In Nineteen Eighty Four, one of the defining novels of 20th century literature, George Orwell describes a totalitarian state where the working classes (or “proles” as they are dubbed in the novel) are kept ignorant of the higher classes oppressing them, with the state manufacturing cheap pornography in bulk to keep them in a permanent state of stupidity. The success of Fifty Shades of Grey, in both novel and film form, is Orwell’s prophecy writ large; it’s a book that has been unanimously described as god-awful, yet has sold upwards of 70 million copies and even helped push many stores out of recession in 2012 due to it’s surprise popularity. The comparisons with Orwell’s 1984 begin and end there- I’m not for a second suggesting that world leaders have used the pseudonym of E.L James to ghostwrite erotic novels in order to keep the populace ignorant of world events. To find one of those people who would make such bullshit claims, look on your Facebook feed for that one friend who always posts pictures of sandwiches cut in half into triangles with the caption “illuminati”.
Unfortunately, this comparison with Orwell that I’ve hastily made is one of the most interesting things about Fifty Shades; it’s toned down movie adaptation, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, never becomes so bad it’s good (as you would expect from a movie adaptation of porn), let alone plain bad. This is the first box-office success for a movie about what Alan Partridge would dub “hardcore super sex” since Deep Throat in the early 1970’s, yet it tones down it’s source material to achieve the unthinkable- it makes sex (and not just any sex, hardcore super-sex) look pretty boring. Say what you like about the source material, but at least it was frank and upfront about what it was- wrestling that page-turning, bean-flicking opus into a respectable blockbuster makes it frequently problematic thematically. Yet those problems rarely register when watching the movie, because of how unengaging and humourless the entire debacle is.
After her housemate who studies journalism bails on the task, Anastasia Steele (played by Dakota Johnson) has been thrown head-first into conducting an interview with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), the multi-millionaire head of Grey Enterprises, one of those businesses that exist in pop-culture that never actually specify what it is they actually do. The interview goes horribly, but Christian Grey takes a shine to Anastasia Steele- and when he takes a shine to someone, he starts trying to control them, as he isn’t “into that whole relationship thing”. He is into (among other things) vaginal and anal fisting, as well as non-sexual pursuits such as forcing the girl he’s with to not drink near him and make sure she always tells him where she’s going, dare she visit her parents without his permission.
He is unambiguously a cunt, yet the film falls head over heels in love with him and asks the audience to as well. I finished watching the film confused how female viewers could find a character with no regard for female independence so sexually attractive- if you saw his cock, maybe I’d get it (this is based on porn aimed at women after all), yet it instead focuses more on sexualising Anastasia Steele, with her appearing fully naked multiple times, with only a split-second shot of mid-shaft to appease anybody who wants a glimpse of Grey dick. If the book was aimed at women, the movie appears to be aimed at the boyfriends and husbands they will drag to the cinema, who are rewarded for their patience at sitting through all that romance-tripe with boobies and the continued (only partially consensual) degradation of it’s female protagonist. The sex scenes play out more like hyper-masculine power fantasies than what you would expect from a movie aimed at women.
The movie is also perverse in how unsexy it is- the only way to make it less sexy would be to have hired David Cronenberg as director, although that hiring decision may have led to an inadvertently fantastic film being made. Despite being based on a novel written by a woman, adapted to the screen by a female screenwriter and a female director, the entire movie has a queasy relationship with female sexuality, with the character of Anastasia Steele being punished (both sexually and otherwise) by her would-be suitor for not complying to his sexual demands. The entire movie starts with the sultry sounds of “I Put a spell on you” and Dakota Johnson suggestively biting her lip, hinting the movie may at least be somewhat sexy- yet when the sex comes, it makes you yearn for the cloth-eared dialogue that dominated the foreplay scenes, because at least that had an equal opportunities approach to the sexuality of the main characters.
The only thing that halts the sex scenes from appearing as problematic as they are is that the movie is so unengaging, to get riled up by anything it’s showing onscreen would count as being engaged. It just left me in a state of permanent bemusement that anybody could find this sexy; it’s not even an accurate representation of the S&M community, who have respect for their partners and use acceptable code-words should their activities get uncomfortable. Yet this is the biggest mainstream depiction of S&M in pop-culture history (The Passion of the Christ not withstanding), with cuddly daytime talk shows like This Morning getting in on the act by broadcasting beginners guides to S&M, which gave every viewer the permanent image of Phillip Scofield using nipple clamps live on air. If its good for nothing else, at least Fifty Shades is at least responsible for that hilariously surreal segment on British TV, which still manages to be slightly more sexy than what’s depicted in the movie.
In a nutshell, Fifty Shades of Grey is a movie that bemused me. I understand that I’m not the target audience, yet I’m still confused as to why a movie with a female creative team targeted at a female audience could portray female sexuality in such an increasingly negative way. I’m fully aware of the whole obsession with finding the “bad boy” sexy in pop-culture, but surely the line is crossed when that bad boy ignores pleas to stop and carries on anyway? But then, porn never adds context to a character’s backstory to explain their sexual preferences- when Christian Grey’s history is revealed in a segment to explain why he acts the way he does, it leaves a disturbing aftertaste, as it plays out like an excuse for the audience to continue finding his behaviour sexy. If only Fifty Shades was like the porn given to the proles in Nineteen Eighty Four– it’s sexiness would deter any criticism, leaving us in a permanent state of stupidity, ignorant of the implications it has for gender roles in regards to sexuality in pop-culture.