Between 2011 and 2015, millions of women fell in love with Christian Grey, not least of all young Anastasia Steele. The question is, was it his charisma and ‘tragic tortured soul’ aesthetic that attracted her, or was it his deliberate psychological manipulation? This might be surprising, but there’s a lot more to 50 Shades of Grey than the BDSM-fuelled exploits of a 27-year-old billionaire playboy with perfectly sculpted abs and a brooding attitude.
Ladies (and gents) who see the books and movies as nothing more than erotic romanticism, you might want to pay attention as we dive into the seedy underbelly of 50 Shades of Grey and discover how Christian uses cold, calculating psychological abuse to brainwash Anastasia into loving him. The same psychological tricks that cults use to indoctrinate new members.
I can already feel a lot of people rolling their eyes at the very notion that Christian Grey is in any way similar to cult leaders like Charles Manson, Jim Jones and David Koresh, but hear me out.
Throughout the movie, Christian Grey engages in what’s known as Thought Reform, or in other words, indoctrination, as he seduces the young Anastasia Steele. And when I say indoctrination, Grey follows the exact steps, that real-life cults like The Family International and Heaven’s Gate use to brainwash innocent people. The same steps that cults use to get people to drink poisonous kool-aid or worship this guy who said that aliens gave him a pair of sex robots, except Grey wants to, you know, spank Anastasia really hard.
Having trouble believing me? I’m about to show you just how many shades of messed up this whole situation is (and believe me, it’s more than 50). But before we discover the actual steps this one guy uses to get a girl – one that’s never had sex, mind you – to sign a kinky, sex contract dictating all the things he’s gonna do to dominate her of her own ‘free’ will, let’s meet the girl in question.
21-year-old Anastasia Steele is an immensely shy college senior, a loner who apparently only owns one skirt and uses an outdated flip phone in 2015. She lacks self-confidence, is unassertive and she’s entering a very vulnerable part of her life post-graduation with no clear direction on what to do next. She is, in short, the perfect subject for thought reform. Though cults will target anyone, researchers generally agree that those who are most susceptible, are individuals who are ignorant, unassertive, gullible, and lack self-confidence. All traits that we see throughout Anastasia’s first scenes with Grey, which the movies actually spell out for us. Christian knows her type very well, even explicitly stating earlier during their meeting that he knows how to manipulate people.
So immediately, we’re presented with a young, poor, unconfident girl looking for answers, being courted by an older, confident, billionaire. The power dynamic for indoctrination is certainly there, and the rest of the movie follows the same exact series of manipulative techniques cults use to get people to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do.
Step 1: Get Them to Say Yes
The general philosophy about cult indoctrination is built on getting your target- in this case, Anastasia- to get into the habit of saying yes. First, to small, harmless things which gradually over time become bigger, more extreme, sex slavey things. It’s the classic story of frogs being placed into hot water. If you turn up the temperature slowly enough, the frogs never leave the pot until they boil to death. So, how does Anastasia boil? For Anastasia, there are a couple of early yeses. She takes Christian’s offer of the pencil in the interview, she takes the business card at the hardware store, but the first big yes comes when Ana agrees to have coffee with Christian for the first time. It’s the first time they’re meeting independent of other reasons, just to spend time together. “But it’s just coffee! That’s normal”, you’re thinking. And yes, you’re right, it is just coffee. If a cult were to just come out and say “Hey, you there, cut off all your ties with your loved ones and jump aboard our space love comet” then you’d probably run away immediately. The same thing with Grey, it’s a slow burn.
Step 2: The Love ‘Bomb’
It’s during the coffee date that we experience Christian’s next step to brainwashing Anastasia, called the love bomb, by turning up the charm and showering his target with compliments and care. Cast your mind back to the coffee date – Grey turns his charm fully onto Ana, asking about her family, giving her food, and the next day, what does Anna find on her doorstep? A big steaming pile of love bomb, in the form of signed first-edition books by her favorite author. A gift that Ana recognizes must have cost a fortune.
