Karl Marx may have proclaimed, “Workers of the world unite,” but one of the most unlikely popular fronts in the entire history of protest has brought together an unusual array of activists against Fifty Shades of Grey.
During the movie’s Valentine’s Day weekend release, leftists, dominatrices, anti-pornography feminists, and family-values religious traditionalists from the United States to the United Kingdom to Norway demonstrated against the big screen adaptation of E.L. James’ novel about a sadomasochistic relationship between Christian Grey, a billionaire who practices bondage, with Anastasia Steele, a virginal young student.
On February 12 this reporter stumbled upon a demo at a theater in Westwood, about a block from the UCLA campus, where about six mostly male left-wingers picketed Grey, claiming the movie promoted violence against women. Using a loudspeaker, they chanted, “Fifty shades of degradation! Fifty shades of humiliation!” and held signs bearing similar slogans as well as the website for Revolution, newspaper of the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party.
The following day The Progressive interviewed Sunsara Taylor, a Revolution writer and Abortion Rights Freedom Ride campaigner who participated in similar anti-Grey demonstrations at a Regal Cinema near Manhattan’s Union Square and an AMC Loew’s theater at Times Square.
Taylor is also an initiator of the organization Stop Patriarchy, which calls for an end to “the enslavement and degredation of women” through pornography and patriarchy. The group also protested Grey in Seattle, Oakland, and Los Angeles, with signs demanding: “Stop romanticizing women’s enslavement. Start fighting for women’s liberation!” and “Whips, shackles, chains and terror—if a dog was treated the way Anastasia Steele is you’d know it’s abuse.”
Taylor claims a dozen demonstrators chanted, “Stalking, abuse and sexual assault are not love—they’re signs of abuse,” and that bystanders were “very thankful” the protests took place, although this journalist heard a passerby heckle picketers at Westwood.
Taylor explains, “In every sphere of the culture and social life today women’s rights and bodies are under assault. . . Some of the most concentrated expressions of this are the ever-more degrading, ever-more violent, ever-more humiliating cruel and revenge-filled pornography that’s becoming more and more mainstream.”
Fifty Shades of Grey is arguably “Exhibit A” of this so-called “mainstreaming” phenomenon. This $40 million film adaptation of a huge bestseller is released by Universal, a major Hollywood studio, with a song performed by Beyoncé. According to Box Office Mojo, Grey played during Valentine’s Day weekend at 3,646 theaters, making it the “widest opening ever for an R-rated movie” with $94 million in domestic ticket sales and $158 million at overseas box offices.
Taylor did not have time to see the movie prior to the opening night demos but says she read E.L. James’s books, to which she objects because Anastasia “is portrayed as a sexually completely inexperienced, insecure, low-esteem woman, who encounters a man who is unrealistically, insanely, absurdly wealthy, creepily controlling, a very dangerous person.” Taylor notes that Grey’s character “alternately flatters, terrorizes, and stalks” Anastasia and “demands things of her sexually that she clearly does not want. . . causing her deep emotional anguish and traumatizing her, leaving her sobbing, physically and emotionally from the pain.”
“The book was so terribly written,” Taylor adds with a laugh.
Leftists and anti-pornography feminists are not the only ones taking direct action against Grey. So are members of the BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, and Masochism) community.
Mistress Tara Indiana, a retired dominatrix, video performer, and activist, participated in demonstrations at the Regal Cinemas LA Live, part of a major entertainment complex in Downtown Los Angeles, “to get it across to the general public that this is a sexual orientation and not a mental illness.” About twelve picketers, including dominatrices and submissive male “servants” (who were not clad in rubber or leather, which Indiana feared “would feed into stereotypes”) held signs insisting, “S&M is not abuse,” “S&M is not domestic violence,” “S&M is not rape,” “Mr. Grey is not a master––he’s a sociopath,” and “E.L. James makes millions while we lose our jobs, families, and freedom.”
