Back to IndieWire

Sex And The Split Personality Of ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’

Sex And The Split Personality Of 'Fifty Shades Of Grey'

Further up in the queue, things were getting nasty. A tall journalist called a short journalist out for line-jumping. The short journalist did what journalists of all heights do, and claimed the spot was being held by a friend. The friend gave a noncommittal shrug, which basically read “I dunno if I’d call us ‘friends’ — I know this guy, but I’m not gonna take a punch for him,” and looked away. Chatter, fights, the clicking of camera phones, the murmur of prayers to God and the cinema staff. Suddenly, the doors opened and with the hive mind of a shoal of fish, the entire back half of the line that had folded back on itself two or three times, simply turned to face front, leaving me, all of a sudden, exactly last in line.  

Observing the mill in the lineup for Berlin International Film Festival premiere of “Fifty Shades Of Grey,” and fearing for my face, which is my fortune, my fight-or-flight instinct edged toward “flight” and I emailed HQ: “Don’t think I’m going to get in.” 

But get in I did, despite me not even pushing very much at all. It later turned out that more frantic hordes were being held downstairs — reportedly, the police came to calm the near-riot after the doors closed. I write all of this preamble because I remember more about it than anything in the movie. Even during the screening I found my attention constantly sliding off of the film and its perfectly frictionless, Teflon surfaces. Thankfully, Rodrigo wrote our review (which you can read here) — which is good, because at least he could muster the energy to hate it. I didn’t quite hate it, perhaps due to the same (false, but prevalent) impulse of many critics who, at the last minute, attempted to read the book like I did, to forgive the film a percentage of its shitness because it’s significantly less shit than the book.

Similar to its even-worse progenitor, the “Twilight” series, to which it bears uncanny resemblance (though here we have the “affliction” of BDSM, rather than vampirism, standing for the Beast Inside that will keep our star cross’d lovers apart) even to the point of locking in a male lead who seems to have instantly developed a loathing for the material that’s going to make him a star, lame ol’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a more fun film to have watched than to watch. The arguments around the phenomenon and its $240m opening weekend, have been almost as heated as those outside the press screening, though with fewer teeth lost. Is it good? Is it bad? What does it say about the world?

I had exactly three thoughts of any critical value while I watched ‘Fifty Shades,’ and I’ve enjoyed seeing variations on them bob to the surface in the days since its release. The first was about that book-to-screen transformation, and the ways the movie team went about depriving the circling vultures (like me, ’tis true) of a good snigger and some easy snark while we peppered our reviews with “Holy Crap!”s and merengue-ing “inner goddess”es. Firstly, of course, they dispensed with that awful interior monologue, retaining only the odd howler in the dialogue, and even then having Jamie Dornan deliver the worst one — “I’m fifty shades of fucked up!” — with his back to the camera, so we can’t see his lips move. (Because clearly they knew it would take six days in post in a recording studio to be able to get a clean read of that line). Screenwriter Kelly Marcel also wrote a tiny soupcon of spirit into E.L. James‘ excruciatingly dull-witted conception of Ana, which was then gamely mined by Dakota Johnson. Under the tutelage of Sam Taylor-Johnson, (let’s dole out the faint praise where it’s due) D. Johnson has a bead on the character as someone who would be very unlikely to inwardly shout “Double Crap!” at the height of orgasm.

The second thing that struck me was the fervidly capitalist/consumerist bent of the whole endeavor, by which the skeevy, stalkerish elements of Grey’s predilections are obliterated, or in fact transformed into turn-ons, because he is a unicorn 27-year-old billionaire. I wrote in my scraggly notes “Imginne Chist Greyy was Pooor?!?” (because apparently in the dark I write like a dyslexic E.L. James), but others have taken up the point in more depth, like Arthur Chu, writing for The Daily Beast: “Strip a byronic hero of his wealth and trappings of nobility — take the lordship away from Lord Byron — and he’s just a misogynistic jerk. Without the army of lawyers to make his contracts ironclad and his gifts to buy his lovers’ compliance, Christian is just a prick who beats his girlfriends.”

Or Anne Helen Petersen for Buzzfeed, who calls attention to the jaw-droppingly inane Focus Featuresvirtual tour” of Christian Grey’s designer apartment and then remarks: “No one would be compelled by the fantasy of a man who gets off on restraining and whipping a woman in a trailer park, or even a suburban split-level.” The fantasy of “Fifty Shades of Grey” is predicated on Grey’s limitless wealth and good taste, as exemplified by the brands he explicitly chooses (did I dream that scene in which he impresses Jennifer Ehle because he can name two — that’s two! — slightly higher-end brands of gin?). But perhaps my favorite pithy summation of this deeply problematic issue, which of course is directly lifted from the book but brought to fetishizable life in the film, comes from Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review, which never drips with such finely-wrought, Wildean disdain as in this passage:

“Yet we should not begrudge E. L. James her triumph, for she has, in her lumbering fashion, tapped into a truth that often eludes more elegant writers — that eternal disappointment, deep in the human heart, at the failure of our loved ones to acquire their own helipad.”

