Fifty Shades Freed and the sexist side of the dismissive hubub around it is better described by Stephanie Zacharek in her Time magazine piece, Fifty Shades Freed is a Pleasure. Just Don’t Call it a Guilty One. At the risk of trying to come across as “I’m more woke than you and thus enjoy this shitty movie everyone slags on,” just know: I don’t care. I don’t care about Fifty Shades Freed or this series, but when I left the theater after watching the third movie about Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) I felt like I finally “got” it, and that maybe all the snarky stuff around this series just stems from a lack of empathy surrounding what women enjoy as smut.
That’s not to say that Fifty Shades Freed is a “good” film by any “objective” measure (if you believe in such things), just that it’s a kinky film for (generally) women who want to watch a stupid romance that contains sex scenes shot with the female gaze in mind. The movie is mostly a string of lifestyle porn: a private jet for Anastasia and all of her friends, Anastasia’s promotion to head of a publishing company, a weekend trip to a mansion in Aspen. Anastasia scaring off a woman who approaches Christian with a little too much cleavage by showing that he belongs to her and no one else.
To some extent, I understand the comparisons to Phantom Thread, except Phantom Thread is about exploring the underlying, unspoken tensions of a lasting romantic relationship and the complexities of women’s desire whereas Fifty Shades is about ruthlessly exploiting those desires for the audience at every cut, in every scene. Thread is an academic work; Shades is raw capitalistic impulse.
I was working at Half Price Books during the Fifty Shades craze four or five years ago. Those books were sold like gold. They sold, sold, sold. Women of all ages, some men, too. The truth is that the other erotica for women sold as well. And I guess in hindsight, we always treated the explicitness and intensity of their erotic literature with a humorous remove. “Wow, look at this (literal) garbage bag of urban fic,” “I can’t believe how explicit these are,” etc.
Some titles: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Side Chicks, Baby Mama’s Drama 3: Once a Dog, Always a Dog, The Mating Chase (BBW: Big, Beautiful Werewolves) (Werewolves of Montana Book 1).
But I was single at the time and would go home and look at porn, and some “weird” shit, too. My wife and I own some erotic comic books that feature alien sex, just because those books feature artwork by some of our old college friends. Whatever. She grew up writing fan-fiction online that depicted intense relationships. So did I! It’s still out there. I won’t tell you where.
It’s not my best writing.
All this is to say sarcastically rendering Fifty Shades as “soft-core BDSM” and nothing more feels like a dismissive handwave to a wide audience that enjoys it and looks beyond the fact that it’s pretty much perfect at being what it was made to be, and what audiences want it to be. And that just because the audience is predominantly women doesn’t make it inherently lesser. It’s still pretty dumb, but so is Star Wars XXX: A Porn Parody. At least this one has production values and some sense of eroticism.
I know a lot of complaints about the series stem from its depiction of the BDSM culture in regard to consent, contracts and the like. I can’t speak on behalf of any community, but as an outsider it seems like the writers and directors put great care into making the film emphasize consent. The entire movie is, essentially, a circular series of conflicts between Anastasia and Christian wherein they have passionate sex, and then she wants something and he doesn’t understand, so she gets mad at him and then an external force (evil villain Jack Hyde, a nasty architect) creates a context in which the two grow closer and forgive each other.
The movies have always portrayed a power dynamic that puts her in charge. It’s not exactly a healthy relationship but each episode provides context for steamy makeouts and hubba hubba. I do not get the impression that fans of Fifty Shades watch these films to learn lessons about how to conduct their own relationships or sex practices. Rather, they watch the heightened, absurd, comically bad narrative interludes to dissipate the sexual tension of the relatively soft-core love making. The relationship stuff is soap-opera melodramatic bad, but it’s all bad on purpose.
I can’t recommend Fifty Shades of Grey or its sequels to anyone who isn’t already intrigued by their premise (or interested in the earnestly schlocky bits of the first movie), although, for what it’s worth, Fifty Shades Freed is a better movie than the second, Fifty Shades Darker, which had too much plot but also a helicopter crashing into a volcano.
If you’re at all intrigued by going to the theater to enjoy something sultry, you shouldn’t feel guilty about it because everyone who wants to act like you’re wasting your time with stupid bullshit is probably at home watching or writing erotic material that contains just as little narrative weight and probably even more unconventional means of getting off. And if they aren’t, they should be because exploring different outlooks on sex and sexuality is tremendously interesting, important and world-broadening. So go buy weird alien sex comic books or sex toys or watch Fifty Shades Freed. Just don’t be so quick to shit on someone for doing so.