Fifty Shades Duller, Part II

by Carol Siegel, Washington State University Vancouver, US.

In last month’s post, Carol Siegel explored the Fifty Shades and Twilight franchises as offering problematic Cinderella narratives of abstinence and ignorance. Her discussion continues here.

As many people who are part of or at least conversant with BDSM communities have pointed out, the Fifty Shades novel and film series is not about the consensual sex that they practice. In such communities the masochist is not only generally truly in control of the situation due to prior negotiation but, more importantly, because most BDSM practitioners identify as bottoms (i.e. masochists). As Gilles Deleuze explained in his landmark introduction to Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella Venus in Furs, sadism and masochism are distinct sexual systems. [1] In sadism the sadist’s desire to control and hurt the partner is the driving force of an encounter. In the masochistic system, ‘the masochist’s sadist’ concentrates on pleasing the partner and meeting that partner’s needs for specific kinds of pleasurable pain. The sexual system of sadism is inherently patriarchal just as it is inherently about exerting power over a person who lacks the power to resist, while as many from Theodor Reik on have argued, the masochistic system is inherently anti-patriarchal because it strips away the ability of the powerful to control the subordinate by making a mockery of punishment. [2] If beatings don’t daunt but instead delight then they can’t be used to control. In contrast to this, Fifty Shades seems to be about the pleasures awaiting women who are willing to submit to the infliction of pain they don’t enjoy in order to be loved, protected and (lavishly) financially supported.  

Numerous commentators on the series claim that its appeal is that it makes it possible for women to read pornographic accounts of sex without the shame of buying pornography, since the books are marketed as regular novels. Supposedly, the women who love the series aren’t interested in the BDSM but, rather, the variations from vaginal sex and the light kinkiness, such as Ana wearing a blindfold. However, this seems absurd when one recalls that in almost every supermarket in America women can buy romance novels that include pornographic passages and that ordering a hardcore pornographic book by mail that will be delivered in the classic plain brown wrapper is as easy as logging onto Amazon. And, of course, anyone with a smart phone can read thousands of pages of pornography in privacy. A more reasonable way to understand the popularity of the series is to consider it as being in its own way as metaphoric as Twilight, where sexy, young-looking ancient vampires stand in for the church elders through marriage to whom some power and authority can be attained. In Fifty Shades, a handsome young billionaire stands in for a husband who makes enough money to support a stay-at-home wife, and BDSM the wife doesn’t really want stands in for ordinary sex she doesn’t really enjoy physically but is willing to provide in return for his protection.

In the first film (Sam Taylor-Johnson 2015), all of this is suggested in ways that made me laugh aloud. Because I’m one of those cynical readers who assumes that Elizabeth Bennet decides to accept Mr Darcy as her husband because she has seen Pemberley (and so realises just how rich he is), I liked that someone working on the script threw in a Jane Austen reference in just the right place to make crystal clear that the tale follows this interpretation of Pride and Prejudice. Little touches like this make the film campy. As did watching a woman in her 20s (Dakota Johnson) prance around acting like a pert little girl, and in fact making the 1960s cinematic child women, like Brigitte Bardot, look like mature adults in contrast. While these 60s sex objects are childishly silly, they don’t seem as completely ignorant sexually as children who have never been exposed to any media other than religious books for preteens and television shows for babies, the way Ana does. 

Fifty Shades of Grey
Ana (Dakota Johnson) and Christian (Jamie Dornan) define the boundaries of their relationship in Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson 2015)

Seeing Johnson goggling her eyes upon learning even the most generally known facts about sex made me giggle. As I wrote about in New Millennial Sexstyles, my experiences discussing sex with middle school students surprised me in that all could identify common sex toys shown in 1990s music videos. Yet Ana asks Christian ‘What’s a butt plug?’ and receives his (rather obvious) answer with apparent astonishment that anyone finds the anus sexual. Like many film critics and nonprofessional film viewers alike, I also found Grey’s leaving his pants on during sex very funny. Still even this was not as ridiculous as the clueless attempts to portray lifestyle S/M, which are so wrong in every way that they are side-splitting. But they are no more risible than the filmmakers’ lack of knowledge both about Washington State University Vancouver – where Ana supposedly is an English major, and where I have taught English for 27 years without encountering any student as stunningly ignorant about sex – and the filmmakers’ lack of the most basic geographical knowledge of the Pacific Northwest. (Portland, Oregon is right across the Columbia River, which is the State line, from Vancouver, Washington, whereas Seattle is 165 miles away.)  Jamie Dornan’s poor acting was the best part of the film. I cracked up every time he glowered like a B-movie serial killer as he fixed Ana with his weird stare.  

