50 Shades of… Fear

February 19, 2018

With the recent release of the third installment of the Fifty Shades of Grey series there has been considerable consternation about what effect the film (and its predecessors) will have on the public. A Christian Science Monitor story by Gloria Goodale explained “How ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Is Contributing to Shift in Norms on Sexuality,” for example, and a hilariously scathing review of the new film appeared on Pajiba.com and went viral, headlined “’50 Shades Freed’ Is an Ignorant, Poisonous Anti-Feminist Hate Anthem.” Dozens of other blogs and articles make similar claims, though they do not seem to have dampened its audience’s ardor: the new film has brought in nearly $270 million to date.

The missing logical link in these stories is in what in argumentation is called a warrant. It’s a principle or chain of reasoning connecting a premise to a conclusion. For example in the statement “I see the freeway is packed, so we’re probably going to miss our flight,” the warrant is that traffic congestion will delay passengers getting to the airport on time. This may or may not be true–for example the traffic may clear up shortly, or the flight might also be delayed–but the warrant offers a reason or logical rationale linking a claim to its conclusion.

Often the warrant is implied, such as “Four out of five doctors use our brand of pain reliever.” The warrant is that most doctors would use one brand over another because of its quality or efficacy. Again, this may or may not be true; the doctors might use one the brand because it’s cheaper than its competitors (or free from the pharmaceutical company) though no more effective. Understanding warrants is crucial to determining whether an argument or claim is logically sound or reasonable.

People often cloak their disagreement or displeasure over a piece of work (a film, book, cartoon, etc.) with an assertion that it is not merely personally distasteful or offensive but in fact dangerous to society. Most people understand that merely saying “I don’t like this film” is, quite rightly, likely to be met with a response along the lines of, “Thanks for expressing your opinion.” In order to have that opinion carry more weight and garner public support, the critic often goes a step further to assert that the object of their scorn is a threat to public health or morals. It is a form of fearmongering, a technique used by manipulators for millennia. Sometimes it’s a president stoking fears of Muslim or immigrant terrorists; other times it’s a conservative media watchdog group complaining that, for example, Teen Vogue is encouraging America’s teens to engage in anal sex. And so on.

This pearl-clutching is nothing new, of course. Parents have been concerned about the harmful effects of pastimes and entertainment for centuries. Blaming entertainment media is an old tradition-in fact when Jack the Ripper was active in 1880s London, violence in the play The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was blamed for inspiring the serial murders. And the family game Twister was famously derided as “sex in a box” by a competitor who diligently (if self-interestedly) warned the public about this immoral game.

This is, however, where a line becomes crossed because the critic is then in the position of making a factual claim and should offer evidence for that claim. Saying you don’t like chocolate ice cream (or rap music, pornography, or anything else) merely expresses an inviolable, unfalsifiable personal preference which cannot be challenged based on any evidence: If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. End of story.

However claims that a film, book, or painting results in actual harm is another matter. Depending on the claim, there are there are specific, discrete measures that can be examined to determine whether or not a given piece of art is in fact having the dire consequences predicted.

Most social effects (bad or good) are not immediate, of course, and can only be measured in the years after the phenomenon is introduced. As the saying goes, time will tell. We can, for example, examine the claim (widespread in the 1980s) that listening to heavy metal music leads kids to suicide, homicide, Satanism, and other presumably harmful activities. That claim has been debunked; it turned out to be false. We can also look at concerns over teen sexualization common in the news media in the early 2000s, particularly surrounding superstar Britney Spears. Rafts of books and cover articles in popular magazines predicted that the teenaged Spears’s Lolita look would influence not only teen girls but society at large, resulting in increased birth rates, emphasis on sex appeal over education, increased incidence of sexual assault, and so on. Two decades have now passed since tens of millions of teen girls danced and sang to Spears’s wildly popular, hypersexual lyrics–and those girls have grown up to have historic low rates of teen pregnancy and historic high levels of education. However uncomfortable it may have made parents, pastors and others at the time, by virtually every measure the predicted social damage of teen sexualization–epitomized by Spears, Miley Cyrus, and many others–never materialized.

Which brings us to Fifty Shades Freed, which is by most accounts an abysmal film (it currently has an 11% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes). The complaints go beyond merely its quality; after all, there are countless bad movies released all the time that no one bothers to complain about. There is a certain pleasure in floridly eviscerating an especially bad movie-I’ve done it myself on occasion–but the most common complaint is that the movie franchise depicts an unhealthy lifestyle and relationship between the lead characters.

The Pajiba author, “T.K.,” complained that the film is “insulting to every single relationship on this planet… the union between Christian and Anastasia is so unbelievably toxic and awful that it becomes an endurance test to sit through… What’s worse, the film plays all of this off as if it’s perfectly normal. As if it’s acceptable behavior…. as if being interested in a different variant of sexual appetite is the result of being a domineering shitbird. Except it’s not. That’s not how this works, EL James…” In other words TK is complaining that Fifty Shades erotic fiction writer E.L. James is inaccurately portraying what a healthy BDSM lifestyle looks like (I’ll leave it to my readers to identify the missing warrant in this argument).

This, by itself, is not necessarily problematic. After all, many lauded films depict dysfunctional relationships and unhealthy lifestyles, from Leaving Las Vegas to Pulp Fiction to Raging Bull to Apocalypse Now. Drama comes from conflict, and characters that are not in conflict rarely populate good films.

