no idea what she might like. Grey does not help her situation – instead of discussing what he wants to do and how it’s going to be done (and if Anastasia’s okay with it) he introduces fairly advanced toys and play scenarios with no preamble. Seriously, imagine tying a virgin up and then going straight for anal sex or dripping hot wax on them. Chances are, you’re going to be facing a screaming virgin and jail time. Grey’s argument for not communicating with Anastasia? He doesn’t do that romantic stuff.

That romantic stuff. Like aftercare? Hey, yeah, that’s another key aspect of a dom/sub relationship. After a scene takes place, a good dom will comfort their sub. This can include kind words, washing the sub caringly, or basically anything which solidifies the sub’s trust in their partner. Aftercare is important for both doms and subs, as it brings them closer together. Sub drop – the release of endorphins after a scene – has physical and emotional effects. Seriously, someone experiencing sub drop can suffer panic attacks, depression, and could, in some cases, self-harm. Proper aftercare and a healthy relationship with a partner can negate the effects of sub drop. And yes, dom drop is just as real, which means a healthy relationship is just as important for a dom. In 50 Shades, there is no aftercare. The whole thing is just one big clusterfuck of an unhealthy BDSM relationship which most active members in BDSM communities find detestable.

That actually brings me to another point leveled against me. I got told “it’s just a movie,” the argument being that no one would emulate this work of fiction because it is fiction. After all, we watch James Bond films, but don’t run off to become spies. Well, I’m fairly certain, though I have no proof, that spy flicks and books may have influenced at least some of our federal agents to turn to their career paths. However, choosing to try BDSM and becoming a spy are not exactly the same thing. For instance, if you want to become a spy, you need to go to college, work hard, be accepted into an academy, train harder, and work your way up through the ranks of bureaucracy. To perform a BDSM scenario, you need a partner, which is one Craigslist post away (seriously, have you seen some of those Craigslist posts?).

And honestly, though I’m glad the person who brought this argument up doesn’t think they’ll emulate a work of fiction, there’s way too much evidence out there that shows people do take life lessons from works of fiction for me to take this argument seriously. Hell, one Google search reveals that John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, cited J.D. Salinger’s book Catcher in the Rye as an influence on killing the former Beatles member. Though most don’t read a work of fiction and decide to kill someone (I hope), it’s pretty easy to decide you’re interested in trying something after reading or watching something about it.

And this is what scares me the most about 50 Shades. Because this franchise glorifies abuse and unhealthy BDSM practices, I’m worried that many people might try to join the subculture based on this franchise and be hurt because of it. Some people who were thinking about becoming subs might enter a scene with the idea that what they want doesn’t matter and that they have no rights in their sexual lives, just like Anastasia. Some might choose to enter as doms and completely disregard the needs of their subs because that’s what Grey does. This franchise opens the door to an endless cycle of victimization, just because the author couldn’t bother to look into what the BDSM lifestyle is actually about.

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But then there’s the argument that, if I think this is such a bad movie, why am I not railing against all negative depictions in movies? Why do I not protest all movies that show murder, kidnapping, drug use, domestic abuse, and rape? Here’s the deal: I’m not saying that all films that showcase negative human experiences are bad. What I’m saying is that movies that glorify negative human experiences are bad. To be clear, there are plenty of movies that use rape or attempted rape as a plot point. But what most of these films do is include an undercurrent that rape/abuse/etc is a bad thing. The hero of a film is not the rapist in such movies. The person who made the hero a victim is the villain to overcome. Yet, 50 Shades treats this abusive relationship as a positive thing. It supports the subjugation of women (against their will) and misrepresents BDSM culture. Anastasia is perpetually being victimized and, instead of sympathizing with her situation and rallying for her to overcome her abuser, fans of the series cheer for more abuse. The author makes it seem like such abusive scenarios are okay.

I consider myself a feminist in that I don’t support the subjugation of women and would like gender/race/etc to play no role in how far an individual can make it in the world. Yet, I’m careful about the terminology I use. For instance, I don’t throw around rape culture lightly, because there have been instances of individuals falling down the slippery slope and over-identifying situations as evidence of our supposed rape culture. However, when a (badly written) book series which says non-consensual sex is totally fine and hey, BDSM culture totally does this all the time (it doesn’t) gains as big a following as this one has, to the point where some producer decided it was totally a good idea to make this movie, I can’t help but think this is evidence that rape culture is alive and well. And that’s sad to me. That depresses me beyond measure.

I have friends in the BDSM community. I have friends who have been raped, abused, and made to feel completely worthless. There are situations in my past that I am not yet ready to talk about which have allowed me to look at the 50 Shades franchise and say an emphatic, “hell no”. I have no intention of seeing this movie. I have no intention of ever owning any merchandise belonging to this franchise. I stand with anyone who has ever been victimized. I will not participate in the exploitation of victims and the glorification of the abuse they’ve suffered. I can’t. I just can’t. Hopefully, at least one person will read this and decide to say “hell no” to the 50 Shades franchise too.

[Note from EIC Kelsey: for further reading about safe BDSM practices, check out Soha Kareem’s Guide to Non-Oppressive BDSM over on Ravishly.]

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