These desires come out in the sort of private moments that movies hesitate to show but that are the essential province of art.
Fifty Shades of Grey is, for everything else it represents, a film. As a film, I was surprised to find it compelling and coherent; certainly the plot isn’t too intricate but the characters are—indeed they are far from the one-dimensional physiques one would expect of erotic fare. Further, while attractive, our leads are no porn-stars. Against it’s critics, Fifty Shades of Grey is not a pornography, a visualization of fantasy. It is, instead, a film about two people exploring their fantasies. This makes a world of difference.
So, first off, the film has a story—not a particularly new or nuanced story but a story nonetheless. It is, for all intents and purposes, a very insular story: a story about the private lives of two white, heterosexual adults in the northwest who have enough money to meet their needs. In other words, it’s a mainstream story, which is of course its claim to fame—it’s a story just like so many other stories but with a really prevalent, naughty secret that has some resemblance to BDSM. I say some because, as authors at The Atlantic and Cracked have pointed out, this film plays fast and loose with the realities of BDSM culture. There are many critiques which could be made along these lines; I think the only valid one is that the power dynamics of Christian and Anastasia are highly personal and private and lack the support and policing of a community which can be vital (especially for a newbie) in enactment of BDSM.
The film has also gotten in hot water for its portrayal of Christian’s dominant preference as a pathology. In the film, he is aroused by Anastasia’s pain—a fact which he carries like a wound. In their relationship, it is easy to see why: Anastasia, while technically consenting, is deeply uncomfortable with “punishment.” She, like—I suspect—many of us, can imagine finding and does find pleasure in small amounts of pain or powerlessness. It is the flip-side which bothers her, i.e. that someone could take pleasure from giving pain or seizing power. In The Atlantic article already referenced, Emma Green notes that “A 2009 study of 470 predominantly heterosexual, college-aged men and women found that both sexes preferred fantasies of being dominated by the opposite sex, rather than dominating others themselves.” I wonder if a deeper logic isn’t at play here, as senses of ingrained preferences for dominance or submissiveness line up with complementarianism—a philosophy no longer in vogue.
Even if BDSM isn’t, as I suspect it is, a means of playing with patriarchy; Fifty Shades of Grey certainly struggles with its patriarchal overtones. The struggle, however, is an important one, for while many of us no longer identify with patriarchy it is harder to shrug off its imprints. Along these lines, I find the film contributing (in however small a way) to an important exploration of sexuality as it relates to fantasy, power, and gender. I am not so worried about the many possible critiques of this film (heteronormative, hyper-sexualized, an accelerated sense of time, weak supporting characters, etc.) because I recognize that is not what the film is about. The film is about, really, only one thing: passion and power in sexuality. As such, the film delivers, especially (as Richard Brody has noted) in it’s balanced and mature portrayal of sex on-screen. To be completely honest, I am shocked that this cut was released in America. A student of Kirby Dick’s expose This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006), I thought I had a handle on the lines between R and NC-17 with regards to sex (pubic hair, close-ups of female pleasure, etc.). Something, however, has changed and Fifty Shades of Grey capitalizes on this change of heart to relentlessly focus on Anastasia and her sexual experience (rather than fall into familiar, sexist tropes that the MPAA is more comfortable with). Even more remarkably, flesh in the film is portrayed relationally, that is, subjectively rather than objectively. In contrast, most films use nudity as a lure, a performance for the audience. In fact, we are so used to this logic that we instinctively define pornography (and indecent exposure) in terms of body parts, not the context or intent with which exposure (of any sort) is present. Fifty Shades of Grey, laudably, pushes back against this fallacy—attempting (not always successfully) to balance male and female nakedness but mostly, carefully, signifying vulnerability with nudity, providing a context for bodies where characters strip for scene and story and not audience. This is, typically, a European technique which I am not accustomed to seeing in American films. Through it, the focus remains on the characters, on their subjectivity and by extension our own. As Brody writes, “desires come out in the sort of private moments that movies hesitate to show but that are the essential province of art.” This is exactly true, and it is when the audience is distanced from the characters that objectification is possible or even assured. Fifty Shades of Grey never gives us that distance and I applaud it for that.
That said, I do worry about the sexual conflations in the film, namely that the core of romance is sexuality, that losing virginity is a rite of passage, and that passion (and therefore orgasm) is at the heart of a desirable relationship. As David Matzko McCarthy has written in his wonderful book Sex and Love in the Home, sexuality is as much about everydayness (physical sharing of space, responsibility, even chores) as it is fleeting ecstasy in the bedroom (or the living room or the laundry room or the “play-room”). This is very true and important: a long-range view of happiness and reward so rare in a culture of instant gratification. There is still lots to be said, however, for the power of sexual desire, and this is what Fifty Shades of Grey manages to speak of where so many other attempts fail. That is, as I see it, all it promises to do and on those terms it delivers. Moreover, this is a story in its infancy, a first chapter out of three (or will it be four?), and it will be interested to see how the films grow along with Christian and Anastasia’s relationship. Their world is certainly a risky one, one without the kind of relational or even familial foundation that is so important in stabilizing a young sexual relationship. Still, as I keep stressing, their story is just one story, a compelling one on many levels, but not one that should be understood as normative or representational. It’s a small story, but I still call it a success.