Saturday, March 14, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey, the Movie: Of Tropes, Gender Politics, Sex, and Fantasy

The cultural conversation about Fifty Shades of Grey since the movie came out seems to have two main themes: how badly-written the book is (the movie reviews are showcases for snideness on the topic) and how bad the movie is for women. I've also heard complaints from the BDSM community, or friends thereof, about the book's irresponsible depiction of such relationships – echoes of the reception of Basic Instinct by the LGBT community. The obvious response is that, while anyone is free to worry about misinformation and object to whatever they want to object to, Fifty Shades is a sexual fantasy, not a lifestyle blueprint.

Lionel Trilling famously defended Lolita, a runaway bestseller in America when it was finally published there in 1958, by arguing that Nabokov's novel restored a sense of romance to romance by reintroducing the forbidden. By the late 50s, neither adulterous longing, on which the concept of Western love was founded (see Tristan and Isolde), nor out-of-wedlock lapses carried a sufficient charge of societal disapproval, or created sufficient internal and external obstacles. In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, it's the love interest's fetish that creates these obstacles. Do they represent what women's magazines would call a “dealbreaker” for Anastasia Steele, weighed against Christian Grey's immense wealth and the frisson that his take-charge attitude evidently gives her?

Fifty Shades of Grey knows exactly what it owes to the Western tradition of romantic love, particularly as it has been depicted and promoted by literature. Anastasia is an English lit major, and on their first date, Christian asks her whether she's an Austen girl or a Hardy girl. She surprises him by choosing Hardy. Diffident, lip-biting Miss Steele (as Christian likes to call her) may seem like one of those garden-variety Austen freaks, but she's going to swerve away from that interminable trend. Deep within her is a repressed, oppressed Victorian maiden, a Tess of the D'Urbervilles, dying to get out.

Intertexual Romance

With its basis in fan fiction, it's hardly surprising that Fifty Shades is self-conscious with its movie references, too: Anastasia dubs the woman who initiated Christian into BDSM practices when he was 16 “Mrs. Robinson.” (I guess recruiting children – Anastasia does later point out that it was child abuse – is an example of a behaviour that the BDSM community would rather not have associated with it.) The Graduate is a movie with a rather different resonance for the female audience for which it was not intended than for its male creators, and is maybe the last time an American movie about sexual desire and mores made such a huge cultural impact.

So Fifty Shades of Grey is a movie about a woman who seems to be the definition of vanilla but might have a secret dark side, and also a movie about a sexual initiation by a person who has a clear upper hand, that ends disastrously. In this case, the difference in power is a matter of money and sexual experience rather than age (I don't know if there's an age difference in the novel, but the two leads look about the same age in the movie although Jamie Dornan is in fact seven years older than Dakota Johnson).

E. L. James may not be a great or even a competent prose writer, but fan fiction requires different talents – such as the media literacy and savviness about media tropes that she does possess. As for psychological complexity, everyone knows that that can be a distraction in pornography. Anastasia and Christian are, first and foremost, types in a sort of role-playing scenario: the powerful businessman with dark appetites and the mousy, unassuming virgin. They are locked in a battle of wills, based in traditional gender roles, that (as Leslie Fiedler argued in Love and Death in the American Novel) is central to the English novel from its first great example, Richardson's Clarissa. Lovelace, as an irresponsible seducer, must get Clarissa to sleep with him before he agrees to marry her; Clarissa, as the most fastidious of virgins, must get Lovelace to marry her before she agrees to sleep with him. The Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies of the late 50s/early 60s are a comedic updating; so, in their way, are the Bugs Bunny-Roadrunner cartoons. We just want to keep telling the same story about appetite, over and over. 

