Desré Barnard is a former UP student who has performed academic studies on the BDSM culture. She says that the movie misrepresents the true nature of BDSM relationships. “Firstly, at its core, a BDSM relationship it is not about sex. It is about trust: deep and incomprehensible trust. You are allowing a person to push the limits of ‘normalcy’ … and the person entrusted understands and cares about you and how you are responding. For them, it’s usually about having control of someone’s body and mind, and being the sole caretaker thereof. It’s beautiful,” she says. She also adds that, “It’s also not about getting someone to do something they do not want to do: they are consenting adults, and have agreed on hard boundaries (many have contracts stating that they will not do certain things).”
Fifty Shades of Grey poses a major question: whether Anastasia will or will not sign a legal contract agreeing to be Grey’s “submissive” in their BDSM relationship. Nortjé lists this as a further troubling element of the relationship dynamics in the film. “I [will not] progress until [you have] given written consent,” states Grey in another scene in the film. Here, and how this portrays gender roles within the practice of BDSM. “Where does the concept of love as a selfless devotion feature?” queries Nortjé.
Furthermore, in an article published in February on Time.com, writer Sabrina Toppa explains how the film was expected to be rated NC-17 (no children under 17 admitted). However, the Motion Picture Association of America labelled the film as R (restricted, under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). This means that the sex scenes were carefully edited. Nortjé suggest that one must question what Fifty Shades of Grey promotes, what it communicates to society, and what it advises society to do. “One thing is true, Fifty Shades of Grey [cannot] be ignored,” says Nortjé.
“The media… remains a key driver for governing and influencing the public’s perception of sexuality,” says Rory du Plessis, a lecturer of visual culture studies in the Department of Visual Arts at UP. Fifty Shades of Grey’s construction of sex characterises and represents the “genre of erotica”, with the elements of BDSM serving as a “novelty” in distinguishing Fifty Shades of Grey from other material within this genre. Du Plessis credits Fifty Shades of Grey with having “a positive impact on female sexual health”. Fifty Shades of Grey provides women with “an awareness of the plethora of sexual activities available”, including BDSM. This is in alignment with creating a “growing interest in BDSM”, which is “actively cultivated by entrepreneurs”, argues du Plessis.
A report posted by Erin Bates on eNCA’s website last month reinforces du Plessis’s view. Bates identifies how local businesses are “capitalis[ing] on the hype” around Fifty Shades of Grey. South African manufacturer Flirtelle Lingerie has introduced a range of grey garments such as grey nightgowns, G-strings and baby dolls, said manager Nina Nefdt. This is with the aim of targeting fans of the film. Bates reports that the owner of sex shop The Bedroom, Marina Bargehr, has allocated a corner in her shop to Fifty Shades of Grey merchandise. These products include sex toys such as riding crops, blindfolds and handcuffs, all of which the film’s audience is introduced to in Grey’s “playroom”. This allows for audiences to directly engage with the film. Adult stores allow for the opportunity to “recreate…favourite scenes [from Fifty Shades of Grey] perfectly,” says du Plessis. He argues that Fifty Shades of Grey assists women in feeling “more empowered about their sex lives” and it helps women to “feel comfortable about sexual fantasy”, says du Plessis.
While it may be easy to stigmatise BDSM after watching Fifty Shades of Grey, Barnard advises caution, saying, “Before people break out the riding crops and nipple clamps, they need to stop allowing Hollywood to [force-feed] this nonsense into them. Do some research, and be informed.”
Photo: Hendro van der Merwe