We revisit the 2015 erotic drama in anticipation of the trilogy's final chapter
The third movie in the Fifty Shades saga—really, this is a saga—comes out February 9, just in time for ironic Valentine’s Day plans. Thus, I—an entertainment writer and self-respecting lover of terrible movies—have decided it’s high time to finally watch them, taking on Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker in the weeks before the finale comes to theaters so that I’ll be ready when things finally… climax.
If you’re unfamiliar, Fifty Shades of Grey (based on an online erotic story turned mainstream bestseller) follows college senior Anastasia Steele, who substitutes for her roommate at the last minute to interview 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey. The two of them have chemistry, and go on a few dates, but Grey is kinky, with an interest in BDSM, and Ana is a virgin who veers a little prudish. He buys her a laptop and a car and shows up at random locations in her life to woo her. She experiments with his dominant proclivities, but is ultimately a little uncomfortable with it when he spanks her and she realizes how much he enjoys it. She leaves his apartment. Fin.
That’s it! That’s the whole plot! Two attractive, white twentysomethings who toy with the idea of dating but ultimately suffer from misaligned sexual preferences. And although Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan looked famously miserable during their press tour, lacking what most people would call “chemistry” or “basic human emotion” (the vibe is like polite acquaintances stuck in an elevator), I have to say I sort of loved Johnson’s performance: like she can’t believe this is a movie either.
The truth is, it’s not a bad movie. Really! It’s aggressively fine. Its cardinal sin is that there’s hardly enough movie to go on at all: it’s like a romantic comedy minus all of the contrived shenanigans and also minus the comedy. And so I didn’t hate it… but I did have some questions, such as:
Why did Ana borrow her roommate’s car?
Ana’s roommate is writing an article for the college newspaper about Christian Grey, but she was sick on the day their interview was scheduled so Ana agreed to go and interview the businessman using the list of questions her roommate had ready. That’s a little strange; as someone who interviews people professionally, I would never send my non-reporter roommate to go talk to a source. Why wouldn’t they send another reporter from the newspaper? Or reschedule the interview? Or do it on the phone? Or do it via email (which they end up doing anyway because Ana does such a terrible job)? But the real weirdness is a brief throwaway line as Ana leaves to talk to Christian: “You can take my car,” Ana’s roommate says. And Anastasia does. She drives her roommate’s car to Seattle to see Christian. But… why?
Anastasia has a car. She has a blue car. We see it in the opening scene, when she’s leaving campus to go back to her apartment. It isn’t as nice as her roommate’s car, sure, and you might, justifiably, extrapolate that her car isn’t in good-enough shape to make it to Seattle. But it is! Ana drives her blue car to Christian’s office later in the movie. I cannot figure out why Ana would not drive her own car. And so, from this movie’s very opening moments, I was confused and disoriented, like I had been blindfolded in a stranger’s sex room.
Are Ana and her roommate… intimate?
Hear me out. When Anastasia is leaving to go do her roommate’s interview for her (in her roommate’s car), she kisses her on the head. I lived with a roommate in New York for two years. She and I are good friends, and we have been friends since college. I have never once kissed her on the head. I don’t think I have ever kissed someone on the head who is not a romantic partner. It is an intimate gesture, like picking lint off someone’s suit jacket.
And their familiarity goes even further: Ana’s roommate steals a sandwich that Ana made herself, lifting it from the plate while flirtily raising her eyebrows. And she applies lipgloss directly to Ana’s lips while the two are getting ready. And now I ask you: why do you think Ana is still a virgin at 22? She’s not religious, and she has an active social life with her friends. I’m not saying it’s in any way atypical for someone to graduate college without having sex, but I’m also positing it’s possible Anastasia hasn’t found a man she truly connected with because she was looking for a man. Maybe instead of overthinking Christian Grey’s man-child tendencies and forcing herself to become comfortable with a sexual dynamic that doesn’t turn her on, she should look inside and examine her own sexuality.
How does Christian only hire beautiful, willowy women to work for him?
Christian Grey is a tech billionaire, running what we’re told is a very successful company. And yet every single person we see in his employ is a stick-thin, gorgeous woman in porn-high heels. How is that not a red flag? Does he ask for photographs with resumes? I wanted the plot of this movie to be about a size-8 brunette with an amazing background in business admin who doesn’t make it past the interview stage of the hiring process and files a major lawsuit.
Anastasia even gets the whole vibe and Christian doesn’t correct her. When he offers her an internship (creepy), Ana replies that she wouldn’t fit in there. “Look at me,” she says. Not, “Oh, I’m actually not a business major,” or “Actually, I’m not really interested in telecommunications or whatever.” No, her answer is, I am not attractive enough to get an internship at this business where it seems female employees are hired for their attractiveness. And Christian doesn’t correct her! He’s not like, “What do you mean? We hire interns based on their resumes and intelligences and you seem very on-the-ball” or whatever. He just goes, “I am,” and gives her a smoldering gaze, completely reinforcing the we-only-hire-based-on-looks thing.