In James's updating, Christian wants to get Anastasia to sign a contract that will make her his “submissive,” while Anastasia wants Christian to act more like a normal boyfriend: go on dates, sleep in the same bed with her at night, let her touch him – stuff like that. Because Christian is obsessed with Anastasia (obviously), he can't help but give in to her a bit while she contemplates the offer: they have some extra-contractual sex, although some of it involves a little light bondage; he agrees to go on a weekly date; she meets his family (who adore her – obviously). All of this giving in, of course, is used as leverage by Christian to make her give in – since, after all, he's made more concessions to her than to any other girl he's ever known.

I didn't find the sex scenes in Fifty Shades especially sexy, although that may be the point, in a way. It often happens in erotic fan fiction that the sex scenes become obligatory and perfunctory because the writer has become engrossed by the characters' relationship. And definitely that has happened here: the characters may not be either believable or especially individualized, but their psychological struggle is what interests James, not the sex. I don't mean to spread the myth that female creators and consumers of erotica are not interested in sex scenes. There's a sub-genre of erotic fan fiction called “PWP,” which stands for “porn without plot,” when you just want a shot of graphically-described, barely-characterized sex. But the truth is that, pretty often, the writer gets more interested in the characters' relationships and the sex scenes become about as much the point as the scene where Buffy fights the monster-of-the-week.

Furthermore, the climactic BDSM scene of Fifty Shades is not meant to be sexy at all. The movie heads toward the signing of the contract as the climax, but instead of that consummation, Anastasia demands that Christian show her the worst he has to offer so that she'll know what she's getting into, and we get a raw emotional scene in which, as she's beaten, we see her take in the realization of the depth of Christian's need to see her broken, vulnerable, and physically and emotionally suffering. This also parallels Clarissa, whose climactic act is the drugging and raping of Clarissa by Lovelace; the mind-bending post-feminist twist of Fifty Shades is that Anastasia is “in control” of the situation because she asks to be physically and emotionally brutalized.

After that, they're reduced to a couple of people at their most emotionally naked and have a kind of primal exchange that made me understand why the director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, has referred to Persona in discussions of the movie. (You read that right, cinephiles: go ahead and have a conniption fit.) Having braved the heart of darkness of her sadist boyfriend, little Anastasia Steele has finally discovered something about boundaries, and her boundaries in particular, and learned how to say “No” in such a way that a man, however powerful, persistent, and persuasive he may be, knows that she means it. Of course she'll be back for more in future installments – though I don't think I'll be.

The Genealogy of Tropes

In From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, possibly the funniest book ever to feature “rape” in the title, feminist film critic Molly Haskell described the favourite women's fiction trope of the Gothic hero: flattering in his controlling behaviour (you definitely know he's into you), exciting in his abusiveness (he's no pansy), and yet with a secret from his past that's left him secretly wounded and vulnerable. He is the perfect hero for the puritan (or just pubescent) heroine, Haskell explains, because despite his impressive displays of “masculine” power, his “feminine” woundedness means that he's unlikely to make real sexual demands on you; instead, he ultimately appeals to one's maternal instinct.

My favourite example of Haskell's is James Mason in the unbelievably silly 1945 British film The Seventh Veil. Mason is a bachelor who becomes the guardian of the heroine when she's a young adolescent. (He seems like an uncle – V. C. Andrews's Dark Angel, from which I'm sure James stole the piano-playing scene in Fifty Shades, is in this same mode – but the movie calls him a second cousin.) He uses a cane – a symbol of his mysterious woundedness and unsubtle indication of the impotence that keeps him sexually non-threatening despite his aggressive temperament. 

Mason doesn't only hate women because he's at a physical disadvantage in the romance market, though, but also because of his relationship with his mother, who hurt him when he was just a helpless little boy. (Aw!) He can only express his attraction to the heroine by being nasty to her, controlling every aspect of her life, and flipping out when she tries to use other men to break free. And yet he has a certain hold over her, not only because she's become obsessed, Stockholm-style, with pleasing him, but because they develop a professional bond as he trains her, Whiplash-style, to become a concert pianist. That can be one of the perks of a relationship with a wounded Gothic hero: sometimes instead of making sexual demands on you, he spurs you to great heights of professional achievement by demanding sublimation. And there's nothing a puritan – which is to say, Anglo-American – woman finds sexier than sublimation.

