Fifty Shades of Grey is the first mainstream film based on an ‘erotic novel’ in quite a while; the last one I can recall was Secretary, loosely based on a short story with the same title by Mary Gaitskill, but I could be wrong.
There have been numerous recent art-house films considered to be erotic, like Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Colour), and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend but none of these, to my knowledge, were based on written prose. All are more explicit than Fifty Shades of Grey, and the last two mentioned are certainly, in my opinion, more erotic. But they are also not as accessible to mainstream movie-goers since both films focus on same-sex couples. I admit to being bored to death by Nymphomaniac, but the opening sex scene of Von Trier’s Antichrist still sticks in my mind as one of the most explicitly erotic pieces of film I’ve ever seen. The rest of the movie was in need of a stricter editor, but that initial scene is raw, feverish and terrifying, which is probably a telling clue as to my tastes.
Explicitness, it seems, is relative. There has been a great deal of television – True Blood, Spartacus, Deadwood, House of Cards, etc. – that is just as explicit as this movie, but those works don’t expressly promise to turn you on. Fifty Shades of Grey sells itself specifically as an erotic film.
First, I’d like to draw a distinction between erotic film and pornography because it helps to explain why it’s not the lack of explicitness that rendered Fifty Shades of Grey unerotic for me. I watch porn – I sometimes get myself off to porn – but I seldom consider it erotic.
Erotic narrative – filmed or textual – can be explicit, but it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t serve to remind our bodies that we’re mammals who seek pleasure in the vague and often failed hope of conforming to our biological imperative. It addresses our cultural mind and talks, not of sex, but of what we as humans have made of it: not urge, not drive, but desire. Eroticism is seldom about the pleasure felt or the orgasm; it’s about the desire to get there, all the cultural and personal detritus in which we wrap that pilgrimage, and the curious delusion from which we all suffer that there is some tremendous, epiphanic mystery that lies beyond that moment of pleasure. We settle for less. We settle for the orgasm and the intimacy and the delusion fades, until the next time.
Much like watching animals fucking, porn works on my lizard brain. It works at a very uncritical, unthinking and physical level – it speaks to my muscles and my glands but not my mind. Porn that made attempts at narrative always put me off because it was invariably facile. People used to put narrative into porn as if they needed an excuse to show people fucking, but we’ve gotten past that. Now we just have video of people achieving orgasms in various ways. For me, porn is a bit like running the faucet in an attempt to encourage urination; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not as if we don’t remember how to pee theoretically, but the sound of that water running kind of bypasses the understanding part and nudges the bladder to take the jump.
Romance is about love – a cultural construction but no less powerful for that. It often has a sexual dimension, and this is undoubtedly true for Fifty Shades of Grey: the story of a young woman who falls in love with a very rich man whose sexual practices are – even if she is intrigued by the trappings – repugnant to her. So, essentially, Fifty Shades of Grey is, for all it’s superficial focus on sex, neither pornography, nor erotic film. It’s a love story. Some might consider it a very conservative sort of love story, because the main character (not in the movie, but by the third volume of the novel) trades the sexual relationship she would prefer for love. This is what women have done for thousands of years.
For anyone who has practiced BDSM, the book and the film are both rather offensive parodies. Like spies who watch espionage thrillers, or soldiers who watch war films, or doctors who view medical dramas, there is always a sense of the false depiction of their lived realities. Fifty Shades of Grey portrays a highly fictionalized and poorly researched approximation of BDSM. All the props (too many, in fact) and none of the soul. There is none of the visceral understanding that BDSM is not a game of sexual ‘Simon Says’ but an erotic experience that people go into very willingly, driven even, to ‘queer’* the biological imperative and revel in the ways that culture has embellished it.