Danny Elfman did the music for this movie?!
This is a question I asked out loud as the opening credits came across the screen. He did!
Doesn’t Anastasia need ID to get into the building?
This is the headquarters of a major business enterprise, and Anastasia is impersonating someone in order to get inside. Literally, when she arrives, Christian’s model-assistant calls her by her roommate’s name which implies that her roommate never sent a quick email to let anyone know that someone else would be coming in her place. We already established how weird it is that she sent her roommate and not another newspaper reporter, but now I have to wonder how lax security is at Grey HQ.
Why is Anastasia rude to her source?
I know that Anastasia is not a professional reporter and this is her first interview, but what the screenwriters presumably believed was flirty banter is actually just extremely rude and made me very uncomfortable. She asks about his incredible success, and then goes, “Maybe you’re just lucky.” Excuse me, Ana. He is a 27-year old billionaire giving you a few minutes of his time to conduct an in-person interview for a student newspaper. “Maybe you’re just lucky”? And then she also asks if he’s gay, which again, was on the list that her roommate gave her, but that list was very long, and they only got through like three questions. Anastasia easily could have skipped that one, realizing that it’s not a polite thing to ask a person you just met.
How did her roommate have trouble clearing a photo?
So, just to recap, Ana’s roommate is writing an article for the school paper about Christian Grey, famous billionaire. And, for some reason, we learn that she’s having trouble clearing some pictures of him to go with the piece. This allows Christian to spend more time with Ana by agreeing to do an impromptu photoshoot, but also: what the hell? How are there no photos available of a famous billionaire? What does this school paper normally use? There are numerous archives and photo services like Getty for this very purpose. And Ana’s roommate literally mentions seeing photos of Christian: she told Ana that she thought he was gay because she never saw him with any women in society pictures. Someone who is the number-one most eligible bachelor in America (according a website we see) and who’s getting paparazzi photos taken of him should have some damn pictures available for a news article. At this point, I just sort of realized maybe Ana’s roommate is… terrible at doing her basic job?
Christian is sending… very mixed messages, right?
At their first interview, Christian is extremely flirty, and he asks Anastasia out to coffee. But two minutes into their date, before she even takes a bite of muffin, Ana casually mentions that she’s sort of a romantic and Christian literally goes “I’ll walk you out,” like they’re on SNL‘s parodies of The Bachelor and she just admitted she actually has curly hair. That is not normal or polite date behavior—if someone says something that makes you think, “Oh, this probably won’t work in the long or short term,” the nice thing to do is politely finish your coffee, give them a hug, and move on with your life. Ending the date that very moment is the most drama queen behavior I have ever seen.
He tells her that he’s bad for her and they shouldn’t date. Okay, a little harsh, but fine. And then he sends her a very expensive gift: first editions of her favorite book. This is a romantic gift! It’s a gift for someone you’ve been dating for years. MIXED SIGNAL. And then Ana drunk-dials him, which college kids do sometimes, and instead of politely hanging up and allowing her to move on with her life, he shows up at the college bar and brings her back to his hotel room where he is very sexual and very flirty. And then the “I don’t do romance” guy takes her out on a date on a private helicopter ride. He is literally The Bachelor, a show that is all about pretending to be romantic.
So get your story straight, Christian: do you do romance or don’t you? He explicitly says, “I don’t do flowers,” but how are first editions of someone’s favorite book any less “romantic”? Does he know what that word means?
Why didn’t Anastasia change before their date?
So Ana goes out to a bar with her friends, gets very drunk, and drunkenly calls Christian who picks her up and brings her back to his hotel to sleep it off (he also changed her into pajamas which feels excessively wrong). And Christian also sends his driver to get more clothes for her since she vomited on her outfit from last night. A few questions here: first, the undressing—yeesh, right? But also, did the driver go pick up clothes Ana already owns from her house? How would he know where Anastasia lives? She’s a college student who’s moving out of her presumable student housing after graduation, so it’s not like it would be on her driver’s license. Did you have your college dorm on your driver’s license? No. How did Christian’s driver get in her house? Did her roommate let in a strange man she had never seen before who said he wanted to take some clothes? What the hell. And how is breaking into her home to steal some clothes any easier than washing the clothes that had vomit on them? They’re in a hotel; they probably have a laundry service, or Christian is rich enough to send it out special. If his driver bought new clothes for her, how the hell would he have known what size she is? Did Christian make his driver examine the labels on the insides of a strange girl’s vomit-encrusted clothes?
And then to make things weirder: Ana is still wearing the outfit Christian’s driver picked out when she and Christian go on their date that night. Did she not shower? She had a disgusting, vomit-y drunken night! Or did she shower and get back in the clothes a random stranger pulled for her? Why would she do that? I mean, you’d think you’d want to get more dressed up for your first real date with someone. Was Christian’s driver’s taste that good that he happened to randomly pull exactly the outfit she would have chosen to wear?
