Fifty Shades Freed (2018) by James Foley
Review by Andrew Swafford
Mention the Fifty Shades franchise around polite company and notice the collective reaction: a mixture of mocking laughter and shivering revulsion. This BDSM-romance is easily one of the most ridiculed and reviled franchises in recent memory: their Rotten Tomatoes scores range from 10% to 25%, they are Razzie-decorated Worst Picture nominees/winners, they inspired the parody film Fifty Shades of Black, and of course, they’ve generated the aforementioned ubiquitous cultural backlash. By all accounts, these movies are irredeemable--straight trash.
You know where this set-up is leading: I like the Fifty Shades films. They aren’t perfectly constructed movies by any means, but seeing the evolution of the series’ central relationship between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey has been often delightful and always fascinating, even in its shortcomings. Listeners of the Cinematary podcast have heard my defense of the trilogy in piecemeal already (my wife joined to discuss Darker and Freed), so much of what follows here will be reiterations of points I’ve already made. But I want to attempt, in good faith, to present an exhaustive case for why the Fifty Shades series does not deserve its current status as a cultural punching bag. As a result, the writing that follows is going to feel more like a review of Fifty Shades criticisms and less like a review of Fifty Shades Freed itself; it’s also going to sound a bit like a ~thinkpiece~, so click away if the concept bothers you. I’ll be going point-by-point through the common criticisms of the series:
The Fifty Shades films are Twilight fanfiction
The Fifty Shades films celebrate an abusive relationship
The Fifty Shades films pathologize kink
The Fifty Shades films are consumerist porn
And, for the record, I’m not even going to entertain with my attention certain criticisms of a puritanical nature that just outright condemn sexual content in movies. “It’s porn!” is not a minefield I would like to step into, either, as the ethics of pornography are too thorny an issue for me to unpack here. For the sake of argument, I’m going to consider “erotic romance” a genre worth taking seriously on its own terms. So, with a deep breath, I venture into a different minefield of my own construction:
1. The Fifty Shades films are Twilight fanfiction
Professional critics don’t dole out this one too often, but it’s the most common gripe I hear in mainstream social circles. For sake of documentation, though, I’ll quote the University of California’s 2015 film critic Alex Wehrung, who serves as a decent representative of this mindset. In his review of the first film, which boasts the admittedly clever title “Fifty Shades of Grey: Still a better love story than....actually, not really,” Wehrung writes:
“Finally, it’s here. The mommy-pornographic, masturbatory, former Twilight fanfiction fantasy hit that has taken the sexually-frustrated world by storm: Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie...As mentioned before, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades was originally a Twilight fanfic, and it shows. Anastasia Steele is Bella Swan sans the suicidal tendencies, but she still makes just as many stupid decisions and is about as complex as a Rubix cube with only one color. Same goes for Grey, who can be summed up as a kinky dick...In short, there is about as much chemistry between Grey and Steele as air and more air. If this is romance, getting up to go to the toilet is exercise.”
Perhaps it goes without saying that criticisms of this sort smack of unconscious misogyny, but using “mommy-pornographic” as an adjective certainly makes it easy to point out. Rubbing our nose in Twilight, an almost exclusively female cultural sensation, as a self-evident signifier of “badness” seems to me an equally obvious tell in its belittling tone. It’s true: Fifty Shades was conceived as Twilight fanfiction, but that doesn’t actually tell us anything about its quality. Hell, most franchise films that these critics adore could be defined as “fanfiction” created by artists playing with action figures from their childhood, so to speak--all three of the Disney Star Wars films are certainly fanfiction of a sort--but they are not dismissed for this.
As a culture, we (men and women) seem to have a knee-jerk sense of superiority towards anything that feels obviously branded as “girls’ stuff” unless it is presented in an already masculine framework (see: Wonder Woman). Twilight is perhaps the 21st century’s apotheosis of “girls’ stuff,” and its success made everyone at my high school a reactionary literary critic tearing into Stephenie Meyer’s prose style, and it made everyone a reactionary acting coach tearing into Kristen Stewart’s deadpan delivery (joke’s on them--that same deadpan has become an art-house force to be reckoned with). Earlier, I mentioned that Fifty Shades is so hated that it resurrected the parody genre--one of the only other modern films to do the same was Twilight, which inspired Vampires Suck (not to mention countless amateur parodies on YouTube), which is emblematic of just how much people hated this popular franchise that so obviously pandered to women. Another thing that perhaps goes without saying: multiplexes offer a platform for new male fantasies every single week--but we have seen no such mean-spirited takedown of the superhero genre in parody form for obvious reasons.
