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How ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ inches toward sex positivity



Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson talk ’50 Shades Darker’ with USA TODAY’s Andrea Mandell.

The second time may not be the charm, but it’s certainly sexier than the first try.

Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel to BDSM romance Fifty Shades of Grey, may have its share of flaws, but the movie improves one aspect that was particularly fraught in its predecessor: the way it depicts sexuality.

For a story focused almost entirely on sex, the love scenes in the first movie were widely lambasted. “Those looking for hot, kinky sex will be disappointed,” USA TODAY’s Claudia Puig wrote in her one-star (out of four) review of the 2015 movie. “Even the graphic nudity grows numbing.”

More concerning though, was the relationship dynamic between billionaire BDSM aficionado Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and the demure Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), which was unhealthy at best and abusive at worst.

Fifty Shades Darker doesn’t solve all of the original’s problems, but it does rebalance the power, pivoting the focus from Christian’s BDSM needs to Ana’s desires and emotions. The sex, this time, truly includes her.

In the many sex scenes Darker offers, almost all are shot and told from Ana’s perspective. Although the male gaze remains throughout (especially in one regrettable slow pan of Johnson in heels and lingerie), the film makes strides in recognizing Ana as a partner in the escapades. She instigates most of the sex, and the breadth of that activity is on her terms. There’s no more punishment; there are no more scenes of Ana attempting sexual feats she doesn’t seem to fully consent to. Shame and fear have been removed, replaced by genuine fun and affection. For most of the sex in the film, things are about what she gets out of the relationship, not what he does — a radical departure from the first movie.

“The thing I admire most is that she’s not afraid to have a sense of self-respect and power while also being very vulnerable in exploring her feelings and her interests — whether it’s emotional or sexual,” Johnson told USA TODAY. “And that’s something that I think is not necessarily encouraged these days.”

The world outside of the bedroom is still toxic, for Ana and the other women on screen. Ana’s personality tends to swing based on the needs of the outlandish plot and she shrugs off red flags, like the private detective Christian hires to follow her or when he buys the company she works for.

But it is gratifying, in a franchise so targeted at women, for the film to celebrate a woman’s sexuality rather than shame it. It’s probably no coincidence that Darker leans away from the franchise’s BDSM roots. Many in the BDSM community condemned the first film for its portrayal, which was likened to abuse.

As Christian and Ana get ready for marriage and a life together in Fifty Shades Freed (in theaters Feb. 9, 2018), there’s the opportunity for filmmakers to take sex positivity (and, indeed, Ana’s independence) further. But if they keep to the letter of the book (which includes a scene in which Christian becomes viciously angry with Ana for sunbathing topless on their European honeymoon), that’s unlikely to happen.

Despite its title, Fifty Shades Darker may include the one bright spot in the controversial franchise.

Contributing: Andrea Mandell

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