Mr. ______ was keeping his current wife locked in an attic while he wooed ______, a courtship which included Mr. _______ conning ______ into confessing her love while Mr. ______ was posing as a female gypsy…
This is the plot of Jane Eyre, which was published in 1847. Can we just start there?
Literature has been idealizing less than ideal relationships with “bad boys” for longer than there’s been a New York Times to publish a best-sellers list to capture the phenomenon that ensues when the right good girl/bad boy pairing captures the lurid side of the public imagination. Anastasia Steele is an English major; she knows this. In her head when her Mister – Mr. Grey, not Rochester – opens the door to his Red Room of Pain, she’s probably thinking “At least he’s being forthcoming. Jane Eyre’s beau was blinded by his secretly imprisoned crazy wife. I can handle a little spanking.”
With this historical perspective in mind: over what, exactly, are we all getting so worked up? Has the Motion Picture Association of America’s draconian rating system (blowing off a human head: ideal for 13 year olds; blowjob/giving head: smut) made the idea of sex – as people perform it in the real world, with fewer sensual gazes and face nuzzles and more, y’know, thrusting – so taboo? I’m not arguing that films that show quite this much of the human anatomy should be rated more leniently (though the way the MPAA practically rewards violence, winks at female nudity while making it all but impossible for anything with an erect penis to be seen as anything but porn, and stigmatizes anything LGBTQ beyond all reason is a convo we can all have another day), but after watching Fifty Shades Grey – actually seeing the damn thing – I can’t help but wonder whether the PG-13-ization of our mass entertainment has blinded us to the attendant principals of adulthood when that concept is divorced from fighting off attacking forces of robots/aliens/kaiju.
Adults have sex. Why, when we’re confronted by a naked lady consenting to having her hands bound by a silk tie, are we reduced to a blushing mass of tittering children?
This isn’t scorn. I’m genuinely curious. Faced with the plot summary of E.L. James’s best-selling work (unprecedentedly best-selling, a genuine paradigm-shifting phenomena that validated e-readers), I was just as guilty of discomfort. I readily admit that the ticket stub in my hand, as I showed it to the usher, might as well have been a picture of myself naked considering how little I wanted it seen by another human being.
Fifty Shades of Grey was long ago labeled as “Mommy Porn.” It is easy and societally acceptable for me to say, as a heterosexual male, that I am not the intended target audience for 50 Shades and leave it at that. If I said anything more than that, you’d probably question some things about me. (I’m about to say a lot more). I will say this: I think that 50 Shades being targeted mostly at a female audience is an important facet of its overwhelming success. It is catering to an underserved audience which has been told that the male gaze is privileged and that ogling the female body is normal and pretty much required, while ogling the male body, especially when it is aroused, is gross.
Can I challenge this automatic “target audience” reflex for a second though? What about this book having a female character as its narrator, or this film starring a female, makes it not intended for male consumption or makes it ideal only for sexually repressed mothers? I’ve seen the film; it has both a male and female on screen. Boys, news flash: the female is more frequently nude than the male, who wears his pants even at times when that seems antithetical to his goals! The female is a more vivid character, but if a woman told a man she didn’t like Guardians of the Galaxy because Starlord was a more vivid character than Gamora, that male would label her impolitely as a feminist scold. And when did men become incapable of empathizing with a female protagonist? This is tiring rhetoric, and has led to years of Hollywood refusing to make female-led movies. Hunger Games and Frozen have recently proven definitively that heroines can target every audience.
50 Shades may be naughty or even taboo, but it should be equally so for both males and females. Christian and Anastasia walk into that Pain Room together. Why can’t we walk into the theater together?
My line of thinking was not anywhere near this nuanced when I walked into the theater, I’ll admit. Once again, I’m a hypocrite who needs days to fortify these sorts of positions. On that day, my desires to see and review all important films won a slim victory over my desires to not be the guy sitting alone at an afternoon showing of Mommy Porn: The Movie. I was alone because no one wanted to see Fifty Shades with me, and, to be fair, I wasn’t particularly eager to bond with anyone over it. Because this was supposed to be the MOST. UNCOMFORTABLE. VIEWING. EXPERIENCE. OF. ALL. TIME.
It you’re wondering if Fifty Shades of Grey is all hype and all letdown, I can tell you in this regard that it is. It’s really just a movie. It’s not great. It’s not abominable. It has nudity, and that nudity probably leans too much towards the male gaze because male nudity is still taboo, even here. It is not the greatest scandal ever to stain our times. It will not melt the eyes of your grandmother, nor will it turn your girlfriend into a crazed sex beast. It has better acting than Twilight, but on the whole is a less interesting movie. I ain’t mad at it.