My current working theory is that the extreme backlash against Twilight served as a dark omen for what was to come in the #GamerGate movement (which later got absorbed into the Alt-Right--Jesus Christ, what have we done)--but even if you don’t buy that, the hatred of Twilight can be pretty cleanly traced back to deeply ingrained stereotypes about teenage girls being ditzy and having bad taste; the always-brilliant Lindsay Ellis unpacks the misogyny of Twilight backlash in great depth in her video essay “Dear Stephenie Meyer,” most of which I’ve just been regurgitating here:
One of Ellis’s sharpest insights here is how/why the hatred of “feminine” pop culture is often voiced by women themselves:
"the vast majority of the virulent hatred towards Twilight didn’t really come from grown men, but from teenage girls and women who were more than eager to distance themselves from something so unapologetically female…there’s something damaging about being made to feel shame because you relate more to Bella than some other feminist-approved Strong Female Character who don’t need no man to rescue her—and I’m not saying that trope doesn’t have toxic elements or warrant discussion, but I also don’t think it speaks to some character deficit if your fantasy is being rescued…[it’s] lazy and cliched writing, but it’s also popular for a reason, and you’re not stupid if that’s your fantasy."
Fifty Shades status as fanfiction makes a one-to-one analogy pretty easy here (although Ellis herself wouldn’t make it herself, seemingly due to the fact that the third film pretends abortion doesn’t exist for some reason), and this point equally applies to Christian Grey as a problematic object of desire--more on this later. But the fact that Fifty Shades was so obviously an unapologetically female product was what excited me about the series in the first place: the first film was directed by a woman, screenwritten by a woman, adapted from a book by a woman, edited by a woman, and marketed to an audience of women--which never happens in today’s teenage-boy-driven consumer culture. (PS: It’s a shame that Sam Taylor-Johnson was not brought back to direct the last two movies, but this is beside the point.) Back to the minefield.
2. The Fifty Shades films celebrate an abusive relationship
This is perhaps the most common criticism of Fifty Shades among film critics: the idea that Christian Grey is a creep at best and downright abusive at worst, and therefore an erotic romance circling around him is too troubling to root for. Michelle Fredrickson lays out the argument very clearly in an article for The Rocky Mountain Collegian:
“Grey stalks [Steele] on vacation, tracks her cell phone, tells her no one will hear her scream when she says she doesn’t want to have sex with him, sends bodyguards with her everywhere to prevent her from breaking his rules, and separates her from her friends and family, only allowing her to see them when he is present. These are hallmarks of an abusive relationship, but the series would have the readers believe it’s romantic. If your partner treats you this way, please know that this is not romance. It is abuse.”
Fredrickson’s reading of the film is likely informed by the books moreso than the films--which I’m led to believe are profoundly more abuse-heavy and abuse-apologetic--but perhaps surprisingly, I agree 100% with what she outlines here, despite the cast and crew refuting such criticisms. In my review of the first film back in 2015, I wrote:
“Christian Grey is a feminist’s nightmare. He unexpectedly and intrusively materializes around every turn to unfairly criticize or order around the film's female lead. He tries to control her diet. He sells her possessions without asking. He insists upon nothing less than subservience and unquestioning loyalty. He has no respect for boundaries or personal space. He cares much more about his own pleasure than that of his partner. He is vain and egotistical. He has enough money to control the world in which the female lead attempts to live. He doesn't take no for an answer. However, just because Mr. Grey is terrifying and domineering doesn't mean that feminists need write off Fifty Shades.”
The rationale for why acknowledging this abusive behavior at the center of the first film doesn’t necessitate dismissing it is three-fold: (1) the arc of the first film is an arc towards liberation from this abuse, culminating in Steele growing less and less passive until she loses her patience with Grey entirely and shouts “NO” as she storms out of his apartment to rolling credits; (2) although Grey’s behavior is certainly predatory in the first installment, the next two movies show an extreme amount of character growth; it is only after he can meaningfully prove that he is a changed man that Steele agrees to continue seeing him in Fifty Shades Darker, and their relationship is at its most communicative and healthy in Fifty Shades Freed; (3) these movies are explicitly about consent, and the two characters having drastically different understandings of consent at the beginning of the series is of instrumental importance to how the series as a whole operates.
The world of BDSM is a perfect setting for this kind of story, as it is built upon safe words and contractual spellings-out of precisely what sex acts are/aren't permissible before engaging. Grey doesn’t often follow the protocol in the first film, but it is telling that one of the undeniable high-points of the series is its “contract scene,” which depicts a tense and humorous board-meeting style negotiation over whether or not references to fisting and butt-plugs will make the contract’s final draft (all shot in gorgeous red neon by director Sam Taylor-Johnson and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey). The now-controversial social justice advocate Laci Green offered a nuanced point about the film’s handling of consent, saying in her video review that “[Steele] ends up participating because he wants her too, not because she wants to. This is a subtlety of consent that’s often overlooked; people can be coerced by more than just physical force.” Is consent still consent if you’re willing to humor your partner without genuine enthusiasm? This is a question raised by the first Fifty Shades film that gets explored further and further until the final installment presents a relationship built on open communication and pleasure for both parties. The trilogy as a whole has a satisfyingly cohesive arc, necessitating the existence of a series in the first place, rather than singular stories anthologized by branding.
