The illusion of agency in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Opinion by Anja Young
March 3, 2015, 8:39 p.m.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on the recently released movie “Fifty Shades of Grey.” It’s popping up in Facebook posts, media articles and ongoing conversations, all trying to figure out if the movie is a testament to the sexual acceptance of the new millennium or a slap in the face to modern-day feminism. There have been countless articles arguing pretty convincingly for both sides. But how can there be anything ambiguous about the line between abuse and affection? Simply put, it’s a question of agency.

Most of the articles claiming that “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a swoon-worthy romance showcase Anastasia Steele’s power and independence in the film. The plotline may follow the much-tried irresistibly-misunderstood-wealthy-guy-meets-charmingly-naive-sheltered-girl, but Ana’s wit and talent for ridiculing Christian Grey’s more eye-roll-worthy moments endears us to her, while reminding us (and him) that she’s still in control. But agency is much more complicated than allowing for witty banter or even the freedom to walk away.

In “The Real Abuse at the Heart of Fifty Shades of Grey,” Kristen O’Neal argues that the movie advertises a willing surrender of control as “empowering,” when in reality, the film seeks to “remove agency.” But it’s a little more complicated than that. In many ways, the film is empowering: Ana’s willing exploration of her sexuality and the confidence that affords her are liberating parts of her growth as a character throughout the film and trilogy. But in spite of the contracts (outlining what Ana is and isn’t willing to do) that are constantly being negotiated, presumably to emphasize the role of consent in all of this, there is still a disconcerting faux-power at play. Worse than completely removing agency, E.L. James builds up our confidence and comfort level by giving Ana a false sense of control. Flirting with the implication that Ana has power makes any almost-abusive behavior dismissible as just a thrill of the dangerous romance. But if this sense of control isn’t real, the emotional manipulation that fuels it is much more problematic.

On closer inspection, it becomes clear that in reality, Christian holds most of the cards in this dynamic.  Even before the (loosely termed) relationship begins, Christian’s overwhelming social power and influence floods the stage. The emphasis on Christian’s fortune and business savvy implies that with enough of it, wealth and status somehow make questionable treatment and emotionally-crippling narcissism acceptable characteristics. As writer Arthur Chu says, this movie “isn’t about sex. It’s about class.” And more specifically, it’s about how society’s obsessions with money and power make a suitor’s ability to sweep you off your feet into their private jet as drool-worthy as affectionate gestures or a winning personality. So, before we know anything about Christian (outside of his obsession with blondes and hilariously monotonous wardrobe), we know that Ana is supposed to be with him because he’s the unattainable dreamboat. After all, who in their right minds turns down the “perfect” guy? We hand over Ana’s agency to Christian before learning anything that matters about him, sheerly on the basis of his reputation for being wanted.

Some people would probably highlight here that Ana still has the choice to walk away — which she does on several occasions — and would point to this as proof that she is still completely in control. But Christian’s manipulations — showing up (rather creepily) unannounced at her apartment, making grand romantic (or at least wealth-flaunting) gestures — seem to make Ana’s rebellion more endearing than actual. Yes, she walks out on him (even flies away on a couple occasions), but it’s always assumed that with the right romantic gesture, she’ll go back to him.

Her resistance is more akin to that of a rebellious puppy — futile, but endearing because she legitimately believes she has a choice — than to that of a person making a statement by walking away from her partner. There’s never any consideration, even in Christian’s darkest, most emotionally injurious moments towards Ana, that she’ll ever leave for good. Admittedly, you could chalk that reaction up to the rose-colored-glasses we put on for romantic films, but does that make it any less disconcerting? Surely, even in the fantasy-world movies represent, there should be some uncrossable line we lay out for our protagonists. And a relationship as emotionally distraught and painful as the one Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey seem to share is solidly on the other side of that line.

Mass-distributed fantasy is a dangerous game. E.L. James invites us into a world without inhibitions, where we can shed logical limitations in favor of a completely foreign experience. It’s easy to claim immunity from ideas fed to us through pop culture, especially when they’re just something fun to do on a Friday night. After all, we know that action films don’t prove the bad guy always gets his just desserts, and romantic comedies aren’t proof that with enough patience and the right outfit, the perfect relationship will fall into your lap. But unchecked romanticization of reality is a dangerous tactic — it encourages us to overlook flaws in favor of fuzzy feelings and surrender logic to our hearts with reckless abandon.

So, consider a different happy ending. The one where Ana realizes she deserves better, where she sees that love isn’t supposed to be an emotionally destructive roller coaster with no way out, and where she has enough self-love to walk away. Can you see it? Yeah, the guy wouldn’t get the girl. But even the best feel-good movie doesn’t justify blindly accepting him as he is and hoping he wins out in the end, no matter the cost.

Contact Anja Young at ayoung3 ‘at’

Login or create an account