Fifty Shades of Grey, and Eroticism in Film and Literature

by Ann Millett-Gallant

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Over Winter break, I had a lot of free time to read. I decided to try Fifty Shades of Grey (E.L. James, 2012), because I was curious about it, and because the movie version was coming out on Valentine’s Day weekend. I remember the fervor the book caused when it was released. Many television shows and magazine articles discussed what a sensation the book was, particularly for many passionate and eager female fans. It was considered shocking, not just because of its content, but also because it seemed to have the power to release women from any chastity belts they might be forced to wear by their own shame or society’s standards for “appropriate” behavior and desires. While reading the book, I was, shall we say, underwhelmed. I was more than just not excited, I was somewhat repulsed by it, and not because it was graphic or shocking, but because it seemed so cliché. In early January, I posted the following Facebook status update in response:

I just finished reading 50 Shades of Grey, and it was ridiculous. A 22 year old, white bread virgin is attracted to a dashing, powerful billionaire, who was starving and abused as a child and, as an adult, only participates in short term, S&M relationships. She allows him to deflower and dominate her, and he releases his inner demons, falls in love with her, and calls her his girlfriend. It’s such horse shit!

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This was my off the cuff response. I was not turned on by the veiled violence, nor by scenes in which Christian forces his virginal concubine to eat in order to “keep up her strength,” despite what might have turned on many women. Was this the portrayal of a passionate relationship for women? And if so, who are these wanton “women” who love the book?

I was not alone in my reaction. In a “Frank and open discussion” by Laci Green, whose YouTube broadcast series “Naked Nation” is supported in part by Planned Parenthood, Green purports BDSM (a form of S&M, which she says is popular today, in part, because of book, Fifty Shades), as a new, liberating, and pleasurable form of sexual play:

However, in a later broadcast devoted to her analysis of the book Fifty Shades, Green says it does a “poor job of portraying BDSM,” and is indeed not only clichéd, but also abusive. She raises the notions of sexual consent and sexual violence, considering that Christian makes Ana, an inexperienced virgin, sign a contract about their liaison before she evens sees his “Red Room” of bondage equipment:

Green’s accusation that Fifty Shades glorifies sexual abuse places the book, and the film, in a dark context. Even if the book wasn’t exactly sinister, it’s poorly written, and bondage and dominance just don’t turn me on. I began to think about other novels or movies that have created comparable reactions among their audiences, and their points of comparison to Fifty Shades.

the-awakening-smFirst, I picked up The Awakening, an 1899 novel by the trailblazing feminist, Kate Chopin, which was considered quite scandalous in its day. I loved it! The writing style has been compared to Impressionism, and the novel is very visual and sensual in its detail. The title captured my immediate attention. I had the idea that it might be a sexual awakening, and it was, but it was more. The heroine, Edna, escapes her family, domestic life, and responsibilities. She has a few extra-marital affairs, but does not end up in a new relationship. Instead, she begins making art and discovers her own subjectivity and embodied perspective. In the end of the novel, she dramatically dives into the ocean and swims away, a conclusion that has been read as a suicide, but I read it more abstractly. In her dive, as in her adventures in the book, she discovers true freedom. There are a many scenes with water running throughout the book, including themes of swimming. As a child, Edna loved and then feared swimming, because she associated it with an unwantednot to mention criminalsexual advance by one of her father’s peers. In the book, part of her awakening involves her relearning and re-enjoying swimming again, as an adult. Water entails, and in the book symbolizes, diverse acts such as floating, drowning, and swimming. When Edna swims, she also floats, as she experiences a freedom in and an escape from the socialized world; she doesn’t see, hear, or feel the world above the water. She is figuratively and literally immersed in her own senses. Swimming causes a feeling of weightlessness, but when swimming, Edna propels herselfa physical act, a form of exercise, and also a forceful movement. I don’t think she drowns at all, but rather, she escapes. Immersing one’s self in water, wherein one is subsumed in one’s own sensory environment, specifically free from external stimuli, could also be a metaphor for masturbationperhaps the ultimate act for of self stimulation and self gratification.

