“Fifty Shades” Whips Female Desire Out of the Picture

Raw brutes like Marlon Brando in “Streetcar” and “Last Tango in Paris” fetishized abuse too. But the women, unlike Anastasia Steele, were bucking societal norms by way of the bedroom.

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I knew that, in order to see Fifty Shades of Grey (especially in a theater sandwiched between a Starbucks and a Chili’s) with a remote hope of an open mind, I’d have to give my own inner goddess (who will rant at anyone within earshot that there is no such thing as post-feminism) the night off. I hadn’t read the books the film is based on, but, as the marketing campaign coyly suggests, I was curious. The story of shared obsession between a doe-eyed virgin who majored in Romantic literature (is there any other kind?) and a hot-bodied, hard-brooding billionaire with a penchant for the kind of reduced-calorie BDSM you’d expect on Friday-night Cinemax has become a cultural flashpoint for women and desire; re-drawing (quite clumsily) the fine line between intense, smothering lust and call-it-like-it-is domestic violence.

Fifty Shades of Grey is less titillating than the sexual-harassment-training videos I had to watch as a cashier at J.C. Penney’s. The accepted narrative around Fifty Shades is that, however problematic it may be (and oh, is it ever), it is at least giving visibility (and perhaps legitimacy) to some darkly potent element of female desire. But for all of the talk of inner goddesses dancing the meringue to salsa music, there’s little joy or rhythm to Fifty Shades’ supposedly kinky sex: Anastasia Steele is profoundly unnerved by Christian’s “very singular tastes” and her time in his “playroom” (which she dubs “the Red Room of Pain”) is something to be endured until she can, through the power of her chaste, self-abnegating love, convert him to flowers and candles, vanilla sex and post-coital cuddling. Ana’s desires are aligned with the socially sanctified goals of womanhood; she isn’t brought to some place inside herself that even generations of conditioning about what “good girls” want can’t reach.

It’s a far cry from Maggie Gyllenhaal bent over a desk, her eyes lolling with sublime pleasure as James Spader (playing another Mr. Grey) smacks her ass, over and over, with the flat of his hand in Secretary. It ain’t Stella Kowalski slinking down a long staircase, primed with desire for the Adonis whose hands have bruised her body and made it quiver and sing like a plucked guitar string, in A Streetcar Named Desire. And it sure as hell is not Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris, hunting and haunting each other inside a dingy little apartment, until she is able to come without being touched.

Fifty Shades fetishizes behavior that can objectively be called abusive: Christian shows his “fifty shades of fucked up” by stalking the heroine and ignoring her lack of consent (after her perfunctory Googling of “submissive” yields pictures of trussed-up women in ankle-breaking heels, she tells him “it’s been nice knowing you”; he shows up to her apartment unannounced, snarls her break-up line back at her with condescending incredulity, and pounces on her). Then again, so do many of the works I love, works that could be considered high art: like Streetcar and On the Waterfront or half of Joyce Carol Oates’s oeuvre.

However, in these pieces, the man’s brutishness isn’t just in service to the woman’s blunt sexual desires; it gives her a conduit out of those socially sanctioned goals of womanhood that Fifty Shades affirms: the straight-jacket of a white dress and the airless heights of the pedestal. As the beloved (or at least lusted-after), the beautiful brute inspires something more elemental in the women he orbits. The beautiful brute is a core archetype of feminine desire: He’s the rogue who can break a man’s jaw and find his woman’s sweet spots with matching deftness; he’s the rough trade (even if he’s in a business suit) who can shuck open the tight shell of social expectations and bring the rawest, realest parts of her out into the air. If he’s done it right, that is.

And there was no more beautiful a brute than young Brando, whose early films are interrogations that slam a phone book across the face of red-blooded American maleness. Even Stanley Kowalski, the king of swinging dicks, exemplar of the alpha male recklessness that makes a pretender to the throne like Christian Grey so supposedly appealing, is really a means to an end for his wife, Stella, to shuck off the expectations of the good Southern society she grew up in. Those expectations are embodied by her sister, Blanche, whose desperate need to get back to the debutant ball literally drive her insane. Blanche can’t fathom why a former belle like Stella would slum it with a lout like Stanley—but Brando’s onscreen presence, a fusion of leonine regality and a tomcat’s raw id, answers her question. There is the half-melted expression on Stella’s face when, still in a post-coital reverie, she tells her sister about how Stanley broke all the light-bulbs in the room with his shoe. Stanley is every bit the brute Blanche says he is; and yet, he is also the vessel for Stella’s breaking bad. She’s not living the genteel life of a lady; she’s having multiple orgasms. 

