This past week, the highly anticipated “Fifty Shades Darker” hit cinemas worldwide and already the film has people talking. In the age of neo-feminism, the Women’s March, and a huge push towards universal sexual consent, the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series has inevitably become tangled in the debate. Does the film promote the very abusive and non-consensual sexual relationships that these movements are fighting?
The internet is already flooded with blog posts and opinion pieces blasting the film for supposedly acting like a romance movie, when in their view it is a story of violence and domestic abuse. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation is even calling upon women to boycott the film. The Center says that the film is “not about a love affair” but rather about “abuse, violence, and grooming a young girl for sadistic sex.”
Before I pose my argument against these assertions, may it be known that I am a feminist. I believe in equal rights for women. I demand that everyone asks for consent. I strive for a world where women feel safe from sexual abuse. But in all fairness, I cannot say that “Fifty Shades Darker” violated these standards. I have not read the books and cannot attest to how the film might differ. If there was any violation of consent in the written version, it appears the filmmakers went a different direction.
I cannot think of an instance where Christian Grey, the male protagonist, violates Anastasia Steele, the female lead. On the contrary, I would argue that the film pushes consent as a selling point. For many women, one of the most attractive things a man can do is ask for consent. If the filmmaker’s goal was to make Christian as attractive as possible, it would make sense for him to do just that. “What do you want, Anastasia?” just happens to be a stand-out line of the film.
In the beginning, Anastasia tells Christian that she wants to “take it slow” after getting back together. When she begins to allude to sex through her body language, Christian demands that she be clear about the pace of their relationship. He also insists on her communication to avoid violating her sexual comfort and often verified by asking: “Are you sure?” He never proceeds without verbal confirmation and it is often Anastasia who asks for something in particular.
As consent goes both ways, Anastasia should be held to the same standards. In the second installation, we learn why Christian will not let Anastasia touch him. Grey suffered an abusive childhood and was scarred by the experience. In another notable scene, Christian has Anastasia draw a line in lipstick around his chest to represent his physical boundaries. As silly as this might seem, I would argue that the scene effectively promotes consent. He clearly establishes his physical limits and she agrees to respect them.
It is important to note that true BDSM relationships actually hinge upon consent. As the first installation of the ‘Fifty Shades” series showed, the ground rules are laid out before engagement and code words are provided to make sure any unwanted actions come to an immediate stop. These are the same mechanisms of consent that are expected in any kind of sexual relationship. When Anastasia tells Christian that she would never consent to this role, he respects her wishes.
Although this kind of sexual relationship might look different from what most of us know, the building blocks of consent are the same. It might be even clearer in this context than many “normal” relationships where consent is often ambiguous or avoided in conversation. In short, discouraging a boycott of “Fifty Shades Darker” might actually prevent audiences from seeing a film that promotes consensual and mutually pleasurable sexual relationships.