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

Fifty Shades of Grey - pencil

Fifty Shades of Grey is about a woman.

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan receive equal billing on the poster, have done similar amounts of press, and gets similar amounts of screentime. But make no mistake: this is Ana’s movie. She’s the protagonist, the story is told from her point of view, and it’s entirely about her journey from a timid virgin to a confident sexual being.

Christian’s arc is only relevant to the narrative insofar as it relates to Ana. We get to know him when Ana does, and see him the way Ana does. We care about his character arc because Ana does, not because he himself is of much interest. (To be fair, the last part might be Dornan’s fault for being a dull version of Christian.) The only major deviation from Ana’s perspective is a late scene in which Christian monologues while Ana is asleep, and even then we’re only given the information so we can better understand what’s going on with the troubled man that Ana loves so much.

Fifty Shades of Grey - Dakota Johnson as Anastasia

Fifty Shades of Grey‘s heroine has sexual agency.

When we first meet Ana, she’s exactly what the shrinking violet you’d expect — shy, naive, and so naturally submissive she doesn’t even protest when her roommate steals her sandwich right out of her hands. As it turns out, however, one of the joys of Fifty Shades of Grey is watching her blossom into a confident sexual being.

While Christian is the one who initially pursues Ana, she takes an increasingly proactive role in their relationship. She asks questions, does research, and sets limits. Indeed, the single sexiest scene in the whole film is the one in which Ana calls a business meeting to negotiate her agreement with Christian. Ana isn’t being subjugated by Christian; she’s making an active decision to let him dominate her on her terms. That distinction makes all the difference.

All the while, Ana continues to push for the romantic relationship she really wants, instead of settling for the purely sexual one Christian prefers. True, a self-admitted commitmentphobe probably isn’t the best guy to try and wrest a commitment from — but give the girl credit for knowing what she wants, and going after it.

Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey focuses on female pleasure.

Though the whips and chains are Christian’s idea, the pleasure is all Ana’s. Johnson is plenty naked in this movie — more so, and more often, than her co-star is — but not so we can ogle her beautiful body. It’s in service of watching her, and by extension the female audience, receive pleasure.

Not for nothing, the only instance of oral sex in this movie is performed by Christian on Ana. If you don’t think that’s noteworthy, remember it was just a few years ago that Blue Valentine got slammed with an NC-17 for daring to show Ryan Gosling pretend to go down on Michelle Williams. Meanwhile, Christian claims to enjoy his trysts with Ana, but the movie is not terribly concerned with making sure he gets his rocks off. I’m not sure we even see his O-face in the film, whereas we get many loving shots of Ana shuddering with delight.

Fifty Shades of Grey - Jamie Dornan as Christian

Fifty Shades of Grey is a specifically female fantasy.

We see sexual and romantic fantasies play out all the time in mainstream films, but like everything else about mainstream films they tend to be crafted by men and catered toward an assumed male audience. Fifty Shades of Grey offers a peek at a specifically female fantasy, and again, doesn’t bother trying to cater to the men in the audience.

That’s not to say all women want what Ana does. However, the film does tap into some common themes of female fantasies, from the coercive element of Christian and Ana’s dom-sub relationship to Mr. Grey’s Mr. Darcy-esque appeal. (For a much more detailed analysis of Fifty Shades of Grey‘s relationship to female experience and fantasy, check out this excellent essay on EW.)

In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey‘s version of the female gaze isn’t even a gender-flipped version of the male gaze, but its own thing entirely. Dornan isn’t objectified to nearly the degree that female stars are in many male-oriented movies. Instead, as discussed above, the camera zeroes in on Ana and the pleasure she’s feeling.

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