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“Fifty Shades of Grey” – A Philosophical Review

Is case you have a boat.
Is case you have a boat.

Fifty Shades of Grey has sparked a lot of debate. Some like the fact that a popular movie now breaks the taboo on BDSM and seeks to challenge common stereotypes. Others condemn the movie for romanticizing violence.

So far, however, no philosophers seem to have joined the debate. That’s unfortunate, for how we should assess Fifty Shades and its BDSM theme depends on a range of philosophical issues such as consent, harm, voluntariness, respect, dignity, and the role of fiction.

BDSM is a somewhat radical topic, and for philosophical purposes, that is often an advantage. Radical topics – like thought experiments – put our principles to the test. (If you think Fifty Shades is grotesque, you should be warned that it is a walk in the park compared to many of the standard thought experiments in ethics).

For philosophical reasons – and philosophical reasons only, of course – I recently went to watch Fifty Shades of Grey.

Grey and Steele
To the extent that Fifty Shades has a plot, I shall now spoil it. The movie tells a straightforward story about Christian Grey – an intelligent, handsome, and very rich young man – and Anastasia Steele – an English literature major at a local college. They meet during an interview, find each other attractive, and initiate an affair. Christian is secretive, possessive, and controlling, and he is very much into BDSM. Anastasia lets Christian do some of his BDSM things with her, and she enjoys parts of it. Unfortunately for Christian, however, Anastasia isn’t actually into BDSM, so when things escalate beyond feather tickling and playful slaps, she freaks out and leaves him. And that’s it.

I might be naïve, but I understand neither how the movie challenges common stereotypes nor how it is supposed to romanticize violence.

Fifty Shades portrays BDSM as a rather strange and awkward practice, and it is hard to see how it gives the viewers any interesting insight into the nature of Christian’s desires. The only thing we are told is that his interest in BDSM might have been caused by bad experiences in his childhood. Anastasia, moreover, is shocked and disgusted when Christian (with her consent) whacks her with a belt, and her shock and disgust are portrayed as justified responses. If anything, Fifty Shades exploits rather than challenges common stereotypes about BDSM.

It is also unclear how Fifty Shades could be accused of being violent or of romanticizing violence. For one, it is filled with negotiations, so-called “safewords” are brought up several times, and Christian frequently reminds Anastasia that she can leave whenever she wants. He also insists, repeatedly, that they should sign a contract regulating the limits of their roleplay.

But even if negotiations and safewords are in place: Is it okay to display BDSM activities in a popular movie, or might this still be an unacceptable portrayal of violence?

To answer this, it might be useful to compare BDSM with other activities that we find in movies. On the one hand, we find kissing and cuddling. These are certainly less violent than BDSM. Kissing and cuddling, however, are not the only things that we find in movies – we also find, among other things, fighting and killing. Fighting and killing are common in popular movies, and we might therefore ask: What is most violent, BDSM or killing? Surely, killing is more violent. But if that is the case, then it is paradoxical how BDSM can be unacceptably violent while killing, apparently, is not.

It could be suggested, perhaps, that while BDSM is portrayed as something positive in a movie like Fifty Shades, killing is not. There are, however, two problems with this suggestion. First, many movies – even mainstream movies such as Star Wars and James Bond – portray killing more positively than Fifty Shades portrays BDSM. Second, is it even clear that BDSM counts as a form of violence? Though it might look violent, BDSM is a form of roleplay, and people engage in this kind of roleplay for a reason. It seems to give them intimacy and sexual pleasure, and for some, it appears to be cathartic. Regarding BDSM simply as violence fails to take into account what it is like for those involved.

To sum up, it is unclear how Fifty Shades can be said to challenge common stereotypes, and it is also unclear how it can be accused of being a violent movie. It doesn’t challenge stereotypes and, when I think it through, it is in fact one of the least violent movies that I have seen in months. There is no fighting and no killing in Fifty Shades. No shootings or explosions either. Just a dysfunctional BDSM relationship.

Ole Martin Moen (@oleMMoen) is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Philosophy at University of Oslo. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.

Illustration: Wikimedia Commons.

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18 Comment on this post

  1. So… you’ve never been in, or known someone who’s been in, an abusive relationship, then. Your definitions of “violence” in a romantic context are naiive in the extreme, and you would do well to read up on domestic abuse before addressing its depiction.

  2. @Grajing: I don’t deny that the relationship between Christian and Anastasia is, in some sense, abusive. Above I describe Christian as “secretive, possessive, and controlling,” and perhaps “abusive” could have been included as well, as long as it was made clear that he is not violent. Still, for the sake of the argument, let’s say that I’m wrong about this. Let’s say that Christian’s relationship with Anastasia is clearly abusive and clearly violent. We still face the question: Why cannot a movie rightfully depict violent and abusive relationships? Movies routinely depict all sorts of nasty behaviors, murder included. What could be objectionable is if a movie romanticizes violence and abuse (or murder). Fifty Shades of Grey, however, does none of that.

