If you follow the Urban Dater on Twitter, you already know that I went to see Fifty Shades of Grey this last weekend (after downing three drinks in quick succession at the nearby Applebee's, naturally). The dear, dashing Bastard Keith did the same, and after much conversation between the two of us, we wanted to bring a hilariously informal discussion regarding our takes on the film to you.
Who the Hell Are We?
For those of you who aren't familiar with me: I'm Betty Mars, the Managing Editor here at the Urban Dater. In a former life, I wrote under the name Tizzy Wall for a variety of publications; you can read more about my background here. I'm coming at this review as a retired professional dominatrix, and I'm a personal player as well. If you aren't already, you can follow me @martianbetty.
Bastard Keith is a burlesque MC, singer, writer and gadabout. He is the inventor of “Burletiquette.” With his partner Rosebud he founded The Sophisticates, the only burlesque show to be thrown out of the Plaza Hotel for indecency. He hosts regularly at the Slipper Room and The Bridges, and appears in various shows both throughout New York and nationwide. He hosted Revealed Burlesque for its entire run and was the last weekly host at Galapagos Art Space. He has emceed large events for Vice and Bacardi.
Be warned: This is very long, FULL of spoilers (some of which won't make sense if you haven't at least read a synopsis) and you'll love every little bit of it.
Update: If you're also interested in more resources on proper BDSM conduct, check out our follow up article from Chris Hall, “What is the Difference Between BDSM and Abuse?”
Betty: So, first of all, a nice thing: They used condoms! And the condom usage was obvious. That was novel. THAT'S an interesting choice, especially considering how the rest of the relationship was the romanticization of an abusive shitshow. Why that, over showing a healthy relationship?
Keith: Yes! Totally nice that the abusive stalker used protection. I noticed it and was appreciative that they made him opening it a SEXY MOVE. It also gets at the heart of why the movie is such a whiplash BIZARRE experience. It's this tasteful, considered adaptation of a truly horrifying source. The fact that it's done in a tasteful way only serves to highlight the problems of the text.
Book vs. Movie: Who Are These People?
Betty: Christian Grey is written so poorly (full disclosure: I haven't read the books, although from what I understand, those are also written poorly, so not surprising). Anastasia felt…stupid, but I could understand her motivation. Everything about Christian Grey just had me going, “Buh?”
Keith: Book Anastasia is considerably less on the ball than movie Anastasia, which on the one hand, way to go! She's actually got some agency in the movie. She's clever and kind of funny, but because she is, it makes ZERO SENSE that she would end up with this unhinged jag.
Betty: Go Dakota Johnson for turning a paper doll of a character into a likable person!
Keith: Totally. In the books, she is an intolerably passive-aggressive drip. She's judgmental and ignorant on the page.
Betty: Well, I wouldn't necessarily say she's neither of those in the movie.
Keith: Sure, but it's toned down considerably.
Betty: I know we're going to get into the total mischaracterization of BDSM, but can we also talk about how the basics of the story and the fundamentals of Christian Grey's motivation just don't make sense if you've ever actually had a conversation with anyone who is into BDSM, ever, at all?
Keith: Its crimes as a portrayal of kink PALE next to its crimes as a chronicle of actual human-like behavior. I nearly burst out laughing at the blunt ridiculousness of “The woman who gave birth to me was a crack whore.” Like, okay, guy. Let's get into it. Sure.
Betty: Haha, I know! That's not even what I'm talking about though (jesus, that part was so absurd I practically blocked it out)! I’m talking more about his BDSM tale of origin–that his experience starts as him being prey to this friend of his mother's!
Keith: Statutory rape, basically.
Betty: It starts when he's FIFTEEN (?!), and then he's a submissive for SEVEN YEARS? That means he's twenty two when he gets out of that. He's twenty seven in the movie (which lol @ twenty seven year old billionaire–please), he claims he’s had FIFTEEN submissives prior to Ana in that five years, and not a single fucking one wanted to touch him affectionately before Ana came along?
Keith: That makes three subs a year, on average.
Betty: But he can't sustain a relationship with any of them
Keith: Burns through them like kindling. One might question his prowess as a dominant or, you know, a guy you'd want to be with.
Betty: Everything about him is questionable as A Guy You Want to Be With.
He said fifteen IN THAT ROOM, and he certainly hasn't been Mr. Billionaire Who Does Some Ambiguous Business Thing since he was twenty two. I mean, come on.
Keith: Also, WHAT IS HIS BUSINESS? Do they even SAY? WHAT MADE HIM RICH? Is his job sitting in a room wearing a nice suit and going “BUY SELL BUY”?
