Recently, the actors chosen to play the title roles in the forthcoming movie version of EL James’ “erotic” novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, were announced. Charlie Hunnam and Dakota Johnson may not yet be household names, but their casting in one of the most eagerly anticipated films of 2014 could well cement their status as such.
Fans of the Fifty Shades trilogy will be hoping for the pair to bring the characters of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele to life with sizzling chemistry and unbridled passion. However, detractors of the series are keen to point out that beyond the whips and handcuffs, Fifty Shades glamorises an abusive man and romanticises domestic abuse to a dangerous degree.
Christian Grey stalks Ana Steele, following her hundreds of miles away when she asks him for space. He gains access to her bank account and personal records without her knowledge. He places restrictions on whom she can see and where she can go, without her consent for him to do so. He uses his version of BDSM (a distortion of the consensual kinky sex practiced by many in healthy relationships across the UK) as an excuse to bruise her body as “punishment” when she chooses to sunbathe topless on their honeymoon. Ana never once agrees to her body being marked during their sexual encounters, but Christian deems it his right and inflicts pain and “deep, red welts,” in order to show the world that Ana belongs only to him and that her body is no longer her own. This, along with many other examples from the novel, show a pattern of coercive control and abuse, that have recently been documented in the US Journal of Women’s Health, in a study by Professor Amy Bonomi and colleagues.
In a curious twist of fate, Dakota Johnson has taken the role of Anastasia Steele – the childlike woman who falls for the older, more powerful Christian Grey.
Dakota’s name may not be instantly recognisable, but her mother, Melanie Griffith, is known to millions, as is her father, Don Johnson. Griffith and Johnson’s relationship was notoriously volatile and the parallels between their pairing and that of Christian Grey and Ana Steele cannot be ignored.
Griffith was just 14 years old when she began a relationship with 22 year old Johnson, who at the time was her mother’s boyfriend. On paper at least, the power imbalance of this couple seems eerily similar to that of Ana Steele and Christian Grey. Although Christian Grey is only a few years older than Ana, his financial and social status coupled with his wide and varied sexual experience create a large power differential. Mercifully, Ana Steele is not depicted as underage in Fifty Shades. However, she is deeply naive and innocent; a virgin who has never explored her own sexuality and is often found wearing pigtails. Her childlike manner extends to her refusal to describe her own sexual body parts with any other words than “down there.” In many ways, Ana is not portrayed as a strong, adult woman, but a young girl, brought into a deeply sexual world by a man much more powerful than she is. It’s hard not to compare this to the 14 year old Griffith and her older lover.
Griffith has described her relationship with Don Johnson as “a real wild, sex and drugs and rock and roll lifestyle.” Both Johnson and Griffith were immersed in a world of alcohol and substance-abuse. Whilst the protagonists in Fifty Shades are not indulging in drugs, there’s certainly plenty of “wild sex.” Grey preys on the young Anastasia and introduces her into his world of Dominance and submission. His complete control over the innocent Ana is borne out of coercion; Ana tells him that she is not willing to be a 24/7 submissive for him, yet Grey intentionally moulds her into one, all the same. Grey is not, at any point during the series, Ana’s equal. Throughout, he is depicted as older, stronger and far more capable of getting his way – both in and out of the bedroom. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine a 14 year old holding a great deal of power over a much older, more famous adult.
In Fifty Shades, Christian is (despite many protestations by the author that Ana is “bright”) clearly the intellectual superior of his young protégée. Ana looks up to him in much the same way that one imagines a 14 year old might have looked up to a dazzling film star aged 22…
Christian’s hold over young Ana comes not only from his vast wealth and power in the boardroom, but his age and experience. Similarly, one imagines that 14 year old Melanie, in spite of having been a “wild child” by her own admission (Griffith has spoken of drinking wine by the bottle at the age of just 10) would have been enthralled by a man eight years her senior, whose burgeoning fame in the world of film and TV instantly gave him an additional level of power that she could not yet dream of.
Now, Melanie Griffith’s daughter is portraying another young girl, enthralled by an older, much more powerful man. Whether Dakota Johnson will delve into her own parents’ notorious relationship in order to bring Anastasia to life remains to be seen. Griffith and Johnson still remain close and clearly have a great deal of affection for one another. However, the fact remains thus:
A healthy relationship is built upon a balance of power and equal respect. This kind of relationship is not what Anastasia Steele has with older, richer, more successful Christian. Instead, her older lover controls her and moulds her into whatever he wants her to be, safe in the knowledge that his power far outweighs her own. He wields his power over Ana and any respect he shows to her is far outweighed by his slow but steady destruction of her own identity. This is not a depiction of a loving relationship and it is certainly not anything to aspire to. And it’s why the Fifty Shades film will be one to avoid.