Is ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ escapism or abuse?

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

The film “Fifty Shades of Grey” had a strong showing at the box office, ranking No. 1 and earning $81.7 million over the three-day weekend, according to Box Office Mojo.

It was the widest opening ever for an R-rated erotic thriller, opening in 3,646 theaters.

Despite its adult theme, the film, based upon the blockbuster E.L. James erotic novel, was touted daily last week in a drumbeat of publicity on NBC’s “Today” show. And harried moms can buy “Fifty Shades of Grey ”-branded sex toys at Target, when they get their toilet paper and milk.

Along with the mainstream promotion comes criticism from some domestic violence experts.

One, Amy Bonomi, says the central relationship in the film is abusive, according to Center for Disease Control guidelines. Bonomi is professor and chairperson of Michigan State University’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

In the movie, Steele (Dakota Johnson) falls under the spell of domineering businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), and tries to melt his chilly reserve. Grey will only agree to a relationship if Steele submits to his erotic games.

“Christian uses an interlocking pattern of abuse to control Anastasia,” Bonomi said. “He stalks her, he intimidates her and isolates her from friends and family. And he minimizes the abuse. Finally, he perpetrates sexual violence.”

How so? “In the sexual interactions he uses alcohol, and he intimidates her into participating in activities she’s uncomfortable with. That fits the national definition of sexual violence.”

Bonomi co-authored a study on “Fifty Shades” with Lauren Altenburger and Nicole Walton from Ohio State, published in the Journal of Women’s Health. In the study, the novels are analyzed for markers of domestic violence.

The professor also did a study of college women which showed that women who read the books were more likely to suffer from eating disorders, have verbally abusive partners, engage in binge drinking and have multiple sex partners.

Bonomi doesn’t understand why “Fifty Shades of Grey” is said to empower women. There are ways to have an erotic narrative, she insists, without the sexual violence.

“Anastasia feels a constant sense of threat and loss of self-identity, she changes her behaviors to keep peace in the relationship such as withholding information about her whereabouts to avoid Christian’s anger, and becomes disempowered and entrapped in the relationship as her behaviors become mechanized in response to Christian’s abusive patterns,” Bonomi said.

While Johnson has gotten mostly positive reviews, the movie itself has come in for a drubbing from most critics, for whom it could be summed up as “Fifty Shades of Meh.”

“As erotic as an ad for Pottery Barn,” Rolling Stone sniffed.

The novels’ fans — and with more than 100 million copies sold, they are legion — are obviously not put off by the reviews.

Michele Hurst Barton, 50, of Southfield describes herself as a “self-assured, aggressive woman” in her business life, as the manager of a nonprofit. She enjoyed the “Fifty Shades” books, and in fact, helped convince her book club to read several in the series.

Barton saw the film Friday, as soon as it opened.

“I like the escapism,” she said. “I could relate to the whole fantasy of the powerful man who, outside of business, takes control. Of course, like many of us, I have that daydream of the rich white or black knight on a horse, the notion that there would be this man who would take total control and I wouldn’t have to think.”

As for Grey’s infamous Red Room full of bondage equipment, Barton insists that Anastasia had control. There was that contract she and Grey signed, which specified what was and wasn’t allowed.

“You would have choices,” Barton said. “Of course, once you made those choices you couldn’t say ‘no’ anymore. But I found the whole contractual agreement fascinating.”

Barton is a sophisticated reader, having read erotic classics such as “The Story of O” and Anne Rice’s “Escape from Eden.” She admits both have more literary quality than “Fifty Shades,” but insists that the latter has a fresh, modern appeal.

“It’s not so far over the edge,” Barton said. “It wasn’t degrading to me. Sometimes when you read S&M books, you feel like you need to go wash your hands. With ‘Fifty Shades,’ the fantasy was you could openly read it and you wouldn’t feel embarrassed.”

And “Fifty Shades of Grey” is now at the suburban multiplexes. Professor Bonomi is there, as well; for her next study, she was quizzing college women in East Lansing over the weekend after they viewed the film.

The results may not be so predictable. When Bonomi did that study on women aged 18-24 who’d read “Fifty Shades of Grey,” she found that only 36 percent of those who read the book liked it.

Is reading a book, or watching a movie about Christian’s “Red Room” and Anastasia’s submissiveness really damaging, or is it a harmless escape for a busy 21st century woman?

Bonomi is most worried about the younger women she is studying.

“This is the age where women are trying out new relationships and forming their ideas of love and sexuality,” she said.