Indiana, who has a long list of adult video credits (Mistress of Perversion, Genital Hospital), quotes another placard: “‘When Hollywood makes it, it’s art; when the S&M community makes it it’s a crime.’ It’s true! They can do stuff in R-rated movies that we can’t do in X-rated movies.”
Prior to the interview Indiana says she had bought tickets to see Grey the night it opened, but missed the 8:00 screening in order to join the protest to ensure coverage would be in time for the nightly newscast. “So E.L. James already got my money!” laughs Indiana, adding that she has, however, read the book.
She cites her objections to the book’s representation of BDSM.
“Where do I begin? Basically the main character, Christian, is supposed to be the ‘master,’ the dominant, and he’s basically tortured and damaged,” she explains. “The only way he can relate to women is in this kind of abusive way. And through the love of this young virgin over the course of the trilogy he’s cured of his demons and he doesn’t do this anymore.”
The message that BDSM is something to be cured is problematic, Indiana explains. “We don’t want to be cured of our ‘demons’––we don’t consider them ‘demons.’”
She says typical Hollywood portrayals of S&M are rife with inaccuracy: “Usually they’re representing dominant men and submissive women and that’s just not reflective of our culture. We’re more diverse than that." In fact, most commercial dungeons feature dominant women and submissive men, she adds.
Indiana says theatergoers were slightly confused by the presence of BDSM representatives at the demonstrations. “They were expecting feminists or the rightwing or Christians to protest this type of movie––they weren’t expecting the S&M community itself to protest it,” says Indiana. “But we handed out flyers and when we explained it to them, they really got it.”
In fact, along with feminists, socialists, and sadomasochists, conservative Christian groups are also opposing Grey. For instance, the Tupelo, Mississippi-based American Family Association, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has dubbed “a hate group,” called on theaters across the United States not to screen the movie and launched the hashtag “#50DollarsNot50Shades,” encouraging potential moviegoers to donate $50 to a domestic abuse shelter rather than spend the money to see Fifty Shades of Grey.
AFA President Tim Wildmon denounced the flick. “The irony is not lost that the film’s main character is named ‘Christian,’ while this film presents anything but a ‘Christian’ view of intimacy,” he says. “The idea that anyone would think this film is in any way appropriate demonstrates an incredibly unhealthy view of relationships and sexuality. A more apt title for the movie would be ‘Fifty Shades of Evil.’”
Universal did not respond to interview requests prior to the submission of this story. However, according to The Guardian, at the London premiere––which was picketed by anti-domestic abuse activists––author E.L. James told the BBC, “Why do you think there are so many women here if it’s about domestic abuse and domestic violence? Don’t get me started. No it’s not––OK?”
And in a related article about the UK premiere, the Daily Mail reported,
“Defending the film on the red carpet, Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia Steele in the film, said she wanted the demonstrators to see the movie. “There is no part of the movie where [Anastasia] is abused. All the choices she makes are her choices and it’s all consensual,” she told the BBC. “Ana is a woman with incredible integrity and strength. I think that she is fearlessly exploring her strength and sexuality and I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
Days after the telephone interview with Sunsara Taylor, the dissident emailed this journalist a follow-up statement, insisting: “I saw the movie. It is worse––so much worse than I had even imagined. It is without question the story of a young woman being broken down, traumatized, manipulated, stalked, and abused by a man who demands the ability to control, brutalize, punish and own her.”
Asked what she thought of the improbable coalition of communists, Christians, feminists, BDSM kinksters, and others, Mistress Tara Indiana quipped: “Well, politics always makes strange bedfellows.”
Ed Rampell will discuss this, the Oscars and Progie Awards on Burt Cohen’s Keeping Democracy Alive radio show on Portsmouth, N.H.’s community radio station WSCA, on Thursday, Feb. 19 at 12 noon (EST)/9:00 a.m. (PST), which can be heard in the region on 106.1 FM and at wscafm.org and Stitcher.com, and is podcast later at burtcohen.com.