50 Shades of Grey - Exploitation or negotiation?
Have you seen the film yet? If not I encourage you to go. It has much to recommend it as a role model for women standing out in the workplace!
Why this film?
I wouldn't normally suggest one uses a sex movie to draw attention to some of the ways in which women can gain recognition and reward but given that this one seems to have struck a chord with millions of women around the world in just a couple of weeks, I thought it might be worth examining it little more closely.
If you haven't seen it, Christian Grey relentlessly pursues Anastasia, a 21-year-old graduating English literature student, with a view to playing the “dominant” to her “submissive”. To persuade her, he sends inducements in the form of expensive presents, impresses her with flights in a helicopter and a glider, and introduces her to his rich adoptive family.
A fairy tale?
The storyline isn't so different from Cinderella where the poor scullery maid was seen and pursued by the handsome prince and after some trials and tribulations, including the best efforts of the ugly sisters to stop it, they find each other and live happily ever after. Cinderella is remarkably passive, accepting her lot and it is only as result of a lot of hoping and the intervention of the fairy godmother, that her wish to go to the ball is granted. With no particular effort on her part the expectation is that they will live happily ever after.
There are remarkable parallels here with how women behave in the work place, even now. We are often grateful to get a job, too readily accept whatever level of pay is offered to us, avoid putting our heads above the parapet and generally allow both male and female colleagues to take advantage of us with no expectation of receiving any support or guidance. And still we trust that it will all work out!
Whilst I am certain that bias against women, whether conscious or unconscious, does take place in today's workplace, I am also aware that we can do much to hold ourselves back. When I saw the film last week I couldn't help noticing how Anastasia, on a number of occasions, displays singular personal effectiveness in the face of the best efforts of a driven male corporate executive used to getting what he wants!
How did Anastasia manage to stand her ground?
To explain this, I shall refer to the research I did with senior women to find out how they came to be in executive roles. The findings suggested there are five key areas that women need to address to advance at work.
1. knowing who you are and what's important to you
2. being strategic
3. being visible
4. being comfortable claiming recognition and reward
5. requesting help
Throughout Anastasia maintains her sangfroid, except of course, when she is having outrageously good sex!!
Against the five areas I mentioned, she seems to be doing reasonably well.
1. Who you are and what's important to you
As a new graduate it isn't surprising that Anastasia hasn't had the time to fully work out who she is consciously; but she does know what's important to her about a relationship. She is quite clear that she is worth more than sleeping with the first guy that comes along, and the fact that she has completed her college years without finding anyone suitable, seems to confirms this. She is also clear that she wants a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship like normal couples, something Christian seems to accept more and more as their relationship unfolds.
2. Being strategic
Informed by her vision, we see her acting strategically, choosing Christian over the advances of a fellow student and keeping his scary but intriguing proposition under her hat, not even sharing it with her room-mate and best friend, until she works out how she feels about it. She also pushes the boundaries by insisting on meeting at his offices to discuss the contract on how they will play out their dominant/submissive sexual encounters, rather than in his swanky flat. For a girl of 21 unused to office politics I'd say that was pretty feisty!
3. Being visible
Anastasia stands up against Grey’s controlling tendencies. She insists on taking time to come to a decision about whether to agree to his request and on a couple of occasions there is a standoff, the last one being the cliffhanger in the closing sequence.
4. Being comfortable claiming recognition and reward
She doesn't score so well on claiming recognition and reward. Whilst she accepts the car and the laptop he gives her, Anastasia's moral compass insists that she must return them when she reacts badly to what Christian does in practice and is ready to walk out. There was no reason why she couldn't have seen these as appropriate reward for her participation up to this point, although she did insist on her old car being returned.
5. Requesting help
She did seek some reassurance from her mother, who, despite not being up to speed with what the deal was, helped to remind her who she was and what was important to her in life. She also took up Christian's suggestion of researching the subject online so she would have an understanding of the bigger picture.
The challenge for women
The visibility and claiming recognition areas commonly cause women the most difficulty. Unless we are lucky enough to experience positive discrimination in a way that gives us the experience to know we have as much right to recognition as the next human being, the majority of women are inclined to be more tentative when it comes to standing out and pointing out their achievements. Women are usually socialised to prioritise the team/family more highly than personal recognition. But managing relationships is very important in business, and there is growing evidence confirming that a mix of approaches makes more profit than either all-female or all-male executive decision-makers.
50 Shades of Grey centrally depicts an unexpected approach from Christian to Anastasia, proposing to have a rather extreme form of relationship. It interested me especially that there was an ongoing negotiation to find a way for both parties to participate in an activity whilst both having the opportunity for to enjoy themselves.
The film ends with with Anastasia disappearing behind the closing doors of the lift with no resolution, but the suggestion there is more negotiation to come. The relationship is not a "happily ever after" one, something that is rare, maybe non-existent. It had more of a 'And this is where the story really begins' flavour and that seems a good way for women to look at their role at work. They are asked to face some difficult challenges which they gamely take on. The reality is that they do not have to accept every contract that is offered without question, with the sole alternative of doing it on their own. Once they realise who they are and what's important to them, they can write their own rules and negotiate!