Betty: He’s probably been wealthy for…two, three years max?
So What Makes You Kinky? (Trauma Isn’t Always the Answer)
Keith: I think we're giving his back story MUCH more thought than E.L. James did.
Betty: Well, of course we are. This is the thing for me, and perhaps this makes it a touchy subject: I don't know if my pursuit of BDSM and kink, at least initially, would have existed if not for some formative trauma. I know that this is certainly not the case for everyone, but I'm upset by total misrepresentations of that particular narrative because they are always so utterly dehumanizing.
Keith: They're very pat and condescending, frequently.
Betty: They sum up people who have experienced trauma early on (at the end of the day, everyone ends up with some shit by the end of their life, but focus on early trauma is integral to this particular tale) as ‘damaged goods' who cannot or outright refuse to access any kind of self-awareness.
They treat the characters who come from that kind of background as…vases, rather than people. They present them as being broken bits, rather than recognizing grief and trauma as a basic component of the human experience (to varying degrees, certainly, but basic nevertheless.)
Keith: The traumatic origin story is by no means the default. Like, I got into kink because I thought it was hot and recognized it as soon as I saw representations of it.
Betty: Absolutely, and I know that to be the case for many; I would say that your experience is more common amongst the folks I've met.
Keith: But yes, Christian is presented as a fixer-upper. He’s a dude who needs rescuing from his depraved urges, which makes the occasional stabs at “BDSM is mutual and based in consent” ring a little gross and false. The book and movie are AGHAST at BDSM, even as they want you to get off on it.
Betty: Knowing that the origins of this were supposed to be some sort of…warning against premarital sex makes that make sense, though, doesn't it? It's sensationalized, while also being uneducated about the facts, and terrifying, while titillating. “This is terrible, but we know we have your attention.”
Keith: Fifty Shades definitely isn't as squeamish as Twilight about sex. It's CHILDISH about it. But not squeamish. The whole, “Let's just devirginize you so we can get down to business,” angle about covers it. Twilight is, definitively, Mormon abstinence porn. While Fifty Shades is a little more open minded on the subject of people getting it on…even though, in this movie, NOT ONE ORGASM IS ACHIEVED.
Betty: I mean, that is pretty honest when it comes to dealing with young, ignorant “Doms,” so accidental points for accuracy.
I thought the focus on the contract was weird. I wanted to scream every time they brought it up.
Keith: Oh, the contract thing makes zero sense. The whole point is “We can't get it on until you sign off on this stuff, Anastasia, because your consent is SO IMPORTANT,” but then he just does what he wants anyway. It's bad writing, really; it's supposed to be a plot motor but its function, narratively, is minor.
Betty: I couldn’t get over the absurdity of him focusing on it as a part of their sexual dynamic, regardless of the BDSM, and the fact that HE'S IN BUSINESS AND DOESN'T KNOW THAT IT DOESN'T MATTER? She can't sign away her physical rights, dude. Not even if you want her to.
Keith: It’s completely unenforceable. Any misstep on his part (and he missteps plenty in this movie) and that contract won't stand up in court for a second.
Stalking: Not Romantic, and Not Kinky
Keith: The stalking is horrifying. Every time he shows up unannounced, it feels like it turns into a horror movie and he's the monster, but apparently his maniacal fixation on her and GPS-like ability to locate her are part of his charm.
Betty: I was blown away by him showing up in her house unannounced. I gasped out loud when that happened (benefits of not having read the book, I guess), and I could not figure out why it was supposed to be charming. If some guy showed up in my house and surprised me, I would lose my shit. It wouldn't be perceived as, “Oh, how romantic; he brought wine!” More like, “Oh, how terrifying; where did I put the knives?”
Keith: The scene where he's in her house is so absurd that I assumed it would be a dream sequence…because WHAT? That scene is only marginally scarier than him showing up at the bar to steal her clothes, her car, and her body after throwing down with the only person of color in the movie. He gives her buttloads of expensive gifts so that she is immediately beholden to him and shows up totally uninvited in ways that make her uncomfortable.
The great Dr. Nerdlove made this point: How on EARTH is there zero police/press fuss over the most famous bachelor in America showing up at a bar and BODY SNATCHING A VIRGINAL COLLEGE KID? He's a MENACE.
Betty: SERIOUSLY. Also, he's had FIFTEEN YOUNG WOMEN IN THAT ROOM AND EVERYONE HONORED THE NDA? GET. REAL.
The reason so many people find this dynamic compelling is because of the core need to be–and feel–wanted. People really want to be perceived as truly irresistible, at least by somebody; that's often why folks don't recognize these signs as early abusive red flags.
