Fifty Shades of Grey: Empowering or Degrading?

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On February 13th Fifty Shades of Grey premiered, setting the record for the highest-grossing President’s Day holiday opener of all time. With the popularity came mass controversy. Fans and critics argue equally vehemently over the BDSM relationship between the film’s principle characters. Does Anastasia Steele’s relationship with Christian Grey reflect female empowerment through sex or is it an affront on feminism because of its abusive and degrading nature?

A Little Background

Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of Steele, a shy, plain 21-year-old college virgin, and her relationship with the emotionally damaged, ridiculously wealthy Grey. The novel follows Steele as Grey sweeps her off her feet and into his “Red Room of Pain,” his BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Sadism and Masochism) dungeon. The story follows their sexual exploits and budding relationship over the course of three books.

The Pros:

Not all fantasies are created equal, but the fans of Fifty Shades argue that their lusty readings should be left alone.

James adamantly defends her work against terms like “mommy porn” and “domestic abuse.” In the Telegraph UK, she said, “Nothing freaks me out more than people who say this is about domestic abuse…It is derogatory! It’s a love story in which people have sex…It demonizes loads of women who enjoy this lifestyle (of BDSM) and ignores the many, many women who tell me they’ve found the books sexually empowering.” So much of this narrative depends on your perspective. For those looking for a submissive/dominant exploration of sex, the book and the movie can be seen empowering; they publicize BDSM, making the practices more mainstream.

“I think that the success of the books and movie is due to the face that it’s completely different from most women’s sexual experiences, and is something that we find to be exciting, sensual, and intriguing. I don’t think most women would do the sexual things in the book, but reading or watching lets us feel more adventurous or raunchy than we actually are, and maybe we actually wish our sex lives were slightly (emphatically slightly) more like the book.” –UVA, Junior, Commerce*

Groupthink writer Zokajo shut down haters by arguing, “This book only got physical publication due to fans. That’s kind of something.” Furthermore, she said the audience has been overwhelmingly female. “Bashing, ridiculing and mocking the fantasies of millions of women feels really not cool to me.” And there is truth to that. How many other novels have such an interested and active audience that the bare bones of it were enough to push it to super stardom? Regardless of criticism, women from all walks of life enjoying the book give it merit.

The Cons:

Moms, dads and doctors are all concerned about the messages Fifty Shades sends to girls and boys alike.

Psychiatrist Dr. Miriam Grossman wrote on her website, “Fifty Shades of Grey teaches your daughter that pain and humiliation are erotic, and your son, that girls want a guy who controls, intimidates and threatens.” Through all the emotional and physical abuse that Steele experiences, she accepts it. If Grey acts out violently or verbally, Steele thinks it must be her fault and that she needs to do more to please him.

Instances when Grey is shown actively stalking Steele are countless. He gets her a job as an assistant, then buys the company she works for because he wants to make sure she’s “safe.” He tracks her location through her phone telling her, “There’s no place to run. I would find you. I can track your cell phone—remember?”

Grey’s obsessive behaviors grow to consume every facet of Steele’s life. In a contract he makes Ana sign consenting to the BDSM, he regulates everything from the food she eats, how long she sleeps each night, and how many times a week she must exercise. When she takes a trip to visit her mother, Grey shows up uninvited. He belittles Ana, isolates her from her friends and makes her feel as though his emotional instability is her fault and her responsibility to fix.

“Having read the book, it was still shocking to see such crude and degrading behavior celebrated by the mainstream public,” said UVA junior Madeleine Shaw. “The sexual content did not bother me, but the context surrounding it sent a message that our culture accepts the manipulation and degradation of women in what could easily be defined as an abusive relationship.”

Though some argue that the relationship is an expression of sexual freedom through BDSM, in an interview with Hollywood Reporter, self-proclaimed S&M expert, Lady Velvet Steele said, “I work as a professional dominatrix in Berlin…Christian Grey isn’t a dominant. He’s a stalker….S&M is all about respecting boundaries…it is fundamentally about consent. Trying to force your version of a relationship onto another person—as Christian Grey does in the film—is not a good way to start any relationship, particularly one that incorporates S&M.”

At the end of the day issues of sex come down to how you frame a narrative. Individual experiences and fantasies lead to vastly different interpretations of the film. Whatever your opinion, take a moment to consider the images and messages you are consuming. If they are empowering to you, let that be your fuel. If they are demeaning to you, find solace in the fact that you aren’t alone.

*Name withheld to protect privacy.

Hi there! My name is Katie and I am a third year at the wonderful University of Virginia. I am a writer for College Magazine, a sister of Delta Gamma, and an avid travel photographer. Check out my articles at and my photos at

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