2 and a half years ago I wrote a review of the 50 Shades of Grey book from a relationship and sex educator perspective. Today I saw the film adaptation with the aim to do the same for the film. 1 in 10 young people have read the novel and I am confident even more will try and see the film. This film (at least in the immediate future) will have an impact on young peoples perspective of sex and relationships and I am keen that people who work with young people equip themselves to respond to questions and concerns this film might raise. Imagine being asked by a young person "why do people enjoy spanking?" "What is fetish?" What is BDSM" "Explain 50 shades of grey?" are we ready to answer young peoples questions? This film raises issue of consent, healthy/unhealthy relationships, BDSM sex, boundaries, communication and value in sex.
In the UK this film has an 18 certificate, which should stop under 18s seeing the film. However, we all know some under 18s will get to see it in the cinema. However, I am sure many more young people will end up seeing it online from an illegal site either bit torrent or online streaming. I was able to do a quick search and find both bit torrent and streaming services offering 50 Shades pirated from the cinema videos. Young people are better then me at finding full films online. So whilst this film is not meant for young people. Young people will find it and will watch it.
Overall the film has a mixture of positive and negative aspects compared to the book. Some issue I had with the book are down played in the film whilst over issues emerge. Please bare in mind this is not an attempt at a feminist, ethical, media studies, religious or any other type of review. This is focused on trying to imagine "What impressions of relationships and sex could a young person walk away from this film with?" It is not attempting to be balanced but to try and think what issues could this raise in my work as a relationship and sex educator.
***SPOILER WARNING, if you hadn't guessed lots of spoilers below***
Consent, Consent! Consent?
One of the biggest issue I saw cropping up in this film is consent. How does the film portray consent and does the film explore what is a healthy application of consent. This is a central theme of the film. Does Anastasia consent to the BDSM relationship Grey is presenting. I left the cinema today with the impression that compared to the book Anastasia's character has been strengthen but I still feel concerns about the message it gives. I can now understand why actors and film crew have been so confident in their denial that their is a lack of consent. Almost every sex scene begins with a discussion about if Anastasia gives consent. At times she is portrayed as positively enthusiastic in her consent.
However, I teach in my lessons that something is only genuine consent if both people have the option and confidence to say no. The premise of the film is that to have a relationship with Christian Grey Anastasia must consent to a BDSM relationship. I tried to imagine taking this premise down to a more common example away from the glamour of dating an eccentric millionaire. If a young person asked "My partner says I must provide oral sex if I want to start a relationship with them, what should I do?" What advice would we give? Would we see that this is an example of good practice consent as it is presented as a question not a demand. Or would we see this as an act of manipulation. It could be argued that Christian is not demanding specific acts because he is willing to negotiate on the specific acts in the contract. But he is not willing to negotiate on the basic set up of the sexual relationship. On the positive side at the end of the film when Anastasia gives a very firm no he does restrain himself from following her.
In balance I believe this film does blur what healthy consent is. Young people could walk away from this movie with an expectation that it is fine to demand sexual behavior as a condition of a relationship. That worries me as I find young people all ready often struggle to identify accurately what consent is.
In my review of the book one positive issue I highlighted from the story was the mentioning of contraceptives. Thankfully this film does include some contraceptives. Not many (I counted 4) but some is better then none. Sadly the 2 shots of Christian opening a condom package are so quick you could blink and miss them and the 2 mentions of the oral contraceptive pill are presented as a part of the BDSM relationship and not as simply good ideas by themselves. Whilst I would always want more contraceptives in more films, ideally portrayed as a part of healthy relationships and not as the gag in a comedy, this film does better then most romance films. Hopefully this film will at least not add to young people's reluctance to use contraceptives and possibly it might encourage the use of them.
Bad BDSM practice
A lot of media attention has been focused on the BDSM sex. In my book review I stated that.
"Media which presents unrealistic or bad fetish sex is not good because people may believe it and then make dangerous mistakes. Especially as it is a form of sex that has intrinsic risk. Young people could end up getting hurt emotionally or physical if they only draw on bad media BDSM portrayals like this."Sadly the film still contains what I understand to be bad portrayals of BDSM sex. For example cable ties are suggested as a method of restraint which I believe to be strongly discouraged as they risk cutting off blood supply and are hard to remove. The contract also appears to be misused. It is presented originally as an essential step before starting a physical BDSM relationship. Then the film shows Christian spanking, restraining with leather cuffs, flogging, restraining with rope, cropping, restraining with ties, practicing slave positions and more with no contract signed. I am glad that the film does include details of what safewords are in theory but they don't role model Anastasia using them even during the final beating scene when it is abundantly clear she is not enjoying it. I fear young people will end up physically and emotionally hurt from trying BDSM acts they have only learnt about from this film.
Much of the films sexual tension and thrill is built up through the dialogue between Christian and Anastasia. Communication between them is modeled better then some films and Christian even says the words "We have to be honest with each other for this to work?". Great sentiment and I hope young people do what Christian says and not what Christian does. Christian's version of honesty is for Anastasia to reveal her feelings whilst he is closed off and strongly avoids discussion of his emotions and motives. The communication comes across as primarily one way. Christian has a desire to know Anastasia in a deeply personal and intimate way but for what reason is unclear. His interest could easily be seen as another aspect of him wanting to control her and not about genuine communication in relationships.