No, the real concern, which is not explicitly stated by T.K. and others, is that the characters are (or could be) seen as heroes and therefore idealized. But once again, complex characters (anti-heroes in writer parlance) are both common and engaging. Audiences can enjoy an evil character without admiring or idolizing them. Countless classic characters are beloved despite being amoral, loathsome, and even–gasp!–having dysfunctional relationships with others: Cersei Lannister, Walter White, Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, the Joker, Scarface, Anton Chigurh, and so on. We cheer them on, but that doesn’t mean we admire them or have any desire to incorporate their fictional characteristics into our real lives.

Ironically, much of the criticism of the Fifty Shades films and books has an undercurrent of sexism and misogyny. Not only does it belittle literature (in the loosest sense of the term) popular specifically among women (the term “mommy porn” is often applied to it), but it also makes the assumption that women are gullible and easily confused into thinking that the fictional series depicts a relationship desirable in their real lives. Unlike these critics, I believe that most women are smart, media-savvy, and have no trouble distinguishing fiction from reality.

A similar concern has been expressed over airbrushed images; many feminists and media critics have worried that women (and teen girls specifically) are easily fooled by retouched images of idealized perfection, and will pursue that impossible beauty in vain. However research shows that nearly 90 percent of girls are aware that the majority of celebrity images are airbrushed, and not an accurate representation of the celebrities’ appearances.

Could Fifty Shades make some women think that they’re seeing a healthy, admirable relationship? Sure, anything is possible. It’s possible that a few stoned teenagers listening to heavy metal decided to kill themselves because of real or perceived “backwards messages” in a Judas Priest album. It’s possible that someone who has spent years playing violent first-person shooting games such as Grand Theft Auto and Tour of Duty might decide they want to shoot people in real life. Any piece of art could possibly inspire someone to engage in harmful acts. The classic Catcher in the Rye is known to have been a favorite book of at least two prominent killers, but that doesn’t mean the book or its author is in any way responsible for those choices.

In skepticism, as in science and the law, the question is not what is possible but instead what the evidence shows. And there seems to be little or no evidence that the films are harmful to their audiences, or society at large. As it happens there is only one study that has examined women’s perceptions of the Fifty Shades relationship narrative in its film adaptation. The piece, “Young Women’s Perceptions of the Relationship in Fifty Shades of Grey,” by Dr. Amy Bonomi et al., was published in the February 2016 Journal of Women’s Health. It was a very small study (N=35) of young adult women who had recently seen Fifty Shades of Grey. Seven questions about their reactions to the relationship patterns between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele were asked. In stark contrast to concerns that women idealized and romanticized the relationship, this study found that the women “consistently indicated an unappealing lack of health in the relationship. Participants expressed grave concerns over Christian’s stalking, controlling, manipulative, and emotionally abusive behavior, anger in sexual interactions, and neglect of Anastasia’s needs…When asked where participants would draw the line in their own relationship, participants indicated they would welcome the adventure and gifts, but would not tolerate being controlled and stalked, having their needs neglected, and having a partner who expressed anger in sexual interactions.”

Thus what little research that has been done so far goes directly against the widespread concern that audiences cannot enjoy a fictional escapist film without being brainwashed into thinking it depicts an ideal or desirable lifestyle. As Bonomi noted in a 2014 article, “Other popular fiction series, such as the Twilight series, also normalize abuse within the context of romantic relationships, including stalking, physical and sexual assault, emotional manipulation, threats, and intimidation. For example, within the Twilight series, which achieved enormous popularity among teenage girls, Edward, a ‘breathtakingly handsome vampire,’ is depicted as ‘an obsessed stalker with no interest or friends other than his family and Bella,’ the female protagonist and his romantic focus. Edward routinely orders Bella around, growls, snarls, shouts, and uses aggressive looks and physical gestures, such as aggressively grabbing her; some of the physical control strategies cause bruising. Despite such problematic depictions, the Twilight series, just like Fifty Shades, has infiltrated social life throughout the Western world.”

The mention of the Twilight series is notable because it provides an even longer time period for the problematic depictions to manifest real-world consequences. The first Twilight book came out in 2006, twelve years ago. It was followed by a 2008 film and several sequels. Surely twelve years is a sufficiently long time to identify and quantify the harmful results of these media depictions. Yet I’ve been unable to find any published research that finds an increase in stalking, sexual assaults, domestic violence, abusive relationships, or other measures that might reasonably be attributed to the wildly popular series influencing its audiences’ real-world lives. Nor is there good evidence that women are unduly influenced by other films that play into sexist stereotypes and tropes (such as romantic comedies).

Criticisms of the Fifty Shades also have uncomfortable elements of attempts to police women’s sexual fantasies, to tell them what they should and should not find sexy or erotic. Fantasies of sexual domination are very common among women, yet that doesn’t mean they wish to be abused or dominated in real life. This is widely understood and uncontroversial among psychologists and sex researchers (as Psychology Today noted in its September/October 2015 issue, “Just because you’ve had a weird sexual thought doesn’t mean you actually want to act on it”), yet poorly understood by critics of Fifty Shades.

It seems likely that, however wretched fiction the Twilight and Fifty Shades series might be, their audiences are enjoying them for what they are and not seeing the characters or situations as idealized or admirable. Perhaps their (mostly female) audiences deserve more credit than they’re given.