There is such a driving, human need to be desired, and someone going to such lengths to pursue them and express this fervent desire is perceived as romantic, even though the realities of that are actually scary, rather than charming.
Keith: That's the whole BASIS of romantic fiction, and yes, it's wonderful to be wanted, but his desires are in no way about her. It's said again and again that she is TOTES NOT INTO HIS KINKS, but he tracks her down anyway. He's looking for a piece of pliant meat. He sees her protests as a challenge and not as a sign that maybe he should go on Fetlife and try his fucking luck there.
Betty: Plus, this motherfucker can afford to hire a pro-sub if he wants…unless none of them want to play with him no matter how much money he has, which would speak volumes about the kind of play partner he is.
It’s all so typical: Grey has so many gaps to him, so someone who is seeking the fantasy will fill them in as needed, and then he’s desirable because he’s really just a framework for their projected fantasies.
Keith: Interestingly, Ana is like that in the book. The identikit protagonist who you can project everything on. In the movie, she's a little more fleshed out.
Betty: I mean, she still has basically no real interests, other than literature. Vaguely.
Keith: Sure. But she's not Bella Swan level mopey mediocrity.
Betty: Oh, yeah, I agree. A lot of that has to do with Dakota Johnson's portrayal of her; she made Ana VERY charming and accessible. She was laugh out loud funny, and did impressively well, all things considered.
Keith: No doubt. Johnson really works it. She lands a few gags!
Betty: Dornan, on the other hand, was dull eye candy. For such a good looking guy, whatever he does with his face whenever he's doing Christian Grey face is obscenely unsettling–that thing he does with his eyes where they look like hollow pits…ech.
Keith: It's very sinister, but not in an alluring way. He just looks like a dude with a rage problem.
BDSM and “Conversion”: Is Christian Grey Like a Kinky Evangelical?
Betty: There’s something else that distresses me in the way this story is told: The conflation of kinky desire with conversion–the idea that his kinky desires are inseparable from his desire to “convert” her, and that his sexual desire is inextricable from his kinky interests.
It’s not that some folks AREN’T like that–where their kink is essential to their sexual pleasure and satisfaction–but it's possible to be attracted to someone and realize that you're not sexually compatible BECAUSE of that. I think that the latter is the norm for both kinky and non-kinky folk alike, which, sure, that can be a struggle, but most of us don't respond to that by coercing the person into participating in our fantasies.
Keith: Exactly. Let's be fair–my sexual desires are tied pretty tightly into my kinky interests, but totally! I've had MEGA crushes on women (who had crushes back) who just weren't into it and it killed me.
He's constructing an argument with contracts and rhetoric that she should, essentially, submit to stuff that she normally would run away from at a hundred miles an hour. It's sort of sharklike and predatory and awful.
Betty: “Well, I would never do this with anyone but you, but YOU'RE SO SPECIAL and I can't resist you/it,” or “I would never prey on someone like I am preying on you, but YOU'RE SO SPECIAL!”
Keith: It's disastrously gross.
Betty: Also, it’s boring. I'm so sick of this archetype–the damaged, “mysterious” man with intimacy issues. Jesus, cry me a fucking river and go get yourself a therapist.
On an individual level, I have a sympathy for that, of course. I have known men (and know men) who are (clearly) more human versions of that archetype–some that are very dear to me, actually, but as a narrative, it's a total fucking snoozefest unless the character actually DOES SOMETHING about it.
Can we have a little less Christian Grey/Don Draper floundering in their misery and inflicting it on the women in their lives (who apparently can’t see it for the bullshit it really is) in our entertainment, please?
Keith: This all gets at the weirdness of my experience with the movie, which may have been upped substantially by the amount of pot I smoked beforehand (a lot). The emotional narrative is BANANAS. It's rooted in the cliches of the romance genre, but it just makes these HUGE ASS LEAPS in behavior that are so tire-screechingly zig-zaggy that I was left tilting my head.
Grey is a construct and a very old one. The movie doesn't bring up Jane Austen for nothing. He's Mr. Darcy with a huge leather budget. There's not much TO Grey. So really, he's not that mysterious–just annoyingly slow to open up. I could see Dornan, as an actor, panicking in every scene. “How do I find a way into this behavior? And failing that, WHERE IS THE EXIT?” He's totally uncomfortable with it, because on the face of it, Grey is absolute scum.
