50 Shades of Grey -Shady or just Grey Area?

Daily Inspiration – Day Twelve: Critique a Piece of Work

50shades

Photographer Unknown

Quotes are from the Feb. 13, 2015 article “Fifty Shades of Grey gets black marks from bishops, pastors” from the National Catholic Reporter. A: Cathy Lynn Grossman (quoting others)

When this film was released last year, it got a lot of press.  Much of it was negative.  At the time, a friend of mine had just attended the weekly sermon at his church which covered the topic and he was good enough to give me a recap.  He finished his review by stating something to the effect of, “You’ll never catch me corrupting myself watching it”.

“Remind the faithful of the beauty of the Church’s teaching on the gift of sexual intimacy in marriage, the great dignity of women, and the moral reprehensibility of all domestic violence and sexual exploitation,” wrote Bishop Richard Malone in a letter Feb. 4 to fellow clergy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A few days ago, I fiiiinally decided to rent the movie.  Even though I trust my friend’s judgement, with certain things (he is highly educated), I do have to defer to my own judgement on others.  This subject being the science of communication, my major in college, gave me a sense of responsibility to watch the movie with an objective eye so that I could apply my knowledge on  the history of film and the question of media influence on the public.

Morality in Media, the anti-porn site, has been whipping up (so to speak) press releases against “Fifty Shades” for months for glamorizing “abuse of power, female inequality, coercion, and sexual violence.”

Then I read an article in the National Catholic Reporter publication to get a sense of what the religious community’s take on it was.  My reason for writing my article is not to take one side or the other but to add some observations that I had with my experience watching the film.  Background on me:  I have not read any of the books and when the movie was announced, I had never even heard of it.  The impression that I had from the various, information sources, encountered randomly during my day to day activities, was that this was a smut film at best with no redeeming qualities and possibly flat out pornographic.  I didn’t notice any real story in the movie trailers and so, I didn’t plan on watching it simply because it wasn’t of interest, not because I was morally opposed to the concept which is often misrepresented by studio marketing departments.

Southern Baptist pastor Jay Dennis, founder of the One Million Men anti-pornography ministry, decries the marketing of the movie as “leading to the normalization of pornography. Make no mistake, Fifty Shades of Grey is pornography,” said Dennis, pastor of First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland, Fla.

In the film, a college student Anastasia Steele, meets a 27 year old industry magnate who, is involved in a lifestyle of BDSM.  In a nutshell, this means that he proposes a relationship “contract” to Steele wherein he would be the master and she the submissive and this relationship would involve domination and the use of sex tools to combine pleasure and pain.  The contract, of course, being of the “at will” variety.

“The popularity of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ among women sends a message to men that this is what women really want. Even more dangerous, it also sends the message to women that they can ‘fix’ violent, controlling men by being obedient and loving.”

Sure there is the plot element where a seemingly innocent college aged girl is enticed into an unhealthy and, using Christian scripture as an index, an immoral relationship with an entrepeneur named Christian Grey.  Steele, who is technically a consenting adult, does agree to engage in sex and the acts are graphic which opens up the film to the critique that the producers indented to sell tickets using pornography.  And they may be right…but, (here come the buts keeping in mind that the book text does not factor in here.  I’m told the book author does expand on the inner state of Steele which, if considered, would substantiate some of the interpretations in the quotes above.  My experience only includes the film).

But…This girl, throughout the film, entertains some of her boyfriend’s desires while pushing back on others and even refusing some of his demands.  She also prods him for details about his life and breaks down his walls to find out what really makes him tick.  I think that there is a theme in this movie which we have seen in quite a few others.  From a structural and thematic (I.e. “Story”) perspective, I don’t think this film is new at all.  It’s a rehashing of the story concept of “good girl falls for a bad boy” because she thinks she can save him from himself.  He’s a project and this is a romance relationship film at the core.  In these relationship films, there is often a storytelling technique used called the double reversal.  It’s a sophisticated technique in which you have two protagonists, instead of one, who start at polar opposites and then by the end, they both change and end up more like the other.  At least, this is how it would seem due to the fact that through most of the film, we think that this girl is being corrupted by the bad man who wants her to submit to a lifestyle that is certainly immoral.  We also believe, because of marketing and all the social backlash, that the movie is portraying an alternative, immoral lifestyle as a new norm.  In general, within the first half of a film’s structure, writers and directors use various techniques to create preconceived notions or to reinforce existing ones in the minds of their viewers.  That allows them to have a baseline against which they can contrast and reveal the thematic reality later in the film.  From a narrative structure angle, thats the impressive thing about the film.  The negative press that builds before the film even opens, actually creates the preconceived notions that the filmmaker wants you to have so that they can communicate the theme and introduce a twist.  Two things which are both elements of good storytelling.  If this was deliberate, the producers have actually reached into the real world from the fictional one in order to build the plot!  That’s crazy!

