On May 8, Fifty Shades of Grey became available in DVD format. Marking its release, this post reflects on the mass consumer consumption of this provocative film and the abuse inherent in its script previously discussed here by Michele Stopera Freyhauf. Grossing $500 million dollars at the box office, Fifty Shades will most certainly sell as an unedited DVD. While some self-proclaimed feminists like Emilie Spiegel commend the story, feminists and conservatives slam it, often pressing viewers to reject the film and deny it financial support. Nonetheless, The Fifty Shade of Grey franchise will most probably have a sequel in 2016, continuing to amass hundreds of millions of dollars.
Concerns about the book and film include how the storyline presents a romantic ideal for women wrapped surreptitiously in abuse. Peering deeper at the narrative reveals the potential for conflicted emotional responses including feelings of guilt and shame, revulsion and interest, disgust and seduction. Confronted with the writing of this post, I responded in turn, torn between whether to watch the film or not. While wanting to deny the franchise any monetary gain, I also wanted to both know what I was rejecting and what, if any, value existed in viewing.
Emilie Spiegel reports that participation in sex in Fifty Shades takes place between two consenting adults. Factually this is true, yet the movie introduces a young virgin and college student in Anastasia to a wealthy, aggressive, sexually experienced and abused Christian Grey. Alas, the story immediately intertwines exchanges of power and sex not between equals but between a superior male and an inferior female. These power dynamics underlie the scenes of abuse Stopera Freyhauf articulates. While the dynamics do vacillate (Anastasia frequently “takes control”), they do so to serve a narrative of traumatic violence within the film, not the least of which emerges in Christian’s traumatic past and which also eerily reflects the tragedy of real-life abuse.
The movie’s narrative reflects a dance that occurs between masochists and sadists. According to psychoanalyst Leon Wurmser, this dance manifests in severe psychosis as a result of trauma. The sadist declares: “I can do anything I want to you and you will always be there,” while the masochist responds, “Do anything you want to me, but don’t leave me.” 35 minutes into the movie, Anastasia asks Christian if he is a sadist. He responds in a barely perceptible nod, answering “I am a dominant.” Anastasia inquires about her recompense. He answers “Me.” That Christian asserts his self as a reward to her acceptance of his punishing her illustrates a level of perversion that simultaneously reflects his inability to tolerate ambiguity and feeling, resulting from his own abuse as a child. Through the lens of psychoanalysis, sexualization of traumatic experiences, a truth for Christian made more and more evident as the film progresses, underlies character perversion.
A traumatic sexual narrative ensues effectively and most probably serving as a traumatic re-enactment where the film literally mediates the sexual contact that often becomes a way to constitute self-worth, which mitigates the shame of prior trauma in survivors of sexual abuse. That is, the sexual scenes in the movie envelop the viewer into a virtual reality of sex that replicates the sexual experience itself, especially insofar as the brain neurologically cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality. This viewer both attracted and repulsed hopes for a healing repetition, or a relief from the deep hunger for love denied by abusers, but instead more of the same perpetuates itself in the movie: a powerful man engages a female submissive who prays that her own strength and resistance will finally lead to love.
While neither compellingly scripted nor particularly riveting, the narrative promises reconciliation in sexual fulfillment or romantic promise. “Hope” manifests as a dream through sex of regulated affect and secure attachment; that is, both Anastasia and Christian (in turns) look to sex and BDSM as both ways to assuage painful feelings and to ensure relational bonding. Wurmser calls this deployment of sexualization a very archaic defense that attempts to regulate the uncontrollable affects and emotions resulting from incest or abuse.
Fifty Shades’ message reverberates in a world where, according to Victims of Crime, sexual abuse is pervasive. One in five girls is sexually abused, and one in eight of every boy suffers the same; it is likely that a decent segment of this film’s viewership are victims. Indeed, the protagonists both suffer. Further, 28% of US youths between 14 -17 are sexually victimized, and children who have had an experience of rape or attempted rape in adolescents are 13.7 percent more likely to experience rape in college or beyond. A vast array of symptoms emerges as a result of childhood sexual trauma, many of which surface in the movie’s script.
In everyday reality, sexuality enacted to assuage pain (like that Christian experiences) leads to shame. Along with sexualization, or in the likely case that sex fails to achieve affect regulation, survivors employ an additional line of defense against shame in the form of aggressive wishes, impulses, and fantasies thrown in as a means to reestablish control; aggression and sex presumably stop the further tumble into a regressive spiral. In the real world, as Wurmser asserts, “excitement turns, as affect regression, into over excitement and overstimulation,” which leads inevitably “to a crash, to a painful disappointment.” The movie ends after a scene Anastasia herself considers abuse; yet disappointed, she still has hope, softly calling “Christian” with tears in her eyes as the elevator to his apartment closes.
Fifty Shades of Grey represents a narrative within the same sexual trajectory of Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Pretty Woman, and Twilight; each offers a seductive and dangerous hope to the abused, and perhaps to all of us: that such suffering can lead to love. The nudity, intense sex, and sadism, create higher stakes, but what is truly different? Is this the story we reject, or the story we want to deny? For some of us, it is the story we want to believe ends in hope, but afraid to say so, we silence ourselves. In any case, I think the narrative these kinds of films present beg our attention and discussion. Instead of hiding whatever sexual fantasies might possess us, like Anastasia hides from her closest friend and roommate early in the movie, we must talk about these narratives to see what they reveal, so that we can discover what the real truth of sex is for our own bodies and in order to release ourselves from the spiral of shame such narratives elicit.
Dr. Stephanie N. Arel is a Post-Doctoral Fellow with the Institute of the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion at Boston University working on the Sex Difference and Religion Project. She has taught college courses in English and Comparative Religion, and her research focuses on trauma, shame, Christian formation, and theological contributions to the growing body of scholarship in affect theory. She completed a PhD from Boston University’s School of Theology and is currently training in trauma modalities for clinical treatment at the New York Institute for the Psychotherapies.