watch

Fifty Shades’ Toxic Takeaways - What’s Not Hot About The Trilogy

The Fifty Shades books and movies center on the quiet virgin Anastasia Steele and her dom love interest, Christian Grey. That would be fine – if the stories didn’t conflate control with love, display a very murky understanding of consent, and imply that Christian’s many toxic, borderline abusive traits are all part of his preference for BDSM. What are the messages the Fifty Shades trilogy leaves us with – and are any of them actually useful in real romances, or should we pretty much view this story as a cautionary tale?

Transcript

What are the messages the Fifty Shades trilogy leaves us with – and are any of them actually useful in real romances, or should we pretty much view this story as a cautionary tale?

The books and movies center on the quiet virgin, Anastasia Steele, and her dom love interest, Christian Grey. That would be fine – if the stories didn’t conflate control with love, display a very murky understanding of consent, and imply that Christian’s many toxic, borderline abusive traits are all part of his preference for BDSM. Ultimately, the movies put a reductive lens on everything from heterosexual relationships to alternative sexual practices.

Here’s our breakdown of all of Fifty Shades’ Toxic Takeaways –

You’re mine, all mine. You understand?” - Christian Grey, Fifty Shades of Grey

– plus one very good legacy the trilogy has left us with.

Toxic Takeaway #1: Power (Imbalance) Is Sexy

From the moment Ana is introduced to Christian Grey, there’s a power imbalance. Their first encounter has the anatomy of a meet-cute: it’s accidental because she’s filling in for a friend; she trips over on her way into the room; she’s forgotten her pen, and he provides her with one. But in reality, he’s a tremendously powerful business person while she’s a student, and during this initial meeting, she’s shown to be incredibly uncomfortable. After this, Christian takes it upon himself to show up at Ana’s work unannounced, throwing her off guard and making her uncomfortable again. During these encounters, he consistently has all of the power – and despite his making her uncomfortable every time, she keeps going back for more, as if she’s internalized that the attention of this rich, handsome man is automatically an amazing gift no matter how he acts.

In these very early stages of the relationship, Christian is playing power games with Ana. He gets very intense with her, very quickly, invites her for coffee, and then, without any real provocation, and without explaining why, he tells her he can’t be with her.

“I’m not the man for you. You should steer clear of me.” - Christian, Fifty Shades of Grey

This kind of mind game is typical of narcissists’ ploys to reel a partner in and ultimately control them – psychotherapist Erin Leonard says, “A deeply insecure partner [oscillates] from nice to mean, caring to cold, interested to dismissive, and then back again. This continually throws a person off and keeps him or her spinning” (Psychology Today). This outpouring of affection and then sudden withdrawal is also a trademark part of “lovebombing” – the attempt to manipulate or “get” a love interest with huge romantic gestures, and then (once the partner is “hooked”) shifting toward controlling and sometimes abusive behavior.

Christian sends Ana first editions of her favorite Hardy novels – an example of over-the-top gifting, which writer Cindy Lamothe on Healthline lists as the first aspect of lovebombing. It’s used by narcissists to create a sense of debt in the receiver. When this doesn’t work, and Ana calls Christian to say she’s returning the books, he focuses on the fact that she’s been drinking. This is presented as chivalrous in the movie, but if we break it down, it’s extremely controlling. Ana is a 21-year-old college student; she’s allowed to be drinking and is out having fun with her friends. What Christian does next is borderline stalking – he traces her call and turns up at the bar – bringing his brother along as a decoy for her friend. All of these factors are set up as Christian being unusually caring, but they’re actually extremely invasive.

Ana: “I’m with Kate.”

Christian: “I’ll have Elliot tell her.”

Ana: “Who’s Elliot?”

Christian: “He’s my brother. He’s inside, talking to her right now.”

- Fifty Shades of Grey

The power imbalance goes beyond sex, too. It’s also his wealth versus her relative poverty, his confidence versus her shyness; these things are used to overpower her. He dazzles her with his money and bulldozes over her desires with his own. This extreme power is positioned as being sexy, but because he uses it to get what he wants out of Ana, it’s actually really problematic.

“This is what I want, and I want it with you.” - Christian, Fifty Shades of Grey

We also see her lose her autonomy when they get together – she goes from living in an apartment with her best friend and driving herself around, to moving into Christian’s soulless penthouse and being chauffeured around, having clothing bought for her by his assistant, and generally being treated like his doll.

Christian: “Let’s discuss this back at my place. I can have someone come by, do your hair.”

