We saw Fifty Shades of Grey this past Valentine's Day, committed to offering a Hot Take™ as to what the film means, what it says about our society, and so forth. But we found ourselves watching a film so complex and dense with themes that a single take would hardly suffice. So here — in the grand tradition of Leo Strauss — are six almost certainly wrong, under-supported interpretations of Fifty Shades.
1) It's an allegorical intellectual history of the comic book industry
Christian and Ana's relationship is a loose, somewhat inaccurate retelling of the history of comic books in America from the 1930s to the 1980s.
In the '30s and '40s, comic books showed great potential as an artistic medium — and also hinted at the darkness that was to come in '80s-era work. Christian and Ana's relationship likewise begins with an instant connection, one that immediately establishes their potential as a couple. Christian's need for dominance is hinted at, rather than stated explicitly, much like how early Wonder Woman comics contain thinly veiled allusions to BDSM.
But then, there's an attempt to control the development. In real life, that was the 1954 "Comics Code" — an attempt to control "deviance" in comic books that ended up artistically neutering the medium. While Christian's proposed contract had the opposite intention — expanding the scope of permitted activities rather than shrinking them — it also backfired. Freaked out by Christian's formality, Ana blanched at the relationship.
In both cases, though, attempts at control failed. Comic books developed increasingly mature themes in the 1980s, inspired by seminal works like Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. And Christian and Ana spin headlong toward a relationship whose romantic elements extended well beyond the scope of Christian's contract.
2) It's a criticism of corporate social responsibility and "greenwashing"
Grey Enterprises' actual business model is left purposefully murky throughout the film, with one exception: they do stuff with African farmers because they are Good Guys who are Socially Responsible.
This is director Sam Taylor-Johnson's way of telling us that the movie is really an allegory for the way in which modern corporate America tries to buy indulgences to justify its oppressive behavior. Just like his company, Christian Grey is driven by a desire to dominate people and extract what he can from them for his own personal satisfaction. He does not care about Ana; he merely wants to control and use her. But he knows that such unalloyed selfishness is no longer acceptable, and so he justifies it to himself and the community by showering Ana with material possessions: a laptop here, a car there. It's the bare minimum he can do to buy moral approval for his actions.
What's more, Grey wants to claim that his selfishness and "selfless" gifts to Ana are of a piece with one another, both part of the same loving dynamic, just as he wants to claim that doing work in Africa is "just good business." As Slavoj Zizek has noted, this is "cultural capitalism at its purest," in which "you buy, in the very consumerist act, your redemption from being only a consumerist."
3) It's a Heideggerian critique of modern technological society
"Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it" German philosopher Martin Heidegger writes in "The Question Concerning Technology." When Christian binds Ana in Fifty Shades of Grey, he is literally enacting Heidegger's fears about the role of technology in the modern world.
Throughout the film, Christian gifts Ana with increasingly advanced technology: a top-of-the line Mac, a shiny new car. Christian's technology is symbolic of Ana — a flip-phone user and classic Beetle driver — being pulled into Christian's modern world.
This all a way of making Ana more knowable for Christian, more similar to him. And this is exactly Heidegger's worry about technology: that in a world where we become defined by our relationship with technology, we lose a sense of our authentic selves. "In truth, however, precisely nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence," Heidegger writes.
By being pulled into Christian's violent sexual world, so alien to Ana's own virginal experience, she loses sight of who she really is. But when she rejects Christian at the close of the film, she shows a way out of the trap created for us by technology. Her demand for her old car back as she abandons Christian symbolizes a desire for a return to an earlier mode of thought; Heidegger saw reviving "art" in its original Greek sense as the key antidode to technological enslavement. The busted-up Beetle, then, represents the tradition of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides.
4) It's a depiction of demonic possession
Fifty Shades of Grey opens with Annie Lennox's cover of "I Put a Spell on You." This is no accident: the film is a warning against the dangers of witches engaging in sexual congress with the devil.
During the late medieval period, texts on witchcraft almost all reference witches having sex with demonic spirits. Fifty Shades' medieval sexual morality, then, only makes sense if you see it as a literal revival of this theory. Ana's spiritual fall — her willingness to give up her virginity before wedlock — is punished by pain, though she gains the ability to manipulate the weather. When Ana calls Christian, drunk at a bar, she explicitly refuses to tell him where she is. Yet Christian mysteriously shows up anyway — a feat only possible if the drunken phone call was actually a demon summoning rite.