So what does that mean, thematically?  By the end of the film, we find out that, within the story world, the power and influence of this seemingly monolithic, secret sex cult is akin to that of the the man behind the curtain in Wizard of Oz.  In his power to corrupt the innocent, Grey who represents the morally subversive cult, is actually fairly impotent and we learn that he is this way because he was exploited when he was young and had major family issues that made him vulnerable.  The crux of his power is the at will contract which Steele never signs.  This young adult who appears to be fostering her budding girl power is disguised as an artless, doey eyed victim.  Rather than allow her own victimization, she strings HIM along long enough to work on breaking down his barriers and at the very end she gives him a chance to change.  This is hardly artless.  Her interest in him is not the sex or the money or lifestyle that she could lead, but she sees a real person behind the facade and wants to fix him.

What does it mean structurally?  It’s not until the very end that we start to see the internal workings of Steele’s cunning.  So we experience the double reversal making for a great story but then the twist comes when we find out that Steele was in control of her own plan all along!  So is that a new technique…the “Double Reversal Flip-Back”?  If so, then we’ll see much more of this technique in hollywood films because the simple structures don’t work anymore.  The audience wants sophisticated and Hollywood will deliver.

Admittedly, all of this thematic stuff is very subtle (and the structural building blocks are invisible to the public).  Without more dialogue inclusion of the literary descriptions from the novel, the interpretation is pretty subjective.  But, its an opinion and one that I didn’t think I’d have when I went into the film.  It also resurrects the 20th century debate regarding media and its power to tell people what to think.  After much research, the world concluded that media does not have this power with the exception in the case of children, which is why the Federal Trade Commission adopted rules that restrict advertising to kids more than any other group using the concepts of deception and rationality as the basis for the regulation.  Another interesting reality is that in Hollywood, the simple three act structure stories aren’t selling anymore.  Since 21st century, audiences are more sophisticated, media now has even less power compared to when these studies were done.

Does this mean that movies like this one are healthy or that there is no alternative way to tell that same thematic story (keeping in mind that story is what happens under the surface of the plot)?  No, it doesn’t mean any of those things and so the criticisms quoted from the NCR article are valid perspectives, but they are a few perspectives among many creating a dialogue that requires critical thinking in order to get at the objective truth.  Media studies at the University level has been teaching this for decades.  Society has been going in this direction since the 1920’s through scientific, historical and philosophical learning and building significant momentum with the general population through the public university since the 1970’s.

The way I look at it, we have a brain and we’re responsible for the free will decision on whether or not we use it to become rational in a complex world.  But, on the flip side, lots of people in society don’t have the university guidance (or time to parse out the cluttered information archives) we need in order to be rational and informed.  The concept of rationality which factors into the social structure of western society goes back 500 years and its what gives us our freedom.  The problem is that most people don’t study media, its history, and effects on society….because the knowledge is not readily available unless you major in it in college.  So, better education in K-12 would solve much of this, make us more free and give us the gift of immunity to any possible corruption from movie plots at the same time.  In the mean time, since we have widely varied levels of education in society, I guess the answer to the title of my post is…Both.

About Blake

Blake is a Filmmaker, Writer, and Sports Media professional from Austin, TX. He studied Film Production and Advertising at UT Austin. When not supporting University TV crews and NBA Entertainment on live sports productions, he likes to excercise, travel, hang with Snoop his Jack Russell, read, write and collaborate with other writers, directors, actors, editors and producers on new ideas for storytelling in the film/TV medium.
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