Fifty Shades of Shame

Joanne Savage on why she will be avoiding cinemas this weekend as Sam Taylor-Johnson's steamy adaptation of the EL James book starring Jamie Dornan hits theatres

Let's talk about the tawdry, cringeworthy Fifty Shades of Grey, an inane, borderline illiterate trilogy of books by EL James featuring spankings and whippings and various instances of punishing sex administered by a psychopathic millionaire playboy upon a doe-eyed, submissive female, and more expressions of 'holy cow!' than is ever tolerable in any genre of literature.

A BDSM sex fantasy thrown together with the merest of narratives, the story sees our wimpish heroine, Anastasia Steele, emerging from clinches with the domineering Christian Grey with bruises, welts and other insignia of what most sane people would consider common assault.

The trilogy of books was bad enough but now we have an arty film based on the first steamy instalment directed by darling of the London art world, Sam Taylor-Johnson, which has applied high polish and good lighting to James' seedy mess in order to get women to drool over Northern Irish actor, Jamie Dornan, wielding riding crops and possibly nipple clamps.

Dornan – who, while very attractive, is no Laurence Olivier in the acting stakes (to wit, The Fall) – is all wrong for the part. For starters, he has had something terrible done to his hair – his dubious character rocks the bouffant, foppish, dragged-backwards-and-forwards-through-hedges look – while his questionable American accent (a sorry attempt at East Coast cool with County Down inflexions) is borderline Neeson in its awfulness.

The wilting, winsome Dakota Johnson – usually a kick-ass actress who has shone in cameo roles in The Social Network and The Five-Year Engagement – also features, flinching throughout in a series of cardigans, eyes dewy with near-tears, as the coy Anastasia who never expresses active desire, but is rather merely a physical prop for her twisted lover to enact his desires upon.

The fact is that the entire Fifty Shades trilogy, and presumably the film (in so far as it will be faithful to the first book) is clearly anti-feminist in spirit, driven by an overwhelming sense of female disempowerment and consumed by a form of pseudo sex slavery (rather than autonomy – there is a big difference) conducted by a domineering lothario with 80s hair.

Many have argued that Fifty Shades of Grey glamorises rape culture. It certainly flirts with dangerous ideas of this nature, where 'no' sometimes seems to mean 'yes' and in which it is basically OK to whip a woman provided you are rich, handsome, wearing a nice suit and the submissive demurs from vociferous complaint. It suggests that female sexuality should reasonably involve a degree of punishment and pain, a skewed and damaging concept of sensuality that implies that female desire is something to be controlled, subdued and tortured into pliancy.

The trailer for the film, released in Autumn 2014, sent commentators into a tailspin about Christian and An's warped love affair, and the overblown furore surrounding the movie suggests a public disappointingly hungry for illicit titillation of this type.

But the trailer was laugh-out-loud terrible, with a moody Dornan staring out of too many plate glass windows seemingly attempting to manage a half-formed thought, while the awkward Johnson – terrified by the inside of a lift – was subsequently introduced to a whole load of scary implements of pain and punishment that would have sent most women running screaming in the opposite direction.

Probably our virginal doormat goes along with all these sadomasochistic exchanges because she is so desperate for male validation – it is incredible what some people will apparently suffer for love, even beatings with belts. I would argue that Fifty Shades of Grey is not a thoroughly modern love story, but simply a prolonged and not very well described sexual violence fantasy masquerading as (to paraphrase Lady Gaga) bad romance – an expression of sugar-coated hate in fact, love's opposite.

Bondage-domination and sadomasochism are nothing new, of course, but projecting these fetishes as important details of an aspirational love story is like taking a bright and beautiful fairytale or legend of romance – the kind that young teenage girls dream of, that poets have devoted innumerable stanzas and sonnets to throughout human history – and subverting the vanilla, gleaming Romeo and Juliet narratives into a down and dirty, dodgy porno with ugly leather and lube. It's tasteless, it's crass and it focuses on a horrible aspect of male sexuality, the kind that wants to control and punish women for the desire they elicit.

I for one will be pointedly avoiding the cinema when this questionable film is released because I do not believe that a 'love' – or should we say 'unbridled, savage lust' – that focuses on the infliction of pain on a female body as worthy of celebrating or glorifying.

Fifty Shades of Grey is an anti-feminist tome; its message sets female empowerment in the bedroom back decades. I find it difficult to believe that James' work has garnered any sort of popularity never mind a multi-million dollar movie franchise devoted to the optimum stylization of a master-slave dynamic that should make all devotees of gender equality highly uncomfortable. Certainly Andrea Dworkin is spinning in her grave. 

Don't be fooled – this movie is promoting degradation and subjection. Fifty Shades of Grey? No, this is Fifty Shades of Shame.

Fifty Shades of Grey is on general release throughout the UK and Ireland from February 13.