WARNING! This article is full of possible triggers: sexual harassment, rape, consent, PTSD, parental and spousal abuse, acts of sexual violence.
Fifty Shades Darker film, follow up to the equally appalling Fifty Shades of Grey, is just RUBBISH! As a psychologist and a member of the BDSM community, I am going to tell you everything that’s misleading, dangerous, unsafe, and just plain wrong.
I started by watching the film and 16 minutes in and I had identified; 6 stalker actions, 3 low self-esteem, 2 Stockholm victim actions, 2 violations of consent, 2 acts of aggression, 1 spousal abuse, 1 parental abuse, 2 PTSD, 1 direct manipulation. AND 4 times BDSM was misunderstood and 3 times psychological disorders were linked to BDSM in monstrously incorrect ways. I realised that I needed a spreadsheet and a coding system not unlike Ken Smiths’ Guide to the Bible. It also meant, to my horror, that I needed to re-watch the first 16 minutes.
The Fifty Shades series by E.L. James and its subsequent films are extremely popular for introducing BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadomasochism) into middle-class bedrooms. Most readers are now aware that the books are thinly veiled fan-fiction based on the Twilight books by Stephanie Meyer which are YA (young adult) fan-fiction based upon the Vampire books by Anne Rice. Like much fan-fic the books are pure introspective masturbatory fantasy with no attempt to base upon any real life facts. When James wrote the “on-line novels” it was clear that she had little to no experience with actual BDSM or the lifestyle and absolutely no experience with the psychology behind it – or any psychological knowledge at all.
The movie is 125 minutes long (excluding closing credits) and my spreadsheet had 95 entries! I coded NINE separate themes, some of which broke down into several subthemes (17 in total). When a research psychologist looks for themes in a piece of discourse they usually only find 3 or 4. That’s the level of how messed up this is. If you want to see the code file it’s here: 50 shade darker coding. I am going to dive right in and try to group these themes together as much as I can for tl;dr reasons.
Abuse & PTSD
Did you know that that everyone who has suffered child and sexual abuse would be in jail for horrific acts of murder, abuse, and rape if it weren’t for BDSM? James seems to think so…
Not 25 seconds in and we have the first and most dangerous issue I have with the book/film. James introduces the notion, and later double downs, that the trauma suffered in childhood from parental abuse and witnessing spousal abuse creates sadists and is the reason why individuals practice BDSM. We are shown Grey’s* father beat his mother, his father abuse him as a child, and later his mother ODs and he is alone with the body for 3 days before being rescued.
This is supposed to symbolise a Dominant/father submissive/Mother relationship where the father was a sadist and Grey has the genetic inheritance for sadism from his father which he has fully explored through BDSM. Largely with the coerced (contracted) consent of his employed “submissives”. They were chosen to resemble his intended victim, his mother whom he blames for his trauma and subsequent abuse from his Father. She did not protect him and later escaped through death leaving him alone. James just set up Grey as a sociopath with serial killer pathology. Anyone watch Dexter?
Grey is also later sexually abused by an older woman who trains him in BDSM. Grey then uses that “training” as therapy when dealing with his own PTSD not realising that the entire relationship was abusive. True sadists are sociopaths and they do not have empathy for their victims – and I mean victims. This back story is fucked up. The correlations it makes between abuse, PTSD and kinky sex are untenable. Even in the case for just Grey as a single character, sociopaths cannot learn empathy and they ultimately escalate into greater crimes. BDSM would not be stop gap – it would make it much worse!
Online porn is not a true representation of BDSM. Sorry folks, the people at Kink.com are actors. A master/slave (dominant/submissive) is created around excellent communication, control issues and CONSENT. The whole idea of a written contract where untried, you can insist on everything from dress to sexual acts is BULLSHIT. In the original zine, James left out the use of “safe words” clearly showing she was clueless that BDSM has rules.
At the heart of a D/S (mater/slave) relationship is issues of control and trust. When you have little control over your own life choices, even simple everyday ones, it can be welcoming to either be trusted to make the decisions or trust someone else to do that for you. Obedience is a sign of that trust. Never going beyond what the other person is capable of is also a sign of trust.
Creating a contract and saying the relationship starts NOW is just not how it works. It’s how it fails. Loads of guys (cause in my book they aren’t men) think that 50 shade contract = free prostitute/cook/cleaner/punching bag. UH HUH! D/S relationship evolve over a lot of time, often years before they get to the level of the books/movie. Trust is the hardest thing to create, to build upon, and to not betray. Control is only surrendered BY BOTH parties when trust is fully and well established.
What do I mean by both?