In that movie's climactic act of displaced consummation, Mason attacks her hands with his cane while she's playing after she informs him that she's going to leave him to get married. But despite having an array of suitors to choose from (a woman's picture trope with a structural similarity to the “whodunnit,” as Haskell points out), the heroine ultimately returns to Mason, whose violent outburst seems to have cleared the air and left him more capable of expressing tender emotions.

Mason gets ready to strike while Mommy looks on

Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, often held to be the paradigm of feminist TV, features an updating of the Gothic hero in Angel, who pretty starkly represents the gynocentric view of Good (non-sexual) and Bad (sexual) Men. And in case you thought that was an accident, the show reinforces that view when Buffy later develops a sexual relationship with a Bad (sexual) Man, Spike, which she has to break off because the puritan heroine ultimately cannot have a purely sexual relationship (Spike, no matter how much he may reform through his own effort, is still only a body, no soul) without compromising the virtue that's the source of her power.

Virtue, as Nietzsche, I think it was, pointed out, originally meant “strength,” and Buffy is the direct descendent of Spenser's warrior women in The Faerie Queene, Britomart and Belphoebe, who (according to Fiedler, again) turn into Clarissa when the tropes of romance meet the bourgeois realism of the English novel. In other words, the (usually blonde) woman who fights the monsters/rapist is the exact same archetype as the (usually blonde) woman who succumbs to the monster/rapist: Buffy and Laura Palmer are two sides of the same coin. Spenser is illustrating female chastity, or virtue, by embodying it in action heroines; while Richardson's emphasis on pathos rather than action means that he can best represent virtue by showing the fate it meets in a fallen world.

As secular writers from the decades after second-wave feminism, I'm not sure if Joss Whedon or David Lynch are aware that they're representing virtue or chastity; I assume Lynch is thinking in terms of “innocence,” with which his work has a deeply complicated relationship, and Whedon probably in fully secularized, vague terms like “strength of character.” Nevertheless, you can never completely escape the genealogy of tropes, which is why Buffy – strong, liberated, independent modern woman though she may be – can't just sleep with whomever she pleases, whenever she pleases, however she pleases. It's not just that we still have double standards regarding female sexuality; of course we do. But when representing female (or male) sexuality – whether on our screens (including computer screens) or in our fantasies – we also have tropes to contend with, and their embodiment of historical norms that may still hover in our present-day “sexual unconscious.”

A Troubled Relationship to Female Agency

In Fifty Shades of Grey, we may contemplate not only with the genealogy of tropes but also with a literal genealogy that is also a cinematic one: Dakota Johnson's descent from Melanie Griffith, who is in turn the daughter of Tippi Hedren. It is a legacy of portraying iconic characters with a troubled relationship to female agency, and specific moments of Fifty Shades become rich with resonance for that reason, whether it was intentional on the filmmaker's part or not. There's the especially on-the-nose detail of the room that Christian designates for his “submissives” having a caged bird among the wallpaper designs (“Back you go in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels!”), but there are also echoes of Griffith's humiliating first encounter with Harrison Ford in Working Girl in the scene where Christian comes to the rescue of a blackout drunk Johnson.

Mitch and Melanie have a smug-off

In Working Girl, one of many ambivalent 80s depictions of working women inspired by women's mass entrance into the workforce after second-wave feminism, the creepily baby-voiced Griffith was a throwback to a Marilyn Monroe/Judy Holliday dumb blonde archetype, her full figure and gauzy manner positing an inextricable link between female sexuality and female diffidence even as her character struggled to be taken seriously in the workplace while remaining “feminine.” The movie's linkage between women's professional success, WASP hyper-rationalism and suppression of sensuality, and anorexia through Sigourney Weaver's character and her “bony ass” (as Griffith memorably calls it) is right up Camille Paglia's alley: a traditional woman, and a working-class woman, Griffith has to learn how to “perform” Weaver's WASP style.