Getting the Kinks In: Fisting, Butt Plugs, and What A Real Spanking Looks Like
Betty: Oh, but also, have you read any of Dornan's interviews? He's obviously wildly uncomfortable with BDSM as a whole. It makes the discomfort twofold: he really thinks this is all incredibly incomprehensible (which the script IS) while simultaneously being disgusted by the acts themselves.
Keith: I read that one, and I was unsurprised to see someone so disgusted by kink deliver a flogging with all the conviction of a man signing his tax return. That was a total laugh riot for me. It was built up as LOOK OUT MOTHERFUCKER THIS IS WHERE THE RUBBER HITS THE ROAD and then he sort of drapes it over her limply.
Actually, three may be the magic number here: He spanks her three times, which is apparently absolutely AMAZINGLY disciplinary.
Betty: For the virginal/vanilla set, I can see how this softcore porn would be exciting, but for anyone with a remote interest in kink…I was like, “That's it? That's it? That's all he's got?” I wanted to stand up in front of the theatre, pull out the recent photos of my ass from the last time I played, and yell into the audience, “DO YOU WANT TO SEE WHAT THE GOOD STUFF LOOKS LIKE? LET ME SHOW YOU. CHECK OUT MY BRUISES, MUTHAFUCKERS.”
Keith: It can't be SUPER kinky, because it's rated R and middle America is the target. And that leads me to another weird contradiction: The kink is risibly light, but the relationship is pure abuse. He builds himself up as this tormented dark lord of the whip, and really, he's pretty unadventurous. I don't buy for a moment that he has EVER FISTED ANYONE.
Betty: Right?! Also…when she said no vaginal fisting, I was like giiiiiiiiiiirl, you are missing out on an experience.
Keith: Ahem. Quite. But would you let that creepy dingus wear YOU like a glove puppet?
Betty: No, but that's because he'd be hospitalized with his balls chopped off from that time he showed up in my house and surprised me. So, that might kill the romance. “Romance.”
Another thing that I thought was so odd: According to this film, being kinky just means that you MUST BE INTERESTED IN ALL SUBVERSIVE SEX ACTS. He has no preferences–EVERYTHING is on that list, basically, or at least that's what is suggested.
Keith: I loved that his checklist was so unfocused.
It's interesting that the one solid beating in the movie is also the one with the ugliest, most unhealthy context. Like, DUDE. Don't top angry.
Betty: On a technical level, how wrong it all was is bothersome. He didn't caress her, or warm her up, or do, you know, any of the things you typically do when it comes to spanking, particularly with someone new, and more importantly: She didn't WANT to do it. Her saying “Do this to me” isn't her wanting it, which just further validates how terrible the whole situation, and he, is.
I had two tracks going in my head the whole time: One was, “THAT IS NOT HOW YOU DO THAT, STUPID, and two was, “BUT DOES THAT MATTER BECAUSE EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS IS INCREDIBLY FUCKED UP?????”
Keith: It was incredibly uncomfortable, and the film is loath to contemplate the real meaning of that. Bonus dipshit points: TOTAL LACK OF AFTERCARE.
E.L. James apparently doesn't want to distinguish between healthy, good, safe kink and MONSTROUS RICH PEOPLE LIVING OUT THEIR DEPRAVED FANTASIES OF SPANKING YOU THREE TIMES*
Betty: My favorite line from the movie: “What are butt plugs?”
Keith: “What are butt plugs?”
Keith: THEY ARE PLUGS, ANA.
Keith: PLUGS THAT GO IN YOUR BUTT.
Betty: Of all the things to ask about! Of ALL the things–that’s the one?
Keith: WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK THEY ARE? HMM GOLLY MAYBE YOU COULD USE THAT DEGREE YOU GOT BY READING A FUCKTON OF WORDS.
Betty: Ana is so innocent that she doesn't know what butts are. God, have some empathy.
Keith: She doesn't even know she HAS a butt.
Where Do You Learn Your Kink? Someplace Else, Please.
Betty: I am really hoping that some folks, particularly the Midwestern moms who are digging this, don't start inviting their husbands (or lovers???) to emulate Christian's awesome BDSM skillz. Maybe that's assuming too much–it all seems like so much more fantasy than anything else, but I'm not sure, as these are folks who have little to no otherwise knowledge of BDSM, and the lack of education is…concerning.
Keith: This is the thing, and we need to get into it. Of course this isn't a documentary. Of course it's fiction. In pornography, we enjoy depictions of things that are WAY beyond the bounds of consent, but this movie, and the source material, aren't porn. They're literature, and they're presenting themselves as having some marginal authority on BDSM. I want to be clear about my differentiation of porn and literature: it's all art, but one is presented as more legitimate, whether it is or not. Random House won't publish self-identified porn.