First let me mount a case in its defense, because it needs to be talked about as just a story, divorced from its moorings as a looked-down upon pop-lit craze. Anastasia Steele is a fascinating cinematic character. She doesn’t start that way, and the script doesn’t help her much. But Dakota Johnson imbues her with a life that must not have been present on the page, because Holy Crap (her preferred epithet) do people not seem to like book Ana. It’s interesting that for the mousy librarian (who happens to work in a hardware store) role of Ana, they chose to go with an actress who had mainly had occasion in her short career to show off a deft and understated comedic touch (especially on the too delightful for this world network sitcom Ben & Kate, in which Johnson carved out a wonderful niche as the straight-laced but goofy Kate in only one season). Initially, Johnson falls victim to the story’s insistence that a 21-year old woman untouched by a man must be in some sort of embryonic state socially. She is everything we imagine a lost little girl waiting for a man might be – an English major with no defined life goals, completely virginal, hiding behind her wall of bangs, oblivious to the feelings of her close friend Julio.
And then suddenly, something interesting happens. Ana gets drunk and Johnson comes alive, and she stays vivacious and interesting pretty much any time she has her clothes on. In the bedroom, Ana consents to play the submissive role, and while in it, she’s pretty much relegated to cooing orgasmically while Christian does things too her. (We still don’t know how to film interesting sex scenes.) But the whole movie’s conceit is that, while she flirts with submissiveness for the whole runtime, she is actually just trying it on to see whether she would be willing to sign a contract making this submissiveness official. In essence, deciding whether she would like to sign away her dominance. I know, this sounds absurd, but it actually leads to some of the movie’s best scenes and ideas, including a business meeting where Ana and Christian meet in a conference room to discuss the particulars of the contract. Sometimes a movie puts forward a sequence so competent, so stunningly inventive, that you wonder whether the filmmakers were sleeping at the control panel the rest of the runtime. Lit in red, with Johnson and Jamie Dornan staring each other down from opposite sides of the room, and with the advantage flipping so much between the two that you might as well be watching Federer and Nadal try and win a close set, the scene is a stunner, and it’s all the more powerful because Ana (and Johnson) wins. Game, set, and match.
The irony seems intentional: Ana is contemplating signing away any semblance of dominance, but as her love for Christian grows, she becomes more and more dominant. When Christian insists she does something, Ana always puts forth some little rebellion that makes it clear how present she still is, and how important her enjoyment is. She’ll giggle at the absurdity or scoff at the condescension or fight back. If Ana was meant to be some wilting wallflower, than Johnson commits grand larceny: she steals 50 Shades of Grey right out from under its own antiquatedness. The film forgets to imbue Ana’s life away from Christian with anything resembling depth (what exactly is she doing after college other than contemplating becoming Christian’s live in concubine?), but Johnson lends it depth whenever she can. Her character is savvy enough to see the warning signs surrounding Christian, and, as she walks out the door (or, uh, into the elevator) after calling him out on his bullshit, you get the exact impression from Johnson’s performance you’d want in this instance: it’s not BDSM that’s the problem, it’s Christian. If she’d fallen into this sort of relationship with a more open and less traumatized man, she might very well have signed that contract. It’s not the whips that scare her. It’s the way Christian wields them.
Which brings us to the main issue 50 Shades of Grey is carrying around, a weight it surely has been shouldering since its embryonic fan fiction days. Christian – modeled after the “You can’t get too close to me Bella” moper Edward Cullen, who was an actual vampire – has a dark secret. It’s a secret so dark that it’s not even fully explored in this first movie. All we know is that Christian first entered into the BDSM world as a submissive… to a much older woman… when he was 15 years old; it was only years later that he developed the need to be dominant. He treats this need as a crippling addiction (symptoms include mopey piano playing). It prevents him from being a functioning social creature.
Dornan does a fine job as Christian when he’s allowed to be playful and zing Ana occasionally, but when that more playful side shines through, it almost feels like Dornan the performer subsuming Christian the character. There’s a running gag that Christian is utterly incapable of smiling in pictures, which makes little sense because, with Johnson, Dornan seems perfectly affable, breaking out in an apple-cheeked grin that is heart-meltingly adorable. Yes, in spite of himself, Christian is falling in love with Ana, and maybe this love is beating back his overriding cold, mopey, BDSM instincts, and hmmm… maybe you’re starting to see how this could be a problem?
Christian is a practitioner of BDSM because he was abused as a child. There’s no way around this. He was a minor, and a woman he and Ana call “Mrs. Robinson” forced him into a submissive relationship. Christian is even still in contact with Mrs. Robinson, calling her a friend, which should have been a more immediate dealbreaker for Ana than the pictures she sees of bondage while searching Google. The movie heavily insinuates that this isn’t even the full extent of the story behind Christian Grey and his scars (I fully suspect Christian’s adoptive mother, played by Marcia Gay Harden, is a more prominent figure in this abuse narrative than initially stated, and good god do I hope I’m wrong). Christian is possessive, showing all of Edward Cullen’s stalker tendencies, and he fully associates BDSM with an inability to care for people in a full and loving manner. He isn’t doing it because he enjoys it or because it brings him closer to people. He does it because he needs it and it keeps him far, far away.
And so the only group of people truly harmed by this film are not guardians of decency or, god forbid, the CHILDREN; it’s people who engage in sex in anything but the most conventional, heteronormative, tool-free manner. Because Christian and his potentially very strange family are the only people standing in for an entire reality of sexuality. They are based off a family of secret vampires, but there are no real vampires in the world (probably) to be harmed by Twilight’s conception of vampires as mopey and sparkly; there are real people in the world who wield BDSM responsibly, and they have thus far been seen in cinema as kooks, weirdos, degenerates, and, in their biggest platform to date, abused children who grow up trying to pass that abuse on. The film offers no positive counterpoint.
What initially seems like a story about finding joy and love and actually growing as a person because of experimentation outside the norm becomes a titillating sexual adventure in which a waifish innocent almost loses her decency to those who give in to their baser instincts. It’s just a modern spin on the fainting white woman nearly corrupted by savage Native Americans/Africans/Asians/whichever-non-whites-are-savages-this-time. It’s Alice’s Adventures in Painland. That’s the sinister subtext: see what she avoided, we almost lost our heroine to the sad flogging man.
That all comes down to James and her construction of the story. The screenwriter and director do an enviable job in this adaptation of tamping down a good deal of what made 50 Shades unpalatable to its detractors (it’s important to note for those who hate the amatuerish writing style of James that James didn’t write this movie), but this overarching thread still juts out unbecomingly. The scene in which Christian admits his BDSM origin story still shows its lineage – as Ana and Christian walk through the redwoods of the Pacific Northwest, youcan squint and see Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson doing the “I know what you are/Say it/Out loud/SAYYYY IT/vampire…” scene from Twilight. That is problematic because while Twilight smartly (well, stupidly, but craftily) couched its abstinence message in a fantasy film about vampires and werewolves, 50 Shades is placing its own sexual panic squarely on the shoulders of bondage. Blood-sucking does not happen. Bondage does.
Christian tries to stifle the darker side of himself and make BDSM fun and presentable, and his glibness combined with his ability to fly Ana anywhere he wants in the vehicle of his choosing helps elide over his issues; but in the end, after a bad day, he slips, and he shows Ana his true colors.
To this point, Dornan has looked hesitant holding any implement. He’s never looked like he’s flogging or whipping Ana. More like he’s tickling her. In his fury and disappointment, though, Dornan commits, and the scene is as traumatic as it’s supposed to be. Ana sobs herself to sleep and, putting her foot down, she walks away. It’s actually the perfect ending to this story. It’s one of the more thematically appropriate and symbolically rich last scenes I’ve seen in a film.
Unfortunately, it’s not the end. We know this because we live in a world where two sequels exist. Ana and Christian will reunite and Ana’s triumphant decision to abstain from Christian and his 50 shades of “fucked up,” as he so ineloquently puts it, will be washed away. Secrets will come to light, and I imagine none of them will do the BDSM community any favors. But I can’t criticize films that don’t exist yet. If the 50 Shades of Grey saga ended with the elevator doors closing on Ana and Christian’s dalliance – and as of today, that’s where it does end, cinematically – than it would have to get props from me. It’s a great ending to an occasionally engrossing story. It feels so final in the moment that you can almost pretend for a moment that there isn’t more material out there. When you do, it almost seems like it one-ups even the great Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre washed her man right out of her hair, but in the end, the wash didn’t take; she always goes back to her erstwhile wife-hider Mr. Rochester. As Anastasia storms out and the credits roll, it’s sneakily reassuring to think that, if I so choose, I can just leave Ana right there forever: dominant like a steamroller, making good choices.