The Cypher Dom: Christian Grey and the Failure of Visual Media

full-jamie-dornan-376607268I guess you have to thank a bad book and a mediocre film if it engenders thought on the subject of the textual and visual portrayal of eroticism. The success of Fifty Shades of Grey has certainly brought a debate about BDSM, stalkerish males, passive women and the compromise of bad sex for love into the mainstream. And beneath all the poorly informed articles on sadomasochism, the feminist rants on the glamorization of abusive men, etc., is an interesting ongoing dialogue as to what made the novel – and it seems the film – so popular, so acceptable now, and how it fails as a lifestyle guide.

One of the ways in which it has been creatively and critically interesting to me is in highlighting the differences in modes of narrative consumption and especially how, for many women, the fantasy male object of desire fails, in film, to live up to the promises of prose. The other is in how Hollywood juggles explicit vs implicit eroticisms.

Many of the reviews of the film, including my own, had words of praise for Dakota Johnson’s portrayal of Anastasia Steele. Besides being visually appealing, and walking the line between innocence and sexual interest well, the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey manages to dispense with the poorest aspect of the book: all that embarrassingly digressive and cringeworthy internal dialogue. There’s no inner goddess doing a the cha-cha. A lot of the most boringly adolescent bits are gone. I can only offer my sincere thanks to the director for forgoing the narrative strategy of a voice-over for Ana’s internal thoughts. But, in essence, what the visualizing of the novel did for the main character was act as the editor E.L. James should have hired in the first place.

However, I have yet to see a film review that has anything good to say about Jamie Dornan’s portrayal of Christian Grey. I’m starting to feel a little sorry for the actor, because I think he’s blamed for things that are simply not his fault: the cardboardish quality of the character and the distinct lack of heat in the BDSM scenes. One is a flaw in the original narrative and a subtractive, rather than additive approach to the script, and the other is a bad piece of casting. Let me elaborate.

As a deeply dispassionate reader of the books, I can’t fault Dornan’s faithfulness to the textual character; it lacks dimension and depth because it’s simply not there in the text. Despite the few hints at a painful childhood, Christian Grey a cypher Dom in the book. Admittedly, he doesn’t much resemble any real-life version of a dominant, but hey, this is fiction. But it’s a very specific type of fiction: it’s romance. And romance often offers their readers alpha males as cypher characters, because reading is far more interactive than most people imagine. First, romances are seldom written from the POV of the male character, and so their thoughts and feelings are often only revealed in action and dialogue. Second, readers bring their fantasies of a perfect lover to the text and actively construct their object of desire out of an absence of information in the text. I found this out when readers of some of my work commented on a piece and reflected back qualities they believed to be aspects of the male character I had written that simply weren’t there in the text. A very good example of this occurred with the character of Shindo, in the novella Gaijin. They found astoundingly redemptive qualities in him that, I swear to you, I didn’t write. Superficially, he’s a sociopath and a rapist, but many readers brought qualities they needed to him have to their reading. The book is no longer for sale, but if you want a copy of it, you’re welcome to one for free. Just email or tweet me.

Prose requires a lot of reader interaction. It cannot describe the whole of anything (and when it attempts to, it becomes a very boring piece of prose). Readers are constantly ‘writing’ into the text as they read. It’s what makes the act of reading so personally rewarding. I think it is also why eroticism works so well in text form. Our personal erotic minds have very specific keys and good erotic texts have very weak locks; they can accommodate any number of fantasies into the silences of the text. Of course, when it’s too open, too unspecific, the text feels incomplete and hazy, but the prevalence of cypher Doms in a lot of BDSM erotica tells you something about how flexible we can be, as readers.