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Stimulated by my interpretations (pun intended), I then wanted to explore other literary and film examples that were considered shocking for their time periods. I remember, as a young girl, the sensation that arose surrounding the film Nine and a Half Weeks (1986, dir. Adrian Lyne). Watching it as an adult, I was blown away by the beauty of the film. It had striking visual detail and was rich in color, texture, and atmosphere. In one of my favorite scenes, the male lead, John (Mickey Rourke) “feeds” the female protagonist, Elizabeth (Kim Basinger), by blindfolding her and offering samples of foods that vary in texture and flavorcherries, jalapeño pepper, milk. The camera creates a multi-sensual encounter, as Elizabeth experiences the food and the sensuality of the offerings. To commence the scene, John squirts sweet, sticky honey in her mouth (suggestive, perhaps, of semen) and then on her body, as he lays her down, kisses, and embraces her. Light floods the darkened set design, as the viewer experiences their own senses being overwhelmed. Another scene features Elizabeth, who works in an art gallery, masturbating as slides of provocative art works flash on the screen. She moves in harmony to the changing of the slides, which becomes more rapid as she sits on the remote and eventually climaxes. Throughout the film, visual art interacts with erotic life. “Nine and a Half Weeks” was released in 1986, when I was 11 years old. I didn’t see the film at the time, because of my age, and I was happy to rediscover what I now consider a classic.

9-and-a-half-weeks-a-memoir-of-a-love-affairThe film is based on Australian writer Elizabeth McNeill’s Nine and a Half Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair (1978). The book is a diary, with first person narration, incomplete sentences, visual and narrative impressions, and a chain of consciousness writing style. This memoir is more graphically violent than its film version. In one entry, McNeill writes: “The nights were palpable and fierce, razors, outlines so clearly as to be luminous. A different country, its landscape and currency plain: heat, fear, cold, pleasure, hunger, glut, pain, desire, overwhelming consciousness” (42). This quote demonstrates the erotic and violent actions in the book, as well as writing style I described above. Upon reading this passage, I felt simultaneous intrigue and revulsion to the brutality. During moments of the violence inflicted upon her, Elizabeth, the real woman, conflictingly feels simultaneous pain and desire. She ultimately writes of feeling disembodied, as if she experiences her sensations virtually. The 1986 film is indeed almost a watered-down version of the explicit diary. The memoir is beautifully, indeed poetically written and much more philosophical and psychological than the film.

I then turned to what was one of my favorite movies of my hormone-infused teenage years, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988, dir. Philip Kaufman). Based on the novel by Milan Kundera (1984), the film centers on the relationship between a heterosexual couple, as well as the man’s many sexual conquests, and is set during the 1968 occupation of the Czech Republic (wiki).

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The narrative follows an attractive, introverted, and womanizing (not unlike Christian Grey) surgeon named Tomáš (Daniel Day Lewis), and his conflicted relations with the woman who becomes his wife and proves to be his “true love,” Tereza (Juliette Binoche), as well as his many lovers, most prominently, the self-possessed artist, Sabina (Lena Olin). The novel and film are set in an artistic and intellectual class in Prague, which in 1968 was invaded by the Soviet Union. With her rosy cheeks and pageboy haircut, Tereza is childlike in the film, as she is in the novel. She matures through her relationship with Tomas and her discovery of her own perspective, similarly to The Awakening, yet, in this film, it is behind the camera lens. The film includes scenes (shot in black and white) that capture the confusion and violence of the 1986 invasion of Prague on the streets, with dramatic movements and angles.

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Compared with the book, the film is not as detailed about the results of the invasion and following Soviet occupation; for example, on p. 67 of the book, Kundera graphically describes specific murders and deportations. In both the book and the film, Tereza photographs the atrocities on the streets, commencing her photography passion and career with street photography, which is similar to the work we discuss in the Documentary unit of BLS 345: Photography: Contexts and Illusions. Street photography crosses the boundaries or genres of photography as art and as historical document. Tereza’s street photographs get published and lead to work in commercial photography, although she is seduced more by the idea of art photography and explores the genre by photographing Tomas’s lover, Sabina. In a Communist era of Social Realism, Sabina does defiant abstract art, or “drip painting” like Jackson Polluck (63). I do especially appreciate the images of Sabina’s artwork in the film, consisting of erotic photographs and body images cut from mirrors.

