Tied Up In Knots: Irony, Ambiguity, and the 'Difficult' Pleasures of Fifty Shades of Grey

Richard McCulloch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Upon its release in February 2015, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey met with vehement critical derision, finding itself reproached on both artistic and ideological grounds. While the precise focus of this indignation varied between reviews, complaints broadly fell into three categories: (1) it isn’t titillating enough (2) it is misogynistic, and (3) the love story and characters are clichéd and unrealistic.

In this article, however, I demonstrate that the film is far more sophisticated than it has been given credit for. Each of these ‘failings’, I argue, is in fact a symptom of its unconventional identificatory strategy, whereby the film aligns the spectator with Ana’s (Dakota Johnson) subjectivity and invites us to share in her fluctuating and often contradictory emotions. Seen from this perspective, for example, Christian’s (Jamie Dornan) misogyny becomes the central problem to be resisted and tackled, not an ideological position that we are unproblematically asked to accept.

I combine my analysis of the film’s ‘difficult’ identificatory strategy with an exploration of its critical reception, in order to open up a discussion of how and why critics negotiated these ostensibly negative emotions. Doing so, I argue, requires a considerable amount of interpretive labour, especially in the context of the film’s widespread critical dismissal, but also because of the complex way in which the movie uses irony both to distance and engage the spectator (cf. Sconce 2002; Plantinga 2009; Lübecker 2015). I argue that the result of these contradictions and ambiguities is that it is often difficult to know how one is supposed to feel towards these two characters and their relationship at any one time.

In many ways, then, this article is a personal piece of criticism; however, rather than asserting my reading as ‘correct’, this article is an exploration of the interpretive processes involved in taking pleasure from a ‘difficult’, ambiguous and often contradictory film.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
JournalIntensities: The Journal of Cult Media
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2016


Dive into the research topics of 'Tied Up In Knots: Irony, Ambiguity, and the 'Difficult' Pleasures of Fifty Shades of Grey'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this