Film is a more concrete medium. It has the ability to deliver hyper-specific information very fast due to its visual nature. All the little nuances readers ‘fill in’ to their own specifications (tone of voice, phrasing, body language, facial expression, motivation) while reading are delivered to them in a WISIWYG fashion in film. But also, I think it is a question of how we read. Much has been written on the miraculous double-think we do when consuming something we know to be fiction. Part of our mind is there, in the moment of narrative in the book, and part of it perfectly aware that we’re holding a book in our hands, or reading on a screen, and that this is fiction. I think this is why, in particular, many women are so gratified by the portrayal of politically incorrect men in erotic fantasy texts, while finding them rather harder to tolerate in film. So all of Christian Grey’s flaws – his dictates, his self-absorption, his manipulative, rapey, and stalkerish behaviour can be very erotic in text, when it is addressing our erotic fantasies. But the film brings the contemporary, concrete social implications of that kind of behaviour into focus. Our visual senses are inundated by the ‘real seeming’ setting of the filmic world, with its traffic, its weather, and its extras walking by. In a way, the realism of film clashes with the cypher fantasy of a character like Christian Grey. A lot of women who found Christian Grey very erotic in the context of a novelistic universe may find Jamie Dornan lacking and somewhat revolting the passively consumed filmic world.

This is something I think a lot of feminists who are critical of women’s politically incorrect erotic fantasies simply don’t get: our erotic fantasies – whether only played out in our minds or enacted in the bedroom – are seldom reflective of how we want to order our everyday world. The sexual may be political, but the erotic is often deeply anti-political and, indeed, socially transgressive. The philosophy of the bedroom is NOT the philosophy of the state, and insisting it should be is inauthentic and authoritarian – whether it originates from the Vatican or a Take Back the Night rally. We are private creatures, with very specific, private erotic histories that cannot and should not be erased in a Pol Pot-style ‘Year Zero’ attempt to create an egalitarian society by cleansing our erotic imaginations of its culturally-informed history. I’m fairly confident that 100 years of truly egalitarian social order will slowly shift those erotic fantasies into something more socially palatable. Or, to put it another way, please stop denying us our erotic traumas. Get us equal pay and affordable reproductive healthcare first and, eventually, our erotic minds will probably follow.

Its not constructive to bludgeon women for a one-handed reading of Fifty Shades of Grey – that’s a private and unpolitical interactive erotic experience. But my guess is that most women’s reaction to the filmic Christian Grey will be much more indicative of their real-word levels of tolerance for  sociopathically entitled, withholding, obsessive and abusive men.

The other problematic aspect of the Fifty Shades of Grey film is the portrayal of its apparently central BDSM theme. A great many erotic romance readers (and writers, too) enjoy the fantasy of BDSM but have vanilla sex lives in reality. Text allows us to choose the level of concrete detail we wish to entertain internally. Film doesn’t. It’s fair to say that most women who read BDSM coloured erotic romance would not enjoy the real thing. They aren’t physically or psychologically wired that way in reality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We all have erotic fantasies we would not choose to play out in reality – even those of us with kinks the would squick the mainstream. My guess is that, for instance, many reading fans of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy would not get off to explicit BDSM video porn. I think the filmmakers were very aware of this, and this is why there is very little real BDSM vibe in the film. It’s all trappings and no substance because the filmmakers knew that BDSM substance would freak the hell out of a mainstream audience. While E.L. James might have been writing BDSM out her ass, I’m fairly certain the filmmakers were able to consult people who knew a lot more about it. The lack of any real BDSM vibe is, I think, intentional. But the eroticization of excessive wealth, or consumption fetish, which plays an implicit but central part in both the book and the movie was something the filmmakers decided would appeal to a mainstream audience very comfortably.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dornan, if the media is to be believed, was pretty revolted by his research into BDSM. This royally pissed of the BDSM community, but I don’t think it was warranted or justified. Admittedly, he could have been a little more measured in his language, but individuals in the BDSM world have a lot more experience in how to express their ambivalence for kinks that don’t appeal to them. The vanilla world simply doesn’t get that training. Erotic responses are not critical or conscious or rational. Whether positive or negative, our responses are visceral and it takes more practice than I think the BDSM community is willing to admit to learn how to acknowledge someone else’s kinks while refusing to embrace the eroticism of them yourself. It’s a discipline we expect amongst practitioners, but to assume a vanilla person can instinctively produce that kind of measured reaction is silly. He went to a dungeon and felt dirty and sordid afterwards. Well, what’s odd about that? Mr. Dornan is not wired to like feeling dirty and sordid. His remarks about it reflect his vanilla wiring. He didn’t insult or denigrate the people he saw – he just expressed his reaction and his expectations revealed his ignorance of that environment. That’s no different than a layman who upchucks when witnessing a c-section. He was a tourist who does what tourists do: read their environment poorly and without the benefit of cultural context.

