FIFTY SHADES And The Cultural Narrative That Women’s Movies Suck

How the BDSM movie is all tied up between being a bad movie and facilitating an ugly cultural narrative.

I gave Fifty Shades of Grey a bad review, one that it deserved. I think I was even-handed - I called out what was good alongside what was so very, very bad. But I really didn’t want to even be negative, because Fifty Shades exists in that uncomfortable area for me - a bad thing that will be used to further a regressive narrative. I wanted to like the movie if only to break that narrative.

That narrative isn’t about BDSM or sex positivity or any of those things. It’s a larger narrative, one that we’re so deep inside you sometimes can’t even see it. I find myself succumbing to this narrative more often than I would like, assuming certain movies will be crap simply because of their target audience. I’m talking, of course, about the narrative that says movies/books/TV aimed at women are less important, of lesser quality and more easily ignored than movies/books/TV aimed at men. And by ‘aimed at men’ I mean ‘the default setting.’

You don’t have to look very far to see this in action. Even now, three films in, there are men online who dismiss the Hunger Games movies because they have a female lead and come from books marketed largely to young women. It’s their loss, in the end - the movies are behemoths and their disdain isn’t hurting the filmmakers or the art, it’s only keeping them from enjoying a morally complex, well-made, damn smart science fiction story. But the sexist narrative still kicks in, and people who will bother to see any comic book movie, no matter how insipid, write off Hunger Games. They’ll give you reasons, but they all connect back to the narrative - things made for women are of less value than things not made for women.

It’s vital to not give in to that narrative, but a movie like Fifty Shades of Grey don’t make it easy. The film isn’t any worse than a standard male-oriented blockbuster (it's in fact much better than something like Seventh Son, for instance) but it has been getting an endless amount of negative attention, largely from people who are not in its intended audience. The problem is that the film is legitimately poor - a bad story in a not-particularly well-made movie - so the sexist narrative gets reinforced. “Look at Fifty Shades of Grey, it just proves that women’s movies suck.”

But isn’t it weird how much attention it’s getting? It’s almost like a lot of people are unconsciously trying to back up that narrative. It’s almost like a lot of people - a lot of men -are sitting back and thinking, ‘See, missy. I told you.’ There’s a smugness to the disdain surrounding a movie that, except for its sexual content and target audience, is not very notable.

So I find myself in this space where I don’t want to pile on in a cultural moment that I believe reinforces negative attitudes, but at the same time I really did not like the film. I even have larger problems with the fan fiction aspects of the movie’s origins (although to be fair if you didn’t tell me this was Twilight fanfic I don’t think I would have known how the story began). I could probably have gotten some cheap hits making a list of silly scenes or dumb lines from Fifty Shades - god knows there’s enough of that to go around - but besides temporarily jolt my numbers all that does is advance the shitty sexist narrative.

It’s okay that there are bad movies aimed at women. There are bad movies aimed at everybody, and there should be. Women should be able to enjoy their terrible movies just as much as you (and I’m speaking to the predominantly, although not exclusively, male readership of this site) have plenty of terrible movies that you embrace and love and cherish. Fifty Shades is, in the larger picture, no worse than your 80s kid movie favorites or the action schlock or the CG spectacle that you rouse yourself to see every summer. I think part of the shitty narrative is the condescending idea that men have to rise up to protect women from these bad movies, but Fifty Shades is a woman’s movie through and through - based on a novel by a woman, directed by a woman, screenplay by a woman. Women are doing this one to themselves, and men have no place ‘white knighting’ in this case.

The thing to keep in mind is that not everything is for you, and that’s not a bad thing. Some things are aimed at other people, and you may never fully understand what they see in it. That’s cool. That’s for the best, in fact - the idea of a monolithic mainstream culture that appeals to all four quadrants at all times makes me want to die. I love niches, and I appreciate that movies can serve niches.

I guess what you should do, if you’re a man and you think of yourself as progressive and want to help bring better woman-oriented movies into existence, is to simply support the good ones and largely keep your mouth shut on the shit ones. Fifty Shades is going to do the business it’s going to do. Your withering disapproval won’t do anything except help reinforce how bad women’s movies are. Instead of bad mouthing a movie written by, directed by and created by women, why not say good things about other women’s movies that are better? 

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