Fifty Shades of Grey has sparked a lot of debate. Some like the fact that a popular movie now breaks the taboo on BDSM and seeks to challenge common stereotypes. Others condemn the movie for romanticizing violence.
So far, however, no philosophers seem to have joined the debate. That’s unfortunate, for how we should assess Fifty Shades and its BDSM theme depends on a range of philosophical issues such as consent, harm, voluntariness, respect, dignity, and the role of fiction.
BDSM is a somewhat radical topic, and for philosophical purposes, that is often an advantage. Radical topics – like thought experiments – put our principles to the test. (If you think Fifty Shades is grotesque, you should be warned that it is a walk in the park compared to many of the standard thought experiments in ethics).
For philosophical reasons – and philosophical reasons only, of course – I recently went to watch Fifty Shades of Grey.
Grey and Steele
To the extent that Fifty Shades has a plot, I shall now spoil it. The movie tells a straightforward story about Christian Grey – an intelligent, handsome, and very rich young man – and Anastasia Steele – an English literature major at a local college. They meet during an interview, find each other attractive, and initiate an affair. Christian is secretive, possessive, and controlling, and he is very much into BDSM. Anastasia lets Christian do some of his BDSM things with her, and she enjoys parts of it. Unfortunately for Christian, however, Anastasia isn’t actually into BDSM, so when things escalate beyond feather tickling and playful slaps, she freaks out and leaves him. And that’s it.
I might be naïve, but I understand neither how the movie challenges common stereotypes nor how it is supposed to romanticize violence.
Fifty Shades portrays BDSM as a rather strange and awkward practice, and it is hard to see how it gives the viewers any interesting insight into the nature of Christian’s desires. The only thing we are told is that his interest in BDSM might have been caused by bad experiences in his childhood. Anastasia, moreover, is shocked and disgusted when Christian (with her consent) whacks her with a belt, and her shock and disgust are portrayed as justified responses. If anything, Fifty Shades exploits rather than challenges common stereotypes about BDSM.
It is also unclear how Fifty Shades could be accused of being violent or of romanticizing violence. For one, it is filled with negotiations, so-called “safewords” are brought up several times, and Christian frequently reminds Anastasia that she can leave whenever she wants. He also insists, repeatedly, that they should sign a contract regulating the limits of their roleplay.
But even if negotiations and safewords are in place: Is it okay to display BDSM activities in a popular movie, or might this still be an unacceptable portrayal of violence?
To answer this, it might be useful to compare BDSM with other activities that we find in movies. On the one hand, we find kissing and cuddling. These are certainly less violent than BDSM. Kissing and cuddling, however, are not the only things that we find in movies – we also find, among other things, fighting and killing. Fighting and killing are common in popular movies, and we might therefore ask: What is most violent, BDSM or killing? Surely, killing is more violent. But if that is the case, then it is paradoxical how BDSM can be unacceptably violent while killing, apparently, is not.
It could be suggested, perhaps, that while BDSM is portrayed as something positive in a movie like Fifty Shades, killing is not. There are, however, two problems with this suggestion. First, many movies – even mainstream movies such as Star Wars and James Bond – portray killing more positively than Fifty Shades portrays BDSM. Second, is it even clear that BDSM counts as a form of violence? Though it might look violent, BDSM is a form of roleplay, and people engage in this kind of roleplay for a reason. It seems to give them intimacy and sexual pleasure, and for some, it appears to be cathartic. Regarding BDSM simply as violence fails to take into account what it is like for those involved.
To sum up, it is unclear how Fifty Shades can be said to challenge common stereotypes, and it is also unclear how it can be accused of being a violent movie. It doesn’t challenge stereotypes and, when I think it through, it is in fact one of the least violent movies that I have seen in months. There is no fighting and no killing in Fifty Shades. No shootings or explosions either. Just a dysfunctional BDSM relationship.
Ole Martin Moen (@oleMMoen) is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Philosophy at University of Oslo. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.
Illustration: Wikimedia Commons.