Mia Freedman on 50 Shades of Grey: "Am I the only one who didn't have a problem with it?"

Hugely unpopular opinion…?

I’ve just had a fight with Lisa Wilkinson. Well, not a fight. More of a disagreement.

This is highly unusual. We disagree so very rarely. I worship the woman. She’s one of my closest friends. In fact, during the 20+ years I’ve known and loved Lisa, I can’t think of a single topic on which we haven’t shared a similar opinion.

Until we both saw the 50 Shades of Grey movie this week.

Lisa Wilkinson and I in 2005.

Yesterday morning I read Lisa’s’ review of the film here and in the afternoon I saw the movie myself. And as I sat there mainlining popcorn and Maltesers, I kept waiting to agree with her view that it was an appalling movie that depicted domestic violence.

For me, that moment never came. I was not shocked or offended or upset or disturbed by this film. Even mildly.

I do, however, agree with this sentiment from Lisa:

“With a script that makes Mills & Boon read like bleedin’ Dickens, and lines like, “I don’t do romance”, Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey is the 30-something jerk of a billionaire who never seems to work. An emotionally crippled narcissist no one could love.”

Well, yes. The script is woeful. The whole movie is pretty woeful actually.

Not as high-camp cult-classic awful as, say, Showgirls. But totally cheesy and lame.

Yep. All of that is true. No Oscar buzz here.

But the bit I didn’t agree with was the part where Lisa said: “It’s domestic violence dressed up as erotica… and if there’s one thing this movie is not, it’s erotic.”

I actually think it is erotic in parts. But we’ll get to the sex in a moment because I’m feeling like I might be the only one.  You see, Lisa’s view of 50 Shades is shared by another woman I usually agree with, Mamamia’s senior editor Rosie Waterland.

We sent Rosie off to the premiere on Thursday night with a brief to write one of her famous recaps. That never happened. Because when she came to work the following morning and I asked about it, she was still shaking. That’s how distressing and triggering she had found it. That’s how upset she was by what she saw. Angry too. Because, as she wrote in a review that has gone as viral as Lisa’s (and which you can read in full here), Rosie was horrified by the message she felt the film sent:

It’s emotional abuse disguised as a ‘naughty sex contract’. It’s domestic violence dressed up as sexy fantasy. …..there is no doubt in my mind that the film I watched last night was a disturbing and clear depiction of a controlling and emotionally abusive relationship. This was domestic violence. I don’t care how many women learned to embrace sex because of Fifty Shades of Grey. THIS WAS DOMESTIC VIOLENCE.

And lots and lots of women agree with Rosie. That post has been read and shared thousands of times. There are protests about the film being organised by women’s groups and calls for boycotts.

So. Back to my phonecall with Lisa this morning. After seeing the film myself yesterday and being surprised to find myself on such a different page to my friend, I wanted to ask her one question: did you read the books?

She hadn’t. And neither had Rosie. And that’s when I understood.

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia and Christian.

50 Shades of Grey is two different films. It’s one film for people who have read the books and a totally different film for anyone who hasn’t.

Both films have terrible scripts and lame plots. But they leave the viewer feeling very differently afterwards.

Let me be clear. Neither view of the film is wrong. Rosie’s distress was real. Lisa was genuinely appalled. I would not for a millisecond dismiss or discount that. Opinions and feelings can never be wrong.

What’s fascinating to me is that I honestly feel like I saw a different film to the one they described. Having read all the books, I brought a level of knowledge and understanding and context and familiarity to the movie that non book readers just couldn’t.

Still, as Lisa pointed out, “Movies have to stand alone. You can’t expect people to have read the book to understand the movie. The movie is the movie.”

She is 1000% right. That’s why this film fell down in the most massive way. Because it wasn’t actually a complete work in itself. It was a third of a film – for the full price of a movie ticket.

“I read all three books back to back because that’s the only way the story made sense.”

Same with the book. I read all three books back to back because that’s the only way the story made sense. At the time, annoyed as I was by having to essentially buy the book three times, I marvelled at author EL James’ commercial thinking.

It’s not three books. It’s not a trilogy. It’s one book chopped roughly into three parts and sold separately. And with the control she maintained around the sale of film rights and the making of the film, the identical approach has been taken. Commercial and cynical in equal parts.

I repeat: 50 Shades of Grey is not a movie. It’s 1/3 of a movie.

Ten times ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ glorified an abusive relationship.

And THAT is part of the reason why women like Lisa and Rosie who haven’t seen 2/3 of it, are so horrified and appalled by the first part.