She’s being showered with presents as Grey works to associate positive feelings with her thinking of him, and that’s before he really cranks up the pressure with new clothes, computers and even cars. Christian Grey be dropping love bombs all over this place, and with it comes phase three of his plan: dangling the prize right in front of her.
Step 3: Tease the Prize
For cults, that prize tends to vary from happiness, to a sense of community and purpose, to wealth or, even the answers to the world’s mysteries. It’s the value of joining the cult. So, what prize is Grey dangling in front of Ana? It’s him, at least to begin with. It’s the promise of being loved by a sexy, rich, powerful man. Ana admits to being a romantic, so to find her Mr. Darcy, the billionaire brooder with a cold exterior and loving interior is her dream. And Grey knows it. Twice, he almost kisses her, but then doesn’t. The first time happens as they leave the coffee shop after a particularly romantic moment where he saves her from getting hit in the street. The second comes after he “rescues her” after a night of clubbing and drinking, which we’ll talk about more later. In both instances, notice that he lingers, even after he says things like, “I should let you go”. He tempts her, but ultimately refuses the kiss that she clearly wants. This is an important step in Ana’s indoctrination, as he’s dangling the prize just out of her reach until she gets to step 4.
Step 4: Getting A Proper Agreement
Soon after his second denial, he becomes more explicit, saying “I would like to bite that lip”. Anastasia finally responds with “I think I’d like that too”. Then and only then does he bring up the contract.
This might be funny to the audience since it’s an odd thing to say, but for Grey (and by extension for all cultists), this moment is entirely calculated. Step 4 of the indoctrination process is getting an agreement from the target that they want the prize. Don’t you want to be financially independent? You know you want the secret of life, don’t you? You crave signing a contract stating that you’ll be my submissive sexual object, right? Grey has led her on, taunting her with the prospect of kisses and sex, but it’s not until she verbally confirms that yes, yes she wants that, that he drops the bomb about what his end goal is. She’s enough on the hook at this point that he knows he’s not gonna lose her with a weird comment like that.
But then look what he does – he avoids it. He’s planted the seed, but he knows there’s still a longer game to play. Ana doesn’t walk away, doesn’t ask further questions, and he rewards her good behavior with the long-awaited kiss. A passionate moment in the elevator. He appears like he can’t control his urges anymore, but remember, this is a man who explicitly states that he has control over every part of his life. This kiss isn’t a moment of passion, it’s a calculated moment, of conditioning.
So Ana finally has her prize, or at least the taste of it, and obviously she’s being led on to want more. Then, Grey ups the ante with his next date: a helicopter ride to his private top floor penthouse, and in the process, he willfully changes the game. The prize he’s dangling isn’t just a pretty set of eyes and chiseled abs anymore. It’s a driver, private flights, million-dollar apartments, the prize has gotten bigger and Ana’s almost got the winning ticket, except for Grey’s non-disclosure agreement on the table. He doesn’t pull this thing out until he’s laid out all the benefits of being with him, and watch this, she signs it immediately, with zero hesitation. Remember what she says as soon as the contract is signed? “Are you going to make love to me now?” Ana has signed the contract with the explicit expectation of reward, but Grey, is still dangling and once again refuses her the intimacy that she’s looking for, because just having sex with Ana isn’t his ultimate goal, and that leads to the introduction of the Red Room, which freaks her out and almost breaks the spell. However, that’s where step 5 comes in.
Step 5: Shutting Down Dissent
This is where the cult starts to get serious, the sell becomes a bit more aggressive. The target is encouraged to do things they might not want to do. Devote more time to the group, recruit on their behalf, pay dues, adopt more extreme beliefs, but when the target expresses resistance to these greater demands, the cult shuts down their arguments by withholding that all-important prize. And in Fifty Shades, Christian Grey is about butt plugs or nothing. Oh sure Ana, you can have this apartment, but you’ll have to live here between Friday and Sunday. And you’ll have to be Grey’s subservient. And kneel for him. Oh, and by the way, he still won’t sleep with you even after you’re done in the x-rated romper room. And when Ana hesitates, completely understandably, Grey simply shuts down her dissent by threatening to withhold everything. No penthouse, no helicopter, no fun times with Grey. Not unless you sign that contract, welcome to the cult.
