Fifty Shades Darker & The Danger of Misrepresenting BDSM

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Heteronormative, female-driven fantasies about being swept away by symmetrical, rich men have sold billions of paperbacks, literally—last year erotic novels moved north of 1.1 billion in copies sold. The Fifty Shades phenomenon, which began as a fan fiction spin-off of the Twilight book series, pivots around this core circumstance. Author E.L. James imagines Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) barely resisting Christian’s lavish gestures throughout their courtship—not because she identifies them as the active manipulations that they are, but because even a novice, like Steele, knows it’s not cute to be overly entitled.  Steele has been waiting for a character like Christian (Jamie Dornan) her entire, virginal, bibliophile life. And now that she’s got him, it’s time to save him from his dark sexuality while providing minimal pushback to his aggressive courting tactics.  Steele’s strategy to change Grey, by withholding her consent, coupled with Grey’s the-rules-don’t-apply-to-me sadism produces a story about misguided expectations, personal demons, and manipulation—which are not attributes of authentic BDSM play. The BDSM space is defined by extraordinary communication, love and trust.   

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in “50 Shades Darker”

It’s disheartening that a female lead in a movie about sex and power dynamics illustrates her independence by turning down a steak, because it wasn’t her idea.  She’s hungry for sexual experience; she’s hit the sugar-daddy jackpot and wants to secure her position as the chosen one. So, she flirts with asserting her own rules of engagement, she timidly wears the costumes he provides, and she allows him to toy with her budding exhibitionism. What’s problematic is that reluctant participation is not consent. Unresolved plot points and fairy tale gestures shuffle Steele from scene to scene—not her own free will. On top of that, she’s chasing happily ever after, like a teenage boy chases tail—it’s all endorphins and fantasies. Without the helicopter, yacht, penthouse, and sports cars, all that remains is the tale of a sexually abused (and abusive) stalker who sniffs out a virgin, ambushes her at every turn, and gives her an ultimatum: consent or be forgotten.  

Ironically, the kink-centric franchise reintroduces BDSM culture into the contemporary mainstream while unapologetically offering zero evidence of BDSM as healthy practice.

As she’s submerged into Christian’s world, Anastasia becomes so detached from the practicality of existence that she routinely storms out of situations, abandoning her keys and purse, presumably because she knows her boyfriend’s manservant will make sure her things find their way back to her. She struggles to assert her independence in meaningful ways, while relying on the conveniences of Grey’s wealth to mitigate the unfamiliar process of converting a man to her vision of a normal sexual appetite. We’re expected to swallow all the foul play and red flags as par for the BDSM course. When the motions we’re force-fed are simply Grey-specific realities anchored in secrets and sadism.

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in “50 Shades Darker”

Ironically, the kink-centric franchise reintroduces BDSM culture into the contemporary mainstream while unapologetically offering zero evidence of BDSM as healthy practice. Since Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), the global BDSM community has been vocal about the franchise’s misrepresentation of their subculture—specifically the insinuation that the desire to play these consensual kink games derives from dark, abusive pasts. In Fifty Shades Darker (2017) the big reveal was that Christian was tortured as a child, and sexually abused as a teenager (by Kim Basinger’s character)—thus indicating the lone reason Christian pathologically desires torturing women. In an uncharacteristic meltdown, Christian proclaims that he is not simply a ‘dominant’ (as in a consensual BDSM counterpart to a ‘submissive’) but that he is a true sadist, and gets off on abusing women who look like his late, drug-addled mother. Without offering an alternative, less terrifying, context for sadomasochistic desires, this plot point stands out as a glaring disservice to actual BDSM players.

 At best, the Fifty Shades franchise’s success presents an opportunity to ask your partner if they’d enjoy something up their butt, just for funsies.

In fact, according to Clarisse Thorn (The S&M Feminist), “In my experience, it’s easier for people to get into BDSM if they don’t have a history of abuse, people who are in a more stable place in their lives.” As a subculture, BDSM is mysterious and taboo—and is represented by an enormously broad theater of pleasures. The spectrum is fluid, you can cherry pick your delights, and there is open dialogue at every stage: from plotting, to acting out scenes, to healing. But despite the large amount of responsible literature available, the full-service Internet elicits the question, is that a Christmas ornament stapled to her who-ha? GTFO.  It’s easy to get it twisted.

And then there’s Leila, Christian’s previous sub, who attempts suicide and stalks Anastasia and Christian. Leila seemingly represents the ‘darker’ by-product of too much time in the ‘red room.’ Leila also symbolizes the physical and emotional duress inherent to sadomasochistic activity. The filmmakers decided that they didn’t want audiences confusing their films for glorifications of domestic abuse, so they withheld the welts, bruises, and blood and replaced them with a one-stop wayward woman.  However, in subtracting the physical evidence of BDSM play in real time, they’ve left out the requisite healing phase, and misinformed audiences on the physical realities of BDSM in practice. In the first film, even after being whipped, hard, six times with a belt, Anastasia has no welts, just tears. In micro-managing interpretations of the film’s expressions, filmmakers have brushed over the fact that even bruises and welts are okay within the boundaries of consent.  That reality may be hard to swallow for mainstream viewers, but it’s a tenant of healthy, consensual adventurism.

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in “50 Shades Darker”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take an active FetLife account to recognize that 50 Shades Darker is more about tickling teenagers and housewives with godly wealth, and less about illuminating a misunderstood sexual culture. What they’ve achieved is painting Christian’s sexual desires, and effectively all sadomasochistic desires, as an appendage of dark childhood.  In reality, members of the BDSM community are healthy, willful individuals who have created unique spaces for sexual exploration on their own terms. Anastasia’s clear and present task is to change Christian and show him that love will set him free.  But this film fails to illustrate that love hinges on respect; BDSM, in real life, is the ultimate expression of mutual trust when practiced responsibly.

Like so many misunderstood identities, it’s impossible to talk about BDSM players without bringing up their number one bully: conservative hegemony. When referenced publically, it’s the quickest way to dry up every pussy in earshot. If we collectively continue to accept inaccurate stories, as alternative facts, we lose the privilege of criticizing foreign spaces that we only perceive through incomplete truths.  As an afterthought, these films police sexuality under the guise of escapism. It’s lame to hyper-analyze mainstream entertainment, but injustice is injustice.  At best, the Fifty Shades franchise’s success presents an opportunity to ask your partner if they’d enjoy something up their butt, just for funsies.

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