Fifty Shades Duller, Part I

by Carol Siegel, Washington State University Vancouver, US.

If one is a feminist, or even sympathetic to the idea that women aren’t inferior to men, there is a lot to be outraged by in the Fifty Shades franchise. But I write this negative response to Fifty Shades Darker (James Foley 2017) neither in anger nor sadness, but in disappointment because the film was so boring. 

Despite often being described that way, Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t a Cinderella story exactly. Its departures from that time-worn script are what make the books alternately annoying and fun. It’s also what makes the first film (Sam Taylor-Johnson 2015) hilarious and the second unbearably tedious.  

The classic Cinderella story and its many reiterations has a seemingly inexhaustible appeal because it provides a fantasy solution to the anxieties felt by most adolescent girls. Girls want to accede to the greater power of adulthood but they don’t know how to do it. With little or no training in how to take advantage of economic opportunities and rarely any training in how to protect themselves against violent attack, they often see as the best recourse accepting the physical and economic protection of a man; the love of a prince is the fantasy solution to the problem, as the Cinderella bride is powerful through him. 

If anything, the situation of American girls is worse than Cinderella’s. In addition to not knowing how to get the upper middle class income needed to achieve the traditional American dream life, they’re plagued with conflicting demands that they be sexually attractive and have a boyfriend but not be a ‘slut’, especially, since the abstinence only movement, not one who enjoys PIV sex. Rhetorically, in the discourse of respectability, women remain a sort of demi-object. We ‘give ourselves’ to lovers, or ‘save ourselves’ for marriage. The self here is the body, and for those who see vaginal penetration as the ultimate sex act, the self is reduced to the vagina or even the hymen. When a young woman sees herself as both a subject who is expected to exercise sexual agency and a sexual object to be gifted or withheld – and judged by others for either choice – attaining sexual pleasure will likely be elusive. It takes a lot of magic to solve these problems.  

The Cinderella story aligns with the main argument against feminism that reached its apotheosis in the 19th century: the doctrine of influence. By acting as an angel in the house, a woman could exert influence over her grateful husband and her devoted sons and thus achieve a lifetime of domestic and (indirect) worldly power. But such narratives don’t solve the current dilemma of being expected to go from the premarital complete focus on sexually satisfying the man you love without necessarily enjoying it physically to being an orgasmic wife. Yet non-orgasmic women are increasingly told that they must work hard on becoming more sexually responsive. As Laura Kipnis points out in Against Love and as I do in New Millennial Sexstyles, most marital advice literature, which is aimed almost exclusively at women, emphasises the idea that happiness in marriage is only attained through the wife’s continual effort. [1] Obviously such nagging will result in some women rebelliously insisting that providing the sexual pleasure generally considered foundational to functional marriages, should be the job of the husband. 

Many anti-feminist and postfeminist texts in the last 20 or so years have offered one idea in support of this insistence that men must take the lead sexually. Or, rather, these writings offer a retread of popular sex council from the early 20th century. Wives should allow themselves to enjoy sexual submission as the most natural response to male sexual aggression. What a relief to let go and enjoy being taken care of sexually. Those who can’t enjoy this could be dismissed as wilfully resistant to their natural role in life or, in our times, could be treated for their dysfunctional and neurotic state.   

One way to think about the Fifty Shades series is as a reiteration of these postfeminist celebrations of female submission, but one that includes a corrective to the sexual naiveté of the Twilight novel and film series for which it began as a fanfic. As numerous critics – myself among them – have remarked, the Twilight series aligns nearly perfectly with the religious right’s abstinence only teachings. [2] Through the depiction of the heroine Bella as a role model for the young adolescent girls at whom the series was aimed, it strongly suggests that mentally healthy young women cannot feel sexual arousal until they find their one true love. In line with the most extreme religious marital practices, it also suggests that the appropriate husband would be much older than his wife and would dominate her, making all important decisions, including when and how they would have sex. And that the primary purpose of marriage is to produce children, even at risk of the mother’s life.  The reward for such submission in Bella’s case is happiness and the opportunity to partake of her supernatural husband’s power. The Twilight series is laughably ignorant about sex. This is nowhere more evident than in the heroine’s musings after the night when she loses her virginity to her groom. On this momentous morning, we get a detailed account of how much she is bruised and in pain from his unrestrained use of her body, pretty much everywhere except her crotch. Although she was an untouched virgin up until that point, her vagina seems to be the only body part that doesn’t hurt. Nonsense like this, in addition to the silly carrying on about how sexy and delightful sexual frustration can be, marks the book as a fantasy for very young and sexually inexperienced readers.

