Does a Tame ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Movie Send an Anti-Feminist Message?

Jamie Dornan and Dakota

Although the general public hasn’t seen it, a trailer for the Fifty Shades of Grey movie recently screened to a bunch of fancy film people at Las Vegas Comic Con. And some of those fancy film folks were kind enough to take to Twitter and share their reactions. Unfortunately, many of those reactions tell us that the film looks like a really sweet, really adorable love story focused more on romance than the red room sexcapades many of us were hoping for. Seeing as how all of the other promo photos that have been released look insanely tamewe shouldn’t be surprised. But if the trailer and promotional images are true reflections of what we can expect from the film, what might this say about American film and a desire to strongly regulate and censor images related to sexuality and sexual expression? This isn’t just a question of filmmakers and producers “leaving out the good stuff” (although that is a huge issue here), it’s one about whether or not Hollywood and America have a very big problem with female sexuality.

A few years back, similar discussions arose over the NC-17 rating given to Derek Cianfrance’s brilliant film Blue Valentine. The stars of the complicated and intense love story spoke out against the MPAA (who later reversed their ruling and gave the film an R-rating), and what Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams had to say four years ago is still very much relevant today.

Gosling: You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen. The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex. It’s misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman’s sexual presentation of self. I consider this an issue that is bigger than this film.

Williams: Mainstream films often depict sex and violence in a manner that is disturbing and very far from reality. Yet, the MPAA regularly awards these films with a more audience friendly rating, enabling our culture’s desensitization to violence, rape, torture and brutality. Our film does not depict any of these attributes. It’s simply a candid look at the difficulties couples face in sustaining their relationships over time. Blue Valentine opens a door for couples to have a dialogue about the everyday realities of many relationships. This film was made in the spirit of love, honesty and intimacy. I hope that the MPAA will hear our pleas and reconsider their decision.

Gosling and Williams both highlight an issue we’ve seen unfolding over the years in cinema and media. As an American culture, we find far more controversy and danger in images concerned with sexual experiences than in images depicting violent acts. You could argue that we are more afraid of exposing young people to sex and sexuality than we are of exposing them to murder and death. But the fact that the MPAA took issue with a scene where a woman was on the receiving end of oral sex also suggests that Hollywood has a specific aversion to female sexuality.

While many readers found Fifty Shades of Grey to be an anti-feminist text, others have argued that because the focus is ultimately on Anastasia and her own sexual discovery, this is a story about a woman and her desires and pleasures. As such, it is a feminist narrative at its core. Ana experiences her own sexual revolution (among other things) throughout the course of the trilogy, and to quell that sex-based revolution and turn it into a mere romance where girl-meets-boy would really be a tragedy. It’d be like turning The Hunger Games into a story about a young girl who has a really tough time deciding between two loves. It’s not totally out of left field, but it removes the most powerful aspect of the story; the girl is Katniss and Katniss is a warrior. Let’s hope Ana’s ever-important inner goddess (a “character” in the book who may have sounded totally ridiculous at times, but functioned as the one, true, unrepressed portion of Ana’s psyche) does not get left out.

Sure, Fifty Shades of Grey is, at the end of it all, a love story. Then again, so was Blue Valentine, and more recently Blue Is the Warmest Color. But the latter is a powerful love story because of its stark depictions of desire and female-centered erotic experiences. Fifty Shades could have been a bold, excellent movie (regardless of the literary value of the original text) that highlighted a young woman’s introduction into sex and so-called sexual deviance — and it still could be! But right now it sounds like it’s shaping up to be one of a million romantic dramas. Entertaining enough, but ultimately forgettable, and in no small way problematic. Here’s hoping director Sam Taylor-Johnson proves us wrong, avoids some of the clichés, and brings us something a bit more interesting.