A (Partial) Defense of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

50 Shades of Grey defense

Let’s get this out of the way: Fifty Shades of Grey* has some massively problematic aspects. Its pathologization of dominant sexual behavior is deeply hypocritical, considering that the movie delights in that exact same behavior. And it’s especially distasteful to portray Christian Grey’s taste for BDSM sex as unhealthy while glossing over his borderline abusive behavior outside of the bedroom, like his habit of showing up at Anastasia’s house uninvited or selling off her possessions without asking.

But to consequently dismiss Fifty Shades of Grey as “bad for women” (or men for that matter) does it and its fans a disservice. For all Fifty Shades of Grey gets wrong about adult relationships and BDSM, it still offers something rare and valuable: a portrait of female sexuality that’s entirely by, for, and about women.

(* To clarify, were talking exclusively about Fifty Shades of Grey the movie here. Fifty Shades of Grey the book is a whole different beast, and as I haven’t read it I can’t discuss it.)

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Fifty Shades of Grey is by women.

Quick, name the last time we got a studio wide release that was directed by a woman, scripted by a woman, and based on a book by a woman. I’m sure it’s happened before. But considering that women directed only 7% of the 250 top-grossing movies of 2014, and scripted just 21% of them, I’m going to guess it’s exceedingly rare.

And look, I don’t want to generalize. I’m not saying any female filmmaker could’ve directed this film, or that no male filmmaker could have done a better job. But there is something exciting about seeing such a strongly feminine perspective (courtesy of director Sam Taylor-Johnson, screenwriter Kelly Marcel, and author E.L. James) in an industry dominated by male ones. It manifests in some interesting ways, as we’ll discuss later.

Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey is for women.

Despite copious evidence that male moviegoers are willing to watch a female-led film, and furthermore that a film can still do well at the box office without a large male audience, Hollywood still treats every female-led and/or female-driven success like a jarring anomaly. When a movie does have a female lead, they’re buried in snow on the poster, or the “girly” stuff is downplayed in favor of male-friendlier action sequences.

It’s refreshing, then, to see a movie that’s so unapologetically aimed at women. Men might find Fifty Shades of Grey hot, or they might not. Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t really give a fuck either way. In one telling moment, Ana strips down to reveal leg hair. And pubic hair. It’s quite a contrast from the waxed, shaved, buffed, and shined women who feature in most “general” (i.e., male-approved) cinematic fantasies — and something I suspect we might not have seen had Fifty Shades of Grey been shot from a male perspective.

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