So there's a danger, because it's MY FIRST KINK for so many people. If the movie doesn't leave you thinking that kinky people are disgusting sociopaths who need saving, it leaves you attracted to a portrayal of kink that is DAMAGINGLY WRONG.
Betty: Fair warning–I'm speaking in generalities only because we're speaking about a large chunk of the population and the general associated socialization, not because it speaks to everyone or about everyone: I think that many women who lack access to/normalization of porn do have trouble distinguishing how much of it is fantasy and how much of it is reality. There are a lot of conversations (particularly when it comes to dating and sex, in person as well as online) that revolve around, “My boyfriend likes this kind of porn and I'm not that/I don't want to do that/we don't do that–what does it mean?”
This movie backs up the idea of, “My boyfriend watches kinky, fucked up porn (and/or wants to try kinky shit); he must be really fucking scary on the inside.” For someone who doesn't recognize porn as almost entirely fantasy, and has a lack of knowledge about BDSM and complex sexuality, Fifty Shades will validate ALL of their perceptions, in entirety.
Keith: Oh, TOTALLY. Absolutely. The only kinky people in the movie are Grey and his invisible rapist.
Betty: I agree with you regarding this, as a first exposure to kink, being dangerous as it will leave a first impression that is remarkably off-base, and how confusing it would be to witness this and to try to figure out which parts turned you on and which parts were scary. I imagine it would be challenging to completely distinguish between the two without any kind of legitimate guideline.
Keith: It reminds me of the way gayness used to be code for MONSTER in old movies, and in a lot of new ones, if we're honest. The easiest way to paint someone as a decadent beast is to be like “Oh he/she's into kink.” I don't know, maybe that's an undercooked point of mine.
Betty: Well, it's anything sexually subversive, right? Even if in many circles the sexual act du jour is an element of normal, healthy sexuality, the vilification and misrepresentation of whatever it is in media representation serves as an indication to the audience that someone is Bad and Wrong. Sexuality is complex and often fluid in many ways, and it's unfortunate to see it so maligned–and even MORE UNFORTUNATE that so many people are in support of it.
Keith: Oh, sure. Frankly, sexually voracious women and sexually active Black men are often painted as monsters.
Is Fifty Shades Keeping Kink For the White Guys?
Keith: Okay, another point: WHERE ARE ALL THE NOT WHITE PEOPLE IN SEATTLE?
Betty: There are non white people in Seattle? I saw Fifty Shades of Grey and I just don't believe it.
Keith: There's one guy in the whole Pacific Northwest, and it's the Hispanic dude who gets rapey before SUPER rapey dude saves the day. (I don't mean to be cavalier with the word “rape” but this story is SO VERY MUCH A PRODUCT of rape culture.)
Betty: Right. That one guy! Watch out for him! He's the real villain here.
Keith: I was astonished how white it was. I counted two Black people, both non-speaking.
Betty: I wasn't, but maybe because this whole thing seems so fucking unrealistic and ridiculous in every single way that it seems like it could only be the product of some oblivious white lady's imagination.
Keith: SEPARATE POINT: This movie that's all about a fantasy for women and is told from the female gaze has zero dong. Like, LOTS of Ana being naked. Breasts, ass, vagina, YOU NAME IT. ZERO DONG. You get the dong ROOT–for a NANOSECOND. I think I saw some ball silhouette at one point.
Betty: Which considering how obviously uncomfortable he was, I'm surprised that even happened. He did have a couple of solid ass shots. ALSO…who doesn't wear underwear under their fucking jeans? Unless it's laundry day, then okay.
Keith: Uh, well. Sometimes me.
Betty: BUT ALL THE TIME?
Keith: No. Not all the time. But when I DO, I'm usually in my hotel suite/porn dungeon.
You Already Know How This Will End…Wait, WHAT?
Keith: Thing of note: the non-ending. The audience was audibly riled by that decision. As soon as it cut to black, the crowd was like “Wait, WHAT?!”
Betty: I laughed out loud. The ending seemed VERY abrupt, especially since that scene gives the impression that it’s GOING somewhere.
Keith: It's a movie with no climax. It's like “Oh, so he IS a totally abusive monster. But wait, I–” Credits.
Betty: Oh my god. It's really perfect, actually. The movie, like playing with Christian Grey, is without aftercare.
Betty: SLAP! BYE NOW.
Wondering about how to identify the differences between kink and abuse? Next week, Chris Hall, my favorite Literate Pervert, will be providing a post on identifying the differences, as well as resources for education and support.
Special thanks to Chris Hall for last minute editing and input on this post.