Amy Bonomi, a public health researcher and the chair of the human development and family studies department at Michigan State University, has taken several people to see “Fifty Shades of Grey” — but she doesn’t exactly recommend it.
“It’s horrible,” she says. Her biggest problems with the movie aren’t that it’s overwrought or poorly written, but that it popularizes a dangerous relationship, misrepresenting abuse as consensual bondage play or kink.
The women she has brought to the movie, she explains, are taking part in a series of focus groups that will help her assess how young women perceive the relationship between Christian and Anastasia, the movie’s central characters.
This in-progress research builds on two earlier studies by Bonomi that focused on the “Fifty Shades of Grey” book.
Bonomi’s first study, published in 2013, used the Centres of Disease Control and Prevention’s definitions of emotional abuse and sexual violence to conclude that “emotional abuse is present in nearly every interaction” between Christian and Anastasia, and that “sexual violence is pervasive.” The second, published in 2014, found that women who read “Fifty Shades of Grey” were more likely than those who didn’t to have had an abusive partner and to have engaged in risky health behaviours like binge drinking and disordered eating (though certainly the research did not imply that the book caused these effects).
We talked to Bonomi about what piqued her interest in “Fifty Shades of Grey” and what she’s learned so far. (Warning: Possible spoilers ahead.)
BUSINESS INSIDER: How did you decide to study “Fifty Shades”?
AMY BONOMI, PH.D: I was teaching a graduate class on relationship violence, and as we were studying theories of what domestic violence is and what causes it in relationships, my grad students kept saying: “This is a lot like what we’re reading in ‘Fifty Shades.'” So I said ok, well let’s take the second half of the semester to apply the readings to the books. We started by analysing the first book using the national definitions of domestic violence.
BI: What struck you on your first read through of the book?
AB: Every interaction involves abuse. Christian stalks Anastasia, intimidates her verbally, and socially isolates her. That’s the name of the game in abusive relationships: isolating someone from family and friends.
She tells him she feels demeaned, debased, and abused, and he says “well, you need to embrace those feelings and deal with them the way a real submissive would.” He minimizes her concerns. And he uses alcohol and sexual violence to impair Anastasia’s consent — he begins a lot of sexual interactions when he is genuinely angry with her. Those are two big red flags.
BI: What do you suspect is going on with the association you found between women who read “Fifty Shades” and risky behaviours/abusive partners?
AB: A lot of studies have looked at the association between violent television and the use of aggression, so this was following the same lines. We’re not claiming that “Fifty Shades”causes these behaviours. But the problematic abuse message in “Fifty Shades” creates an underlying context that normalizes abuse.
For young women today, if we think about the messaging we’re given in television and music videos — Rihanna and Eminem’s “Love The Way You Lie” also normalized abuse — it can make it challenging for someone at risk for abuse or experiencing it to recognise it when it’s occurring.
BI: Some people argue that “Fifty Shades” is just fantasy.
AB: People have been making that argument about porn for a long time, but the empirical studies show that those who are interacting with porn are much more likely to hold attitudes that support violence against women and more likely to be violent against women in their own relationships.
There is an association that we really need to be paying attention to in society. If it is fantasy, then we need to be working with young people to look at those visions of fantasy with a critical eye.
BI: How do you respond to the argument that “Fifty Shades of Grey” is just showing a healthy BDSM relationship?
AB: “Fifty Shades” is very different from what a traditional BDSM relationship is. First off, in traditional BDSM relationships, both parties are consenting to the activity, and any use of alcohol or drugs is seen to negate consent. Second, both parties mutually agree upon what the activities will be before engaging in them.
In “Fifty Shades,” both of those concepts are violated. Alcohol is used to violate Anastasia’s consent, and Christian pressures Anastasia into participating in activities that she’s uncomfortable with.
BI: Did you notice any important differences between the movie and the book?
AB: One thing that’s very different about the film is that more elements of romance are woven in. There’s a scene where Christian takes Anastasia and says “let’s go for a walk in the park,” and it’s a tender moment that’s not in the book. There’s also a scene where they’re dancing in his condo — a lot of people see that as a romantic scene.
BI: Does that added romance change any of your core criticisms about “Fifty Shades”?
AB: Not at all. Shame on Hollywood for romanticizing a highly problematic abusive relationship. But of course that’s what Hollywood does.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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