With all the fuss about the “50 Shades of Grey” movie coming out this Valentine’s Day weekend, now seems like a good time to pause, take a deep breath, and remember that basically no sexual relationships, as portrayed on the big screen by Hollywood studios, resemble anything like a healthy real-life dynamic. (For that matter, most of the off-screen relationships in Tinseltown aren’t so great, either.)
So, sure. The movie, and the book before it, portray a hero who is by any sane definition abusive, and a troubled heroine who could really use some supportive friends (and better lovers) telling her to get the hell out.
But the same is probably true of your favorite rom-com. (Every year, the thing that sets my teeth most on edge during the holiday season is the number of otherwise intelligent friends who seem to like, without irony, the creepfest that is “Love Actually.”) Most Hollywood males, in romantic plots, are manipulators at the very least; most women somewhere between victims and “dating down” taken to its most extreme imbalance.
Nor is the sex itself, as portrayed on screen, anything to celebrate as an instruction in satisfying lovemaking. The clothes-tearing, blanket-mussing frenzy of dude-on-top, penis-in-vagina sex that somehow manages to never flash a breast here or a ballsack there isn’t much of a primer for how a couple of human beings can get one another off — although the 30-60ish seconds of screentime, followed by a fade to black or a cut, might not be the worst estimate of the average Hollywood-trained male’s endurance.
Which is fine. Movies are entertainment, not how-to guides, and the same is true of “50 Shades.” As the ever-so-talented Erika Moen said in her comic-review over at Oh Joy Sex Toy,
“I’m just not into policing what people are allowed to find arousing in their fantasy porn…I have faith in people to understand [sic] that the fictional book they are reading is just a trashy two-dimensional fantasy to get their juices flowing and not the blueprints by which to construct their actual relationships. But that’s just me.”
There are arguments to be made about how popular culture shapes social expectations (and vice versa), but those arguments are weakest when they lean on a single “bad example” document or text as a stand-in for all of culture. “50 Shades” is not going to start a sudden and heretofore nonexistent rash of bad relationships disguised as kink play. Those relationships were already out there. “50 Shades” is, if anything, a tolerable example of many extant dynamics in the proudly kinky and 50-Shades-hating community, although the men involved usually have less money and more facial hair.
Insofar as there are people who read “50 Shades” as their very first introduction to BDSM and run out looking for a guy to spank them even when they scream “no” — and those people do exist, to be sure — the solution is not less trashy porn. The solution is a better level of sexual literacy in our culture. People should have better options for learning about BDSM (and sex in general) that are as ubiquitous and easy to acquire as “50 Shades.”
So don’t boycott the movie or the book, any more than you were already planning to skip on a non-principled, literary-quality stance. (And in particular stay away from the “$50 Not 50 Shades” campaign, which is run by anti-porn, anti-sex worker activists — no friends to kink or healthy sexuality themselves.)
Instead, go out and buy something from your friendly neighborhood sex store. Have some sex that doesn’t look like any Hollywood movie at all, if you’ve got a partner or partners to do that with. Talk about sex with your friends. Be part of a culture that celebrates education and variety of expression, rather than clamping down reflexively on anything that’s not the “right way” to have sex.
“50 Shades” is a bad book that has been made into a (presumably) bad movie. But it’s not a societal problem — or rather, it’s one small part of a societal problem that, let’s face it, most people were less vocally upset about when it came dressed in artfully rumpled bedsheets rather than leather and chain.