Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

12 February 2016

Grey Areas

Fifty Shades of Grey is laughable for many, many reasons, and I spent much of the film riotously cackling at its nonsense, but I was, I must admit, left with a few questions after the final elevator doors closed and (spoiler alert) Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele said goodbye-for-now.

What a caretaker!
Leading the list of my questions is the very plot of this film, which, in effect, concerns a single question: Will Anastasia sign a very long contract that gives Christian legal immunity so that when he hurts her during sex she won't sue him? Will she sign this document or won't she? When Anastasia asks Christian what it is that she gets for signing this document, Christian's response is "me". I found this surprising mostly because the response wasn't related to Anastasia's own pleasure: Anastasia is not supposed to get pleasure out of these sexual encounters but instead understands these sexual encounters as a kind of currency that she uses in exchange for Christian "himself", a self we come to find out does not refer to his body (Anastasia is not allowed to touch him, according to the contract) but his wealth and his family connections. Anastasia is supposed to sign a contract that exchanges her submissiveness in sadomasochistic sexual situations not for the pleasure of those situations but for (what amounts to) a series of expensive gifts.

He plays the piano.
This is the film's plotline. Christian tries to convince Anastasia to sign this contract; she resists signing it.

Anastasia doesn't understand why she and Christian can't just be boyfriend and girlfriend. Why can't they just hang out and watch Netflix? (I don't do the boyfriend thing, he says sullenly.) Why do they have to have elaborate theatrical sex during which she will feel some amount of pain. She asks him: Why do you want to hurt me? Again the language is oddly fixated on inflicting harm and not on the pleasure that both the dom and the sub take in BDSM sex practices.

If Fifty Shades' plot is one that hinges on the granting or withholding of consent, it is worth noting that Anastasia does not, after all, sign the contract. In other words, officially, Anastasia withholds her consent from these sex practices. The film sets up this additional threshold of consent – she is to sign a contract – and, because it is a document that needs to be signed or not signed, it is always extremely clear that Anastasia does not cross this threshold. Perhaps surprisingly, this withheld consent does not stop her from having (and enjoying) sex with Christian, and it doesn't stop her from willingly yet hesitantly participating in some of the sex practices he has proposed. In other words, Anastasia both withholds her consent and grants it.

Fifty Shades, to be clear, represents a woman who says no, who says no repeatedly, but who actually means yes. She always officially says no, but what she actually wants is for her lover to convince her. At one point she actually texts him "Nice knowing you", but when he shows up with wine and ice (?) and tells her she didn't mean that at all, she completely agrees. No, she didn't mean she was done with him forever. She meant: try a different tactic and then perhaps the answer will be yes.

If there are shades of grey in Fifty Shades, it seems to me that what the film is shady about is the difference between yes and no, the difference between consensual sex and non-consensual sex. Fifty Shades firmly believes that a woman saying no is simply a request for a man to pursue further negotiations. No is a grey area that might mean, probably means, could eventually mean, simply yes.

* * *
And another thing: as much as this film seems fascinated by kink and is willing to use it to titillate its audience, Fifty Shades is also surprisingly normative. I don't make love. I fuck. Hard, Christian tells Anastasia early in the film. But, we will come to find out, he is full of lies. He is happy to make sweet sweet love to the film's protagonist, and even spend the night with her, arms intertwined. He will protest, of course, that he doesn't do such things, he's not the boyfriend type, but, as it turns out, he absolutely does do those things. Mr. Grey spends much of the film holding Anastasia's hand, holding her face in his hands, caressing her lower lip, performing cunnilingus on her, caressing her with the feathers of peacocks, washing her back in a bathtub they share. And that's when he's not playing the piano, lifting her gently and carrying her to bed, dancing with her around his penthouse, posing for pictures with his arm around the small of her back, flying her around in his helicopter, or introducing her to his parents as his girlfriend. What's interesting about this is that Christian is obviously some kind of romantic heteronormative fantasy: he is simultaneously the image of the perfect future-husband who is rich and well dressed and can fly a helicopter and also the bad boy who hides his true feelings and secretly wants to hurt you.

Christian, I feel like there is something between us. Like a windshield.
I resent, of course (and we ought perhaps all to resent) the implication that Christian Grey is interested in his kinks because he is somehow damaged, because he is, as he says in the film's third act, "fifty shades of fucked up". This is absurd and offensive. This is equivalent to saying that his sexual tastes are somehow wrong as opposed to being one instance of the wide (and benign) variety of human sexuality. Grey has developed particular sexual interests and, as far as we were shown in this film, they weren't all that fucked up. What they were were specific. And anyway he is clearly capable of doing all of the things that heternormative vanilla sex deems appropriate (holding hands, cunnilingus, gentle caresses, etc.). If he doesn't want to do those things, that is his business, and if Anastasia doesn't want to have sex with him in the way that he wants to have sex, she is free to reject him and his floggers at any point. Furthermore, the caning sequence that somehow pushes Anastasia over the edge and convinces her (at least for now) that Christian is too far gone to be redeemed, is staged almost explicitly as a non-sexual encounter, in which he is hitting her only to hit her. If this is a kink, where is the eroticism?

(One might also ask why Christian Grey doesn't simply go on the internet and find a woman who is into his tastes from the get-go instead of trying to convince this college girl that she really will like it, no trust me.)

Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night.
And I guess this is none of my business – Sam Taylor-Johnson can put whatever fantasies she likes on her screen – but might I wonder aloud about how a film like this, directed by a woman and written by a woman, barely manages to pass the Bechdel test? Why doesn't Anastasia talk about this weird relationship she's in with, oh I don't know, her best friend and roommate? Or, perhaps, her mother? Our heroine could've used a little perspective, I feel. But instead she lies to both her roommate and her mother about Mr. Grey. What on earth is the point of having her do this? Why not have a simple conversation with another woman in your life? A bit of female solidarity, and perhaps some good advice, would, I feel, have helped this college senior a great deal.

I had numerous other problems with this movie, of course – mostly because it was a terrible film – but I see no reason to go into them. Fifty Shades, if it is anything, is a purely unrealistic rape-fantasy; the movie is simply a series of fantastic romantic images all of which involve the hope that the man of one's dreams won't take no for an answer. Christian Grey himself is merely the projection of many of those desires. There is much, perhaps, that is intriguing here about the way that Fifty Shades represents the fantasy of the white American (mostly) heterosexual woman in the early 21st century. These fantasies are, I will confess, darker than I had thought. But they strike me as dark not because of their propensity toward kink, but because what is clear in this version of the female fantasy is that the film simply refuses to be clear about what we think we in the 21st century mean by the word rape. The shades of grey upon which this film is predicated are all between the word yes and the word no.