Celluloid Psychology – 50 Shades Darker

50 Shades of--Not What I Expected! Part II

Last week we looked at the film 50 Shades Darker in the context of reviews of the previous film. Many reviews categorized it as glorifying abuse and dysfunctional relationships. But to those that want to look, there may be more to the story.

When I gave the film a chance, I found it was an effective vehicle to tell a cautious story on the value of love and relationships. The film is a dramatic irony. We know what is happening to Anastasia is not healthy, and we know that she is struggling with setting her boundaries as an autonomous person. For example, we see that Anastasia’s need for personal autonomy clashes with Mr. Grey’s sadistic tendencies that threaten her individuality and safety. This is what led her to leaving the relationship at the tail end of the first film. In 50 Shades Darker, you also see her give in to Mr. Grey’s orders and demands. She appears to be in a dream-like state or under a spell of some kind while the people around her warn her that she is entering a disaster.

An interesting similarity is noted between the 50 Shades of Grey series and the film Eyes Wide Shut. Mostly, the dreamy blurred lights for each scene with Tom Cruise as he embarks on several what if experiences prompted by his desires were scenes that, if acted out, would destroy his marriage. Those dreamy possibilities were only dreams, but with very real and very abruptly shattering life consequences. How close is Anastasia to walking off a cliff blindfolded? This is why 50 Shades is a suspenseful series stocked with dramatic irony. The story is dreamy, cautionary, and not what it seems.

The glamour within the scenes of the film are meant to draw the viewer into the moment of the movie. Sex and violence sell. Like Anastasia, we are drawn into the sensational depictions of erotica, sex, mystery, violence, and flashy things. In 50 Shades Darker, however, there are moments that abruptly snap the viewer out of the dream but not Anastasia. This is the dramatic irony within the story; you see what is happening to the main character to her own oblivion. Could our internalised oppressive ideals be challenged by this story and the dramatic irony within it? Can this example of the distorted sensuous ideal of a relationship snap us out of what we consider a real relationship? Or do we continue to swipe right?

The relationship portrayal in 50 Shades is very dreamy and surreal, similar to a nightmare. Soft, misleading, and terrifying. The main character is so infatuated within the erotic stages of love that she appears blind.

Theorist Viktor Frankl claims “just as there are three layers of the human person, so are there three possible attitudes toward it. [The] Most primitive attitude concerns itself with the outer most layer, sexual attitude. One step higher, is the erotic or erotically disposed person [who] penetrates deeper than the one who is only sexually disposed. Loving is the end stage of eroticism which surpasses time energy and space” (Frankl, 1986). The curtains of illusion behind Mr. Grey’s and Anastasia’s relationship are pulled back when you analyse the meaning of true love, as you see that the loving stage is the unattainable for the main characters who remain fixed within the temporary sexual erotic stages. This is obvious by the number of sex scenes and eroticism which Mr. Grey uses to emotionally control Anastasia. For example, any time she wakes up and realises she could be in a trap, he guilts her with his tormented past, or he’ll say things like “don’t leave me” when she speaks up to say “I need time to think,” or “this isn’t a relationship, this is ownership”. She does have her moments where she awakens to see the reality of their relationship, but gets dragged back into the emotions involved in sexuality and eroticism.

This is not love, as Mr. Grey’s behaviour forces eroticism via fear of abandonment. As Frankl writes on the meaning of love, “The person who has a fixation on overvalued eroticism tries to ’force open’ that door to happiness of which we have remarked with Kierkegard, that it ’opens outward’ and does not yield to violent assault “(Frankl, 1986). And in conjunction suggests, “pay attention when people act with anger and hostility to your boundaries. You have found the edge where their respect for you ends.” Another remark of Frankl also notes how the person who confuses love with sex wants to be taken, but not taken seriously. This is echoed in a scene where Anastasia’s boss tries to become sexual with her and asks her “do you want to be kept, or taken seriously?” This scene is clearly meant to be ironic, as no one who forces themselves on you against your will could have ever take you seriously. But it also foreshadows her struggles with conceptualising true love and seeing past illusive curtains.

Given these dynamics of the two characters; Anastasia, who confuses her boundaries (being taken with being taken seriously) and Mr. Grey, who is fixated on eroticism and uses it to try forcing the door to happiness, you see behind those illusive, dreamy curtains. Both are tragic characters who could not be further from true love, despite how physically close they are in nearly every scene of the film. Thus, this film is more complex that imagined. Human relationships are more complex than imagined, and the artists portrayal attests to this.

Thus, the relationship between Anastasia and Mr. Grey fools you into thinking the author intended to present this couple as relationship goals. This is evident by the outrage sparked on social media, reviews, and other journal articles. The romantic glamorisation of an abusive relationship? Or a tale or lesson to people to be aware of the non-lasting or temporary gratuitous things so often confused as signs of a real relationship? The fact that I hear so many comments about the relationship between the characters as glamourized may indicate incomplete awareness of internalised values of an oppressive dominant societal ideal. However, the outrage of recognition over an unhealthy relationship being present in a film is a positive sign. This is the point and message behind this tragic film. These flashy gratuitous components are not the real pleasures of a true relationship. You can have all the objective values of what people consider pinnacle to achieving happiness, but, even with those things, anyone in this relationship would be absolutely miserable. Thus, there is a message behind this story if it is given the chance to be taken seriously.

References:Collins, S., & Arthur, N. (2010). “Culturally sensitive working alliance.” In Arthur, N., & Collins, (Eds.), Culture Infused Counselling (pp. 103-138). Calgary, Alberta: Counselling Concepts.Frank, V. E. (1986). The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy. New York: Vintage Books.Roney, D. (2015). “50 Shades of Ugh”. The Voice Magazine, 23 (8). Retrieved from https://www.voicemagazine.org/search/searchdisplay.php?ART=10248

Melanie is a second-year Masters student studying Counselling Psychology at AU. She is fascinated by pop culture and uses a critical lens of examining its meaning in the context of modern psychology.