All You Need is Love: MJ discusses Fifty Shades of Grey
As you’re no doubt aware, the Fifty Shades of Grey film adaptation premieres today. I will probably be going to see it (review to come). I have also read all three books, which I enjoyed sexually (at times) and also in the same way I would enjoy reading any trashy novel. I generally feel that it can be credited for its focus on female sexual enjoyment and for starting conversations everywhere about women and sex, and about sex for women. However, I read it a few years ago now, pre-Mortimer, and since then not only have I come to resent it for its clichéd portrayal of BDSM, but I often think of the relationship it portrays and feel very anxious.
When discussing Fifty Shades of Grey with friends and family* the main topic of discussion is the sexual content of the book. However, what I find disturbing is not only the type of relationship the story portrays, but the lack of discussion surrounding it. In many ways Anastasia is bent, twisted and moulded around the character of Christian. Her half-formed love of British literature is her only apparent interest and it seems her entire life has been leading up to the moment at which she is found (tracked down and stalked) by Christian who turns her into someone worthy of story. Anastasia is not a wholly formed character, whereas Christian really is. The character of Anastasia, presented with the pretence of bringing female enjoyment to the forefront, is really just a lens through which we discover the ineffable Christian Grey. The excuse for this, or the justification, is that Anastasia is just really in love with him.
I call bullshit. Firstly, I just don’t understand how we’ve got so far but still one of the most influential books of the decade is about a woman who serves absolutely no other purpose than to tell the story of a man. Fifty Shades of Grey is not about Anastasia and even if it is about her enjoyment, that’s not portrayed particularly well (do orgasms ACTUALLY explode around you? Really? Do they really?). Ultimately, Fifty Shades of Grey is the story of another man who has enlightened, completed and made whole another woman who had absolutely nothing better to do.
However, more specifically, what really guiles me about the story is the imbalance in the relationship between the two main characters. It’s a relationship in which Christian always wins and Anastasia always loses. A lot of the time, Christian will behave in a certain way (controlling, angry, unfair), Anastasia will get upset about it, it will then become clear it’s because of his troubled past and that he’s very sorry and that all he wants to do is love her, and Anastasia will yield. I do not doubt the character of Christian. I do not believe, truly, that he is being manipulative or wants to hurt Anastasia. I trust that things are made difficult for him and that he struggles with a lot of things we all take for granted. I understand this and I don’t admonish it. But my thoughts are this: just because his actions are explicable, or because they do not aim to upset or anger, that does not mean that they did not cause upset or anger or were necessarily pardonable. Christian’s needs and wants wholly eclipse the needs and wants of Anastasia, because he’s had a harder life. It seems to me that he is forgiven for more because he has suffered more. I can’t bring myself to agree with this approach. Just because you can understand why someone is behaving a certain way, or demanding a certain thing, doesn’t mean you have to allow it, give in to it or shape your life around it. This is the crux of my problem with Fifty Shades of Grey: I think Anastasia is expected to make way, make space and make time for the all the dark, shady needs of Christian Grey, because if he loves her and she loves him, what more should she ask for? Anastasia Steele loves Christian Grey and that should be enough explanation for everything she puts up with.
I can see myself and the women around me learning, slowly, that this is an unfair, unrealistic and ultimately damaging expectation. We are discovering that we need to add another things to the ever-growing list of pressures we face as women (be skinny, be sexy, be demure, be feisty, be strong, be graceful, be talented, be modest, be wealthy, be mother, be CEO, be brilliant); we are also expected to selfless in the face of love. Some of us have been in relationships where we have, without thinking, forgotten ourselves because our male partners demanded more of us and we, because we felt we should, gave more and more until we had very little left. At the very base of it we all felt the same thing: this is what you do when you love someone, this is just how it is. I no longer believe that to be valid. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, and telling him of some of the struggles I was facing in my own relationship, and his reply was to sigh and exclaim ‘is love not enough anymore?’. I turned to him and, reluctantly, said ‘no, not for me.’
I’ve been taught all my life, through books, films, friends and parents, that love from another person should be enough for me when it comes to my relationship, when it comes to my life. I now know, in the same way that I know real-life Christian Grey would not give up his billions if Anastasia asked him to, that the love of another human alone is not enough for me. Don’t get me wrong, love has made me so deeply happy, but I want more, and I expect more from a relationship and I will not apologise for that. Fifty Shades of Grey and Anastasia’s compliance is just another example of how girls are taught not to expect or ask for more than love, and for that reason I hate it.
I’m looking forward to seeing the film with my friends, and discussing it at length afterwards over many many wines. However, I cannot help but feel a certain unease when I imagine of my eighteen year old self watching this film, and how at that age and that stage in my life it would reinforce to me that I need to make all my choices taking into account that securing the love of a man is the most important. I can’t shake the feeling that this aspect of the film will cause far more damage than any scenes of BDSM.
*My dad and I had quite a heated debate during which he argued that men would be lynched if they were found to be reading porn on the tube… but that’s another story!