Fifty shades of mediocrity

February 26, 2015

If Fifty Shades of Grey is popular, writes Laura Durkay, it's because audiences want more than typical movie depictions of sex. But they didn't get the film they deserve.

WHEN FIFTY Shades of Grey opened on February 14, it shattered box office records. It easily blew past the U.S. box office record for that weekend, and is currently the highest-grossing February debut of an R-rated film ever in the international market.

I confess I have never read the Fifty Shades books. Bad writing is a hard limit for me. But with over 100 million copies of the trilogy sold worldwide, a big-screen adaptation was only a matter of time.

The resulting film is alternately slick, silly, old-fashioned, creepy, disturbing and occasionally even a little bit sexy. At many points, it's eye-rollingly terrible. Yet the late-afternoon weekend showing I attended was packed, with an audience of mostly women. While Fifty Shades is easy--so easy--to mock, mocking alone addresses neither the film's popularity, nor its deep-seated problems.

For anyone who has been living under a rock, here is a plot recap: shy virginal college student Ana meets billionaire CEO Christian Grey, is instantly smitten with him because of...well, reasons of some sort...and begins a BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism) relationship with him even though she's not very sexually experienced and only sorta into it. Hijinks ensue for three long books.

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey

In the film portrayal, Ana is Hollywood Plain, which means she is thin and conventionally attractive, but has bangs and sometimes wears flannel. She comes with a roommate who is Hollywood Hot--blonde, buxom and sexually adventurous--for helpful contrast.

Christian is super hot, as everyone in the film constantly reminds us, despite the fact that Jamie Dornan is rather bland, aside from conforming to a certain spornosexual ideal.

Ana and Christian have an adorable meet-cute in Christian's office (staffed entirely by young, hot women), which involves Ana tripping in the office doorway and meeting Christian on her knees. (Get it?) Ana says that Christian is intimidating, although it's not really clear what's intimidating about their first meeting, other than the office furniture that costs as much as a small house.

Much of the first act of the film is a curious dance between chivalry and creep. Christian operates in two modes: taking Ana on dates that mostly involve flying and driving expensive machines, and doing things that would get any normal person slapped with a restraining order.

Review: Movies

Fifty Shades of Grey, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, based on the novel by E. L. James, starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan.

He steals her address and sends expensive gifts to her house. He shows up at her work, at a bar he has no way of knowing she would be at (where he intervenes against a drunk friend who's trying to kiss her after she says no--because that totally makes the stalking less creepy), and eventually in her apartment. He routinely does these things after she rejects his advances, but he also tracks her down seemingly solely to say things like, "Stay away from me; I'm dangerous."

While Ana sometimes finds these intrusions momentarily sketchy, she is quickly overcome by the power of Christian's industrial-strength hotness, and her own desperate need for storybook romance, no matter how ill-suited Christian seems to fulfilling it.

Throughout the film, Ana and Christian have a quite impressive amount of sex, not all of which is terrible, although that's not saying much. It's when you find yourself making approving notes about things like pubic hair (Ana has some!) and condoms (we see Christian put one on! Twice!) that you realize just how low the bar is for anything remotely approaching realism in movie sex.

IF THE popularity of Fifty Shades reveals anything, it's the deep hunger for depictions--any depictions--of female sexual pleasure outside of the framework of porn aimed at straight men. Given the Motion Picture Association of America's puritanical standards on nudity and sex, and particularly on images of women enjoying sex, the film gets away with quite a lot. It's occasionally funny, and once or twice, it's even clever.

In particular, a scene in which Ana negotiates her contract crackles, with more playful sexual tension than most of the film's actual sex scenes. The scene is notable because it's one of the few times Ana and Christian truly feel like equals engaged in a game they're both enjoying.

But any time the film tries to approach BDSM--which is supposedly the core of its appeal--we run into serious problems. We learn in a later installment of the trilogy that Christian feels the need to dominate women because he was abused as a child. So right away, kink is framed as damage, something weird and wrong--not something a normal, psychologically healthy person would ever desire or enjoy.

When Christian shows Ana his exceptionally well-equipped playroom--seriously, how many canes does one person need?--and explains that he'd like her to be his full-time sub, she initially recoils. As he explains the various ways in which he'd like to hurt her, she says something along the lines of "Why would anyone let you do this to them?"

For people who are attracted to kinky sex, the obvious answer is, "Because you like it." Christian's answer? "Because it pleases me." "And what do I get in return?" Ana asks. "Me," Christian replies.

By this logic, Ana should submit to Christian's desires not because she enjoys submission, bondage or pain, but because she loves him and he wants to beat the crap out of her. And this is exactly what happens in the film's climactic, awful scene: Ana allows Christian to beat her with a belt even though she clearly does not like it and is crying throughout. She does something she clearly does not want to do, because she wants him to love her. Christian continues hurting her even when she is sobbing. This isn't kink; it's abuse.

It's clear that the filmmakers know this scene is disturbing, and intended it to be so. But that is exactly the problem at the heart of Fifty Shades. We're all fine and good when we're in the territory of some bondage and light flogging. But when it comes to the deep questions about kink, the film's imagination fails.

Why do we find pain erotic? Why might we enjoy role-playing scenarios we would never want to experience in their real-life, nonconsensual form? What is attractive about playing with power? Why do we like these things we're told we're not supposed to like, and what does that say about us and our desires? The inability to even conceive of answers to these questions is what makes the film back away from its core conceit just at the place when things start to get interesting.

Unable to conceptualize a truly mutually consensual and enjoyable BDSM relationship, the film ends up in a place that's both anti-kink and profoundly sexist. Christian is a damaged abuser with a pathological need to control and hurt women, Ana puts up with it for two more books/films-to-be because she wants to save him, and the whole thing is sold as romance. That's not sexy. It's toxic.

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