Hot Press film critic Roe McDermott found the experience of having to sit through Fifty Shades of Grey deeply upsetting – and thoroughly disillusioning. And it wasn't the film: it was the audience reaction that made it so sickening...
As a general rule, I don't believe in trigger warnings.
A phenomenon, which I believe was started with good intentions, to protect people from violent, visceral reactions caused by PTSD, has now become an excuse to keep us from ever feeling uncomfortable. American college syllabi now come with trigger warnings when English and History courses inevitably address racism, sexism, cissexism, abuse, homophobia, privilege, oppression – basically, anything bad.
Classic novels like The Great Gatsby come with warnings about "suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence"; Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is noted for addressing "racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more." In these cases, the practice is obviously largely redundant, as students still have to read the material and attend the class.
There's also the less addressed reason that these trigger warnings are largely useless: panic attacks, anxiety attacks and traumatic flashbacks are not experiences that follow a recipe. Among the depressingly (but not surprisingly) large number of women I know who have experienced sexual assault, our triggers come not from discussing rape, sexism, violence or misogyny – in fact, for many of us, discussing these topics has become a survival mechanism. We talk and read about these topics to find others who understand our experiences; to educate and inform both ourselves and others; and to play our small role in trying to ensure that what happened to us doesn't happen to others.
So the subjects themselves are not our triggers. Our triggers take the form of tiny, often unpredictable reminders that will unexpectedly assault us in our daily lives. The texture of mandarins when chewed. Red cowboy boots. A grasp around our wrist. The word "bitch." A sudden movement towards us. The smell of petrol. A hand placed over our eyes. A stare held too long.
Our triggers are also not constant; sometimes they will affect us and leave us shaking and weeping on the floor, unable to breathe; at other times they will have no effect at all. They are neither obvious nor predictable, and they are largely inescapable.
I have experienced both sexual assault and long-term emotional abuse; yet I choose to discuss, read, study and write about these topics almost daily, and feel comfortable doing so. I have had panic attacks at seemingly random moments, and when something that appeared small in itself triggered the memory of my experiences. A taxi driver wearing Acqua's Eau Di Gio. A hand brushing the small of my back in a crowded bar. My brother grabbing a phone charger from me a touch too suddenly. These experiences are more distressing to me the longer the time since my assault: they let me know I still haven't recovered, that despite my careful emotion control and career built on analysis, these past experiences still render me vulnerable; unable to control my mind or body.
I was reminded of this dissonance while reviewing Fifty Shades of Grey. I read most of the first book before abandoning it, not because I found it emotionally triggering, merely unforgivably stupid. I have written about and discussed its inaccurate portrayals of BDSM lifestyles and its glamourizing of abusive relationships; laughed at the atrocious writing and despaired at its unrelenting popularity. I have followed the development of the film, and knew I'd have to review it. I could not have been more prepared for the subject matter.
And yet. And yet watching Fifty Shades of Grey was the first time in my career as a film critic where I desperately wanted to leave a cinema; the first time I genuinely, viscerally hated my job, for having to remain in a situation that was making me begin to shake, and well up, and find it difficult to breathe.
The problem wasn't the theme of emotional abuse; nor the (surprisingly coy) violating, consent-free sex; nor the relatively tame images of BDSM.
The problem was the audience.
The women who wolf-whistled and applauded when Christian Grey tells an obviously hesitant college student that "You want to leave? But your body tells me something different." The girl who groaned "He's so hot" when Christian Grey explains BDSM to Ana as a thing "I do to women – I mean, with women." The male audience member behind me who loudly complained that when the tearful young woman finally leaves her older abuser after having violence inflicted on body and soul, "they should have shown the welts on her ass."
The general level of sexual excitement surrounding a male character who demonstrates no personality, merely a distinct pattern of abusive behaviour: obsessive, dictatorial control; violent jealously; fetishising of young, uninformed, inexperienced women; the blatant ignoring of explicit and implicit non-consent; stalking; the withholding of affection; and the sexual enjoyment of a woman's hesitation, fear and violation. Why was this behaviour being not just tolerated, but celebrated and desired?
Because Christian Grey is hot, and rich.
The man who sexually assaulted me was attractive. The man who emotionally abused me was attractive. These men left me emotionally damaged; but their apologists are the people who broke me. The women who assumed I couldn't have been sexually assaulted because I had previously kissed my assaulter. The dozens of friends I lost when I finally spoke out about my emotionally abusive relationship, because he was socially and professionally more powerful than me. The people, my so-called friends, who often speak out against abuse and sexual assault without a hint of irony, who nevertheless failed to support me after my experiences, because attractive men are a more powerful social connection, a more social commodity, than a wounded woman. White, attractive men hold all the power. Even if they do wrong, they'll still be attractive. And that will always win.
I was aware of this before the screening, of course. I knew that Fifty Shades of Grey has fans who eroticise, romanticise and celebrate emotionally and sexually abusive men, because I know life has people who eroticise, romanticise and celebrate emotionally and sexually abusive men. But that doesn't mean the cheering and rampant, unapologetic abuse apologism didn't take me by surprise, didn't leave me breathless, tearful, scared.
Because people don't come with Trigger Warnings.