Let’s say you’re in a relationship with someone who is limiting who you talk to, commanding you to eat (with threats of punishment if you don’t), and tracking your whereabouts. Romantic? Eh, more like disturbing. And yet that’s pretty much the relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey.
Though some fans might say it's just fantasy, featuring kinky-but-consensual BDSM, researchers from Ohio State University wholeheartedly disagree: "Our analysis identified patterns in Fifty Shades that reflect pervasive intimate partner violence—one of the biggest problems of our time," they wrote in a 2013 study published in the Journal of Women's Health. After analyzing the characters' encounters based on the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention’s definitions of emotional abuse and sexual violence, they found that emotional abuse is present in nearly every interaction in the book.
Though domestic violence groups around the country are boycotting the film for these same reasons, many people simply can't wait to see it. The movie, which stars Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, is expected to gross more than $50 million this weekend.
“The problem is when the hype of Fifty Shades of Grey overshadows women being tuned in to the very real and concerning dynamics of the relationship between Christian and Anastasia,” says Kristen Wynns, PhD, founder of Wynns Family Psychology in Cary, North Carolina.
The study highlights specific controlling behaviors, like when Christian not only follows Ana around, but he also uses a phone and computer to track where she goes (behavior also known as stalking). But then he also showers her in expensive gifts (like an Audi A3) as if he loves her. "Many women are unaware that [this kind of] manipulation and deception are other forms of abuse," Wynns explains.
There's also the issue of isolation. “In abusive relationships, the abuser will start to erode the victim’s ties to outside support and resources,” Wynns says. Present in the books, but less so in the movie we're told, Christian pulls Ana away from her friends, limiting her social contacts. When this sort of thing happens, victims feel like they must hide where they go and who they talk to in order to "keep the peace," which is exactly how Anastasia handles it, the Ohio State researchers explain in the study.
Then there's the intimidation game—and not just sexual intimidation. In the books, Christian routinely commands Ana to eat, threatens to punish her if she doesn't, and even puts that in the contract that he manipulates her into signing. Ana's reaction to it all is quintessential victim. "My stomach churns from his threats,” she says in the books. The study authors conclude: "Anastasia becomes disempowered and entrapped in the relationship as her behaviors become mechanized in response to Christian's abuse."
Lastly, you might question why Ana stays if she's being hurt, but that's another classic sign that something is horribly wrong. "The reality of abusive relationships is that when you're in the midst of the mind games and isolated from your loved ones who would otherwise give you a reality check, you start to lose sight of what is normal and what you deserve," Wynn explains.
Even real-life BDSM practitioners have distanced themselves from the phenomenon, saying it's not an accurate or healthy portrayal of kink. Despite all this, Fifty Shades author and creator E. L. James continues to bill the plot as a love story, which has us rolling our eyes, frankly.
We can't discredit that Christian and Ana have been linked to helping women become more sexually adventurous (though this may also have led to more injuries), but hopefully you'll pay attention to these unhealthy characteristics should you see the movie. "In this era when women are encouraged to be confident and empowered, the goal would be for women to admire the passion of Fifty Shades without subscribing to or agreeing with the more abusive elements of that relationship," Wynns adds.