Going even further than Green, the eclectic film critic Amy Nicholson has consistently praised the series for this, going as far as to call the Fifty Shades franchise “An Ode to the Idea of Consent” and Anastasia Steele “a role model for the [#MeToo] moment,” especially considering the series’ focus on sexual harassment in the workplace in Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. The films as a whole acknowledge the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct and present a spectrum of abusive men: those who can recognize fault, admit to their behavior, learn, and grow (Christian Grey) and those who continually blame the victim and seek personal vindication at the victim’s expense (Jack Hyde--Steele’s Weinstein-esque boss-turned-stalker). To simply equate the entire franchise with Christian Grey’s behavior in the first installment is a reductive misrepresentation of the story; it is always context, after all, that makes bad behavior into good storytelling.
3. The Fifty Shades films pathologize kink
Although the first Fifty Shades film has markedly better cinematography than the subsequent two, it’s also densely packed with corny dialogue--and perhaps the worst offender is when Grey describes himself as “fifty shades of fucked up.” The line comes in an early conversation about Grey’s kink, with Steele demanding to know why he needs to inflict pain to receive pleasure. At another point in the film, Grey explains that he was introduced to BDSM against his will: at the age of 15, he was seduced by one of his mother’s friends, who made Grey her submissive for six years. Perhaps the most logical reading of all this is that the film suggests that the love of BDSM is the mark of a broken person, and that those who are afflicted with kink need to be “fixed” in the same way that Grey is made less abusive throughout the film series (the title of the last film, Freed, certainly suggests that perhaps Grey will be liberated from his own predilections).
In a well-researched article for The Atlantic called “Fifty Shades of Grey Gets BDSM Dangerously Wrong,” Emma Green lays out this argument succinctly:
“As several experienced BDSM practitioners emphasized to me, there are healthy, ethical ways to consensually combine sex and pain. All of them require self-knowledge, communication skills, and emotional maturity in order to make the sex safe and mutually gratifying. The problem is that Fifty Shades casually associates hot sex with violence, but without any of this context...For all the talk of nipple clamps and butt plugs, BDSM is actually presented as a pathology, not a path to pleasure...By the end of the third book, Christian gives up on being in a dominant/submissive relationship with Ana—his sexual preferences were a way of coping with childhood abuse, he realizes, and now that he has Ana, he doesn’t have to be that way any more. As Mitchell Kaplan, the bookseller in Florida, put it, it’s a story of redemption—meaning, of course, that Christian is redeemed from his deviant sexuality.”
This was a concern I expressed about the first film in my 2015 review: that people would leave the film seeing Grey as a representative of the BDSM community as a whole just due to a dearth of alternative examples (in the film itself and in the broader pop culture landscape).
However, it’s worth pointing out that Emma Green’s article was solely in response to E.L. James’s book series, as the first film hadn’t been released yet. Although I haven’t read them myself, Green’s description of the kink-centric story arc doesn’t ring true for the film adaption: Christian is resolutely not “redeemed from his deviant sexuality” over the course of the last two films. Rather than liberating himself from BDSM itself, Grey spends the first two films liberating him from his more generally abusive tendencies (as outlined in the previous section of this essay); and by the same token, Steele spends the first two films becoming thoroughly educated in the practice, experimenting with various toys to find out where her personal boundaries are and what she enjoys (the sequence in the second film utilizing ben wa balls is particularly kink-positive), leading ultimately to a final film that depicts a healthy, balanced relationship based on mutual pleasure and open communication.
Despite certain badly-worded conversations in the first film, the broader arc of the series suggests that being psychologically damaged and being into bondage do not go hand in hand. In other words: a kink-obsessed abuser can learn to treat their partners with respect just as a vanilla victim of abuse can learn to enjoy whips and chains. Just in case any audience members think the series has left the Red Room of Pain behind in exchange for domestic bliss, the final film ends precisely there--a leather-clad Steele sits patiently in a submissive position as Grey enters and closes the door. Roll credits. No shame.