  3. I think the real “violence” of the film comes in the normalization of emotionally manipulative abuse masquerading as romance. Surely informed consent is a crucial factor separating healthy BDSM activities from something that should get an ethicist all hot and bothered. A review by Rosie Waterland at the website Mamamia points out several specific examples of Christian’s behavior that are big red flags for emotional abuse. If this film is pernicious, it is because such abusers have in it even more apologetics helping paint them as misunderstood and dashing, not abominable.

    1. Maybe the real perniciousness has nothing to do with BDSM – it is a red (grey?) herring – but with showing a controlling relationship as fine and deeply romantic. If not to the participants, then to the readers made to long for something like it. Normalizing unequal relationship power that follows standardized gender stereotypes, that might be a decent reason to dislike the book. There are no doubt worse offender novels and films out there (Twilight?), but 50 shades may be of extra interest because it is squarely aimed at the romance market. But again, is it perpetuating stereotypes worse than any of the other standard romance movies? Maybe the real reason people react is that it has been such a blockbuster, so besides some envy of the author there is a valid concern that this particular message gets transmitted everywhere.

      Then again, being gay I have not read the book or seen the film, so this is guesswork.

      It makes me wonder if we would be having this discussion if it had been a gay romance novel. Obviously the kinkiness would probably have been far higher and the likelihood of becoming a best-seller far lower, but there are problematic asymmetric homosexual relationships without the gender issue (and romance novels and films exploiting them). My guess is that people would have recognized and debated that aspect, but debated it far more sedately.

      Adding gender issues is multiplying the controversy; we could imagine making it worse by adding race – what if Anastasia was black? That seems to do it: every aspect of traditional but questioned inequality that gets added makes the story more problematic. A mixed up story where Anastasia was the dominant one and Christian was black would likely be less problematic, and far less likely to sell. Maybe the real issue here is that the story works so well in the marketplace *because* it goes along with stereotypes and assumptions, and many critics dearly would love a successful story that goes against them.

      1. Had there been a “Fifty Shades of Gay,” Anders, I’m sure it would be fun to watch.

        I agree that “Fifty Shades of Grey” would have been problematic if it had idealized controlling relationships. It does not, however, do that. Christian certainly does not come across as a great guy. What I think is most problematic about the movie, really, is that it puts BDSM in such a bad light. If someone believes that BDSM is inherently abusive, watching “Fifty Shades of Grey” is likely to intensify that belief.

        Here’s a convenient overview of contemporary psychological research on BDSM. It was published yesterday on the Psychology Today blog.

  4. So to kind of sum it up , you are trying to justify the bad behavior in one movie with that of others..What is troubling about this movie to me is that it reaffirms the stereotype that a smart, attractive, & intelligent woman is victim to poor choices in the romance world..choosing to give into her sexual desires with someone who isn’t worthy. Not taking the time to truly get to know this person before escalating the relationship.. The other stereotype is that someone can not overcome the abuse of his/ her past & become a loving partner.. That he is to be pitied & excused for his abusive & controlling behavior.. I mean women on the one hand scream they aren’t treated equally & yet flock to see a movie that says we are not smart enough to resist sexual temtation because we are too caught up in wealth, power & looks.. All superficial things & have no debth..

  5. Isn’t this conversation a little hard to calibrate? I mean Hollywood has portrayed sexually dysfunctional relationships with great glee for decades (Blue Velvet springs to mind… but there are literally hundreds of others – it’s a standard theme in noir-ish films, isn’t it?). Personally I think far more pernicious is when Hollywood tries to show (apparently in all seriousness) perfection in relationships – that’s a particularly toxic expectation to propagate. Few things are less justified and more damaging than the expectation that one’s life ought to/has a right to follow some happily ever after storyline.

    1. Yes, maybe we should be complaining more strongly about Disney Romances. A surprising number of people think there is One True Love waiting for them out there, and as soon as it is found (and a few exciting/awkward adventures had, with or without talking animals) everything will be fine ever after with no real psychological effort. That is likely harmful.

  6. It is a romance, there are many books that have sexually explicit parts to them as well as in many films. They all have there conflicts that during the story work to be resolved. Yes, there is bondage, but for most of it , it is to pleasure her first. When he found out she was a virgin, he didn’t take her to the play room, he took her to his room and was gentle with her. At the end when he takes the belt out, after she asks to see the worse – you can see that he is not enjoying it. The movie did a great job in showing his anguish and it shows that he is going through a transformation! I have seen a lot worse movies with violence, and abusive behaviour to both women and children.