Read those investigations of the class implications of ‘Fifty Shades’ at your leisure, but not right now, because here’s the Third Thing. With regards to ‘Fifty Shades’ and sex, the lack thereof and kink therein, a great deal has already been written, much of it critiquing either its tameness, in terms of what we actually see, or its “male gaze”-iness, or its unfortunate view of Christian’s BDSM behavior as a deviance, spurred by his hard childhood and sexual exploitation as a minor, that needs to be “fixed.” All three of these valid criticisms (and the argument about wealth and class) stem from a similar disgust at the reactionary nature of the politics, sexual and otherwise in ‘Fifty Shades.’ Far from being a story of liberation from the “norm” or a reevaluation of what the norm can be, ‘Fifty Shades’ represents a reinforcement of existing power structures and mechanisms of control (like consumerism) so soothing to the status quo as to practically be a safety blanket.

All of that may well account for the deep snooziness I felt throughout the film — it was never going to tell me anything new or challenge the most “vanilla” of ingrained opinions so what was the point? But it doesn’t quite account for the couple of moments that the film did subtly jar, and that was every time a sex scene happened. It was not shock, exactly, just momentary disorientation.

Several critics have pointed out, as I mentioned, the problem of the male gaze in the film. But they have by and large applied that that to entire movie. Brandi Delhagen writing for Hypable locates the problem in the transition from the book to the film: “As a text, ‘Fifty Shades’ favors the female gaze – in fact, the reader is the female gaze, always seeing Christian through a woman’s eyes. But still, the moment words on a page are translated to images on a screen, we are immediately expected to assume the traditional male gaze position that has dominated Hollywood for more than 100 years.”

And Amanda Scherker at HuffPo elaborates: “…the film’s sensuality relies heavily on female nudity. Dakota Johnson…spends quite a bit of the film in the buff; her nipples practically deserved an end credit… Jamie Dornan, who supposedly serves as the seductive force of the film, has far fewer skin-baring moments (and of course, no real frontal reveal). The camera slowly pans over Johnson’s naked body. We get only brief glimpses of Dornan’s.”

But neither of these assessments wholly gel with my experience of the film. I felt a significant shift (oh, how the earth moved) each time a sex scene happened, from a (hardly sophisticated, but unmistakable) female perspective to a standard, “male” perspective — one that would shunt back again the second the sex bit was over, and reveal soulful Christian playing the effing piano at dawn, or whatever.

Witness the scene where Grey “rectifies” Ana’s “situation” (i.e. “breaks” her “hymen”). This is the first sex scene of the film, and it takes forever to get to, but up until then, I simply don’t think we can say the proceedings have been from the male perspective at all. In fact, what had most bothered me to that point was how infantile (but apparently popular) an idea of female sexual fantasy the film, directed by a woman, adapted by a woman from a novel “written” by a woman, had embodied.

All those lustful glances from Christian (we women adore to be adored!) who was entirely objectified, with his little smile, covetable wardrobe and all his Stuff. All the burning intensity with which Dornan delivers lines like, “I’m incapable of leaving you alone,” (we women love to be pursued!). All the swooniness of his choice of gift — a first edition “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” (complete with an inscription referring to Tess’ rape, incidentally, because we women love to be showered with rapey five-figure gifts that prove we’ve been Listened To and Understood!). More than anything, it reminded me of a segment I saw on a TV show once about a 1980s VHS series of “virtual dates” that lonely women could pop in the VCR wherein some hunky guy would gaze straight into camera and pay awkward one-sided compliments, while wearing a tux and sipping red wine by candlelight. (Ha! I found one — not the one I remember but a more recent one that is even more awful/awesome).

Minus its sex scenes, ‘Fifty Shades’ is a queasy, sickly pandering to the most shopworn of female fantasies. They perhaps find their best expression in that bit where Christian removes his shirt (isn’t his, therefore, the first naked flesh we see?), and we ogle his torso for a while, before he suddenly jumps on top of the prone, hungover Ana, says something lustful, and takes a fey little snarly cat-bite of her toast. This shit is not male gaze; it’s full-on Chippendales, just with less velcro.