4. The Fifty Shades films are consumerist porn
In 2010, BBC film critic Mark Kermode went on one of his now-famous “Kermodian rants” in response to the release of Sex and the City 2, complaining that “you are meant to be engaged with these characters who are stinking wealthy and consumerist beyond your wildest dreams…[the central figure of which] moans and complains about how awful her life is.” After breaking into an acapella rendition of “The Internationale,” Kermode explodes in a final exclamation that “it’s consumerist pornography!” He used nearly the exact same wording--although in much more dulcet tones--to describe the first Fifty Shades film: “It’s consumer porn in that what the film is really drooling over is the gliders and the cars and the apartment and all the rest of it.”
Kermode is not wrong about the first film or any of the others: many scenes in Fifty Shades Freed look like misplaced car commercials in their framing of Grey’s gleaming Audi, and the de facto theme song of the series, Ellie Golding’s “Love Me Like You Do” first plays over a sequence of Grey taking Steele for a ride in his private helicopter in the 2015 film (a scene that gets returned to in the last film’s look-how-far-they’ve-come montage). I won’t refute Kermode’s claim: there is absolutely a fetishism of commodities running as an undercurrent throughout the series’s tender moments, be they sentimental or erotic. Even the existence of the Red Room of Pain--surely decorated by handsomely-paid interior designers and stocked like the hammerspace of The Matrix--necessitates an absurd amount of wealth. And in the #MeToo moment, the basic idea of a young, virginal journalist being seduced by an inconceivably rich CEO alone is enough to make a viewer uncomfortable, considering the unsafe power dynamic created by such a financial imbalance.
Here’s the thing, though: it’s a fantasy. The Fifty Shades trilogy of books have sold over 100 million copies worldwide, mostly to an audience of women granted privacy by the advent of Kindles. There’s something about Fifty Shades’s indulgences--the sexual and the financial--that is undeniably titillating to its audience. Remember that a male billionaire didn’t create this phenomenon; to reiterate: the first film was directed by a woman, screenwritten by a woman, adapted from a book by a woman, edited by a woman, and marketed to an audience of women. However unwoke it might be to the “Internationale”-chanting leftists out there, this is a fantasy many women want to indulge in. And, to reiterate the point made by Lindsay Ellis, “there’s something damaging about being made to feel shame because you relate more to Bella than some other feminist-approved Strong Female Character who don’t need no man to rescue her...you’re not stupid if that’s your fantasy.” In Fifty Shades, not having to worry about money is a big part of the being-rescued narrative. For Time magainze, Stephanie Zacharek outlines exactly how the pleasure of consumerist fantasy (which shouldn’t be a “guilty pleasure” she insists), is felt in Fifty Shades:
“Women’s desire is a mysterious, feral thing, and if you think you’ve got it figured out because you’ve looked at a few Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, you’re not even close...Fifty Shades Freed opens with a comically exaggerated Modern Bride fantasy of a luxurious but intimate wedding followed by a no-expenses-spared honeymoon. (In one of the Fifty Shades Freed‘s swooniest howlers, the newlyweds canoodle as the Eiffel Tower looms approvingly in the background.) Anastasia has married into money, but she’s also set on building her career as a book editor...Tellingly, her going-away outfit, a sleek eggshell pantsuit, is more impressive than her ho-hum-pretty wedding dress. A wedding dress is a goal, an end in itself, but a pantsuit is the future: it’s what a woman wears when she’s going places.”
I see no problem with this. My wife and I certainly fantasize about being being wealthy enough to buy new cars and take exotic vacations and pursue our hobbies unfettered all the time--the desire is a direct result of living under the constant anxiety of capitalism, and seeing that desire being fulfilled on-screen is undeniably euphoric. Having someone provide for you is a type of power fantasy, however patriarchal.
Hell, does this extravagant display of wealth not manifest itself in the conspicuous consumption of Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, or even Michael Corleone? Don’t tell me that the film bros don’t get off on this a little bit. I have no problem with folks preaching Marxist theory (Nathan Smith did so excellently in his review of Spiderman: Homecoming), but if guys are allowed to have their power fantasies without facing such scrutiny, women should be allowed to have at least one.
I won’t defend everything about the Fifty Shades films: the bad dialogue in the first installment, the lackadaisical structure of the second, and the criminally underwritten antagonist of the last, among other things. If any of these things are deal-breakers for you, I understand. However, I think these films have gotten a raw deal by a society that doesn’t take female desires seriously, be they the desire for stories about romance, stories of escapist capitalist fantasy, stories exploring consent, or (especially!) the depiction of female pleasure on-screen--which as critic Justine Smith has excellently pointed out, this series offers in spades, in stark contrast to the rest of the mainstream movie landscape. Fifty Shades, despite its formal flaws, is like a multivitamin providing nutrients audiences aren’t getting anywhere else. I maintain that the series is interesting in its uniqueness, whatever gripes one might have about it--but I hope that I’ve at least put these four common criticisms to bed. Fifty Shades deserves critique, sure, but it deserves better.
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