Here lies Anastasia Steele, blindfolded and hog-tied. The innocent “Fifty Shades of Grey” heroine is just out of college and being whipped by a billionaire. Five months into the #MeToo movement, the franchise finale “Fifty Shades Freed” is hitting theaters — and despite our mental image of Dakota Johnson’s submissive Miss Steele, she might be a role model for the moment.
When the first film opened in 2015, it sparked a debate about pain, power, and BDSM. Was the sex sexy enough? Was Ana enjoying it? Or was Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey, the grim tycoon who dove into his red-walled erotic aquarium looking as emotionless and cold-eyed as a shark?
In 2018, the conversation has changed. Today, the key point in the “Fifty Shades” flicks isn’t titillation — it’s consent. For all the eye-rolling that E.L. James’ hugely popular novels were a paean to old-fashioned romances where a girl married a man who took care of all of her needs, from new cell phones and laptops to a trip in his private plane, they’re strikingly modern in their insistence on hearing a woman say yes or no. Technically, Ana’s safe word is “red,” and when she uses it, Christian immediately uncuffs her ankles.
Christian is tyrannical and controlling. Yet, in “Fifty Shades Freed,” Ana dominates. She opens James Foley’s sequel signing her billionaire beau to a doozy of a contract — marriage — and if she wants to take her top off on their honeymoon beach in Nice, or get drunk with her best friend, or kick him out of her office, she does. “Why do you defy me?” he pouts. Beams Ana, “Because I can.”
The movie, like every “Shade” movie, has been ridiculed by critics because, frankly, girl-beds-BDSM-billionaire is a ridiculous premise, and the books are as well written as a Craigslist casual encounters post. Even fans of erotic novels seem embarrassed that this trilogy represents them to the public. The Ripped Bodice, the only all-romance bookstore in the United States, understandably refuses to discuss it.
Yet, Taylor-Johnson and Foley have succeeded at a high-wire stunt: adapting a clumsy series into sexy thriller-comedies that faithfully hit every plot point while encouraging audience to swoon and snicker. Over the three installments, Johnson’s Anastasia blooms from awkward naive young woman to powerful feminist. In “Freed,” she parades out of their wedding reception wearing not handcuffs, but a cream pantsuit.
“I’m not going to touch you, Anastasia,” whispered Christian in the original film. “Not until I have your written consent to do so.” Yes, written. An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to Christian and Ana’s sexual contract negotiation: 21 clauses, 24 bullet points, and five appendixes, including a list of approved foods.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” director Samantha Taylor-Johnson staged the scene like a comedy. Over quirky violins, the couple sits at opposite ends of a conference table, pens quivering over a contract draft as Ana strikes out the bullet points for fisting. It’s the first time she looks in control, and it’s a turn-on. “Can I just say how impressed I am with your commitment to this meeting?” gapes Christian. As a sweetener, he adds in a once-a-week date and an invitation to christen the conference room right there. Instead, Ana removes his hand from her ass and insists, “Business meeting.”
“Consent’s been a part of romance from the very beginning” says Sarah MacLean, a New York Times best-selling romance novelist and a scholar of the genre. “What ‘Fifty Shades’ did is it helped make consent truly, truly overt.”
Like Anastasia in shackles, at a glance, romance novels don’t seem progressive. Even the nickname “bodice-ripper” implies violence: Who’s doing the ripping? As MacLean notes, “What romance referred to for many many years as ‘forced seduction,’ is basically rape on the page.”
That trope was popularized in mass market paperback romance bestseller, 1972’s “The Flame and the Flower,” which sold more than four and a half million copies and launched an industry. Over 512 epic pages, heroine Heather is attacked by two men and raped by a third, who winds up being her true love. They get married and have a child, and Heather’s story spawned a generation of virgins whose no’s went ignored by a brutal pirate or duke.
Yet, stresses MacLean, while that sounds horrific to today’s audiences, when the book was published, women were just beginning to be encouraged to enjoy their sexuality. And the female gaze, the way Taylor-Johnson lingers over a topless Dornan on a pommel horse, didn’t exist. Despite the Summer of Love, at the turn of the ’70s, nearly two-thirds of all women condemned premarital sex. What’s a good girl to do?
“In order for her to like sex, she has to be forced into being willing to try it,” says MacLean. An imperfect solution, but the trope connected with readers desperate for permission to fantasize. Plus, once violated — and the books were clear that these were violations — the pages that followed always corrected the power imbalance as the men realized how much they wanted to earn her enthusiastic yes. Again, fantasies. But every romance novel ends happily with the heroine embracing — and commanding — her sexuality. “The woman always triumphs,” says MacLean. “She always wins.”
In fact, at the start of “Fifty Shades Freed,” Anastasia has already won one of #MeToo’s most important fights. Ana’s male boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), who stalked and attacked her in “Fifty Shades Darker” has been fired for sexual harassment, and she’s taken his job. Jack will return, of course, whining about the humiliation of his wrecked life. Though the film wrapped shooting a year ago, it couldn’t feel more fresh — audiences can’t help picturing any man in recent headlines bewailing the same complaint. It’s no spoiler to say Anastasia triumphs. She always does. And hopefully for other women who’ve faced down similar bad bosses, her victory won’t just be a fantasy.