SPOILER ALERT (if you plan to read the books or see the future films whenever they are released and you want to be surprised, stop reading right now and click here instead)

Readers of the book know the reason Christian is so twisted and controlling and likes his relationships and sex life mapped out in contracts is because of his childhood and his crack addicted prostitute mother WHO WAS SLIM AND BRUNETTE.

We know that’s why all his submissives are slim and brunette. We know that’s why he hates himself.


And because we know the whole story, we understand the power Anastasia has in this relationship. She’s the one who cracks his veneer and his control and makes him rethink everything about himself. For her he breaks all his rules. She makes him take a long hard look in the mirror and he hates what he sees and tries desperately to change. Because of her.

I’m not going to argue that Christian and Ana’s relationship is healthy or normal or that anyone should try to emulate it. But it’s a movie. Not a community service announcement or even a reality show.

“I’m not going to argue that Christian and Ana’s relationship is healthy or normal.”

Speaking to a friend afterwards (who had also read the book), she expressed surprise at the view of Christian as some kind of monster. She couldn’t see how the film glorified domestic violence and emotional abuse. She used sex as an example of why many might see Anastasia as a willing participant.

“She didn’t have to give him a single blowjob!” she marvelled. “It was all about her pleasure and that’s what gave him pleasure. I would love to have someone take control and for me not to have to do a single thing while they pleasured me!”

She paused for a moment. “And also? As a single girl who’s dating, do you know how hard it is to get a guy to come home and meet your parents? Half her luck!”

Read more: The Fifty Shades of Grey movie won’t show THAT scene.

As for the talk of domestic violence and emotional abuse and whether this made it seem fun and erotic, this gave me pause. I’ve been in an emotionally abusive relationship and I would never ever ever describe it as fun or erotic. Domestic violence in any form is deplorable.

Many of the things Christian Grey does in this film that Rosie describes in her review are absolutely signs of emotional abuse. Red flags. Warnings that you should get the hell out. IF THEY HAPPENED IN REAL LIFE AND YOU HADN’T SIGNED A CONTRACT AGREEING TO THEM.

But I guess I see a difference here and was not ‘triggered’ by it because it’s in the context of a fucked up guy who is very very clear about how fucked up he is. In writing. The guy who emotionally abused me did not outline his future abuse in a contract which he urged me to read and encouraged me NOT to sign unless I was 100% comfortable with it. The control exerted on me was not something I had given my consent to – in a bid to explore…sex, boundaries, love, myself, whatever.

Similarly, in the final scene of the movie where Christian hits Anastasia with some kind of kinky instrument in “the playroom” where they have sex, it is consensual. She can leave at any time. He is clear about the safe words. He makes her repeat them before their very first BDSM experience.


So I’m OK with all that. And again, it’s a film. It’s fiction. Not every character in fiction is a role model and not every situation portrayed in fiction is an endorsement of that situation.

I was talking about it this afternoon with another girlfriend, Rebecca Sparrow. She is an author and very wise. She hasn’t seen the film yet but read the first book and is shocked by the pushback on ‘domestic violence’ grounds given that what happened between Christian and Ana was consensual. She is also appalled by calls for a boycott.

“Should we burn copies of Lolita? The Graduate? Flowers In The Attic? It’s fiction.” she texted me. “Fiction is ALLOWED to explore flawed people and decisions. That’s what fiction does.  It’s not condoning anything. It’s a book about a weird, messed up relationship between two people. Fiction’s job is not to reflect back to us our own personal values and morals.”

A bit later, she texted me this:

If some women view Christisn as a catch – that’s disturbing but it’s their call. I wouldn’t date Geoffrey Edelstein but there you go. The value of the books and the film is the accompanying conversation about what a healthy relationship looks and feels like. A healthy relationship doesn’t involve your partner dictating what you wear or eat. But the author isn’t writing about a healthy relationship! It’s the story of a messed up relationship!

I love it when someone articulates something I feel but does it so much better than I can.

Oh, and another thing I’ve heard said by non-book reading viewers of the film is that they hated the way Christian used a condom in one of the sex scenes. I LOVED THAT.

Thought it was one of the best things in the whole film. If you read the books you’d know that condoms are mentioned and their application described in EVERY SINGLE SEX SCENE until she goes on the pill. I think that is tremendous and I love the way it’s done in a pretty casual, off-hand way that normalises condoms. As they should be.

Whether you see the film or not, be aware of what you’re going into. If you haven’t read the books, you may be appalled by more than the script and hugely unsatisfied and even confused by the ending.

If you have read the books you’ll enjoy it a bit more but you’ll be pissed off that you’ll have to buy two more movie tickets to see the whole thing.

There are no right or wrong views of this or any film. Bring on the discussion.

Listen to a feisty debate about the film in the latest episode of Mamamia Out Loud: