At 8 p.m. on Feb. 13, hundreds of Penn students crowded into The Rave theatre to watch a sold-out showing of “Fifty Shades of Grey."
On the other side of the country, a group of students at stood outside of a local theatre in protest to the showing of the same film. The students donned “Blue about Grey” T-shirts to emphasize their disgust at the picture the movie and books paint about a relationship that promotes obsession and abuse. The volunteers handed out notes, one of which read “True manhood does not seek to compromise a woman’s purity, true manhood stands up to heroically protect it.”
The controversial movie, based on the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy by E.L. James, illustrates a romantic relationship developing in the context of the main character’s obsession with BDSM. BDSM — which encompasses bondage and discipline (B&D), dominance and submission (D&S) and sadism and masochism (S&M) — practiced by 5-10 percent of the population, according to the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.
Penn students’ responses to the movie was much less volatile than at some other schools. College senior Joanna Kamhi has attended almost every Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention meeting since her freshman year, but believes that sexual violence has no place in the discussion of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“BDSM calls for the informed, mutual consent of all participants, and so sexual violence really doesn’t play into it. Thus, I think that BDSM is a totally valid choice for people who are interested,” she said. “Unfortunately, BDSM gets stigmatized because people don’t understand that BDSM community members act within a very strict structure of consent.”
ASAP is one of many groups that are part of the Penn Women’s Center, and focuses specifically on raising awareness of sexual violence on campus. Every spring, they host “Take Back the Night,” a campus-wide protest and survivor vigil.
Communications professor Carolyn Marvin believes that regardless of the real-life implications of BDSM, what should be emphasized when approaching the “Fifty Shades of Grey” phenomenon is its fictional nature.
“While imaginative works always have license to transgress the moral rules of real life if their creators wish, all adults are always responsible to keep straight the crucial distinction between fantasies in imaginative works and the obligations of real life,” she said.
Despite these claims, the consensus among students is certainly not unanimous. Penn Political Union Progressive Caucus Chair Klaudia Amenabar believes the “Fifty Shades Of Grey” franchise not only inaccurately portrays BDSM, but does so in a way that “those in the community feel misrepresented and fear for the safety of those who will attempt to practice BDSM incorrectly.” The College junior added that though the franchise may be fiction, it nevertheless glorifies a type of behavior that should not be appropriate in any context.
“People are saying that this franchise does right by women because it was written and directed by women and produced for women, but that only makes it worse,” she said. “That means that romanticized abuse is so internalized that it can be mass-marketed to women, and only demonstrates female-produced content as of lower quality, which isn’t the truth.”
With the "Fifty Shades of Grey” movie setting records for the highest grossing President’s Day weekend opener of all time, it certainly has become a means of critical discussion.
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