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Although the book and the film are both artistic, the book is decidedly more psychological and philosophical, similarly to the book Nine and a Half Weeks. Kundera’s novel is also more political. On pages 213-214, Kundera narrates Tomas’ political acts, such as writing leftist editorials for papers, which leads him to be asked to sign a document protesting the treatment of Czech political prisoners. The novel is not in first person narration like Nine and a Half Weeks, but the narrative point of view is not completely omniscient either. Rather, Kundera’s narrator is poetic and like a storyteller, telling the narrative as if he or she know the characters personally and can see literally into their lives, as well as their consciousnesses. Interestingly, I learned from Wikipedia that Kundera disliked the film so much that he has resolved never again to have one of his novels made into a film. Reading the book encouraged me to check some more of Kundera’s books from the library.

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The final example I was overjoyed to discover was another film with a literally graphic basis, the 2013 French film Blue is the Warmest Color (2013, dir. Abdellatif Kechiche),which is based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh. In both the film and the book, a somewhat naïve and self-abdicating young woman, Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos), searches for her sexuality and subjectivity in a world she finds repressive, specifically to young, heterosexual women. One day, she spots and subsequently seeks out a striking, young, somewhat tomboyish and seemingly lesbian woman, Emma, (Léa Seydoux) with dashing blue hair. The graphic novel composes mostly black and white images with striking hints of bluein the forms of Emma’s hair, as well as the protagonists’ diary. Again, a diary communicates the embodied perspective of its narrator. The two women become zealous lovers, and lengthy, strikingly dynamic scenes depict their passion-filled lovemaking, in both the film and the book. The graphic novel was inspired by The Life of Marianne, an eighteenth-century, French, erotic graphic novel.

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In contemplating the symbolic significances of blue, I thought about its association with masculinity, or at least the gender of a male baby, similarly to how pink represents femininity. One of the readings in my course BLS 345: The Art of Life, Rebecca Solnit’s  poetic and philosophical A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006) came to mind. In this manuscript, every other chapter is titled “The Blue of Distance,” and blue, throughout the text, is the color of desire. Solnit meditates on how blue is more intense in the distance, in art (with the examples of landscape paintings, Yves Klein’s artwork, and many more) and in life (with the examples, among others, of road trips). For Solnit, distance increases desirability, reiterating how unrequited love may be most fervent and how absence makes the heart grow fonder.

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Throughout the book and the film Blue is the Warmest Color, Emma’s hair gets less and less blue. It finally transforms back to its natural color, the pair split up, and Adela must find herself outside her role as Emma’s muse. In the graphic novel, the main character dies. Again, death! In The Awakening, Edna supposedly drowns, and in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas and Tereza have a suspicious “car accident,” which the book relates to their political leanings. Going back to my analysis of Edna’s “death” as an orgasm, in literary theory, an orgasm is referred to as “the little death.” For a more detailed analysis of this metaphor, see the Wikipedia entry “La petite mort.

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More broadly than in its many literary associations, the notion of an orgasm as a “little death” can refer to a spiritual release, a short period of melancholy or transcendence, and a natural “high” in the anatomical release of the feel good hormone oxytocin that occurs after orgasm. The not so “little” deaths in these films may then be over-signified, or over-stimulating with their multiple meanings and associations.

This blog has itself become overwhelmed with stimulating references! Now, back to Fifty Shades

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On Feb 6, NBC’s The Today Show broadcast live from the New York City premiere of the film at Ziegfeld Theater. As the camera scanned the screaming and cheering crowd, I searched for even one man amidst the group. All I saw were enthusiastic and, indeed, excited women. Newscaster Carson Daly said there were 98 women in attendance; Daly and the star of the film, Jamie Dornin, were the only men. The episode also featured an interview with Dornin and his co-star, Dakota Johnson, by newscasters Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie, in which Johnson said she strategically played Anastasia as a woman of strength and self-worth.

On Feb. 12, Ellen Degeneres aired a clever spoof of the interviewa clip that her crew had edited and that featured anchor Matt Lauer bearing a harness and whip:

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Ellen’s spoof was the beginning of the themes of satire that were raised in news sources about the film. The website Rotten Tomatoes says the film is too tame in comparison with the book. In agreement, Time asks “Where’s the whiplash?” Durham’s Independent newspaper expresses disappointment in the film’s “bad erotica.”

In a video posted on the website of the Pulitzer Prize-winning British journal, The Guardian, film critics discuss the absurdity, and even satirical humor of the, what one critic calls “soft core porn,” that he says seems like “the S&M had been directed by Martha Stewart.” These highbrow, somewhat stuffy critics state that the film never had a chance and they “couldn’t take it seriously” because it was based on a poorly written, trashy novel.

