A charm-free hero with control issues and a passive, fretful heroine have coy and tediously vanilla pretend-sex. This is meant to be erotic?
I’m “biast” (con): despise the book and despair of its popularity
I have read the source material (and I hate it)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Let’s be clear about one thing: The problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is not the sex.
I mean, apart from how Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson have no onscreen chemistry at all. And apart from how watching them pretend to fuck is utterly unsexy and unromantic. And apart from how coy and tediously vanilla the pretend-sex is (even more vanilla than the not-at-all-BDSMy sex in the book!). And apart from how no one ever gets to actually come because the gauzy dissolve into the next scene happens before anyone orgasms… every single time. And apart from how the heterosexual female director of this film, which is intended for an almost entirely heterosexual female audience, chose to shoot the sex scenes in a preposterously male-gazey way, with the camera lingering as it swoops up and down Johnson’s naked body in a way it never does on Dornan’s, as if when heterosexual women think about having sex with a hot guy they imagine themselves not using their eyes to drink in what he looks like but somehow letting their eyes float off into the distance in order to luxuriate in a disembodied view of their own breasts and asses being revealed as they are undressed.
(It’s not like director Sam Taylor-Johnson doesn’t know how to do female-gazey! Check out her Nowhere Boy, about teenaged John Lennon: the camera positively makes love to her leading man, Aaron Johnson. Of course, that was a low-budget British indie, and this is a big-budget Hollywood production. Are the studios really so afraid of female desire that even in a movie about a sexual relationship told from a woman’s perspective, a male gaze must be reinforced? No, don’t answer that…)
Still, the sex is not the problem.
A disturbing number of people who complain about those who complain about Fifty Shades of Grey — the book and now the movie — completely fail to appreciate that the sex isn’t what we complainers are complaining about. Even the clearly coached responses from Johnson and Dornan on the red carpet of the London premiere of the film on Thursday night missed it: They went on and on about how careful everyone involved in making the film was to ensure that it’s clear that all the sex is consensual.
And it is. Every sexual act in the film occurs with at least the unspoken agreement of both parties, and sometimes with explicit spoken negotiated consent. But an intimate relationship is about more than sex. Sex isn’t the only understanding between lovers (or even just friends) that requires consent. There are boundaries that have to be respected and personal autonomy that is no one else’s to control. This is meant to be a 21st-century romance, isn’t it? So why does it feel retrograde in ways that are demeaning to both men and women?
This is a very literal adaptation of E.L. James’s very literal novel — the screenplay is by Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks) — but it does downplay the worst of its romantic “hero”’s boundary and control issues. It cannot eliminate them, however, because they are fundamental to the extremely traditional ideas about men and women, and about men’s and women’s experience of sexual desire, that the story is about. College student Anastasia Steele (Johnson: Need for Speed, The Five-Year Engagement) is a demure, naive virgin who is literally slack-jawed with awe, literally wide-eyed, and literally giggly with her own self-consciousness when she meets self-made billionaire Christian Grey (Dornan: Marie Antoinette) to interview him for the school newspaper. Thus begins a “relationship” that is all about him pushing her, her rebuffing him after long anxious debates with herself, and him overcoming her objections till he gets what he wants from her, often by showing off how wealthy he is. None of this occurs in a way that is romantically seductive — there is no wooing going on here, and Christian is completely lacking in anything approaching charm. He makes no attempts to be ingratiating, and is in fact domineering and controlling from the get-go. On their very first date, an outing to a coffeeshop, he commands her to eat. Not like “Oh, hey, I thought you might like a muffin with your tea,” but a bark of “Eat!” as he shoves the pastry at her. Him policing her consumption of food and drink will be a recurring thing. This is not normal.
By the time Christian presents Ana with a nondisclosure agreement to sign (also not a normal thing for a prospective boyfriend to do), she has more than enough hints that she should run away very fast in the other direction because he is a dangerously obsessive control freak who wants to be in charge of things he has absolutely no right to be in charge of. She doesn’t run away. But then, a little later, when she decides to turn down his offer to become his sexual submissive (the supposedly BDSM stuff here, as in the book, bears little resemblance to actual BDSM practices) and tells him she never wants to see him again, how does he react? He breaks into her apartment — well, he had previously warned her “I’m incapable of leaving you alone” — to overwhelm her with his fucking. Sure, she doesn’t tell him to leave, and she doesn’t say No to the sex. But this isn’t really a positive thing. Not when it’s underscoring a hoary trope about what women are supposed to do — insist they don’t want sex — and how men are supposed to respond: disbelieve her and give it to her anyway, because she secretly is dying for it.
Shouldn’t we be past the point at which a woman has to pretend not to want sex lest she be called a slut, at least in a woman’s own fantasy? Do some women enjoy pretending they don’t actually like sex?
On the other hand… Every time Christian steps waaay over a line he shouldn’t — expressing incongruous jealousy as if it’s totally appropriate; believing he should be kept apprised of all of Ana’s movements; treating her material property like it is his to dispose of as he wishes — Ana instantly dismisses and forgets her own objections, which were only the tiniest mewls of objection anyway. Because handsome rich boyfriend? There’s literally no other reason we can see. She never initiates sex — he orders her into it — and she doesn’t appear to have any desire of her own. So maybe she isn’t secretly dying for it, and maybe she just wants the fairy tale of a rich man to sweep her off her feet. Maybe she doesn’t say No to the sex because it’s the price she has to pay to get Christian? Unlike in the book, Ana here has no career aspirations and makes no attempt to find a job after her graduation (which occurs about halfway through the film); maybe she just wants to be taken care of?
This isn’t a better option to explain Ana’s motives.
Either way, we’re left with a woman who is manipulative and weak-willed and a man who is a slave to his hormones in an abusive relationship that is presented as romantic. This is not romance. It’s not even a fresh or original depiction of a messed-up sexual relationship. It would be old hat in a Victorian pulp novel. It is inexcusable today.
Shouldn’t our daydreams be the one place where we don’t have to play by these idiotic, woman- and man-hating rules?