But then the deflowering happens — actual penetrative sex. After all this lingering build up and all these smoldersome exchanges, the film cops out with a montage, a mess of objectifying close ups that, even/especially if we were totes into all the stuff leading up to it, must feel like an, ahem, anticlimax. To those women, and there are many, who say that they found ‘Fifty Shades’ hot — was it the sex scenes? Or was it everything except the sex scenes? Because the sex scenes in this “film for women,” are shot exactly like every other sex scene ever, and it doesn’t seem to be for women at all.

What’s bothersome about this is how normalized it is. It’s hard even to blame Taylor-Johnson for this irritating shift in perspective, this is just how you shoot sex, especially in mainstream movies where you can’t afford to be slapped with an NC-17. “The most controversial issues in American film have typically been sexual, and the way the MPAA rates sex on screen tends to uphold the male gazesays Scherker. So while in many other arenas the language of cinema may have evolved to incorporate a woman’s perspective, whether because women’s films tend to stay away from depicting actual sex, or the stranglehold that conservative institutions like the MPAA have on mainstream filmmaking, the language of the mainstream cinematic sex scene remains resolutely stuck in the default (“male”) position.

Within that culture, then, cinematic and wider, it’s a very short step from being told that This Is What Sex Looks Like over and over again, to believing it, to starting to actually believe it’s sexy. (And here’s where we see the ‘Fifty Shades’ phenomenon come full circle and realize the head is eating the tail). “Sexy,” even for heterosexual women, becomes about women’s bodies, not men’s bodies. It becomes about how well we can attract someone and not how attracted we are to them. It becomes about how much we can be validated by someone else’s interest in us (and if he’s a billionaire, we get extra sexy points!), and not how interested we are in them.

And most pukishly, “sexy” becomes about being a disingenuously “awkward,” virginal innocent — because of course Ana is not just a virgin, she has never even masturbated — plundered by an overbearing, worldly man and inducted into the universe of carnal pleasure via a blissful deflowering which will then make him the sine qua non of lovers. How on earth did that evident male sex fantasy get itself so cunningly smuggled into a female one? It can only be because male desire has defined “sexy” for so long that be it in a blockbuster movie scene or in a bestseller or even, worst of all, deep in the secret heart of the impulses that the bestseller tapped into, women do not have their own lexicon to talk, watch or even think about sex as something for and from themselves.

Like any conditioning, it is insidious and self-propagating. Ask me how I think the sex scenes in ‘Fifty Shades’ should have been shot and I find myself experiencing a more or less total failure of imagination. Like others I resort to simple inversions of what exists already — let’s have a slow pan down Dornan’s completely naked body rather than Johnson’s! Let’s see more peen than boob! More johnson than Johnson! More erections than snatch shots! And sure, it would be a start, but just as the male stripper phenomenon, in being a direct reversal of a patriarchal norm, is a bit of an embarrassment to many, if not most, women, it’s difficult to imagine this sort of sex scene, even if it did get past the censors, being greeted with anything but hoots of derision. I’d probably be the chief, um, hooter. The problem here is the assumption that the female gaze, whatever that is when it comes to sex scenes, will operate in exactly the same way as the male gaze, just pointed at a different crotch. And I do not know if that is the case, I just know that with it being so difficult to get any kind of mainstream film made by and for women that talks about sex in anything but the most anodyne of ways, we collectively had a rare chance to move the dial a click or so with ‘Fifty Shades,’ and we blew it.

It’s tempting, in fact, to draw a facile-but-fun comparison between Christian Grey, the male dominant, and our male-dominant culture. In order to get with Grey and be his gal, Ana must submit entirely to his will. Grey already has all the power in the relationship, and owns all the stuff. Grey swamps Ana, shows her shiny things, takes her “innocence,” introduces her to decadence and pleasure and even so-called liberation, but always on his terms, in the time, place and manner of his choosing. In controlling the discourse around sex on the most micro level — the actual physical act, the sensations that accompany it — cinematically and otherwise, male culture has made female sexuality its own domain, which is pretty goddamn clever of it.

The only difference is  that, unlike Ana at the end of the sequels, we’re not gonna change our merciless master with our unending sweetness. We’re not going to show him the error of his ways by staying perfectly still and just being our adorable selves. We are not going to be rewarded for passivity, docility and an unquestioning acceptance that whatever we’re given is probably more than we deserve, by the dominant culture having a sudden change of heart and telling us it’s gonna do it our way from now on. We’re just going to continue to get fucked, and fucked — as Christian Grey would say, to the liquefying of a lot of loins — hard.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox