By Kat Burdon-Manley
Fifty Shades of Grey is about a violent and emotionally abusive relationship. There is nothing romantic, sexy, empowering or erotic about this film, unless your idea of desire is watching a woman gradually lose her identity and control over her own life. I was deeply saddened and hurt by the familiarity of this experience. Had I not been able to identify with Anastasia Steele’s situation, I wouldn’t have felt so depressed and teary leaving the cinema. It was pretty much like reliving an abusive and controlling relationship or watching your best friend getting beaten up by her boyfriend.
Abuse and gender inequality within personal relationships is a symptom of our material circumstances and the way oppression is structured under capitalism. The Italian-American socialist feminist Silvia Federici wrote a great book called Caliban and the Witch, which reviews the history and the gradual decline in women’s value in society alongside the rise of capitalism. When women, along with men, were forced off the land, removing them from their means of subsistence, there was a rise in prostitution and a reliance on a man’s wage. Organisations such as Women’s Aid were established because we recognised that violence against women in society is linked to our unequal status and value. This film presents no such critique,following the cliched formula that with the love of a good woman, men can change their behaviour. This obscures the reality of women’s lived experience. Take for example the fact Christian Grey hosted 15 women prior to Ana’s arrival in his spare bedroom, where the women slept in between submitting themselves to his sexual fantasies in his BDSM dungeon. Yes, he may have felt differently about Ana, but so what? What about the other 15 women and how they felt? Why do we always have to view everything through the eyes of men and concern ourselves primarily with meeting their needs? I for one am sick of it.
What women should be demanding within our communities and organisations is that feminism be taught at school, and healthy relationships as a part of this. We need to actively intervene in our children’s education and development, to begin to ameliorate some of the worst effects of oppression structured into our society. Women are disempowered from exercising collective control over how we are represented and portrayed; we become dehumanised and objectified in the process. The objectification of women is just that: the removal of women’s autonomy and self determination by those who oppress us. Our hard won demands are constantly being eroded. For instance, women’s services and refuges are under constant attack from ideologically motivated funding cuts. This forces us to understand that this is a constant struggle and battle to defend what little we have won, let alone to extend those gains.
The relationship, if you can call it that, between Ana and her abuser Christian perfectly illustrates how women are perceived by society as lacking agency. His needs and desire to play out his fantasies take precedence over any desire Ana may have. I don’t remember there being a conversation of any substance between Christian and Ana throughout the entire film. Christian asks Ana to sign a written contract stipulating the terms and parameters of their relationship through BDSM, but she never signs the agreement and there is no need, because it is clear what her position is within the dynamics of their relationship. Consent is taken to mean ‘sign on the dotted line’ yet it was evident that his position was superior to her position within the power dynamics of their relationship, particularly relating to the difference in age and wealth. This raises the question, what is consent in a world where material inequality has a coercive effect?
Ana is completely wrapped up in Christian, totally in love and spends a large part of the relationship trying to re-negotiate the terms of the agreement, so that she can play more of an equal role. She is not interested in BDSM or being in a controlling and abusive relationship, yet she is coerced into taking part in scenarios she is evidently uncomfortable with, including becoming his submissive in a dominant/submissive relationship. That this film came out on Valentine’s Day dressed up as ‘romantic’ is utterly baffling. This is a film about an abusive and controlling man, dominating a much younger woman and taking out his violent fantasies on her. If you fancy a traumatic experience, go and watch this film; if trauma is not your thing, don’t go anywhere near it.