Oh, and then he finds out that she’s still a virgin, and just to sweeten the pot, has sex with her. A power play all on its own, just so she can see what she’ll be missing, and without getting too graphic, noticed that he pleasures her. Something he’s made it very clear he’s not interested in at all. It’s just a tactic he’s using to sweeten the pot to make signing the contract, a little extra-special.
Step 6: Making the Victim Feel Guilty
The target is in the door, so now what do you do to reprogram their thoughts? By shaming them. Making them feel guilty for not appreciating the cult, its leaders, or its beliefs, enough. What this does is break down the recruit’s perception, and replaces it with one approved of by the cult leadership. In Grey’s case, he makes Anastasia feel guilty by saying things like, “I’ve never allowed anyone in the helicopter’ or ‘I’ve never had sex in my own bed”
She’s the only one to have received this treatment it should feel special about this gift he’s given her. He also tells his personal sob story, that he’s broken, that he’s 50 shades of effed-up, making her feel guilty for questioning his tastes. He’s just a poor wilting flower, and the strain shows.
We repeatedly see Ana crying, on the phone, going to bed, conflicted about how she should be feeling. Is she wrong to be cautious of this man pushing her into a realm that she’s not comfortable with? Of course not, but those are the questions Grey wants her to be asking. It shows cracks in her resistance. That isn’t love, that’s the effects of calculated psychological torment.
Step 7: The Carrot and The Stick
Here’s a quote from Christian, after he reveals his playroom to Anastasia. “I have rules. If you follow them, I’ll reward you. If you don’t, I’ll punish you.” In psychology, this is called Operant Conditioning. Basically, it’s using rewards and punishments to incentivize one type of behavior over another. Rewarding your dog with a treat because it rolled over? Operant Conditioning. Giving your sex slave a new laptop because she survived a flogging? Operant Conditioning.
Step 8: Keep them
All these other steps are how the person gets sucked in, but this is how the cult keeps them in. Isolating them from friends and family, changing the recruit’s name, randomly alternating between praise and love, and scorn and punishment. Removing the recruit’s ability to choose, by controlling things like money, food, and career.
Notice that Grey has been doing all of these things the entire time. From the first moments of the movie, Anastasia repeatedly corrects Christian, saying to call her Ana instead of Anastasia. He willfully ignores this, continuing to call her by her full name. At the coffee shop, he gives her the muffin and tells her to eat. And again a few scenes later, there are the ‘eat this’ and ‘drink this’ cards. When it comes to alternating between praise and punishment, he appears interested in Ana in the coffee shop, but then rushes out to keep her off balance, punishing her for no fault of her own.
By buying her new clothes, computers, and cars, Anastasia’s financial independence is virtually gone. Grey is even so generous, as to get rid of her old car for her. And at the bar, like in the fifth scene in the movie, he physically removes Anastasia from the party, blocking out longtime friend Jose, and having his brother run interference on her best friend Kate, taking Anastasia to a place he deems appropriate when let’s face it, there were zero reasons for him to insert himself into that situation in the first place, let alone bring her anywhere other than her own apartment. He’s already isolating her in the first 30 minutes of the movie, shaping her identity and managing her resources like the good cult leader that he is, but then things take on a whole new meaning once she’s inside the happy little love nest. Cult members are told what to eat, what to wear, when to sleep, and look where Anastasia is. Her schedule is dictated by his demands. When he tells her to, she must do her hair in a ponytail, and wait for him kneeling by the door, hands just so. The contract requires that she only eat foods from a certain list, and when she seeks an escape, needs to clear her head with the help of her family back in Georgia because, you know, some of this she might need to talk to someone about, who’s there to interrupt? I bet you can guess, Christian Grey.
Still think this is just a happy romantic movie? Share your thoughts in the comments below.