  7. FWIW, I’ve discussed this post at my group blog, Policy of Truth. Practical Ethics doesn’t allow links in its combox, but you can find the relevant post easily enough by Googling my name, the name of the blog, and the title “Nagel on Sexual Perversion, Part 3 of 3,” posted on 2/14/15. The discussion is mostly in the combox, not the post itself.

  8. New generation type of Mills & Boon/Harlequin. Cliched stereotype characters: Male tall good looking, fabulous body, enigmatic, very rich and powerful; Female, Pretty, virginal innocent and so on… add some very tame BDSM for middle class housewives, and after a while our beautiful heroine (remains true to her heart=morally uncorrupted) and decides to turn her back on BDSM and return to safety of the missionary position. Her rejection of BDSM rather than conversion is necessary to satisfy the targeted readership of white anglo saxon protestants, who are avidly titillated by mild erotic literature but must eventually reject this as – unhealthy- unseemly and dangerous.
    I agree with Ole Martin Owen that this novel doesn’t challenge common stereotypes, I believe it just re-inforces them.

  9. Personally, I believe this move is about so much more then just an abusive relationship. Ana and Christian are able to control their relationship through ethical ways to combine sex and pain. All which require self-knowledge, communication skills, and emotional maturity in order to make both feel satisfied. Beyond that, Christian never forces violence upon her without her consent, therefore I believe that this film shouldn’t be considered “violent,” especially since there are way worse movies out there. Yes it involves BDSM but through romance, and if one is able to get past that then you’ll love it, don’t listen to the stereotypes because they’ll have you brainwashed and destroy what could have been an amazing movie.

  10. TL who wrote about Mr James in English lit 1984.

    What is philosophy without popcorn. The authentic 50 shades of grey’s roots go very deep, with wings, but not dished up at cineworld, it has took off which I invisaged it would get people talking I think it was Wayne dyer that said it was not so much what Jesus preached but the fact that people gathered, it was the crowds, similar to a busy market stall on a cold crisp Satarday morning, it can intrigue, not saying that the bible it not interesting, its actually quite deep, saturated in depth, there are still many unanswered questions, mind with regards to 50 Shades of grey, they say (a random bunch of people somewhere) its not so much the answers that people give its the questions they ask that are often intriguing. Okey dokey some facts, 50shades of grey (not shady grey) was written by two people its origins is with experience, quote Rogers experience for me….it can always be checked in new primary ways….end quote…. one of which decided to transform the script and her amazing experience into a love story, with a kink, sorting the wheat from the shaft in many respects, but equally or as equalls. The real Ana and Christian were philosophers they engaged in a dance, very much like empathy but as with empathy I feel that you can only take something, one or a story as far as you have gone yourself, so to address some facts if that’s possible at this stage, the mind boggles, making the impossible possible. The idea to market it as a phenomenon has its roots in phenomenology, I studied psychology and particularly Rogerian philosophy (when not gazing out of the window which at this point in my life I had achieved) hense the references to the subconscious and the self reflective themes weave in and out of the book. A great deal of the marketing has been done by oh so bad its good informative sales tactics, if somethings too bad to be true go watch it and see for yourself and all that. Challenging steriotypes, yes yes and again yes. So if a comment had been made for example take the interview with Barbara Walters (Nice lady) something along the lines of you don’t look like someone who is into this, the authentic auther would have replied with and what does a person who is into BDSM look like? whips chains and ill gotten gains, feathers, leathers in all kinds of weathers, “excuse my grammar that’s why I needed a ghost writer – editor BIG, HUGE mistake. Role play it is, mind over matter, sex secondary, intellectual stimulation masturbate with the mind, its all about the drive, but don’t share one with anyone, the taste, the pallet, subtleties, did Patrick Swayze (rip legend) in the film when he lifted his partners arms above her head look at any point like he was standing on her toe, and did she look like she had been working out with just her left arm? Class, its about the class, all knickers and no fur coat to turn it on its head, interesting review, the rope would not only lead you to a boat, but a rock face. 🙂 Back to basics with BDSM. as above so below…I return to my place at the ocean edge (well not really) and watch the sun set just waiting for the world to catch up.. anyone wishing to join me is quite welcome…

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  13. Fifty Shades reenforces the stereotype that women want to be controlled. Not any more. I am glad there are other books like “Two and a Half Weeks to Chocolate” out there that debunk that myth. Sexier and more interesting than Fifty Shades, the lovers get tested before they embark on a relationship. “No” and “Stop” are perfectly acceptable safe words. I’m glad there is some push back to Fifty Shades with better-written novels that don’t compromise on heat and story.

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