There's even biographical resonance in the final beating scene, given what we now know about the circumstances surrounding the filming of Melanie Daniels's traumatic attack by the birds in the attic in the climactic scene of The Birds. (To wit: according to Hedren, and as dramatized in the 2012 TV movie The Girl, Hitchcock became sexually obsessed with her, and in return for rejecting him, he arranged for the scene's filming to be almost as harrowing for Hedren as the attack was for Melanie.) Like the shower scene in Psycho, the attic scene in The Birds was a substitute for rape, but by 1964, American mores had relaxed enough for Hitchcock to finally be able to put a real rape on the screen for the first (but not only) time, in Marnie, also starring Hedren.

Marnie bears a much closer relationship to Fifty Shades of Grey than The Birds. In it, a young Sean Connery plays a wealthy and powerful businessman, Mark Rutland (yep), who becomes obsessed with a compulsive thief who takes jobs as a secretary in order to steal from men like him (except older and less hot). When he catches her, he threatens to turn her over to the police if she doesn't marry him, even after he finds out that she's frigid – unless that's part of the appeal. When patience doesn't make her come around, he rapes her on their honeymoon, and realizes that she was serious when she said no one million times when he has to rescue her from her suicide attempt the following morning. The rest of the plot concerns his attempts to cure her neuroses by playing amateur psychotherapist while keeping his businessmen friends from discovering his new wife's identity and turning her over to the police.

The resemblance between the movies is in the couples' combative relationship and the way they're forced to present a facade of normalcy while hiding problems that no one could understand, but in Fifty Shades it's the man who's suffering from a mysterious childhood trauma that's affected his sex life, and the woman who's forced to play amateur psychotherapist if she has any hope of making this relationship function. And notably, if anyone's a masochist in the Mark-Marnie relationship, it's Mark – who, as Marnie points out, is obsessed with a woman who can't stand for him to touch her.

Hitchcock gives us plenty of scenes from Marnie's point of view, both with and without Mark present, but James and Taylor-Johnson don't bother to allow us inside Christian's head, either because that would make him less enigmatic or because they don't give a crap about him except insofar as he affects Anastasia. This presents Jamie Dornan with a notably tough task, as does what seems to be some pretty striking miscasting. I can see Christian Gray as a Sean Connery type or, if they were going to go with small and effete (however buff), maybe a Dirk Bogarde type. To deliver all of those Smut 101 dirty-talk lines about fucking and wanting to fuck, he's got to have an air of either authority or depravity, while Dornan has less of either than your average boy band member. If they wanted to go boy band, why didn't they get Justin Timberlake? That would have made the movie into some kind of work of genius. 


Dornan doesn't project an air of much of anything, except discomfort. And it's a shame because in addition to her resonances, Johnson brings everything to the part of Anastasia that it needs, and more (from the perspective of someone who hasn't read the books, anyway): brunette Everywoman prettiness (big nose, wonky teeth, breasts untouched by plastic surgeon, under-eye smudges suggestive of neurosis), charisma, and “go there” guts seldom seen outside of a David Lynch movie.

Source material be damned: there's no reason at all why Fifty Shades of Grey couldn't have been a great movie. The casting is one reason why it's not, but the more important reason is that it doesn't seem to be the director's sexual fantasy. Taylor-Johnson has a feel for the characters' battle of wills and emotional clashes, but unlike a Bunuel, Hitchcock, Polanski, or Lynch, she doesn't have a lascivious eye; one never feels that her own psychosexual fears or desires are on the line. 