Because I laughed so hard watching Fifty Shades of Grey, I was eager to see Fifty Shades Darker (James Foley 2017). What a disappointment! The biggest problem for me was that in the first film, Johnson and Dornan look about the same ages as they are in the novels, that is in their early 20s. In Fifty Shades Darker, Johnson is 27 and looks older. High definition does her no favours as she has lines around her eyes and puffy lines in the corners of her mouth. I thought she was about 32 until I looked up her age on the internet. And yet she’s completely innocent and so childlike that she can’t think for herself at all? Jamie Dornan is 35 and looks it. He’s still all messed up because of his childhood? The opening seeks to establish this, yet one must wonder why he hasn’t sought therapy if the childhood abuse he suffered left him unable to enjoy sex unless he felt not only in complete control of his partner but also that he was forcing her to experience things she did not like. He seems oblivious to the significance of the way Ana looks just like his mother who was a crack addict whom he felt abandoned him by her death. Although he was intelligent enough to become a billionaire, he is apparently as ignorant of therapy as Ana is of sex. The story explains the seemingly mismatched relationship between sadistic Christian and innocent Ana by telling us that they are absolutely at the mercy of the intense sexual attraction they feel; however, this is not shown at all. They have less chemistry than the worst date reported in Time Out New York‘s weekly column ‘The Undateables’.  

Fifty Shades Darker
Christian woos Ana in his apartment in Fifty Shades Darker (James Foley 2017)

Basically how the story in the second film begins is this: after breaking up with him because he beat her very hard, knowing she was hating every minute of it, and was aroused by this, Ana immediately caves in and goes back with Christian when he gives her some roses, says that he loves her, and promises never to beat her again. This is the story of every single domestic abuse and murder case ever, so not particularly romantic to me. Unlike the S/M romance film Secretary (Steven Shainberg 2002) that depicts a masochistic (and self-harming, emotionally disturbed) woman finding a man who fulfils her fantasies while protecting her from her own worst self-destructive impulses, the Fifty Shades films do not depict Ana as masochistic. Although absurdly immature for her age, Ana holds independence as an ideal and tries hard to take care of herself. But her efforts are undermined by her abuser, who buys the publishing firm she works for and sets himself up as her boss. Fortunately for her, this makes him able to fire her former boss when the man sexually harasses her, which proves to her that without him she would be vulnerable to male sexual violence she wants even less than his. This again replicates the typical story of domestic abuse from the perspective of the abuser. 

Another way that the story conforms to the narratives typical of domestic abusers is in its insistence that Ana is special to Christian, not like the women whom he enjoyed beating but could not love, such as his former submissive Leila (Bella Heathcote). We are also told repeatedly that Ana isn’t into S/M, doesn’t like or want it and only does it to please Christian, while we guess that she submits because he’s very, very rich. His wealth is repeatedly referenced as the means through which he solves Ana’s problems. I think they should star Alec Baldwin imitating Trump in the next film because this seems to be what the underlying message is: so long as the man is rich enough he can grab you by the pussy and control every aspect of your sexual life, and it will all be good. This will work particularly well if the next film, like the novel trilogy, culminates with Ana bearing Christian’s children and his creepy semi-incestuous remarks about the baby in her womb already enjoying (his) sexual attentions. But as for me, I am done with this franchise. I’ve heard and seen it all before and there’s nothing new here. It’s just the same boring old story of actively abusive misogyny and the women who misrecognise it as romantic love because it seems to them to promise they can retreat from a scary and demanding world into a domestic space where they can earn their partners’ protection through sexual submission and child-bearing.  

Notes

[1] Gilles Deleuze and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. 1989. Masochism: Cold and Cruelty & Venus in Furs. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

[2] See Theodor Reik. 1941. Masochism in Modern Man. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.

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.

c.balmain@kingston.ac.uk / @colettebalmain

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