How is she comfortable waking up and cooking in his home?
After their sex night, Ana wears the classic “morning after sex” movie outfit of just a man’s white button-down shirt and begins cooking breakfast, barefoot in his kitchen, while dancing along to music. How is she comfortable enough to do this? What 22-year-old virgin has the confidence to wake up in a strange man’s apartment, after a first date, find his music player, play music, and begin preparing an elaborate homemade breakfast? That’s incredible, sociopathic confidence.
How does Christian sell her car?
A car is a major purchase and piece of property. Obviously, it’s understood in this universe that Christian is very controlling and so I’m less concerned with questioning the morality of selling someone’s car without them asking and more concerned with the logistics. How do you sell someone’s car without their knowledge?! Did Christian steal the keys? Cars have titles, and registration, and ownership. No reputable dealer will accept a clearly stolen car from a middle-aged man claiming to be a 22-year-old named Anastasia Steele. Did Christian clean out her personal belongings? Didn’t she have things in her car—CDs? Gym clothes? Anastasia is a little miffed when she finds out they sold her car so she can’t get it back, and she asks for the money they sold it for, which, yes, hello, of course belongs to her. But she should have been freaking out because stealing her car is literally insane.
…Does BDSM not exist in this universe?
For a movie ostensibly all about BDSM, Fifty Shades of Grey is shockingly prudish. It treats BDSM as an alien anomaly, a strange character defect and not a very common sexual fetish. It’s like, a category on porn sites. Sure, it’s usually a private thing because most people’s sex lives are private, but private isn’t the same as outrageously taboo.
You know how The Walking Dead exists in a universe where zombies don’t exist as a cultural touchstone? I have to imagine that the same is true for Fifty Shades of Grey and BDSM. Why else do they treat getting turned on by domination and submission as an outrageously deviant burden? It’s not like Christian Grey is a werewolf. He just has a Fetlife profile, and the money to upgrade from “Velcro on the bedposts” to “sex room.”
Fifty Shades of Grey also has this weird perspective where they see the submissive side of BDSM as total martyrdom, letting yourself be hurt to bring the other person pleasure. But… people are turned on by submission too. A lot of people. BDSM is about finding people who are turned on by power and domination and pairing them with people who are turned on by obedience and pain. If it doesn’t turn Anastasia on, she shouldn’t do it. Period. BDSM isn’t a sacrifice that she should be making for free cars. At one point she literally asks, “What do I get out of it?” And Christian Grey goes, “Me.” That is not the correct answer at all! At that point he should have sat her down and said, “Oh, this is actually supposed to be pleasurable for both parties, and we should talk about things that turn you on in order to make this satisfying all around.” Sex shouldn’t be a thing she has to endure in order to spend time with him. He shouldn’t be blackmailing her with their relationship to get to whip her. But that’s what he does! And it’s very weird!
So it’s strange that neither of them seems aware that there are people who enjoy being submissives in BDSM relationships, but it’s also strange that the climax (sorry) of this movie comes about when she asks him to spank her, and he does, and then she freaks out. Anastasia literally asks Christian to spank her because she wants to feel what turns him on, the thing that drives him. He tells her he is going to spank her with a flogger six times. He spanks her with a flogger six times. And then Ana becomes furious and kink-shames him all over the place saying things like, “This is what you like??? This is what turns you on??? Hurting me??? Seeing me like this!?!?!?”
And it’s like…. Girl. That’s what BDSM is. You asked him to do that. He did. You have safe words—”yellow” for when you’re getting concerned, and “red” for when you want to stop—and you didn’t use them. So, yes. You should leave. Obviously you and Christian have completely incompatible sexual preferences in this bizarro vanilla universe.
How does Christian always know where she is?
No fewer than three times in this movie does Christian find Anastasia at some location even though she didn’t tell him where she was going to be. The first is at the hardware store—even though she had told him she worked at a hardware store, she didn’t tell him which one. The second is at the bar, where she drunk-dialed him. The third is mother-effing Georgia, where she’s visiting her mother. Not only does he actually fly across the country, but he’s able to show up at the exact restaurant where Ana is eating.
Ethics of his stalking aside, I see a more sinister underlying subtext: digital surveillance. It’s incredibly vague what Christian’s company does. He’s a billionaire with investments all over the world, but the most detail we get is “telecommunications.” I posit to you that Christian and his company have the resources to monitor the location of every single cell phone in the country, and the infrastructure so that technology is readily available for their CEO to access.
Fifty Shades of Grey is not a boring film about a couple discussing their turn-ons; it’s a subtle and deceptive film about the power we’ve given technology companies over our lives. It’s basically Citizenfour. I humbly contend that Fifty Shades of Grey is the best Black Mirror episode to date, where the exploration of the insidiousness of technology is lurking, almost invisibly, in the background, behind all of the talk about butt plugs.