Back in high school, I was vacationing with my parents in the mountains. One night my mom and I went to see Fried Green Tomatoes. We liked it and encouraged my Dad to catch it the next night. We’d go see the other film playing at the tiny Colorado cineplex. Which, as it turned out, was Basic Instinct. We had no idea what we were getting into, and I can still recall my mother’s disdain for the lurid details of sexual manipulation. By the time Sharon Stone uncrosses her legs to show off her business, my mother loudly sighed and said something like, “Oh come on, this is ludicrous, oh please, she thinks she’s so special.” Say what you will about the movie — and my mother said a lot, and I remember it all — it definitely was a starmaking role for Sharon Stone.
At the other end of the erotic-film-for-mainstream-audiences spectrum, you might think of Showgirls. It’s a cult favorite and camp classic, sure. My favorite version if it is from VH1, where all the nudity on stage and during sex is digitally plastered over with these sort of awkward flesh-colored bras. But Showgirls was supposed to be the hottest film of the year. It wasn’t. I’ve seen chicken salad sandwiches with more sex appeal. And it basically killed the career of Elizabeth Berkley.
When our film reviewer refused to screen Fifty Shades of Grey on principle, God bless her, I took the bullet and begged my husband to watch with me. I knew he’d be good for some one-liners and I had high hopes the film would reach the levels of camp achieved 20 years earlier by Joe Eszterhas and Paul Verhoeven in Showgirls.
It’s bad, but not enjoyably bad
Fifty Shades of Grey was adapted from the bestselling 2011 book, which was itself adapted from Twilight fan fiction that was published online by E.L. James under the pen name “Snowqueen’s Icedragon.” The Fifty Shades trilogy has sold more than 100 million copies. By comparison, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird has sold only 30 million copies since 1960. Yes, this fact is an indication of precisely how idiotic we are as a people.
The movie doesn’t contain a plot so much as a series of episodes but it’s about Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a senior graduating from Washington State University’s Vancouver campus. She has a roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford) who is not just the Valedictorian of the class but also a student journalist. One day Kate is too sick to make the trip up to Seattle to interview the cartoonishly wealthy and very single and supposedly handsome Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan).
I know what you’re thinking and you’re right: Snowqueen’s Icedragon will not go down in history for her inventive and indelible character names. Anyway, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey hit it off, we’re told, and he buys her lots of nice things, tells her how awesome she is, and they end up having sex a few times. She tries to get him to open up with her a bit more, to little avail.
The reason why the fan fiction, books and movie are so enjoyed by legions of women is ostensibly because it’s supposed to be erotic, with plenty from the bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism (BDSM) ouevre. But for a movie that has the more morally minded among us clutching their pearls, with more than an average movie’s nudity and more than an average movie’s discipline role-playing (but only slightly), a viewer might be tempted to ask if that’s all the B there is. And where’s the S? And most especially where’s the M? Yes, you get to see much of Johnson’s trim body over and over again. And Dornan’s torso and fannie to boot. Hurray. But the actual BDSM is mild and it’s treated in this film mostly as a deep psychological problem Grey developed after violent child abuse during the few years he spent with his crack-addicted prostitute mother coupled with his first adolescent sexual encounter being at the hands of an older dominant lover.
In this sense the movie is perhaps most like a poor (and subliterate, and basic) woman’s 9 1/2 Weeks without the chemistry and mystery. I know 9 1/2 Weeks, in which Mickey Rourke dominates Kim Basinger, was critically panned, but there’s a reason it’s genuinely loved by women. America’s most under-appreciated film critic, John Bloom, a.k.a. “Joe Bob Briggs,” said of the film in his book Profoundly Erotic: Sexy Movies That Changed History, “It’s a nice girl’s view of kinky sex, as though the slavemaster in The Story of O had himself been gagged and blindfolded so the cute girl in the room could say, ‘OK, this is fun, now spank me.”
Basinger plays Elizabeth, a reserved, sexually closed-off art dealer. Rourke’s John buys her lots of nice things and pushes her emotional limits. As those limits are explored, the sex gets hotter and heavier. The ice-across-the-clavicle scene is a million times hotter than Fifty Shades’ ice-across-the-nipple scene, although it’s about the best the latter film offers. But it’s never terribly dangerous and the viewer always assumes that the relationship could end at any minute and things would just go back to normal. The best criticism of 9 1/2 Weeks is also the explanation for why it played so well with audiences. It’s not really about BDSM so much as some universal themes about losing one’s self in a relationship and the complicated power dance between men and women. Still, at least Elizabeth seemed genuinely scared of John at times, and genuinely interested in the dominant-submissive game. Anastasia Steele, on the other hand, giggles through much of the domination and seems to go along with it solely because of her interest in Grey, not in and of itself.