Why the filmmakers chose to cast someone who knew so little about a theme that was, at least superficially, central to the story might seem puzzling. It wasn’t as if he was a ‘name’ for the box-office. I’m fairly certain there were actors with a little more kink to their sexual personality who would have been more appropriate for the role IF a believable Dom vibe is what they were after.

Please note how I’ve bolded and capitalized that ‘if’.

I remind you to my earlier remark that there are two forms of eroticism in the narrative of Fifty Shades of Grey: there is the explicit BDSM eroticism and the implicit consumption fetish. Another reason why I believe the filmmakers cast Jamie Dornan is because they decided to lean on the second, far more accessible form of eroticism. And in that arena, Jamie Dornan is akin to a dungeon master. Long before he was cast for the role of Christian Grey, he’d modeled for Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, Armani, Aquascutum, (I’m not going to list all of them. That’s MY squick.) He may know nothing at all about BDSM, but he knows about the erotics of conspicuous consumption. It’s practically in his bones. That’s why I suspect they chose to cast him.

  12 comments for “The Cypher Dom: Christian Grey and the Failure of Visual Media

  1. February 18, 2015 at 7:00 pm

    Interesting analysis of a film I will never watch. Even if the material was to my taste, I am decidedly non-visual in my eroticism. Watching has never been my thing. The fact I find most startling is how very many people have queued up to see a film that has consistently awful reviews.

  2. Jeanne
    February 18, 2015 at 11:11 pm

    I read the books and really struggled with my own reaction to the Beauty-and-the-Beast aspect of the story. I didn’t identify with Ana. I identified with Christian in many ways (except the bad BDSM stuff). How my wounds make me who I am and how the unhealed wounds hurt others when I don’t pay careful attention to them. I struggled because I am a feminist. I love good writing. And I couldn’t get this story out of my head. Your writing has helped me understand how much I projected onto the story. Thank you for this. And thank you for all the ways you write about sex, sexuality, sensuality, and erotica. You are my teacher.

    • February 18, 2015 at 11:25 pm

      You can be a feminist and love good writing and still get a tingle down below from FSOG. I’m a feminist and a champion of consent and I thought the scene with the belt was hot as hell. Maybe it’s because neither of us mistake fiction for reality?

      • Jeanne
        February 19, 2015 at 1:39 am

        Of course! I’m an intersectional sex-positive feminist. I love your writing. All of it. I can’t seem to write fiction very well. I wish I could because I think good art (and even some bad art) can get at our subconscious in ways that no other thing can. Not even expensive psychoanalysis.

  3. kala goriup
    February 19, 2015 at 3:24 am

    I blame Margret Mitchell. Women think every good looking man is going to be their Rhett Butler. Honestly he is the worst archetype in fiction. But we are supposed to want to be drug up those stairs and raped. You see this is where I have the problem. And it has nothing to do with BDSM. It has to do with women writing the narrative to where they end up doing things they don’t like. Or they tell themselves fiction they know is pure bullshit. No one fixes another person. This juvenile hogwash. The best piece of advice I was ever given- if a man tells you something, believe him. So he says he is no good- okay. I am out of there. See how much common sense it takes? Not a whole lot.