She is asked to sign a literal contract to submit to pain in exchange for financial and material rewards, a retelling of Dr. Faust's sale of his soul to Satan. And the "Red Room of Pain" — everyone knows that red is the devil's color.
And then there's Christian's name. What demon would dare to name himself after Christ but Satan himself?
5) It's a remake of the classic 1969 Western The Wild Bunch
Early in the film, Ana and Christian are seen outside Peckinpah, a barbecue joint in Vancouver, where Fifty Shades was filmed:
This is the crucial tip-off that Sam Taylor-Johnson modeled Fifty Shades on director Sam Peckinpah's breakthrough film, The Wild Bunch. Set in 1913, that picture concerned an aging gang of outlaws, whose dated code of mutual protection and utter indifference to the concerns of people outside the group ends up dooming them. The men — played primarily by 50-something actors like William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, and Edmond O'Brien — abide by a morality that, in Roger Ebert's words, "says that you stand by your friends and against the world, that you wrest a criminal living from the banks, the railroads and the other places where the money is, and that while you don't shoot at civilians unnecessarily, it is best if they don't get in the way."
The Wild Bunch, fundamentally, is about the way that modernity erodes old standards and forces those beholden to them to try desperately to adapt. Holden's character (Pike) and his men try futilely to compete with the modern weaponry and tactics of the 20th century, as represented by the German-backed Mexican general they encounter, Mapache. "The mantle of violence is passing from the old professionals like Pike and his bunch, who operate according to a code," Ebert writes, "into the hands of a new generation that learns to kill more impersonally, as a game, or with machines."
Fifty Shades also concerns a man — Christian Grey — who is struggling to adapt to a new world with new rules, namely a world in which men like him (and men in general) no longer wield total power over society, a world where the voices of people like Anastasia Steele matter. He attempts to speak in terms of the new order, by couching his essentially predatory desires re: Steele in terms of consent and her wishes. But fundamentally, as Steele realizes, he is not concerned with her needs; he is simply using new techniques to get what powerful men have felt entitled to forever, and only begun to be denied recently. He's like Pike, in the culminating battle of Wild Bunch, attempting to beat Mapache's men with their own Browning machine gun. It's a tool he doesn't know, used to fight back a world he can't understand:
6) It's a satire of Russia's aggression in Ukraine
When Grey's mother Grace (Marcia Gay Harden) stops by while Christian and Ana are shtupping at his place, she introduced herself to Ana and included her maiden name: "Trevelyan." This could mean a number of things. Is it an allusion to the infamous English civil servant Charles Trevelyan, who administered Britain's (minimal, grudging) response to the Irish famine? Or the great Whig historian G.M. Trevelyan?
Neither. Grace's name is clearly a nod to Alec Trevelyan, James Bond's antagonist in GoldenEye and the defining cultural representation of post-Cold War Russian treachery in the Anglo-American mind. Trevelyan's specific grievances (his ancestors were Cossacks who fought for the Nazis and were given back to the Soviet Union by Britain, to be sent to the gulags) are irrelevant. The point is to associate the Greys with Russia in the mind of American viewers, and reveal the film's true purpose as a a tongue-in-cheek allegory for Vladimir Putin's aggression in eastern Ukraine.
Putin, like Grey, couches his violence in the language of consent. He doesn't want to seize Crimea; he merely wants to give the Crimeans a choice! If they choose to separate from Ukraine and join Russia (in a referendum rife with abuse and intimidation), then so much the better. If Ukraine wants to change its Constitution to give regional governments more power — perhaps even de facto conceding some of them to Russia — then that's its choice, albeit one Putin encourages and presses for in negotiations.
Grey is also driven by a need to dominate it, and like Putin is smart enough to find language to support it that lets him deny his role as aggressor, and place ultimate responsibility for what transpires on his victim. While this is largely played for laughs as in any good satire — we're clearly supposed to laugh at Christian's over-the-top self-seriousness and endless self-justifications — Ana's defiant exit at the end of the film makes a powerful statement. It's Sam Taylor-Johnson saying to eastern Ukraine: accept this no longer. Stand your ground. Do not let Putin win.