Fifty Shades: A Critique of the Critique

Credit: Focus Features
Credit: Focus Features

Since Fifty Shades of Grey came out on Valentine’s Day, criticism about the content of both the book and its film adaptation have resurged. Many of my Facebook friends started posting about “Boycott Fifty Shades of Grey”, claiming that it promotes domestic violence and gives a wrong lesson as to what love is about. Possibly offensive comments with regard to mental health abounded on my news feed, one friend even called it “Fifty Shades of Sociopath”.

While the storyline clearly does not represent all the complex sexual identities of the numerous individuals involved in the BDSM community, the book and film are not phenomenal, but they are not complete junk either. I found (unlike most viewers, who were concerned about the content) that it was actually the responses that were problematic.

Fifty Shades of Grey is one example of one person’s BDSM fantasy. A preference for violent sex is complex on its own, it can be messy, and E.L. James’ rendition certainly includes all of these aspects. The fact that her story includes elements of emotional abuse is controversially as much a part of her fantasy as sexual aggression. Moreover, when writers and directors make these fantasies public, they are revealing a highly vulnerable side of themselves and/or their imagination, which might have certain elements of darkness, but which deserve to exist nonetheless.

Some self-proclaimed members of the BDSM community have stepped up since the release of the book to dispel myths which they feel are being perpetuated about their sexuality. Many of these critiques strongly emphasised that, unlike Grey, they were not abused as children, and do not have traumas or ‘daddy issues’. And they are right: not everyone in the BDSM community has been pushed into the scene through negative past experiences. However, for some people, sexual preferences are related to mental health or incidences of past abuse, the criticism which claims that the book completely misrepresents people who enjoy BDSM casts shame on those who use it as a way of reclaiming sexuality. To fetishise BDSM as a daring erotic trend for only the most sexually open-minded gives the false impression that it is a choice to prefer it, which, as any sexual orientation, it isn’t. At the same time, the fact that BDSM is sometimes linked to mental health issues does not render it shameful.

It appears to be difficult for some feminists to accept that masochistic sexual preferences can be justifiable. Perhaps it represents a twisted way in which some of us have internalised the patriarchy, a preference for violent sex can be difficult and embarrassing to admit to. On the other hand, no one should be forced to sacrifice sexual pleasure for what others might consider incoherent with the values we promote on a daily basis. BDSM is, for many, a way to mediate an internal contradiction and a safe way of expressing preferences that may or may not have been forced upon them. And while Fifty Shades of Grey is certainly not the most interesting representation of this struggle, nor does it describe everyone’s experience, I hope that it could help to make an unconventional sexual preference more accepted.

“The release of 50 Shades of Grey sets a dangerous precedent.” – an opposing article by Zahra Deera

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