Does 'Fifty Shades' Show a Feminist Relationship?

The fact alone that the Fifty Shades of Grey movie can even warrant the question of an identifiable feminist backbone is likely a surprise to most: The shockingly enjoyable feature film adaptation of E. L. James’ panned erotic novel lays claim to its qualitative success thanks to a self-effacing sense of humor and a genuine devotion to actual ideas. Some of these, such as that exhibited by the film’s intriguing ending, bode well for its feminist voice.

We see in Anastasia Steele’s relationship with Christian Grey — more accurately, in the onscreen dynamics of Dakota Johnson and James Dornan — somewhat of a reversal of Hollywood’s traditional gambit of sexual objectification. Our vehicle into the story is Ana: she is the character with whom we empathize and relate, for whom we can genuinely root.

Ana falls in step with your standard beta male rom-com lead. She’s funny, spouting comical one-liners during a drunken night out with friends, and goofy, dancing the jitterbug to Frank Sinatra’s temperate “Witchcraft.” And she’s awkward and clumsy whenever flooded by attraction to her conquest, Christian.

And that’s precisely what he is: less a character, more an objective — falling largely within the margins set for your usual rom-com female characters.

In Fifty Shades, dead-from-the-neck-up Christian is a catch for one reason: his looks. Ana, though too a lovely girl, is championed by the audience for her candor and quirk, amounting as the next in heir to the Billy Crystal/Ben Stiller/Seth Rogen crown. Christian is the sort of figure that romantic heroes like these have been chasing for decades, offering little more than something to look at and vie for. Yes, he’s got a tragic backstory, but it actually serves to weigh him down to the dullards rather than imbuing him with any authentic intrigue.

In her pursuit of Christian (one occurring as a paradox of his pursuit of her), Ana displays the kind of agency that the genre so often keeps out of reach of its heroines. She’s the one asking the questions and giving the answers; she has the final say in every battle and in the ultimate war. This Ana’s movie, about Ana’s quest for what’s right for Ana. Christian factors in as a possibility, but never seizes control — despite so many attempts to do so! — from his romantic partner and narrative opponent.

All that said, the designation of Fifty Shades as a wholly progressive text might be a tad premature. While the audience does invest in Anastasia due to well architected personality, Christian pines for her for one reason above all: purity. He looks at Anastasia as a pristine figure to add to his collection, cherishing her virginity as an insuperable trophy. (Heck, he goes bananas when he finds out that she's drunk — long before they're even together, no less!) While the film doesn't exactly get behind any of Christian's vantage points on romantic relationships, we don't quite get the feeling that it's condemning his reductive view on female sexual identity as much as it probably should.

But accepting Christian's behavior as understood by Fifty Shades to be malignant and chauvinistic (even when he does get off scot-free for some pretty creepy stuff), we can't fault the movie for preparing a pretty interesting reversal of the usual routine. Stone-cut Christian presents himself regularly for Ana, who maintains the stance of observer and receptor, basking in the aesthetic splendor of the anatomical bequeathment left on her doorstep. Always appearing leagues more casual and unkempt than Christian, Anastasia is the human of the two; the subject. He's the object.

It might not be a healthy relationship, but it's at least a subversion of the usual junk we see.

Images: Universal Pictures