Shades of Grey: Cinematic Depictions of BDSM

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‘Fifty Shades’ gets some things wrong, and some things right.

Last month, Fifty Shades Darker, the latest film adaptation of E.L. James’ book series, was released in theaters, and has predictably done remarkably well at the box office. In fact, at this moment, it has made over $300 million worldwide. The first film, Fifty Shades of Grey, made $571 million. The wildly popular series tells the tale of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), two middle/upper-class heterosexual Americans who fall in love and engage in varying levels of kinky sex, while Christian works through his inner demons to eventually realize all he needs is a vanilla marriage and kids. What is most remarkable about the series is how it has brought BDSM into the mainstream.

BDSM stands for bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism. The term “BDSM” includes a wide range of highly negotiated sexual activities engaged in by consenting adults. Emma Green of The Atlantic notes that Fifty Shades is not the first depiction of BDSM in Western media, but it certainly seems to be the most popular. The fact that the books have sold so many copies (over 100 million), and the films have done so well at the box office indicate that the sexual relationship between Christian and Ana is American culture’s fantasy of the moment.

One of the most positive outcomes of the Fifty Shades phenomenon is that it has brought open discussions about sexuality into the mainstream. People who knew nothing about BDSM are now curious about it, and while Fifty Shades is not the most educational source on the subject, it is a good starting point. Green’s article notes that the target audience is women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s – women who may never have gotten the chance to be frank about enjoying sex if not for this series. Readers who may have been shy or embarrassed to talk about sex now have a reason to strike up a conversation about their desires with their friends and lovers, thanks to these books and movies, which can feel incredibly freeing.

Green also writes that the films are so popular because the sex scenes audiences read about have now been explicitly transformed into images – people no longer have to use their imaginations, because everything is onscreen. Cinema is a visual medium, and this is especially important to consider when discussing portrayals of BDSM. Film scholar Linda Williams writes in her book Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible” that when BDSM is depicted onscreen, the images appear to be of violence, of women suffering and being forced into various sexual acts. However, it is crucial to note that this is merely what Williams calls “the appearance of coercion”, but not coercion itself. In her case, she is writing about pornography, but it applies to BDSM in mainstream cinema as well. BDSM is highly negotiated and consensual, even if it looks like the submissive is being forced into acts against their will. A submissive agrees to acts that they find pleasurable or empowering, even if it appears violent to an outside perspective.

This is where the Fifty Shades films (and books) falter. There are many scenes in Fifty Shades of Grey where Christian explains the negotiation process of a BDSM relationship to Anastasia. He writes a detailed contract outlining all the acts she can say yes or no to, and will only proceed with acts that she agrees to. However, Christian frequently ignores Ana’s wishes and manipulates her into doing what he wants – both in and outside of the bedroom. He scolds her when she drinks alcohol, shows up unannounced whenever she goes somewhere without him, and he coerces her into engaging in BDSM play (such as spanking) with him – she is afraid of saying no to him, because she knows he will be angry and possibly leave her if she does. This is not a healthy BDSM relationship, because clearly Ana doesn’t fully understand how it works and is extremely hesitant about it – she frequently states that she is not submissive and does not want to obey his commands, but she does anyway because she believes she is falling in love with him.

This 2015 article in The Guardian features interviews with real-life BDSM practitioners, who noted that Fifty Shades got a lot wrong, but got some things right – for instance, Christian always uses a condom when he has sex with Ana, and she later starts taking birth control pills. The series is very adamant about the importance of safe sex. However, the interviewees noted that Christian and Ana don’t really engage in too much BDSM play. Christian has an elaborate red room filled with fancy and beautiful equipment, most of which is never used. He ties up Ana a few times, but most of the scenes simply portray them having sex. So while Fifty Shades has introduced BDSM into the mainstream, it has done so in the most mild – vanilla, if you will – way possible.

Belle du Jour (1967)

Interviewee Jon Blue stated: “Maybe this will break a taboo. Maybe it will stimulate someone to make a decent film about sexuality”. Of course, the Fifty Shades films are not the first to cinematically portray BDSM. Luis Buñuel’s beautiful 1967 film Belle du Jour, starring Catherine Deneuve, tells the story of woman who looks outside of her marriage to fulfill her fantasies involving domination and bondage. The film does not explicitly discuss BDSM, but it is portrayed as a subversive, enjoyable form of play for a woman in an unhappy relationship, and her extramarital affairs lead to a rekindling of her relationship with her husband. The visuals are beautifully composed, rather than appearing violent or scary in any way.

Similarly, Steven Shainberg’s incredible 2002 film, Secretary, portrays BDSM without explicit discussions of the subject. Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Lee, a woman who begins a dominant/submissive relationship with her boss, Mr. E. Edward Grey (James Spader). Secretary portrays the positive, empowering aspect of a dom/sub relationship – Lee becomes happier and more fulfilled when she engages in play with Mr. Grey. While the film does not feature contracts or explicit discussions of consent like Fifty Shades does, Secretary instead portrays how satisfying power play can be for both parties. Green notes that emotional maturity and and self-knowledge are essential in any BDSM relationship, and these two aspects are present in Secretary, which makes the relationship between the protagonists work so well. They are attentive to each others’ desires, and both happily engage in 24/7 play.

Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker each feature a fair number of sex scenes, many of which involve some kind of restraint or punishment. The sex scenes are not incredibly graphic, and usually end in missionary heterosexual sex. While these films have introduced kinky sex to a mainstream audience, they are not deeply informative on the subject. Sexuality is still largely taboo in our Western society, so any mainstream media that directly addresses sex and desire is a positive thing. However, Fifty Shades of Grey is somewhat dangerous because it portrays a relationship that is borderline abusive – Christian is possessive and manipulative with Ana, especially regarding sex.

Fifty Shades’ wide reach is what makes it dangerous, because, as Green writes: “If anything has the power to shape sexual norms, this does”. These books and films reach millions of eager fans, and while they advocate for consent to a certain extent, there are many unhealthy aspects of Christian and Ana’s relationship. The Fifty Shades series is strictly heteronormative, with Christian giving up his kinky ways to marry Ana in the end, so there is not much hope that the last film will portray BDSM in a deeper, more positive light. However, there will always be films such as Secretary, Belle du Jour, The Piano Teacher, and Nymphomaniac to provide a more nuanced view of sexuality where films like Fifty Shades fall short.

Actual film school graduate. Perpetually sleepy.