Ana: “Christian, I don’t care about my hair!”

- Fifty Shades Darker

He even buys their family home without consulting her. These things might seem like an attractive prospect, but they’re pretty infantilizing, particularly when Christian attempts to use them as a bargaining chip. And perhaps most disturbingly, his fiery temper controls her, too; his fury when she reveals she’s pregnant is unsettling.

“I wanted to give you the world, not diapers and vomit and shit. Do you really think that I’m ready to be a father?” - Christian, Fifty Shades Freed

And she’s shown to know it’s coming – she doesn’t tell him right away because she’s scared to. As she suspects, he loses it; in his view, ‘not getting pregnant’ is Ana’s sole responsibility.

Christian: “You forgot your shot? Christ, Ana.”

Ana: “I’m sorry.”

- Fifty Shades Freed

He then leaves her when she’s feeling super vulnerable about everything and goes and drinks with his ex, holding power over her by withdrawing his support from her when she needs it the most.

It’s not just Christian who becomes ugly with excess power – that power rubs off onto Ana, too. We see a harder edge on her as the series goes on – the way she speaks to people can be cruel, and it’s usually where Christian is involved. Take this scene with their interior designer.

Gia Matteo: “Ana, I have designed many prestige projects.”

Ana: “You may call me Mrs. Grey.”

- Fifty Shades Freed

Ana perceives that the woman may be attracted to Christian, and the way that she asserts her power is through sharp warnings and personal insults.

“I suggest you stop making eyes at my husband and keep your hands to yourself. Or you can go and climb back into your shit-colored car and drive back to Seattle.” - Ana, Fifty Shades Freed

Toxic Takeaway #2: You Can Change the Toxic Guy

The main takeaway of the whole trilogy is the idea that you can change the toxic guy if you’re special enough.

“I had no idea what this was gonna become. I didn’t know you’d be different.” - Christian, Fifty Shades Darker

Anecdotal evidence and solid research say you can’t – not without him going to serious therapy. But rather than open that idea up for conversation, the Fifty Shades trilogy romanticizes attachment issues as if a ‘one true love’ can turn a deeply traumatized, abusive man into a great husband and father.

This taps into our collective ‘special girl’ fantasies but, in real life, this message sets (most of) us up to fail. The idea of Ana’s inherent superiority in her ability to reshape Christian is hammered home in the series – it takes this quiet, sensitive virgin to tame him as no one else can.

“I’ve never slept next to anyone, ever. Only you.” Christian, Fifty Shades of Grey

Ultimately, in order to be a better partner and a better person, Christian would need to acknowledge the multiple aspects of his background that led to his issues. He’s shown to have a sneering attitude towards his biological mother, who was a drug addict and sex worker. He lost his virginity to a trusted, much-older family friend in a statutory rape situation, yet he still refers to her as a friend. His brother’s description of him as a child points to serious emotional trauma.

“It’s a miracle he talks at all. When Mom and Dad first brought him home, he never spoke.” - Elliot Grey, Fifty Shades Freed

These difficult early experiences have shaped Christian’s approach to attachment; counselor Sharon Stines says that in cases such as these which involve narcissistic abusers like Christian, it’s important for patients to recentre their inner child during therapy. Instead, Christian continues to liaise with people who have hurt him, seeking their approval, and in turn, hurts the people who love him.

Ana: “Don’t you like me the way I am?”

Christian: “Of course I do.”

Ana: “Then why are you trying to change me?”

- Fifty Shades of Grey

Toxic Takeaway #3: BDSM Is Bad

Overall, the trilogy implies that being into BDSM is a problem to solve – and it ultimately pathologizes any sort of sex that doesn’t fit into what society deems ‘normal’. While, in theory, Fifty Shades helped bring some aspects of BDSM more into the mainstream, it did so with a negative, judgmental tone and misleading suggestions.

Ana: “Why do you wanna hurt me?”

Christian: “I would never do anything to you that you couldn’t handle.”

Ana: “But why do you even wanna do anything to me at all, Christian?”

- Fifty Shades of Grey

When the movie was released, many members of the BDSM community publicly discussed the inaccuracies of the portrayal, from the way that Ana and Christian’s partnership comes about, to the fact that it’s unusual for anyone to take part in a 24/7 BDSM relationship.

Fetish club owner Ronald Elliston told the Guardian, “People like Anastasia usually get into the scene on their own in small steps. If the story had been about her discovering BDSM, then meeting someone like him, it would tie in…but someone that’s fallen in love, finds out the guy is basically a sadist, then engages in that world – it’s not realistic.”

