The criticism for the hit film “Fifty Shades of Grey” is wide-ranging and often on-point. But there’s one progressive scene in the movie, and it’s one of the most panned aspects of the plot: The contract laying out the boundaries of the sexual relationship between Anastasia Steele and impossibly-young-yet-wealthy Christian Grey.
Slammed as the least sexy and most boring part of the film, the contract signing highlights the difficulty of consent at a time when sexual assault is a disturbingly common occurrence.
In an age when "yes means yes" has to be delineated by legislation — as in the case of an affirmative consent bill passed in California last year — the idea of clearly communicating limits is a step forward. That's not to say couples need to discuss clauses before tearing open condom packets, but it does highlight a growing need for explicit understandings of sexual boundaries.
In that sense, “Fifty Shades of Grey” gets it right. And certainly, many people around the world are paying attention to this film, whether to mock or marvel. The movie grossed $248.7 million around the world this weekend, making it the biggest international opening to date for an R-rated film, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
When Steele says “no” to anal or vaginal fisting, striking those neatly from the legal document, there’s the hope that it makes conversations about sex a little easier for couples. After all, if a character in a mainstream movie can say “no” to suspension but “yes” to cable ties, then maybe real life discussions about STD histories can be a part of foreplay, too.
The scene also represents a particularly notable moment for the otherwise infuriatingly unremarkable Steele, who first meets Grey when she literally falls into his office. Steele is interviewing him on behalf of her sick roommate and arrives embarrassingly unprepared — he has to lend her a pencil and clearly she hasn’t read the questions her roommate drafted. The film contrasts Steele’s schlubby cardigan and boots with the polished female assistants Grey employs in his sterile, modern office.
Fast forward about an hour into the movie and Steele arrives at his office to discuss the contract wearing a sleek plum dress and heels. In what is possibly the strongest scene for the character, she then impresses Grey with her thorough knowledge of the contract. “What’s a butt plug?” she asks, all curiosity and coyness. By clearly stating what she is and is not comfortable with, she conducts herself as a mature woman in control of her fate. It’s a breath of fresh, progressive air for a character whose primary bargaining chip in winning the man she loves is her willingness to bend to his desires, despite her own discomfort with them.
The splash of progressiveness is not nearly enough redeem the film as fine cinema or even fully develop Steele as a character. “The problem is that as a character, Anastasia makes no sense,” wrote A. O. Scott in The New York Times. “Her behavior has no logic, no pattern, no coherent set of causes or boundaries.”
Suffice it to say, the movie is fraught with retrogressive ideas about gender roles and sex. But one of the strongest arguments for the film and the astoundingly poorly written book is that it has the wider public talking about sex and sexual preferences. That take might be making progressive lemonade from anti-feminist lemons, but it’s a small sip of good news.