Ultimately, the movie's about two things: a woman's attempt to find out the sources of the trauma that keeps her boyfriend from being sexually normal and prevents them from being together; and a man's attempt to stain an innocent woman with his dirty male sexuality. Make no mistake, in this movie's conception of sexuality, men represent sex as its most essential, which, in this movie's conception, means its dirtiest. The heroine's progress from innocence to experience involves finding out what goes on inside the male brain – and bedroom. But that's exactly what makes Anastasia such a courageous heroine, within this movie's terms. She doesn't want to remain naive, and she knows that to get out of that state she has to have such kind of decisive encounter with maleness – with maleness as absolute otherness. In this stark two-hander (as it basically is), the encounter with the man is the encounter with the world.

But What Does It All Mean?

We have lately become entranced with stories about how the genders perceive each other, or how we perceive each other through the lens of gender, and how narratives about gender, sex, and love are entangled with narratives about violence; but Fifty Shades of Grey is actually far less about female masochism than Gone Girl, the second-biggest publishing phenomenon of 2012 (after the Fifty Shades series). The heroine of Gone Girl, Amy Dunne, isn't a sexual masochist, but her roundabout method of getting revenge on men for slights big and small – physically injuring herself to make it look like she has been stabbed, beaten, or raped, and staging her disappearance – suggest internalized misogyny in combination with the cultural training that tells women to take their frustrations out of themselves. This kind of masochism is inseparable from narcissism, since the narcissist is always manipulating her image and altering her body (through exercise or surgery – which of course applies to men too, especially in the media saturated, metrosexual 21st century) in order to change the way others react to her. In the end, concerned only with how others perceive her, she has no “real,” “inner” self.

Anastasia Steele isn't a masochist at all, which is exactly the problem. The movie isn't about a woman who enjoys being beaten or punished. The relationship is emotionally masochistic insofar as Anastasia can't get what she wants out of it: she's not as concerned about the whips as she is about the fact that Christian can't easily show her affection or accept it from her. He does not, in the parlance of women's magazines, “treat her right.”

In her thinkpiece on the series, Katie Roiphe pissed off feminists, as she does, by suggesting that its popularity is the result of professional women secretly desiring submission in the sexual arena – a thesis stolen from Paglia, who suggested back in the 90s that the burdens of boardroom power might lead to a compensatory desire for someone else to take charge in the bedroom. (Sounds reasonable. I mean, there's that scene in Wolf of Wall Street.) 

Roiphe found lots of other pop culture fodder for her thesis – including Girls, which was then in its first season. It's true that first-season Adam is some kind of Bizarro-universe, internet-porn-era version of the Gothic hero; perpetually shirtless and inarticulate except on the subject of porn-derived role-playing fantasies, Adam is Stanley Kowalski with mild Asperger's. What I see as parallel to Fifty Shades in first-season Adam and Hannah is not Hannah's curiosity about BDSM, but her debate within herself and with her friends over whether it's “okay” for Adam to just use her for sex rather than acting as a full boyfriend – as well as the fact that Adam seems, to her, excitingly, and a little dauntingly, in touch with his sexual desires, whereas she hasn't got a clue about her own. Hannah, however, unlike Anastasia, also doesn't know, initially, whether she wants Adam to be her boyfriend or not. Her concern is, rather, about whether it's degrading, from a feminist perspective, for Adam to use her for sex (is feminism about sexual liberation, or about getting men to treat you right?), and whether, from a feminist perspective, it's okay to be degraded (is feminism about the freedom to have all kinds of experiences, even unpleasant ones... or about not letting men treat you badly?).

Maya Dusenbery's pro-Fifty Shades response to Roiphe's piece on Feministing is way more interesting than Roiphe's pseudo-daring thinkpiece. (That's what you get for using a thesis that was part of a conversation going on in feminism over a decade ago.) Dusenbery suggests that the popularity of the books has to do not with any desire for submission on the part of female readers, since the sub-dom relationship that Christian wants never actually happens. Instead, Dunsenbery emphasizes the “negotiating that happens in their relationship” and the “classic damaged-boy-saved-by-a-good-woman narrative that everyone loves.” In which case the tastes of female readers in romantic fiction haven't changed much since Clarissa – except that Richardson was hellbent on ruining everyone's fun by rejecting any version of the “saved by a good woman” narrative, even though, according to what I've read, his female fans pleaded for him to get Clarissa and Lovelace together even after the rape. I'm sure they took care of that in the privately-circulated, quill-written fanfic, though.