Critics have been complaining about how unsexy the sex scenes are in Fifty Shades. They do not tittilate, true, particularly at the level one would expect for the best-selling erotica of all time. Still, they were far better than expected. The infamous Showgirls sex-scene in the pool this is not. They’re just not terribly enticing, even if they might be the best part of this plotless film. The problem is not with Johnson and Dornan, who put forth a solid effort despite their lack of chemistry. The problem’s certainly not with the direction, given that Sam Taylor-Johnson worked magic on the source material even with a hostile author who was given much control over the film. The problem is Ms. Snowqueen’s Icedragon’s writing.
Porn for lonely women of today
One common criticism of films about male-female relationships is that they’re written by sex-obsessed men who can’t write female characters. Fifty Shades of Grey flips the script completely. Here you have a sex-obsessed female writer who can’t write men. Christian isn’t a manic pixie dreamgirl but… a brooding dominant dreamboy. He showers Anastasia with outlandish gifts. A brand new cherry red Audi! A first edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles! Helicopter rides! New clothes! And that’s not all. He also tells Anastasia how beautiful she is, how much she moves him, how much she turns him on, how devoted he is to her. He takes charge and leads her while also respecting her as a person. Seriously, Dornan plays a character with so little to work with that the biggest plot point to look forward to in the second film will be to see if Christian Gray resolves his constipation problem.
This story has all the originality of a Lifetime movie mixed with the subtle character development you might find in a third-rate porno.
And in so many senses of the word, this fan-fiction turned major studio film is the for-female equivalent of a boom-chicka-wow-wow scene where an inexplicably hot and vivacious woman presents herself to the schlumpy cable guy. I should perhaps mention for the erotic thrillseekers among us that not only is the sex pretty tame, though highly nude, it doesn’t start until nearly an hour (although it feels more like three hours) into the film. If you’re looking for something hot to watch with subtle BDSM overtones, I’d recommend Damage or Bound or Secretary before this.
Anyway — if, as a character written by G. K. Chesterton said, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God,” let’s ponder what women who are into this awful literature are seeking.
Many women are sick of the pressure to control everything
There’s a scene where Grey says that he enjoyed his dominant lover (a friend of his mother’s, who took him as her submissive when he was 15) because by giving up control, he felt free from responsibility and making decisions. There’s a certain morbid hilarity in this scene coming right before they discuss the hormonal contraceptives he’s going to force her to take to prevent any baby-making that might result from the sex they’re having. But the point is a great one and one that many women relate to.
Some people want to control everybody and everything and some people want to serve and submit. Some people might even have positions of authority in one part of their life and still want to serve others. I want to say this before the days when such statements are branded hate-speech worthy of re-education camp but a hell of a lot of women would, if forced to choose, prefer to be in a loving committed relationship with a dude than get successively better office jobs on the way to the corner office.
But much of feminist rhetoric is focused solely on women’s marketplace value — Wage gaps that we pretend have nothing to do with different choices women make! New programs to ship kids off to government day care so we can work more! freezing eggs and keeping the uterus empty, again for work reasons! The remaining rhetoric is about controlling relationships in the office and at home, adopting male-like postures at work and home, controlling fertility by contracepting or aborting it for twenty years followed by controlling fertility by using tortuous assisted reproductive technologies once fertility declines.
Meanwhile, due to everything from the aforementioned contraception obsession to just a general breakdown in traditional morality, men are no longer asking women to marry them. And a good number aren’t even asking to be in relationships. And why would they, exactly? I mean, it’s not just that they’re delaying marriage, it’s that men are completely confused by the rules and regulations governing dating thought crimes. (It’s perhaps worth noting that one of the only plot devices in Fifty Shades involves the two lovers engaged in negotiations over a lengthy and very explicit contract governing sex.) Men aren’t growing up as their fathers and grandfathers did because work options are limited, debt is high, sex is simultaneously easily available for some and an almost impossible goal for others. Fact is, I bet we are having less sex per capita than any time in human history. Sexual revolution my arse.
And even for those who are married, many have problems. Busy work schedules by both partners kill any time for sex. Men are addicted to ubiquitous porn, which cruelly renders them impotent with real women. Women are resentful of their husbands. Husbands are resentful of their wives. Humans are sinful and the way we do sex and companionship are proof of that.
Couldn’t it be that women who like the horribly written, emotionally stunted Fifty Shades business are simply throwing up their hands and admitting they wish men would just take charge again? They’re just as sick of the confusing labyrinth of dating rules and sexual manipulation as men are. They want to be lost in a relationship, completely submitting to a man who is dangerous enough to need rescue but loving enough to notice what makes them beautiful.
Yes, it’s true, it would be far better to donate $50 to a domestic violence help center than spend one shiny cent on a movie like this, even if it were better written, had characters you even slightly cared about, an observable plot or hot sex scenes. But when thinking about those who get something out of a film like this, it might be better to just feel pity and weep for a society that produced such a sad state of affairs between the sexes.
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