A secret James didn’t know, submissives/bottom control the play. They say when, how much and how intense. If the dominant/top tries to control the play, the submissive will leave them. It is the job of the d/t to listen and to care and to ensure the s/b safety, mental health and physical well-being. It’s the s/b’s job not to “top from the bottom”. This means to relinquish control because of the trust between them. But by the time a pair becomes like the Grey/Anna relationship sexually, most of the bugs will have been worked out. Mainly through communication and the use of safe words. Safe words, btw are SACRED and must not be ignored or used lightly.
When Grey ends his relationship with Leila, and most likely all of his other submissives, it’s a breach of trust. You don’t just say “I’m bored” or “she got too into it” and tear up a contract and not expect consequences. Grey created that situation and people who do that love that type of post-relationship drama to feed their own low self-esteem. Look how messed up I can make someone, that makes me powerful. That doesn’t make Grey a prince – it makes him a Trump (feel free to replace that last word with “dick”.)
Cinderella/Charm Man Syndrome
“A dark fairy tale…” goes the tagline. there are loads of Cinderella moments in the film where Anna’s choice get swept away from her by Prince Charming. For instance, she is shown a room full gowns but is told what to wear. She is whisked away to have her hair done by what turns out to be an old and still current flame. These actions describe the Charm/ing Man Syndrome. This is where a person is charming and generous and quickly takes control and once that control is established the truth of a violent, disrespectful, manipulative and condescending character appears and is a precursor to harassment and abuse. We see this type of behaviour in Jose Jame when his gallery show is images of Anna and he sells the images to Grey without her consent – but oh what a great show and isn’t she flattered? Later the new boss, Jack**, just oozes of Charm Man and oddly the HR Manager. Grey, well, he’s the hero/prince and stereotypical. (yuck)
We also get Anna comparing every man in the movie to her idea of Prince Charming and finding them all wanting. The premise of the movie is that you can change a violent sociopath into a kinky kitten by the love of a good partner. Now we are talking about fairy tales.
Sexual Harassment & Stalking
E.L. James has massive stalker fantasies. There I said it. Grey is a predatory stalker. Hyde a resentful stalker. Leila a rejected stalker and it is probable that Elaina will join her ranks. Grey watches her invasively; has an in-depth background file, replaced her phone and laptop, bought the company she works for. Jack wants what Grey has and follows her to the ball, steals family photos, sexually harasses Anna. Leila wants Grey’s attention so follows Anna, destroys her car, threatens to shoot her. These people are desperately fucked up.
While some people do act this way, not usually in such close proximation. Unless we are talking about workplace sexual harassment. That shit goes on all the time everywhere and is inexcusable. The HR manager is the one who really makes me angry. Through the looks she gives Jack over Anna when Jack asks her out for a drink, it is clear that she knows about the other complaints and women leaving that position previously and the reasons why. This makes her complicit in the harassment. To what end we don’t as yet know.
Does being submissive make you prey?
Control & Self Esteem
Another huge misunderstanding from James is that she seems to equate all introverts with low self-esteem with being submissive. And that being submissive makes you a victim in waiting. The character of Anna is entirely 2 dimensional. Never are her needs for punishment and pain explored. Never is her willingness to give up control entirely or ever explained. Her mother at one point says that Anna always knew what she wanted/her own mind. But that is not evident. She is continually flip-flopping on her control issues and while she starts standing up to Grey for what she wants, the plot defeats her one battle after another. She agrees to go to dinner to JUST to talk but allows herself to be pulled into the alley to make out. She barely agrees to go to the ball and when the choice is offered to her (dress, jewellery etc…) she allows Grey to tell her what to wear. A big thing is made over whether she goes to NY on business and allows Grey to dissuade her (plot device Jack makes her deference to Grey a good decision). Anna agrees to marry Grey and now she has enemies…
Grey throughout the movie and books, shows the very low level of his self-esteem by his need to stalk Anna. His total lack of trust and his boundary issues. Low self-esteem is a universal issue, not confined to BDSM (see what I did there?).
It’s not all bad…
As the movie goes on there are some legitimate moments of consensual sex and negotiation. Anna asks Grey if she can wash off the red lipstick denoting his boundaries and he responds with, “don’t stray from the lines”. This is good and healthy and she builds trust by literally not violating his boundaries by crossing the line. It’s a bit of a heavy-handed attempt at a subliminal message, which reminds us yet again that this is fanfic.
- Was an attack on the English Language as a whole
- Was a stolen plotline from another BETTER movie/tv show (check out 01:24:30)
- Was just bad plot
- Anything else that annoyed me
*Not referring to the main male character by the first name not because men have a right to dignity of the last name and women are inferior and go by first names. But because I keep seeing Mr.Grey from Stephen King’s excellent Dreamcatcher.
**Fuck me! Jack Hyde? JeCKly and HYDE? FFS – get an original idea!