In 1990, the highly successful film Pretty Woman, took theatres by storm with the highest ticket sales in history for a romantic comedy. Today, the film's cultural impact on a whole generation has been significant, swapping the brutal and exploitive nature of prostitution with glamour and romance. Many of the young people that I talk to about human trafficking tell me their sole impression of prostitution is based on Pretty Woman.
On Valentine's Day, a film was released that is set to warp the minds of a new generation. 50 Shades of Grey, a film based on the bestselling book of the same name, is being portrayed as a 'date night' movie of romance and intrigue. Except that the movie (and the book) is about humiliation, degradation and the emotional and physical abuse of women by men.
The fairy-tale ending of the film, just like Pretty Woman, is one that millions of victims of sexual violence never experience. As one survivor of sexual violence shared "50 Shades is a horrible reminder of my own abusive relationship, repackaged as a 'love story'". Nevertheless, 50 Shades of Grey will convey to countless women that abuse and coercion can be romantic, and to men that deep down women like to be controlled and assaulted.
Many supporters of 50 Shades of Grey claim that female lead, Anastasia, always consented to the abuse. However consent, under physical or psychological duress is not consent. It's no different for prostituted women. Many of them have often shared with me that, until separated from their abusive pimp or trafficker, they "consented' to selling sex."
Even Jamie Dornan, the lead actor playing Christian Grey, was uncomfortable with the nature of the character saying: "There were times when Dakota was not wearing much, and I had to do stuff to her that I'd never choose to do to a woman." Jamie also revealed that while he has "played a couple of sick, sick dudes, serial killers...and characters who don't treat women the way society deems appropriate, Christian was a massive challenge."
Despite the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey, leading women's rights advocates are speaking out. Dr. Gail Dines, a professor at Boston's Wheelock College, and Megan Walker, Executive Director of the London Abused Women's Centre, have joined forces to launch the #50dollarsnot50shades campaign encouraging people to donate the money they would have spent on 50 Shades of Grey to a women's shelter instead. This is an important campaign and an excellent opportunity to raise awareness about sexual violence.
Today, we have come a long way in Canada when it comes to women's equality and rights. So it is critical that we continue to cultivate a society that affirms the value and dignity of women and sends a clear message that sexual violence is never romantic or acceptable.
We can start by boycotting a film that glamourizes abuse and exploitation and instead support the survivors of sexual violence and women's shelters in our communities. We cannot allow 50 Shades to influence another vulnerable population of youth like Pretty Woman. The cost is too high.
Since originally sending out this statement on February 13, 2015, I have received a number of emails from the BDSM community who have found 50 Shades of Grey to be disturbing. Here is one example:
I'm not in your constituency but I want to say that I'm glad that there are female leaders standing against this film and it's horrific portrayal of domestic violence. Thank you.
I've seen the movie. I thought I would be going to a fun, risqué romantic film that celebrated and empowered female sexuality. I left feeling violated. You may find it interesting to know that it was not the bedroom scenes that I found offensive in and of themselves. You see, I am a person who does, under safe, consensual, non-coercive circumstances, enjoy sexual activities that some people might consider strange. The disturbing part of the film was the rest of the relationship.
Christian Grey exhibits a horrifying pattern of abusive behaviour. He's manipulative. He's obsessive. He pushes for a quick commitment. He follows Anastasia Steele around, shows up in her home uninvited, and interferes in her friendships and family relationships. He sells her belongings without asking and buys her new, making her beholden to him. He gets angry when she wants to go visit her mother in another part of the country, then he follows her there and monopolizes her time so she has little time to actually spend with her mother.
He gets angry and accusatory when she wont give him what he wants, to become his contracted submissive. He makes it out to be like she is being cruel to him because she does not want to hand over all control of her life, autonomy, body, and sexuality to him.
If there was not one bedroom scene in this film, it would still be a chilling portrayal of domestic violence. The fact that Anastasia Steele enjoys the unconventional bedroom activities only serves to muddy the waters. He's giving her orgasms, so it's all good! Seems to be the message here. (When I speak of bedroom activities I am not counting the final scene, where she is whipped without a sexual component. True BDSM whipping is only ever done for the sake of pleasure, with the whip-wielders focus remaining entirely on whether or not the pain is pleasurable to the receiver. For some of us, it truly can be, but that comes out of a place of mutual trust and respect. In the movie, it was him acting in anger and her willingly taking abuse out of fear and a misplaced attempt to manipulate him.
I really think the film could be viewed as a thriller, a portrayal of a woman who is drawn into an abusive relationship but escapes at the end. It would have been triumphant then. But we know that was not the intent.
I wish you the best, Ms. Smith, as you continue your crusade. Domestic violence is an oft-ignored scourge in our society and does not deserve this sort of glamorization. Thank you for standing up.
Ps please feel free to quote my remarks if you see fit. I only ask that you not use my last name
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