CW: attempted rape
Despite the franchise’s unfair reputation as BDSM meets harlequin romance, Fifty Shades Darker defies expectations and delivers positive messages for women and men. The characters handle adult situations with grace and maturity and they maintain an open dialogue about their relationship needs. There are heightened story elements that the audience needs to accept, but the extravagance fits in well with themes of gratification and control.
Dakota Johnson’s Ana is a model for the importance of communication in a relationship. In the second chapter of the three-part saga, she has figured out how to navigate conflicting inclinations with conversation. After a temporary break from boyfriend Christian (Jamie Dornan), the couple is back in the throws of a passionate but potentially volatile relationship. Christian has a need for control and a history of dominance and sadomasochism. Ana is grounded in her desire for a more main stream or “vanilla” romance.
Ana works to establish a comfort zone for herself and for Christian. Together they create a relationship with open communications in which both adults can test their boundaries and decide what they do and don't feel comfortable with, both sexually and emotionally. Ana has doubts about unfamiliar sexual experiences and Christian has reservations about uncharted emotional waters. Ana approaches all issues with mature discussion — if she’s uncomfortable, she announces it and she never does anything she doesn’t want to do. When Christian jealously opposes Ana traveling to NYC with her new flirtatious boss, she opens a dialogue about her autonomy and her ability to handle herself. She doesn’t lash out in any way and Christian willingly accepts her explanation.
Ana is empowered by her femininity. She explores sexual attractions confidently, eager to explore Christian’s interests to the level with which she’s comfortable. Ana is self-assured in her relationship with Christian and her place in his life. Though his family is extraordinarily wealthy, she holds herself with ease at their flashy charity ball. After initial hesitation at attending such a lavish event, she dons a gown and blends in amongst the well-to-do with dignity and class.
It wouldn’t be Fifty Shades without an abundance of sex scenes. They aren’t aggressive or intimidating despite Christian’s proclivity for dominant/submissive experiences. Each sexual scenario is empowering for both participants as they maneuver through each others’ wants and needs. The couple remains vocal about their boundaries which ensures safe, consensual encounters.
In Darker, Christian and Ana purge themselves and their relationship of toxic elements that threaten their bond. This leaves a positive message of trust and commitment regardless of their very different backgrounds. When women from Christian’s past present themselves to Ana in different ways, she is the epitome of maturity. Rather than rising to the bait of an envious ex, shetalks to her partner, expresses her fears and frustrations. Even at her most upset, Ana simply needs a long, rainy walk before re-opening lines of communication.
Throughout the film, Ana’s relationship with her boss acts as juxtaposition to her connection with Christian. He covets and lusts after her and traps her in situations where she cannot say no. When he attempts to seduce her and fails, he becomes forceful and violent. The attempted rape offers stark contrast to Ana’s & Christian’s sexual explorations, further highlighting their consensual, adult decisions.
The cinematic elements are straight forward and the movie is by no means a masterpiece. The character journeys are not always clear and there is a lot of superfluous backstory disguised as motivation. The costumes and production design, however, fit wholly into the themes of satisfaction and enjoyment. Christian and his family are excessively wealthy, so the audience gets a peek into the extravagant lifestyle of the rich: impressive gardens; impeccably decorated penthouse apartments; closets full of elegant clothing; drawers of luxurious lingerie. In a story about dictating pleasure, the sets and costumes are an appropriate indulgence.
The visually satisfying aspects of the film do not take away from its empowerment. Dressed up or down, Ana doesn’t sacrifice herself or her power over her reality. FSD sends a positive, strong message to men and women about consent and maturity. Ana maintains the relationship she wants and makes sure both her and Christian are comfortable with its direction, sidestepping dysfunction with clear and constant communication.