As part of my new-found dedication to blogging I went to see Fifty Shades of Grey this lunchtime. I did this rather hesitantly as I had planned to wait until it was free to air having only made it as far as reading the first third of the book when the clanging cliches and abysmal writing got the best of me. It seems I was not alone in this as the scriptwriter too spent two hours on exactly the same portion of the book. I can only imagine this was done for reasons of either censorship or a desire to focus on the emotional, rather than the sexual side of the story. In fact there were only a handful of sex scenes, only three of which were in any way influenced by the BDSM, which came as a surprise not only to me, but the group of five or so women behind me who had clearly read the whole book and were quite vocal in their disbelief at the abrupt ending. Up to this point I was left wondering if I had become too jaded a pornographer to appreciate the subtleties and might have missed them, so I was glad to hear the dismay of others. Having said this there were some sexy parts of the film and I think some evidence of genuine desire from the lead characters towards each other, which I think has been lost in all of the criticism.
Anyway, what did I think? Well, my main observation was that cliches are far more easily swallowed in filmic rather than literary form. Much as the characters and plot line were almost entirely predictable, we would refer to them as the watered down descriptor ‘stereotypical’ rather than ‘cliched’ once in cinematic form and I think this is because we are so used to seeing cliches as the norm in cinema, especially gendered and sexual ones. This is probably due to the power structures and the economic forces behind an industry that doesn’t see anything to be broken with such dross. When you read about Anastasia’s blundering behaviour – which is contrasted to Christian’s cool persona – it really sticks at the back of the throat because the author’s chosen vocabulary is still apparent. Not so in the film, which like any good sex flick, edits around the accidental positives, cutting out the clanging edges caused by lack of talent.
Much as this is a stereotypical story of an inexperienced young virgin who gets swept off her feet by a knight in dark armour, there are some interesting bits. She is not such a simple submissive in the film and you get the impression that the scriptwriter and director wanted to push the feminist angle as far as they could. She certainly makes the decisions and, like is supposed to happen in the BDSM community (hint, it doesn’t always work this way) the submissive is in fact, paradoxically in control. After all she has the final say in the form of the safety word which can stop all play and gets to define exactly what she will and wont do in that she gets to chose an appropriate dominant to perform the acts that she likes. The saying goes that a real dominant would not choose to play with a submissive because they want the person to genuinely submit, which necessarily means ding so against their consent.
But this point, I think is the interesting part about power play in sex, either in the BDSM community or the wider porn industry. The focus, which is apparently on the pleasure of the dominant, is in fact (as Christian is at pains to point out) all about giving pleasure to the submissive. So who is really in control and therefore what does the words dominant or submissive mean in this context? As Lacan pointed out back in the 1960’s the definition of power is far from simple when one is talking about pleasure. His idea, which I have often chanted in defence of porn goes something like “whatever gives you pleasure gives you power”, meaning that the only real way to disempower yourself in such situations is to deny yourself access to pleasure (and the opportunity to learn and grow) for some other “proper” reason like it makes you look like a weak woman when you consider yourself to be a strong feminist (whilst denying yourself reward, again a paradox).
This is where I have issues with much of the discussion around the film. When some people say it glorifies domestic violence, they clearly don’t know the definition of such a thing because real life victims have nowhere near as much agency or choice as Anastasia is shown to have, nor are the abusers as concerned with their victim’s safety and pleasure as much as Christian. It remains true however, that taking a wide look at the porn or many of the other sexual industries, that female submission is over-represented, so what we now need is more inclusion of female domination and other angles. The irony being that, as sex workers will tell you, their boudoirs are filled with rich and powerful men who want to submit to a woman’s might (as indeed, did Christian historically).
So is 50 Shades a feminist text? It would be hard to say it is, not so much for the BDSM sex but because of the film’s central reliance on heteronormative romantic stereotypes, which I have often argued do women – but also as my research has more recently taught me, men too – a lot of harm (having said this it does go some way to complicating the role of gendered power, which is helpful to the discussion). Yet the idea that one goes out of one’s mind when one falls in love is a very unhelpful narrative to teach young women. It encourages you to fall involve with people you should just be fucking. It is therefore very apt that Beyonce reworked her submissive hit “Crazy in Love” for one of the sex scenes. This story and that song rely on a history of Mills and Boon romances as their scaffolding, all of which encourage women to be less agentic than they should be, which is why that song in particular grates me. The film has been discussed, torn apart and politicised, in contrast, the song just slipped under our culture’s heteronormative radar (something complicated by Beyonce’s claim to feminism). So much as Anastasia has been given some much needed self confidence in the film version, and that the film itself brings female erotic imagination into the mainstream (which is its greatest strength) I just wish there were a few less stereotypes and more experimentation. Right now it reads just like a teenage girl’s fantasy, a story from someone with little or no sexual experience (ironically not unlike the pick up artist fantasised masculine sexual performance, which is also often born out of a lack of sexual experience).
But my remaining memory will be that the role of perspective was the most interesting part. That the same act could be seen from two different people so differently went beyond the usual mantra of heterosexual sex that of “opposites attract”. You were aware of the very real flipping nature of power throughout, which I found genuinely interesting. As Hegel argued, submission can be very powerful and domination a bond that demands performance and therefore can decrease pleasure. Now let’s see someone write that film.