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50 Shades of Manipulation: The Antithesis to Romance

Happy Valentine’s Day folks. Here’s something I think we should all be mindful of on this special day…

When the 50 Shades Darker film was released I thought little of it.

The trilogy was a huge hit, for reasons I’ve never quite fathomed – I’m sure EL James would be the first to admit that her incredible overnight success is not as a result of her outstanding contribution to the literary world.

Did I read the books? I did as it happens, but not because I especially wanted to – I’d never have made the purchase myself. However, I acquired them by way of a gift and since they’d come into my possession, I decided to see what the fuss was about.

So I can say with authority that I do know the premise, I have in fact read them – and I still don’t really get the hype.

But that was as far as it went for me: I noted the decidedly average prose and the peculiar storyline – and then promptly forgot about them…Until a few days ago.

On Saturday a dear friend of mine shared a post on her Facebook page which intrigued me, and upon reading it I realised that there was a far darker side to the plot than I’d bothered to consider. She knows firsthand about abusive relationships, and the post described the way in which the books glamourise exactly that: domestic violence and abuse.

I shared the post to my Facebook page in support of my friend and thought no more of it. But when it received two comments which gave me intense cause for concern –  comments which read as naive at best and ignorant at worst – I was compelled to discuss the issue.

The Reality of Abuse

‘I had an uneasy feeling, I knew the signs something was not right but I’d have to wait and see what was in store…I knew I was in trouble…A look on his face which will always haunt me.’

These are not lines lifted from the ‘romantic’ films that have been portrayed as sophisticated and aspirational; in fact they’re quotes taken from my friend’s anonymous blog in which she describes one of the events she suffered at the hands of her ex. This is the reality for many women who are in abusive relationships.

There was a time when I felt that any person who chose to stay with a violent partner had only themselves to blame. But that is such a simplistic view of something that is coloured with fifty shades of grey. The one doing the controlling is so intensely clever in their stealthy manipulation that they can often break and wield power over the strongest, most ‘together’ man or woman.

50 Shades of Grey Portrays Abuse

‘His eyes boar into me…Pure venom across his face…If looks could kill.’

My friend is two years free of that monster and until this morning she’d never gone into details with me about what happened – she was not able to share and I’ve never pushed her. She is one of the strongest ladies I know, yet back then she was, in her own words, ‘a shell, a broken woman’. I’m immensely proud of how far she’s come.

Abuse is not always physical, and it can be the psychological effects which leave the deepest scars. I know from personal experience the devastation a manipulative relationship can wreak.

‘Bullied, controlled, harassed, abused financially and emotionally…Frozen with fear he’s waiting for me.’

Condoning Through Ignorance

The comments on my Facebook page were from women, one declaring ‘it’s just a film’, the other arguing that she’d enjoyed the books and that Ana, the lead female character, had ‘stuck up for her independence’. Maybe so – but didn’t she ultimately submit to Christian’s persistence?

The views expressed in these comments worry me a great deal. To me, they suggest a dangerous hardening to a matter which must not be ignored: over time the general public has learned to turn a blind eye to an outrageous storyline. What should be hard-hitting has instead become entertaining.

The books feed into and prey on gullibility and the desire to believe the best of people (probably unwittingly as I’m not convinced the prose is intelligent enough to be deliberate). Sadly, that’s not real life, and it seems that in many cases it’s only those who’ve had the misfortunate of experiencing an abusive relationship firsthand who are able to see through the contrived and deplorable plot.

Why This is So Dangerous

It’s well-documented that the prevalence of sexual content available online is negatively influencing teenagers’ views and attitudes towards sex. This goes for boys and girls. As parents, it’s our role to educate and guide our children.

And the fact that the films are certificated 18 is not enough to negate the issue. Even assuming nobody under that age gains access to them (I’m dubious about that one), the books are still widely available.

Where parents are unconcerned and therefore not doing their job in this regard, the insidious and pervasive problem will breed and thrive, and we will be picking up the pieces in years to come.

Incidentally, if you are looking for a way to simplify the matter for your teens, this short video is perfect:

For those who may be shouting at their screen that there are plenty of BDSM relationships which are entirely consensual and based upon mutual satisfaction – I don’t disagree. A good friend of mine has made a very successful career out of catering to this scene, so I know a little about it. Despite how this may read, I actually have no issue with unconventional relationships where both parties are willing. (Though I do find it interesting that very often it becomes apparent one feels coerced into acquiescing. That’s still, surely, not right?)

But the 50 Shades story is not about an unorthodox but consensual relationship – and by the way, if you read the BDSM link above, it seems that many involved in that scene agree – 50 Shades is not an accurate representation of their way of life! Rather it’s about a woman’s vulnerabilities being systematically and deliberately exploited by a wealthy, attractive man, with the sole intention being to violate her for his own sadistic pleasure. Of course, with money and good looks comes power and allure, and hence the trilogy gets away with what is otherwise a debauched and abhorrent plot.

While there may well be undertones of similar behaviour in BDSM, my understanding is that both parties enter into such arrangements eagerly and with their eyes open – because they have prior experience and enjoyment; crucially not because they are manipulated into it.

The Final Insult

There’s a fundamental way in which EL James has lessened the impact of what is essentially abuse, and that’s by making Christian’s character vulnerable too: he himself was previously in an unhealthy relationship during which he was manipulated by an older woman. Whilst writing, another comment has been left on my page suggesting that he ‘didn’t know any different’. So, abuse begets abuse and that’s an acceptable truth?

I’m left utterly baffled by the degree to which some are unable to see through this apparent attempt at manipulation by the author.

It may be true that a repeat abuser knows no better – as a child. But as naivety gives way to fear, disgust, contempt – let me be clear – that person absolutely does know better. My first serious relationship at the age of 15 was not what I’d describe as healthy, and though I may have resisted acknowledging its uncomfortable reality at that time, I was fully cognizant of the fact – as an adult even more so. To suggest otherwise is not only patronising, it’s dangerous.

All that said, I’m not in fact asking that you boycott the film. I urge you – if you wish – to indulge in the superficial glamour of Fifty Shades – use your freewill. Only please do not kid yourself that the relationship portrayed between Christian and Ana is sweet, romantic, or healthy.

Kate Tunstall

Friday 10th of March 2017

Haha, I love an in-depth comment! I couldn't agree more about the video, it's perfect x

Kate Tunstall

Friday 10th of March 2017

Thanks Lauretta.

Kate Tunstall

Saturday 18th of February 2017

I think so, I didn't realise how strongly I felt about it until I realised others appear to be oblivious/naïve to it. So important to educate our youngsters. Thanks for commenting x

Angela Milnes

Saturday 18th of February 2017

It's funny how many only see abuse as physical harm, yet.... emotional and psychological abuse can be just as if not more long term damaging. I am not a fan of 50 Shades.... personally and certainly not of embracing or making "manipulation" and control appealing! I do not like it!

Kate Tunstall

Saturday 18th of February 2017

Couldn't agree more. Thanks for commenting.