I agree with Dusenbery that whatever the massive popularity of the Fifty Shades series means, it's not, contra Roiphe's insinuations, that “women don't actually want power/equality/liberation.” The fact that women have made an erotica series into an international phenomenon in a world that still does not cater equally to the (heterosexual) female libidinous fantasies, because women still aren't creating 50 per cent of the media we consume, has got to be something for feminism to celebrate. And it didn't happen in a day: it happened because of women on the internet – of all ages, gay and straight – writing erotic fan fiction in a gift economy for over a decade, until a tipping point was reached. 

The fact that the series depicts, in part, female masochism, or at least plays with the idea, makes that feminist triumph imperfect, or at least complicated – bringing an awareness, as it does, that traditional gender roles and our sexual fantasies remain inextricably tangled up. And our reactions to such fantasies are complicated by real events and the narratives about gender, gender roles, and abuse and violence that affect our perception of them and are, in turn, shaped by them: just like the Gone Girl movie, whose release was shadowed by the appearance and discrediting of an account of campus gang rape in the Rolling Stone, the Fifty Shades movie and the criticisms of it coming from the BDSM community, follow on the heels of the fall from grace of popular Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi for having, it seems, practiced BDSM without properly gaining consent in all cases, and for sexually harassing female co-workers.

Eros, Masochism, Genre, and Gender

A “healthy relationship” is the kind of thing most people aspire to have; it is not necessarily the stuff of romantic or erotic fantasies. As I can recall from the soap operas I watched as a child and young teenager, in the late 80s and early 90s, often women's romantic fantasies revolve around a man who is unreliable and in some ways unavailable, so that she has to chase him. (I'm thinking of Jack and Jennifer of Days of Our Lives, the ultimate good girl-redeems-damaged/bad boy story, in which the virginal girl-next-door rehabilitates a rapist.) This may be because it makes him less threatening sexually, but it's also, surely, because, just like men, women are – again, in fantasy – more interested in what they can't get. They may be so interested in it, in fact, that they're willing to withstand a lot of disappointment and heartache in order to keep pursuing it.

There's no real counterpart to this for men, since men do not have romantic fiction explicitly marketed to them. If men are consuming romantic fiction, it's “women's fiction.” In fiction marketed to men, men don't seek romantic love, they seek trophies: in one comedy after another, hot chicks who are way out of the schlubby hero's league but who are so good-natured that he eventually wins them over anyway, and who have no characteristics other than “hot” and “nice.” Dramas marketed to men tend to have women in them as little as possible.

At one time, there was a Hollywood genre that dealt with men's romantic and erotic fears and desires, which was retrospectively termed “film noir,” and if we were viewing it from the perspective of whether or not the fantasies it contains are “good for men,” we'd have to conclude that men are, as a group, perilously masochistic. We do not view narratives from that perspective, however, but – if we're feminists – from one in which if a female character is cruel to a male character, it means the work is misogynous, and if a male character is cruel to a female character, it's because the work is misogynous. This suggests that, for all the valuable insights of feminist analysis of narratives, it has its limitations.

Occasionally in satire, a male gets to totally abase himself before a gorgeous woman in a way that would be unthinkable in a gender-reversed scenario, as in Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid, or every movie that Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich. It's important to think about how our narratives socialize us, particularly if we are part of a group whose rights are often at risk, and it's understandable that representations of violence toward women by men will have more real-world associations than representations of violence toward men by women to complicate our reactions (although we might want to ask ourselves: why are we not upset by representations of violence toward men by men, which is very much a real-world problem?). But we shouldn't let the narratives that we form out of these facts make us forget that eros makes masochists of us all – at least in our imaginations.