    • February 19, 2015 at 7:51 am

      Hi Kala,
      What I was trying to express is that the ‘bad men’ archetype that is featured in women’s fantasies is a) written by them and for them and b) serve a number of imaginary erotic purposes and c) does not reflect what women think men should be in reality.

      Women, just like men, will always have erotic fantasies that wouldn’t be ‘good for them’ in reality. That’s why they’re fantasy, or imaginary or fictional. Just like we enjoy reading horror or thrillers we would not want to have to live through.

      The danger here is in assuming that fantasy archetypes bear any resemblance to what women want in reality; in assuming fiction, fantasy or reality is interchangeable.

  4. RunSilent RunDeep
    February 19, 2015 at 4:39 am

    Another thoughtful review, this time of the reviews! I found two points especially striking.

    The first was that film is “a more concrete medium”. It is certainly more concrete than books — the viewer is not allowed to imagine what the lead characters look like — and it is also more concrete than the stage. On Broadway, the staging for the musical “West Side Story” was impressionistic; it only suggested that the scene was set in a basketball court or an alley. In the movie, they had to show every brick on the wall behind the actors.

    The second was your very sound distinction between “the sexual” and “the erotic.” I couldn’t agree more. Many of us have very-private fantasies about things that would be hugely transgressive if they happened in real-life — things we would never ever wish to see in real-life. Yet the fantasies are hot as hell. That’s simply the way that “the erotic” works.

    Most of the local people I know who are into BDSM take FSOG as seriously as people take “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” “Hey kids, let’s go and throw stuff at the screen, and chant together the hilariously bad dialogue!”

    Perhaps the unaccountable popularity of the book and the movie is a testament to the number of women who do have such fantasies — who have them very privately — erotic fantasies that they have never-before been able to admit to, perhaps not even to themselves.

    Well done. Again.

  5. February 20, 2015 at 6:27 pm

    I love what you have contributed here. Thought-provoking and intelligent. I wrote a positive review of the film, having not read the book. There needs to be more articles analysing the issue rather than just attacking the film. The arguments presented in those articles seem to have no substance at all, almost like a child having a tantrum. Here is my article

    • February 20, 2015 at 10:31 pm

      You bring up some interesting points in your review. I do believe, though, that the producers have a charge to answer for. It’s marketed as the most erotic film ever. It’s not.

  6. Dee Parsons
    February 21, 2015 at 7:30 am

    What a thoughtfully written piece. I am 73 years old and a life long reader. I have always preferred the written word and thanks to your insightfuless understand why. It really resonated with me that we add things to what we read unconsciously according to our own understanding and inner experiences of what is written. when I grew up all we had was the written word and radio, so we had to visualize and imagine things ourselves. I am saddened to see adults, teenagers and preschool children mindlessly “entertained” at every function, including church with some electronic device. I’m pleased to have run across your site and thank you for your refreshing point of view. And yes I still enjoy a good “spicey ” read, you never get too old.

    • February 21, 2015 at 8:26 am

      I certainly hope not! I’m getting there myself.

  7. Robin
    March 11, 2015 at 10:43 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with your review of fifty shades of grey. What I was most insulted by with the fifty books was the “abused victim” turning into the “Dom man” to deal with what happened to him. The message I got out of the books is if you like bdsm that something awful happened to you or there is something fundamentally wrong with you. “Fifty shades of fucked up” self proclaimed my Christian grey. There are so many authors out there with many spellbinding stories of bdsm that I feel deserved a better shot out of having a movie made of their stories. Lucia Jordan’s “nailed” for example is an amazing depiction of the life style. I do have to agree with your point about the actor. How were we to fall in love with him if he wasn’t naturally a Dom. If you live the lifestyle you can always tell the true does and the wanna bes. The opportunity to turn the book into something more on screen failed horribly. Very disappointing.

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