A Lack of Shades in Fifty Shades: How the Traditional Fairytale Imbedded itself in the most Racy of Modern Day Films
For all its R-rated reputation, the film Fifty Shades of Grey follows the storyline of the conventional fairytale. Though a film where the “prince” locks handcuffs around the “princess’s” hands instead of slipping her foot into a glass slipper may not seem like the traditional fairytale, its similarities are disguised behind all the flaggers, ropes, and chains.
At the beginning of the film, Ana resembles your typical pre-Cinderella or little Red Riding Hood, she is chaste, humble, and naïve. Ana, like your traditional princess, has no set ambitions and pursuits of her own. This is made clear at the beginning of the film when Christian asks her what she is going to do after she graduates, to which she demurely answers that she hasn’t any plans. Christian offers an internship, which signals his first attempt to take control of Ana’s destiny and protect her, just as any perfect prince charming would rescue the misguided, endangered princess.
Ana, of course, as an innocent virgin sees no danger behind Christian’s desire to control her that is in every manner possible including what she wears, who she associates with, what she eats and drinks, where she sleeps, and even where she goes. Not only does Christian exercise control in every aspect of his life, as he warns Ana earlier in the film, he also seeks to control every aspect of her life. However, as the innocent, humble beauty who only sees good in the world and is unsuspecting of the poisoned apple, Ana fails to see the beast within Christian and his dark past. In fact, Ana is so incapable of fending for herself that Christian has to explicitly warn her of the beast within him. Christian sends Ana an 1891 first edition of the Thomas Hardy’s Tess d’ Urbervilles with a precautionary note: “Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me?” and “Ladies know what to guard against because they read novels that tell them of these tricks.” Its hard not to see the undertones of a traditional fairy tale morale speaking to young virgins and pleading them to recognize the dangerous, deflowering beasts and wolves in the world and to guard their chastity. Any Hardy fans and reader of early British literature, would know that Christian fittingly chose this quote from the protagonist’s, Tess’s, downfall from a pure, country girl to a fallen woman raped by a haughty aristocrat. Hardy’s 19th century warning echoes Perrault’s morale in his 16th century Little Red Ridding Hood: “Children especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to stangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf.” While Perrault’s warning isn’t overtly expressed in the film, its certainly imbedded in the film. Despite Christian’s direct reference to Tess’s downfall and her knowledge, as an English literature major, of these tales of young girls who fall for “these tricks,” Ana finds herself in the wolf’s den, or in Christian’s plush apartment. Ana would have been better to stay in her small provincial town instead of wondering astray into the “woods” of Seattle, talking to a stranger, and meeting a fate worst than grandma’s cottage; a fate that consists of a Red Room with high-end whips, chains, and handcuffs.
While Fifty Shades of Gray can be seen as echoing many conventional fairy tales, it tends to follow the plot of Beauty & the Beast. It’s hard not to see the beauty and beast tale behind the façade of this modern day sadistic film. Ana, like Belle is a simple, naïve beauty who is from a provincial town and absorbs herself in romantic novels, living vicariously through these stories instead of making her own story. Upon, meeting Mr. Grey, Ana admits that she “kinda has to be a romantic” since she is an English major. Similar to Belle, Ana can be seen as much too preoccupied with a particular tale of a “beast in disguise” that foreshadows both stories’ main plot: a gentle beauty arrives on the scene to cure the beast of his evilness and bitter past. While Christian may look more like your typical most eligible billionaire bachelor in Esquire, he has a beastly nature and an abusive past. Christian himself even admits that he had a “rough start” in life and “doesn’t have a heart.” However, like Belle wishing to see beyond the beast and uncover the prince in disguise, Ana seeks to see beyond the cold, heartless demeanor of Christian and find her true prince.
What I found most traditional about this modern day sex film was Ana’s goal of living solely for Christian in terms of wishing to please him, help him face his disturbing past, and turn him into the prince that he is supposed to be. Ana’s only meaning in life seems to be to live for Christian and discover the prince within him. Like Beauty in Beauty & the Beast, Ana is locked away in the beast’s, or in Christian’s palace, is given a glamorous bedroom, and a beautiful new wardrobe solely for the beast’s entertainment and pleasure. Though the concept of a beauty living only for the prince’s pleasure, desires, and needs is what makes this modern day film most like your conventional fairy tale, the one-dimensional nature of Ana’s character is what really roots this story in a typical Disney plot. While Christian may have many “shades” to his character, or in his self-disparaging words, is “fifty shades of fucked up,” the only shade that Ana has is her girlish rosy pink blush that appears when she is either embarrassed or aroused by Christian. Surprisingly, what a modern day feminist might find most problematic about the Fifty Shades of Grey film is not its abusive gender roles, but the lack of shades in the female protagonist. It seems that a modern day, racy film that is largely termed “radical” is just another traditional fairy tale in disguise; the pretty, vulnerable virgin falls in love with the beast and throws herself and her life away to make him the prince that he is meant to become.