There has always been dominance and submission in mammalian sex, BDSM unpacks it and examines it, dissects it and revels in the dichotomy of humans as animals and humans capable of making a conscious choice in the power dynamic. Similarly, there has always been pain and danger in the nature of biological sex; instead of trying to mitigate or overlook it, BDSM reveals it, gazes into it, glories in it. Semiotics – the many layers of meaning we ascribe to any given word, act, person or event – are central to BDSM, even when we don’t explicitly acknowledge them. The handcuffs, the crops, the floggers, the wooden spoons, the sterilized needles, the corsets, the gags are not tools without context. It is their historical and social semiotic baggage that makes them erotic. BDSM is an erotic defiance of allowing things, people and acts stay in their socially and historically ascribed places. That’s why it’s fundamentally obscene and immoral to whip a non-consenting individual and deeply erotic to whip your consenting submissive lover. It may appear sexist and unfeminist when a male is dominant and a female submissive, but consider that both parties have made a deliberate choice of positioning, in disobedience of what cultural norms are now or what they have been in the past. We didn’t have a choice. Now we do and we exercise the choice consciously. It is an intentional transgression, a defiance and sometimes a parody of the status quo.
What makes the trappings of BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey so upsetting to practitioners is not just the absence in both the book and the film of any sense of BDSM’s complexity, but the knowledge that, for many people in the mainstream, this is their first encounter with something purporting to be BDSM. Sociologist Eva Illouz points out that erotic romance in general and Fifty Shades of Grey in particular is being consumed as a kind of dramatized, sexual self-help guide.
Fifty Shades of Grey serves up a heady cocktail of paradox. It glamourizes BDSM, adorns it with conspicuous consumption, bling, polish and muted lighting, while responsibility, agency and choice are hauntingly absent. Meanwhile, subtextually, BDSM is pathologized, criminalized: Christian Grey is into it because he was abused. The only other practitioner we even hear of is his first lover – a dominant, pedophilic woman who initiated him at the age of 15. So the message is: the sex is hot, the toys are expensive, and the only people who really enjoy this are sick. It’s not difficult to see why so many in the BDSM community are ambivalent about the book and the film. Much like EMTs who complain about the way film portrays CPR. Of course, if you performed CPR on film with veracity, you’d risk cracking someone’s ribs while boring the audience to death. If the BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey was performed with any level of veracity, there’d be a lot more sweat, snot, welts and screaming. It’s likely there’d be a few more obvious orgasms, too. I’m sure neither of the staring actors would be willing to expose themselves quite so thoroughly, even if those sorts of details had been in the book.
Personally, I’m not so concerned. Hollywood is constantly producing films where women are innocent victims with little or no agency – this is just another. It’s also constantly pumping out films where characters make monstrous compromises in order to be loved. I’m sure many filmgoers will return home after seeing the film and attempt a bit of tie-me-up-and-spank-me’, and most will survive it. A very few may find it immensely erotic and seek out more informed and detailed sources of information. It may lead to some undesired and upsetting bouts of rough sex, but so does going to a bar and by all accounts, so does attending many universities. It might even result in a few break-ups as partners find their tastes are incompatible. But, let’s be honest, anyone with even an inking of interest in BDSM may seek out far more explicit and harrowing videos on the net.
Fifty Shades of Grey is just not that important a film. Go see it. Just don’t expect to come away with a new lease on your sex life.
True to the book, the dialogue is pretty cringe-worthy. Jaimie Dornan came across as a joyless, humourless, self-important pedant. He reminded me of guys who tell you they’re ‘Doms’ but turn out to be bitter, mean, self-pitying and entitled little boys. But, in all fairness, that’s how Christian Grey is written in the novel. Dornan’s far, far sexier as a serial killer in the British series The Fall. However, I found Dakota Johnson much easier to stomach than her textual counterpart; she did the best she could with the lines she had and I found her smile rather contagious (even when I was trying hard to dislike her lip-sucking). She really does have a very erotic mouth. Finally, if director Sam Taylor-Johnson does a poor job of visualizing the eroticism of BDSM, she more than compensates for it by making helicopters, gliders, Audis and interior decor look sexy as hell. My guess is that she finds wealth a lot more erotic than kink. But then, so do most people.
Reflective postscript: 24 hours later, I forced myself to consider whether there was any teensy, weensy little bit of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie that turned me on. And yes, dear reader, there was: that short bit at the end, where he’s on her bare ass with a belt and she’s all teary and blubby? That bit turned me on a lot. Not nice, I know, but I’m kinky and film is not reality. Right at that point, I really wanted to be Christian Grey.
If you’ve seen the movie, I’d really like to know what you thought of it. If you’ve decided not to see it, I’d be interested in your reasons.