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Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part I (Bill Condon 2011)

The Fifty Shades series boldly goes where the YA novels can’t. The heroine is no longer a teenager, although like Bella in Twilight she is implausibly ignorant about sex. Whereas Bella comes across as a girl whose lack of sexual knowledge might be possible if she had been closely monitored by very conservative parents and never allowed free use of the internet or communication with ordinary teens, Ana, as a woman in her 20s, would have had to have been sequestered in a religious community with no contact with the outside world in order to be as devoid of even the most rudimentary sexual knowledge as she is. Because Bella’s husband-to-be is an elderly vampire who only appears to be a high school boy, his dominance of her is ensured. And as she is constantly threatened with death by other supernatural beings, she must rely on his protection to survive. The series’ thrills, for those thrilled by it, come primarily through Bella’s experience of the old vampire as loving and protective. Twilight is a true Cinderella story in that the plot moves a sweet and innocent young girl into the safe harbour of marriage to man who is appealing because in addition to being wealthy and powerful, he is also romantically in love with her. Ana lives in a world that is somewhat more realistic, so her submission to a much more powerful man is framed as an affair with a billionaire. This inevitably transfers the emphasis of the tale from romance to financial success. The easiest way to succeed financially, barring inheritance from wealthy parents, is obviously to marry a billionaire. Television shows like Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire (Fox 2000) and many, many others, naturalise this as a sensible value to hold. Cinderella stories like Twilight offer assurances that if the couple is in love and wait for marriage, thus allowing sexual tension to build, it will all be wonderful sexually once the drive is properly aimed at reproduction. Here, too, Fifty Shades is more realistic, although again only marginally. 

The premise of the series is that once an innocent woman in love submits completely to a much more sexually experienced man to whom sex is very important and who loves her, he will give her previously unimagined sexual pleasure and mutual orgasms will occur without any effort on her part. It is also more (and in some ways less) realistic than Twilight in its willingness to confront the problem that many men whose enjoyment of sex entails dominating their partners, are not loving and protective partners, but are instead dangerous misogynists. In Twilight, Edward’s ambivalence about Bella is rendered metaphorically as a vampirish desire – overcome by love – to kill her by draining her blood. Fifty Shades‘ Price Charming, Christian Grey, is a mortal man who was damaged early in life by bad women and as a result feels safest when he controls women and most sexually satisfied when he hurts them physically. And although Ana is initially turned off and (temporarily) scared away by the way he enjoys beating her despite her apparent failure to respond with sexual pleasure to the pain he inflicts, the resolution to their love problems comes from their working out a compromise that allows her to feel she has some control over what he does to her body. Then magically she begins to experience submission to physical punishments as sexually satisfying. This clearly has problematic implications for the representation of BDSM.

Carol Siegel continues her discussion of Fifty Shades Duller in Part II next month.

Notes

[1] See Laura Kipnis. 2003. Against Love: A Polemic. New York: Knopf Doubleday; Carol Siegel. 2000. New Millennial Sexstyles. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[2] See Carol Siegel. 2011. ‘The Twilight of Sexual Liberation: Undead Abstinence Ideology’. In Dennis L. Carlson and Donyell Roseboro, eds. The Sexuality Curriculum: Youth Culture, Popular Culture, and Democratic Sexuality Education. New York: Peter Lang, 261-7. I also extensively discuss abstinence only education in Goth’s Dark Empire. Bloomington: Indiana University PressThe book’s thesis is that the reaction against Goth in the USA, including the false attribution of the Columbine school shootings and the school programmes to suppress Goths came about because Goths were/are sex positive and inclusive of LGBTQ kids. 

Contributor

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Carol Siegel is the author of numerous journal articles and book chapters on the representation of sexuality in literature, film, television, and popular music. Her book publications include Sex: Radical Cinema (2015), Goth’s Dark Empire (2005), New Millennial Sexstyles (2000), Male Masochism: Modern Revisions of the Story of Love (1995), Lawrence Among the Women: Wavering Boundaries in Women’s Literary Traditions (UP of Virginia, 1991) and the co-edited collections The Gay ’90s: Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Formations in Queer Studies (1997), Sex Positives?: The Cultural Politics of Dissident Sexualities (1997), Forming and Reforming Identity (1995), and Eroticism and Containment: News from the Flood Plain (1994). She also co-edits with Ellen E. Berry the online journal Rhizomes. Her current projects are a collection of essays co-edited with Lindsay Coleman – Sex and Excess on Film – and a monograph on the representation of Jewish sexualities in cinema and television.

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