The cultural panic about the enormous commercial success of 50 Shades of Grey has gone on for years, and, from that, you might get the impression that the story romanticizes unspeakable things.
Though I’ve not read the book, my impression from the movie was entirely opposite. It is not a hymn to the secret glories of BDSM. It is a sophisticated allegory that takes apart, and ultimately condemns in the strongest terms, the psychological foundations of seemingly consensual human relationships that are actually based on dependency, abuse, and power.
For the already scandalized, here is a brief synopsis as I see it. Christian Grey is a good looking and rich owner of his own company who doesn’t actually seem to do any real work. He is interviewed by the naive Anastasia Steele, who fills in as a substitute reporter for her friend.
Grey is intrigued by her and he begins the seduction. He is ridiculously wealthy and generous, which impresses her, and he makes a huge fuss about Anastasia’s mysterious wonderfulness, which delights her. He proposes a relationship of a special kind.
But there is a catch, in the form of a contract. Grey, a victim of childhood sexual abuse who admits to being “50 shades of [effed] up,” wants her to agree to a master-slave relationship in which she must do all he tells her, and she must submit or be punished. He wants her consent to this relationship dynamic, on paper, but she understandably resists. The remainder of the story consists of his trying to persuade her to sign up for the deal, and he does this through more gifts, spending, time, attention, and small demonstrations of the dominant-submissive relationship to come.
Yes, Anastasia likes Christian even though he intimidates her. Why is she drawn to him? It is not about the bondage and abuse. These are the downsides, the price she is being asked to pay for the relationship that she desperately wants to be normal and healthy. She is drawn to him because he is beautiful and rather epic, and because of the time and attention he gives her. He values her and she feels valued because of this, even though she is aware that his valuation is contingent on her agreeing to do things that disgust her.
The truly inspiring moment comes near the end. Anastasia decides to put Christian to the test, to see how far he is willing to go in inflicting pain and suffering on her. Once she experiences this, the scales fall from her eyes. The beauty of Christian, his money and his larger-than-life persona, no longer matter. She now sees him for what he is, a degenerate parasite who cares nothing about her as a person but rather only wants to use her to feed his maniacal power lust. She says no, and walks away. Blessed free will!
As with most pop culture hits (the movie is still #1 at the box office as a I write), the story says something important about our times.
And yes, that means politics.
Power and abuse can take many forms: parents, teachers, bosses, ministers, anyone in authority. But the single largest, costliest, most aggressive, and persistently abusive relationship in our lives is with government. Our Christian Grey is the ruling elite in the deep structures of the state.
Like Mr. Grey, government can appear to be beautiful, prestigious, and enormously wealthy even though the source of its status and riches are unclear. Its goal is absolute power over us, and the opportunity to punish us when we don’t comply. But the direct use of force is not the best way to get there.
What government desires is that we sign the social contract. Only in this way is the state in a position to claim that it rules us only through our own willingness to submit. The very legitimacy of the state depends on it.
How does the state go about getting us to sign? It offers gifts. It shows us glorious possibilities. In the movie, Mr. Grey takes Anastasia for rides in cool cars, helicopters, and gliders. Government does the same, giving us a chance to experience things that we could not otherwise access: huge rallies, parades that show off military might, grand monuments, national parks, trips to space, the power to print money, and so on.
And what does government promise us will come at the end? We will have security, safety, prosperity, an end to the exigencies of life’s uncertainties, and so on. In fact, we can pretty much have everything we want, all our heart’s desires, but only once we consent to allowing government to be the dominant and we agree to be the submissives. Also, if we make the deal, we enjoy the special satisfaction that comes with pleasing our benefactor, who will be very happy indeed.
There is a sense in which the state is devilishly clever, just like Mr. Grey. He sought to isolate and monitor Anastasia’s every move: her comings and goings, her social contacts, her business associations, what she ate and what she drank. It’s all about control. Government does this to us every day through attempted censorship, surveillance, prohibitions, and regulations, always with the claim that it is for our own good. Do we like it? Not entirely, but what is the alternative? The promised benefits of this relationship are impossible to ignore.
Mr. Grey was careful throughout his perverse courtship only to give hints at the abuse that was to come, and these samples that he revealed were not entirely intolerable. So it is with the state’s plunderings of our property, at least at first, and the state’s regulations of our lives, at least at first, and the state’s prohibitions, at least at first. Even its small skirmishes with its enemies (all bad guys) seem justifiable at some level.
What the state does not show us — but wants us to agree to in advance so that it can avoid moral culpability — is its mass confiscations, conscription, internment camps, wars, and even mass murders. By the time these horrors arrive, the state wants us thoroughly socialized into its ways, to judge its actions outside conventional moral frameworks — our relationship is very special indeed — so that we not only do not regret them but rather celebrate them as the very embodiment of our highest ideals.
Look how magnificent the achievements of this perfect romance!
What is this contract that the state wants us to sign? What are the signs and symbols of our consent? This is where constitutions, representative government, and democracy come into play. Through these institutions we are assured that no matter how egregious things seem to get, we are all really just governing ourselves: it is of, by, and for the people. No one is ultimately forcing anyone to do anything.
We have, after all, agreed to our submissive state of being and we have permitted the dominant partner in our relationship to enjoy this status. What’s more, because of the social contract, if the state runs up debt, we really just owe it to ourselves. If it kills innocents abroad, “we” are only doing it to prevent a possible attack. If it bankrupts business with regulations and taxes, “we” are only bringing rationality to the commercial sector.
Power relationships are complex like this. They are not usually about conquest and sudden impositions against our will. To maximize longevity and minimize the chance of revolt, power relationships involve seductions to overcome our innate resistance to the idea of being ruled by others. Freedom is not usually taken away; it is given up in exchange for something that we temporarily find even more appealing. That was Mr. Grey’s goal. It is also the goal of the nation state as we know it.
This is why this film is so important. It complexifies and deepens our understanding of the nature of power and reveals the psychological foundations of our relationship with the political order — and does this better than any film I’ve ever seen in a long while.
I mentioned earlier that glorious moment in the film when Anastasia develops a new consciousness of the ghastly pathology that animates the heart and soul of her very dangerous partner. She realizes that he only has power if she is willing to grant it to him. She stands up, covers herself in protection, tells him he will never touch her again, gets dressed and heads to the elevator. He calls for her but she interrupts with one strong word: NO!
“How does he have any power over you except through you?” asked the Renaissance political thinker Etienne de La Boétie. “From all these indignities, such as the very beasts of the field would not endure, you can deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free. Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.”