Fifty Shades suggests the reason Christian is a dom is because he was introduced to BDSM as a teenager through a relatively traumatic situation – an underage relationship with an older family friend. There is a significant body of research into the link between BDSM preferences and higher instances of childhood trauma. But in these instances, partaking in BDSM is understood to be a proactive way of owning, recontextualizing, and working through trauma.

This isn’t what happens in Fifty Shades of Grey. In fact, much of Christian’s trauma stems from BDSM – so the series villainizes the practice, rather than acknowledging the role it can play in healing trauma. We see Christian use it as revenge against Ana, which she rightly acknowledges means that she’s not safe during some of their sexual encounters.

That was not love, Christian. That was revenge.” - Ana, Fifty Shades of Grey

Toxic Takeaway #4: Money Is Everything

The movies have a distinct capitalist streak – we’re encouraged to enjoy the couple’s multiple homes, cars, jets, and even airlines. And none of this absurd capital is ever really questioned or explained, although we’re often reminded, in laughable scenarios, that Christian redistributes his wealth to some of the world’s poorest communities.

It’s largely Christian’s wealth that makes him such an unbelievable catch and turns their love story into such a fairy tale, that transforms her life into a success story. So not only does this imply bagging a rich man is the ultimate goal; it also suggests that rich men get a lot more leeway to behave however they want thanks to their money (something that we also see proven in our world).

“I’m running for president in 2024. What yall laughing at?” - Kanye West, Fast Company’s Innovation Festival

Christian gets away with a lot of stuff because he’s wealthy – he blindsides Ana with a trip on his jet, or his ridiculous penthouse apartment, so that she forgets she’s laid down boundaries that he’s ignoring.

Simply being his wife also means that Ana gets a lot of opportunities. He owns the publishing house where she works. And although they repeatedly reiterate that Ana got to her position on her own hard work, Christian did pull strings to get her boss, Hyde, fired, and she subsequently took his place. When it turns out that Hyde is actually a former foster sibling of Christian’s with a murderous chip on his shoulder, it’s implied that he’s the bad guy because he didn’t get the opportunities Christian did.

“If I’d been left in the system, who knows how I would have turned out.” - Christian, Fifty Shades Freed

Toxic Takeaway #5: Consent Is a Battle of Wearing the Other Person Down

A key tenet of BDSM relationships and practices is having very clear communication of ground rules and a strong understanding of consent. But Fifty Shades sends some very mixed-up, confusing messages about what consent is.

Christian tries to get Ana to sign a contract to be in a submissive-dominant relationship with him where she hands over all control to him – and this plot is uncomfortable because he keeps pushing the contract even though Ana resists it and is clearly not sure.

When Ana reveals she’s a virgin, though, Christian has sex with her without the contract. Because he can’t resist her virginity, Christian isn’t respectful of his own rules. And while he tells Ana he’ll never do anything without her explicit consent, these lines are consistently blurred. Submissives from the BDSM community highlighted how strange it is that Christian regularly berates Ana when she doesn’t get things ‘right’ in his eyes, and criticized the fact that he doesn’t allocate time for ‘aftercare’ – a period of being gentle and supportive after their sexual encounters.

At the end of the first movie, the relationship tips over into an extremely toxic and abusive situation where she verbally consents but is simultaneously horrified and upset by what’s happening. This is one interesting thing that the movies highlighted – the fact that consent is about more than just saying yes.

But at the same time, the general erosion of Ana’s free will is positioned as being an extension of marriage. The series links BDSM with the typical husband-breadwinner/pretty-wife ideal – almost using BDSM metaphorically to imply that it echoes something inherent to traditional male-female relationships. Writing for The Week, Lili Loofbourow says, “The subtext is that the BDSM contract and the marriage contract share a lot more than anyone quite likes to admit” – and she even says that, in the context of this movie, the marriage contract comes off worse. The movie portrays this ultra-traditional marriage as a relationship where the female has to give up all control of herself.

Ana: “Take off the whole thing.”

Christian: “Not a chance.”

Ana: “Why?”

Christian: “You’re showing plenty as it is.”

- Fifty Shades Freed

Loofbourow highlights the sinister ways in which Ana is coerced into things she doesn’t want to do – like when she wants to keep her maiden name at work, but Christian wears her down –

Ana: “Ana Steele is the name I use at work. I work because I love my job”

Christian: “But you can’t love it as Ana Grey?”