Focus on Mr Grey
Compared to the book I believe the film downplays Christian Grey's stalking and abusive controlling actions. For example, the film unlike the book does not make it clear that Christian uses his power in the telecommunication business to track Anastasia phone. Christian's obsession with controlling her eating habits are toned down and his jealousy and interference with Anastasia and José's friendship is not given much screen time. Overall I think this film adaptation has reduced some of the abusive elements in the book. But Mr Grey still portrays deeply worrying and unhealthy behaviours. For example at one point it Anastasia email Christian "It has been nice knowing you" this rebuff (which in the book is later explained as a joke but in the film this is not clear) is ignored by Christian who responds by getting into Anastasia house by means unknown but most importantly uninvited. He then ties her up, blindfolds her, stimulates her body, flips her over, slaps her bottom and has sex with her. I do not believe this shows a healthy response to a rebuff. He seems to treat it is a challenge, an opportunity to remind Anastasia what sex with him is like and a rejection is a reason to try and convince her to change her mind. At this point no does not mean no to Christian Grey. Again I worry that this could encourage young people to treat a rejection by a partner as a reason to try and forcefully convince them they are wrong.
Compared to the book this film also appears to focus on Mr Grey's pleasure over Anastasia's. We do get some close up of Anastasia's face in moments of enjoyment but this is very little compared to the books clear explanation of Anastasia's orgasms. The book celebrates what physical pleasure Anastasia is getting in the relationship whilst my viewing of the film suggests the focus of the camera is what Christian is getting from the sex and from the thrill of a new object to act upon. The film has none of Anastasia's inner monologue and without that viewpoint the focus moves more on Christian Grey. Possibly in an attempt to build up sympathy for a "damaged man" as a way to excuse his more distasteful behavior. For me I want to imagine what would a young person take away from this film. How will it impact their assessments of potential partners? Does this film feed into the fairy tale of a beauty taming a beast?
If you didn't know the book has 2 sequels and the film has already had a sequel confirmed. This is a shame. Without the sequels the ending could be read as Anastasia finally coming to her senses and realising this man is dangerous, the relationship is unhealthy and she could do better. She leaves and is safe and to be extra generous we could read that Christian redeems himself (partly) by not following her into the lift after she says no. But there are sequels and that is not the ending of the story. Like the book the film ends with the 2 characters separated but it is presented as a separated for now situation. I honestly can't imagine how young people will respond to the ending especially if they haven't read the books. If any young people admit they have seen the film I will definitely ask what they think of the ending and what they think should happen next.
Rectify the situation
The final theme I wanted to highlight was something that leaped from the screen for me this morning. I do not remember having the same reaction to the scene in the book but I was thoroughly depressed by Christian Grey saying lets "rectify the situation" after Anastasia admits to never having sexual contact with anyone before. I was enraged by the suggestion that someone not having had sex was presented as a situation, a problem to over come, something to be solved and as a negative thing. Looking at this from a young person perspective this could easily and powerfully reinforce the negative stereotype that to be a virgin is a bad thing. That someone may not even be fully complete or fully grown up until they have sex. Worst of all the film presents it as Christian Grey is doing her a favour. I hate to think of young people watching this film and having their own fears of being a virgin being a negative thing confirmed. I fear that some young people will also see it as validation that to have sex with a virgin is to do them a favour. Young people have so many pressure on them to be sexually active it can and does cause emotional distress and upset. These social pressures do influence people into making decisions they regret later. On this viewing of the film this was the single biggest issue that jumped out to me.
Whilst I do not expect that every film must be educational to be permitted I do think it is a responsibility to label situations for what they are. We can watch and even enjoy films that have villains, monsters and complex characters. The dangers come in if we absorb unhealthy messages from films and apply them to our lives. I am passionate about equipping young people to navigate the media pressures. To help them deconstruct the lies and understand true meanings of healthy relationships and positive sexual expression. To be abundantly clear I do not think that BDSM is inherently abusive but in this presentation of a BDSM relationship I think we have a thoroughly unhealthy representation of both a relationship and BDSM lifestyle. Young people deserve to know this when they have questions or concerns after seeing this film.
After viewing this film I wonder if Relationship and Sex Education workers will start to be asked specific questions about fetish sex in lessons. Could RSE workers one day be asked to do lessons on safer BDSM, this might sound far fetched to many educators but I wonder how many educators 20 years ago expected to be doing lesson on young people creating pornography of themselves. Yet lessons on sexting are a common necessity. Personally I do not think we should be teaching 15 year olds how to tie each other up but I do think we need to be ready to answer questions in a helpful way.
At the start of this post I said. "Imagine being asked by a young person "why do people enjoy spanking?" "What is fetish?" What is BDSM" "Explain 50 shades of grey?" " But in truth I have already been asked all those question by young people in the last 2 years. Young people have questions about 50 Shades of Grey, are we confident we are ready to answer them?
P.S. please forgive my atrocious spelling and grammar but let me know so I can change it