Where Are the Women? Fifty Shades of Grey


Woman as a passive sexual object of a man, depicted via a male gaze: it’s everything that is wrong with how Hollywood represents women onscreen.


Is there a female protagonist? [why this matters]


Is there a female character with insignificant screen time in a position of authority? [why this matters]


Is there a female character with significant screen time who bares her breasts (but doesn’t appear fully nude)? [why this matters]
Is a woman or women used as decorative objects/set dressing? [why this matters]
Are one or more either a protagonist or significant supporting character? [why this matters]
Is this a major recurring visual motif? [why this matters]


Is there a female character whose primary goal is romantic (to get married, enter into a longterm relationship with a man, etc)? [why this matters]
Is there a female character who is primarily defined by her emotional or biological relationship with a child or children*? [why this matters] (*in this case, adult children)


Is there anything either positive or negative in the film’s representation of women not already accounted for here? (points will vary)

The film presents as romantic and desirable a man who polices a woman’s food and drink, is unreasonably jealous, stalks, and engages in other controlling and abusive actions. There is absolutely no criticism of his behavior in either the text or the subtext; to the contrary, his behavior is depicted as an appropriately masculine and sexy way to treat a woman, behavior that she secretly desires and for which she will reward him with sex.


IS THE FILM’S DIRECTOR FEMALE? Yes (Sam Taylor-Johnson) (does not impact scoring)

IS THE FILM’S SCREENWRITER FEMALE? Yes (Kelly Marcel) (does not impact scoring)

BOTTOM LINE: Take one docile female protagonist, render her as a passive sexual object of a man, depict her with a male gaze that is weirdly inappropriate for the intended female audience, and you have in one tidy package everything that is wrong with how Hollywood represents women onscreen.

Click here for the ongoing ranking of 2015’s films for female representation.

Click here for the ranking of 2015’s Oscar-nominated films for female representation.

NOTE: This is not a “review” of Fifty Shades of Grey! It is simply an examination of how well or how poorly it represents women. (A movie that represents women well can still be a terrible film; a movie that represents women poorly can still be a great film.) Read my review of Fifty Shades of Grey.

See the full rating criteria. (Criteria that do not apply to this film have been deleted in this rating for maximum readability.)

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Sun, Feb 15, 2015 1:38pm

This movie makes me feel like even more of a cynic than usual.

The studio hired a female director who was known, almost exclusively, for a small, independent film. Normally, I would applaud that. Studios almost never hire women to direct high-profile movies, and they almost never hire a woman with this little experience making features–although they’ll take a chance on a male director.

In this case, though, the decision feels like a marketing choice. She’s an independent filmmaker, which implies that the movie isn’t formulaic, or porn. And the studio can pre-emptively fend off criticism that the film is sexist. They can say: Sam Taylor-Johnson is a feminist and, as a woman, she understands a woman’s sexual desires. That allows the studio to release a film that objectifies its female lead and is filled with stereotypes. They can pretend to be offended by the criticism: How dare you imply that there’s only one way for a woman to express her sexuality! They may even believe what they’re saying. And so we get yet another movie that shows us an unhealthy relationship and tells us it’s romantic.

I always feel cynical on Valentine’s Day, but this year it’s easier than usual.

Mon, Feb 16, 2015 11:07am

Opening weekend (from boxofficemojo): 81 mil domestic, 240 mil total, against a 40 mil budget. It’s not only Hollywood that has a problem with real women.

Maria Niku
Maria Niku
Mon, Feb 16, 2015 1:25pm

I think they actually actively used the fact that the director is a WOMAN to promote the movie, at least the local paper’s review made a point of that.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Maria Niku
Mon, Feb 16, 2015 2:13pm

I wonder if the studio hired a woman to direct hoping this would deflect the inevitable feminist criticism of the film.

Mon, Feb 16, 2015 2:09pm

I think Karl Marx described it as ‘false consciousness’ when people come to interalise ideas that entrap them in powerlessness. That’s the only way I can understand women’s behaviour in response to this book and/or film. There were throngs of women in groups all dressed up and jolly like they were going to a club. I saw lots of delighted faces coming out of the cinema. This is a story that shows a woman being controlled and terrorised physically and mentally. And women lapped it up. Perhaps the fact that the abuser was immensely rich and handsome disguised the frightening aspects of this story for them. Are women brainwashed into celebrating being inferior? Is it a triumph for a woman to be successful in becoming the physical and emotional property of an affluent male?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  MAIRE
Mon, Feb 16, 2015 2:13pm

These are the things I worry about too.

Mon, Feb 16, 2015 4:35pm

What I figure is that women aren’t seeing past the fact that the main characters are one man and one woman, each of whom wants the other. Even though the man claims his fixation on the woman is not romantic, he can’t be taken seriously because after all, he’s not creepy like a stalker and treats her very well. The woman claims to be dubious about the man’s behavior – not his actions – yet she submits to it (as opposed to the agreed submission to his actions, which is what he’s asked for.) So the movie is about a man and a woman – what else could it be but a “romance?” She must be in love with him, he must be in love with her, and that’s all the audience can see. They want them to “be” together, whatever they’re doing.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  althea
Mon, Feb 16, 2015 10:47pm

But he *is* a stalker! He breaks into her apartment after she tells him she doesn’t want to see him again.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Feb 16, 2015 11:35pm

Sure, *we* know he is. But the googly-eyed women who see this as a romance think he’s just pining for love of her. Basically I’m just saying that this audience will not be willing to see him as creepy. (And he’s sooo handsome!)

Mind you, I’d need to see how the scene where she tells him she doesn’t want to see him again plays – is she angry? I’m just guessing she’s shyly dipping her head and saying, “Please go away, I don’t want to see you any more.” And he looks wounded. Now, if she’s angry and seems to mean it at all, well, maybe I’d have a hair more respect for her. Which would disappear after she shoulda called the cops and didn’t.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  althea
Tue, Feb 17, 2015 10:38am

She tells him via email. But she is turned off by his faux BDSM hobby and certainly seems to mean it.

Mon, Feb 16, 2015 4:46pm

were there absolutely no other characters in the movie? no woman or man friend of Anastasia who might say: this is more than a little creepy? does christian grey have o male (or female) associate or even a gay friend who says to him: you might consider this woman has feelings, hopes or ambitions? that perhaps tenderness is an option? i guess not. and NO, i haven’t read the book — i don’t intend to — but it seems odd there’s no one else in this world.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  bronxbee
Mon, Feb 16, 2015 10:49pm

In the book, Ana’s relationship with her best friend borders on the homoerotic, but that best friend barely appears in the movie. The only “friend” Christian has in the book is the older women who repeatedly raped and abused him when he was a teenager, and with whom he still has contact. She does not appear in the movie (or even in the first book at all, except to be alluded to).