Fifty Shades Darker

The follow-up to Fifty Shades of Grey should really be called Fifty Shades of Vanilla. Or maybe Cinderella.

When we left our innocent protagonist Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) at the end of the first film, she had deserted her S&M-obsessed billionaire boy-toy, Christian (Jamie Dornan), for completely understandable reasons. Ana wasn’t enthusiastic about Christian’s particular kinks, but more than that, he was manipulative from the very first meet-cute, long before Ana signed a BDSM agreement that determined, beyond boundaries in the bedroom, rules like what she should eat and wear.

But Christian’s a new man in the movie adaptation of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades Darker. Prince Charming has given up the kink life, claiming he needs Ana back in his life more than he needs leather whips. As if by magic, Christian’s sexual predilections wilt, and he seems to have no problem humouring Ana’s vanilla tendencies.

Unsurprisingly, sex, romance and lingering shots of Dornan’s muscular body make up the bulk of the runtime in Fifty Shades Darker, leaving little time for actual plot. One date turns into another turns into Ana moving in with him and before long things are very serious.But because this is a romantic drama and the Fifty Shades audience expects some easily scored titillation, the sex scenes also introduce Ana to some new racy sexual activities: Ben Wa balls (small, marble-sized balls inserted inside the vagina for sexual stimulation), massage oil, ankle restraints and some tame spanking. Ooh la la!

Outside drama comes in short bursts, including a near-rape encounter, a helicopter accident and a jealous, homicidal ex. These plot lines sound more intense than they actually are; the film resolves each conflict within minutes and thus renders them forgettable. As for the topical geography of Dornan’s upper torso, you’ll memorize every mole, scar and nipple through the sheer repetition of his flesh on display.

Of course, it’s a rare film that champions the straight female gaze over the straight male gaze, and such imagery is not necessarily a bad thing – depending on your tastes and sexual orientation. But it’s worth asking why a movie that targets a particular subsection of the straight women demographic can’t be better made, more intelligent and offer something more than the softest-of-soft-core pornography.

Fifty Shades of Grey was the fastest-selling paperback of all time in the U.K., and the movie made over $500 million in box-office sales. Given the series’ popularity, it’s worth discussing why so many people – namely straight women – flock to this particular brand of romance. It’s especially pertinent given Christian’s creepiness and his need to “own” his woman.

Before he even appears in Fifty Shades Darker, Ana finds out someone has bought all six portraits of her at a friend’s art show; it turns out Christian didn’t want anyone else looking at her. He stubbornly tells Ana she can’t take a business trip to New York with her boss and refuses to discuss it. He buys the publishing company where she works, just for the hell of it. When she rips up a cheque Christian gave her for $24,000, he breezily has one of his minions transfer the amount to Ana’s bank account. “Why do you have my bank account details?” she asks, but the answer never comes.

Instead, Christian distracts Ana with beautiful baubles and a new MacBook. The film presents viewers with yet another distorted idea of romance, selling a fantasy of a man so hunky and rich you should consider  yourself lucky if he chooses to neg you. That’s not how healthy, consensual relationships function – with or without a BDSM kink. Ultimately, the film’s fantastical message to romance-hungry women is that it’s okay if their ideal sugar daddy is creepy, because diamonds are forever.

Originally published in The National Post (February 9, 2017).