- Fifty Shades Freed

– and she ends up changing it to Grey, just to keep him happy. Ultimately, Loofbourow argues that Fifty Shades articulates “a tortured space in which some women end up lying about their own desires in order to sanitize a story that would otherwise look oppressive or even abusive. You must say you want it in order not to be judged for accepting it.”

For all of Christian’s expensive equipment, most of the sex that the movie actually shows is fairly vanilla – just like the “vanilla” relationship Ana craves. The erotic fantasy is less about BDSM, and more about a very traditional, old-fashioned relationship setup, which involves a hyper-traditional man having total control.

Toxic Takeaway #6: Love Hurts

Though we see Christian incrementally change, it’s not without hurting Ana badly first – both literally (because Christian is a sadist) but even more so, emotionally. Their dynamic sends the extremely disturbing message that bagging an exceptional man requires putting up with a lot of pain and suffering, and the hurt makes the payoff all the sweeter. It tells us that some men need time to learn how to treat us right – and ultimately, that’s just not true.

Christian repeatedly transgresses basic aspects of the mutual respect required to make a relationship or marriage work – and it’s framed as a forgivable ‘mistake’. But when your intimate partner crosses your most fundamental boundaries to make you feel deeply disrespected or degraded, there’s a lot of work needed to repair that, far beyond a simple ‘sorry.’

Conclusion

Although this trilogy is a toxic takeaway minefield, it had one really great positive impact: it unapologetically put a lens on female audiences’ sexuality and pleasure in a way that we didn’t really get in mainstream movies before.

Women of any age are entitled to see their desires reflected in the media – plus, this demographic is huge and was basically untapped before Fifty Shades of Grey emerged. In many ways, this was a breakthrough, allowing producers to see how much merit there is in movies and shows that create sex scenes through the female gaze. Fifty Shades mainstreamed a certain type of female sexuality – walking so Bridgerton (and a whole host of shows like it) could run.

Sources

Brodwin, Erin. “Psychologists Find a Disturbing Thing Happens to Women Who Read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’” Mic, 23 Aug. 2014, www.mic.com/articles/97064/psychologists-find-a-disturbing-thing-happens-to-women-who-read-Fifty-shades-of-grey.

Fontaine, Zita. “How to Use Your Past Traumas to Become a Better Person.” Medium, 5 Oct. 2020, https://medium.com/swlh/how-to-use-your-past-traumas-to-become-a-better-person-55c04d67099f

Green, Emma. “Consent Isn’t Enough: The Troubling Sex of Fifty Shades.” The Atlantic, 10 Feb. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2015/02/consent-isnt-enough-in-fifty-shades-of-grey/385267/.

Loofbourow, Lili. “Fifty Shades and the Secret Compromises of Women.” The Week, 20 Feb. 2018, https://theweek.com/articles/754626/fifty-shades-secret-compromises-women.

Nazario, Brunilda. “Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” WebMD, 18 June 2020, www.webmd.com/mental-health/narcissistic-personality-disorder#:~:text=develop%20it%20later.-,Narcissistic%20Personality%20Disorder%20Treatment,Sometimes%20people%20call%20this%20psychotherapy.

Potts, Faith O. “Consent Is Much More Complicated than You Think.” An Injustice Magazine, 30 Aug. 2020, https://aninjusticemag.com/consent-is-much-more-complicated-than-you-think-4f8da6ab53ec.

Robinson, Lawrence, et al. “Emotional and Psychological Trauma.” Help Guide, Nov. 2021, www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/coping-with-emotional-and-psychological-trauma.htm.

Schwartz, Dana. “19 Lingering Questions about Fifty Shades Freed.” Entertainment Weekly, 9 Feb. 2018, https://ew.com/movies/2018/02/09/fifty-shades-freed-19-lingering-questions/.

Smith, Anna. “Fifty Shades of Grey: What BDSM Enthusiasts Think.” The Guardian, 15 Feb. 2015, www.theguardian.com/film/2015/feb/15/fifty-shades-of-grey-bdsm-enthusiasts.

Ten Brink, S., et al. “The Psychology of Kink: A Survey Study into the Relationships of Trauma and Attachment Style with BDSM Interests.” Sexuality Research and Social Policy 18.1 (2021): 1-12, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13178-020-00438-w.

Wentworth, Shaye. “BDSM Can Help Heal from Trauma.” Prostasia, 12 Sept. 2021, https://prostasia.org/blog/bdsm-can-help-heal-from-trauma/.