There may never have been a movie as remarkably at variance with its own breathless marketing campaign as Fifty Shades of Grey. The movie's trailer, posters, ads, and numerous product tie-ins all suggest that it's a film about a young woman's sexual awakening via an at-first-reluctant-but-then-enthusiastic embrace of a submissive sexual role.
But that's not at all what it delivers. The movie's primary fantasy isn't male control, it's female laziness. It's not a window into a world filled with kinky sex, of which there is shockingly little in the film. Rather, it's an imagined universe in which women are free to resist all pressure to self-improve, need never worry that their professional mistakes might have negative consequences for their careers, and can reject every piece of sex and relationship advice a women's magazine ever gave them, and have it work out great for them.
Anastasia "Ana" Steele, the film's pulpily-named heroine, is a world-class expert at Not Doing Anything Ever. Her main proclivity, in sex and in life, is not submission but indolence. In the real world, that might have negative consequences for her professional and romantic future. But in this movie, it brings expensive gifts, exciting adventures, and the adoration of hunky billionaire Christian Grey.
This is even more true of the film's heavily promoted, but ultimately fairly scarce, portrayals of sex, during which Anastasia lounges around, content in her lack of effort, and Christian does all the work. This is the opposite of Cosmopolitan's ever-more-complex suggestions of how to blow your man's mind in bed, with their implicit warning that the gentleman in question will lose interest if you don't manage to master this one clever technique using some smooth stones and an iced donut. Rather, the film offers the comforting fantasy that if you have a true connection with your partner, all you need to do to drive him wild and keep him coming back is to lie there, existing.
Fifty Shades of Grey's advice for young journalists: don't try hard, it'll all work out
When the film begins, Anastasia is driving from Portland to Seattle to interview mysterious 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey. This is a coy piece of misdirection, suggesting as it does that this character might, at some later point in the movie, take a second action of some kind. I am here to tell you that she does not.
Within moments, Anastasia is back to not doing things, as God and E.L. James intended. She gets off to a cracking start by not correcting the receptionist at Grey Enterprises who mistakes her for her roommate Kate, then stumbles into Grey's office where she sits passively in a chair, all helpless guile, until he comes and sits close enough to her to be captured by her voice recorder. Oh, and hands her a pencil, because she didn't bring one. Ana explains that she is there in the place of her flu-stricken roommate, who was too ill to make the drive — and then proceeds to not actually conduct the interview.
In any other movie, that scene would be a meet-cute that ends in disaster, only to be patched up later once Anastasia received a confidence-boosting makeover and some elocution lessons. But in Fifty Shades of Grey, no makeover is necessary. Stammering unprofessionalism is as sexy to Christian Grey as the dance of the seven veils. He is so immediately and inexplicably charmed that he cancels his next meeting so that he can spend more time with Anastasia.
She keeps up her alluring failure to do anything for the duration of their conversation. She refuses to admit to any professional ambition, and then rejects Grey's offer of an internship. By the end of their chat, he's done for: he has seen how special this idle little creature truly is, and is hopelessly, irrevocably smitten.
That's not a sexual fantasy so much as a balm for the anxieties and pressures of modern life. In reality, a failed interview like that would be a source of anxiety and professional regret. The fantasy of the movie is that it needn't be: Anastasia's sheer inherent amazingness is incredible enough to wipe out any negative consequences of her actions — or rather, her utter lack thereof. Even the interview that she didn't conduct turns out to be a ringing success: Christian swipes her list of questions as she leaves, and then emails a perfect set of answers.
Anastasia Steele knows what boys like: girls whose relationship contributions are limited to "I exist, and you're here too I guess"
Anastasia applies a similar "don't do anything ever" approach to her relationship with Christian. She doesn't follow up on the interview, so he comes to visit her at the hardware store where she works, and then sends her an expensive set of first-edition Henry James novels. She drunk-dials him — veering perilously close to overt action, presumably only as a result of her intoxication — but then reverts to form, refusing to tell him what bar she's in after he picks up. And yet he somehow finds her anyway and swoops in at the key moment to save her from a friend's unwanted advances. No Cosmo girl ever had it so good.
Anastasia's sole contribution to her dates with Christian is to step into whatever conveyance he sends for her, be it helicopter, limo, or glider, and then to allow him to shower her with expensive gifts. She snoozes, he buys her stylish new clothes. She fails to respond to his emails, he sends her a new computer. She yawns, he presents her with a car.
This is not mere passivity, it is laziness raised to an art form. Anastasia needs no more than a plaintive sigh to seize the productive resources of Grey Enterprises in their entirety, and a single excited gasp to direct them to her benefit. Christian Grey's behavior, if exhibited by a real live human man, would be horrifyingly controlling and probably criminal. But in the movie he's basically Prince Charming with a Maserati, turning up at all hours to fulfill her materialist desires without her having to exert herself in the slightest.
And speaking of desires....
Has any woman ever been less generous in the bedroom, to greater result, than Anastasia Steele?
This is not a movie about a woman's introduction to the submissive lifestyle, it is a movie about how a little light bondage provides an excellent excuse to make your partner do all the work in bed. If lying back and thinking of England were an Olympic event, Anastasia Steele would take the gold.
Early in the film, Anastasia idly nibbles a pencil with Christian Grey's name on it. That is the closest she comes to performing a sex act for the duration of the movie.
In the film's first sex scene, during which Anastasia loses her virginity to Christian, her actions are limited to the occasional squirm and soft gasp. Ditto the second one, in which her participation consists only of allowing Christian to pick her up and carry her out of the frame. In the third, he binds her wrists with a tie and then tells her to hold still — an obviously redundant command, but we'll allow it because it seemed to make him happy. God knows the man needed to make his own fun with this lady as his partner.
And that brings us to Christian's "red room" where the fantasy of laziness truly reaches its peak. What better excuse, after all, to be a totally passive sex partner than to be literally tied down? He braids her hair for her, tells her how beautiful she is, and then attaches her to various equipment before pleasuring her. Her contributions are limited to sighing, lip-biting, and occasionally allowing her head to loll to the side in ecstasy.
But, crucially, that all leaves Christian thrilled and desperate for more. He is captivated by Anastasia's me-first-you-never approach to sex, vanilla or otherwise.
It's true that there is some conflict in the relationship because Christian wants a kinky dom-sub dynamic and Anastasia wants vanilla sex and regular dinner dates. But while that would be a difficult challenge for a real-life couple to overcome, or even a reason to break up, it seems pretty clear that all Anastasia's going to have to do is wait out the two sequels. In the world of Fifty Shades, BDSM sex is the result of Christian Grey's tortured past — a sign of unhealed trauma. It doesn't take a genius to guess that he'll be cured of his desire to inflict pain on others when Anastasia's love heals the pain inside his heart.
And presumably she'll do it without lifting a finger.