A Streetcar Named Desire is an erotic sucker-punch that derives much of its power from its treatment of class: Stanley is a laborer; he can offer Stella nothing but the immaculate musculature underneath his oil-stained white T-shirt. The true fantasy of Fifty Shades of Grey, just like the Twilight films that inspired it, isn’t the presence of what Sylvia Plath called “the demon lover” (“two pupils/whose moons of black/transform to cripples/all who look”), but the promise offered to Cinderella and Snow White: life in a castle, without work-a-day worries. Would Bella Swan really give up her humanity and all of her earthly bonds to spend eternity with an emotionally withholding vampire beau if eternity meant taking public transit and living in a shoebox apartment? I think not. In the movie version of Fifty Shades, signifiers of Christian’s wealth are filmed with the same slick precision as the playroom sex: He owns a helicopter! He has a whole garage of sleek sports cars! His penthouse has an elevator!          

Edward/Christian’s controlling, manipulative behavior is the crucible through which Bella/Ana must pass in order to secure a lifetime in the glass castle. Fifty Shades of Grey is not the story of a woman who finds rapture or redemption in her erotic degradation—redemption (or at least the kind of redemption fit for the cover of Good Housekeeping) is only possible for the man. Ana doesn’t submit to the flogger to coax out a secret, subversive self; she doesn’t find her wildness in the hot slap of leather. When the film Ana is first bound and spread-eagled, she eyes her restraints with mute horror. But she suffers so that, someday, Christian Grey may become the marrying kind. As Andrew O’Hehir writes in Salon: “Whether she knows it or not, Anastasia’s task is to pull Christian from his impeccably furnished upper-story version of the Slough of Despond, the swampy mire of doubt, fear, temptation, lust, shame, guilt and bottomless sinfulness described in John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’”

The heroine of Last Tango in Paris, a young woman named Jeanne, endures similar flashes of cruelty from her lover; a much-older washed-up boxer named Paul—however, she isn’t in it to save him: The crucible of their affair leads her to herself, away from her bland bourgeoisie upbringing. Inside that dimly lit playroom of a Parisian apartment, Paul and Jeanne become the rough waves and the shore; they break against each other with curiosity and desperate need. For Jeanne, Paul’s erotic menace is palliative compared to her milquetoast fiancé, who delights in planning their perfect little wedding far more than she does.

Paul is that burning kind of cold that invigorates even as it stings. In the film’s most notorious scene, Paul pins Jeanne to the floor and forces butter into her ass as she writhes and screams (and not in a good way); and yet, Jeanne remains in the airless vacuum of their relationship because it gives her something truly radical—sex without touching, sex without names. And by the film’s end, she rejects not only the smothering domesticity represented by her fiancé, but the concept of the apartment—which has functioned under Paul’s rules, and as an extension of his own wounded masculine pride—when she guns him down.

I haven’t read the Fifty Shades series (and I doubt I will, since life is short, and time must be made for root canals and brushing up on calculus); still, after seeing the movie, I can’t help but wonder what a writer like Joyce Carol Oates, who exalts in creating (more like inhabiting) nebbishy, inexperienced young women in thrall to roughnecks with the faces of princes, would think. In her novel You Must Remember This, that roughneck is Felix, a 20-something prizefighter who seduces (and torments) his 14-year-old niece, Enid, a straight-A student who rues her identity as the good girl who never has a good time, the “Angel-Face” who can no longer ignore her burgeoning body.

What they do together in motel rooms and the backs of cars is wrong, wrong, wrong—and yet, their affair is “A blood bond as if between two men who’d fought each other to a draw. Or say one of them beat the other decisively but the losing fighter fought a courageous fight and pushed himself beyond the limit—the winner was forever in his debt.” Beyond one’s limits doesn’t have to be a pastel sky with heart-shaped clouds; it can be a roiling storm, a sudden heat and pressure that rearranges the atoms of the air.

My own formative fantasies were of Brando ripping his shirt and weeping for Stella, so perhaps I have no right to judge the ladies who’ve made this “mommy porn” into a phenomenon for anything other than enjoying truly execrable prose (“Desire – acute, liquid and smoldering, combusts deep in my belly”). Still, I can’t help but be disturbed. Fifty Shades of Grey treats blurred lines like power lines—but that’s not (entirely) what makes it so damaging: It uses those lines to draw female desire as a chain of paper dolls, just a series of woman-shaped cut-outs.


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