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Reading through this summary of diverse reviews on this CNN.com, some of which are positive, made me want to see the film more. Further, similarly to how she discussed her role as Ana in her appearance on the Today show, Johnson has affirmed in numerous interviews that she chose the role specifically because it intimidated her and because she believes that women who own and direct their own self-crafted sexual experiences and sexual identities are definitively empowered. But I wondered, is Ana empowered in book? I would say, no. How will she be different in the film?

Fifty Shades of Grey opened where I live in Durham the Friday before Valentine’s Day, and I could not see it then because my husband and I had big plans: we had to take our 20 pound orange tabby cat, Sunny (aka “The orange beast”), to the vet and my husband’s new Fiat needed additional computer programming at its dealership in Cary. I thought I had missed the perfect opportunity to see the film and witness its already ardent fans, but after reading reviews, I thought perhaps the optimal time to see it would be on April Fool’s Day. Many others did see it the opening weekend; the film broke records for Valentine’s Day and President’s Day releases.

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I finally saw it two weeks after it opened. In general, it was not a good movie. The sets, costumes, and dialogue were nothing special and even silly. The character of Ana is girlish and mousy; her big blue eyes, which first capture Christian’s attention, are framed by unevenly cut bangs and hair that escapes from a messy ponytail. She does talk back to Christian in a Lolita-like manner, but I would hardly call her an empowered character. In the first meeting with Christian, she wears an old fashioned, flowered blouse and a matching cardigan and skirt set. Throughout the film, she dons dresses and outfits that are too short and too young for her, as if she shops in the junior’s department at the stores. She is somewhat childlike, similar to the immature Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Ana’s adolescent body, with a sprinkling of fair pubic hair, is often on display in the film, while Christian’s body is strategically concealed; in one scene, he unbuttons his fly, and the viewer sees a hint of blond pubic hair, but otherwise, only his unclothed backside is shown. In contrast to Ana, Christian wears signature, stone colored suits and one of his fifty ties, all of which, of course, are shades of grey. Christian is good-looking, with a strong face and muscles, but he is hardly suave or debonair. Rather than looking like a millionaire entrepreneur and Casanova, he resembles an attractive college athlete. Christian lives in an austere apartment, similar to his clothing and to the steely residence of John in Nine and a Half Weeks. In one scene, Christian tempts Ana with an ice cube down her naked torso, an act like that of John and Elizabeth, but the former is much less sensual than the latter, for the viewer, and seemingly, for the female subjugate.

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Forty-five minutes into Fifty Shades, Christian and Ana “consummate” their agreement, and Ana is “de-virginized” (or deflowered, as I strategically called it above), in an intimate scene that involves kissing, touching, and, assumedly, at least two orgasms. I am hardly an expert, but I would say that when a woman loses her virginity, the experience is usually more awkward and potentially painful, rather than sexy and pleasurable; however I have never heard of a woman having had her first time with anyone experienced. Let’s just say, the scene is, at best, idealized. Unlike in the book Fifty Shades, the couple in the film are paired intimately quite often, embracing and even bathing together, and Ana has met many members of the Grey family before Christian even introduces the contract and the red room to her (the only room in his apartment that displays any color). The first scene in which the couple performs in the red room is almost one and a half hours into the two hour film and shows Christian “whipping” (or should I say, “tapping”) Ana with a tassel-like “whip.” This action causes a light snapping sound and leaves no wounds on Ana’s skin. It is hardly terrifying. At the end of the film, when Ana challenges Christian to give her the full treatment, or to do the most brutal thing he would ever do to her, he again whips her, this time with a fashionable leather belt. The sounds are more convincing and remind me of the whipping scenes of Twelve Years a Slave, (2013, dir. Steve McQueen), but again, they leave no marks on Ana’s perfectly white, pristine back. The couple parts in the end, and as Ana exits his apartment by elevator, there is an emphasized lack of closure, or a cliffhanger, enticing viewers to seek out the sequel.

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Again, I was amused, but underwhelmed. I don’t think I’ll bother to read either of the other Fifty Shades books in the trilogy, nor will I waste my time following the film series. I am, however, very much looking forward this summer’s release of Magic Mike XXL (the satirically titled Magic Mike 2), which will feature more antics of an ostentatious, performing, and chiseled brigade of leading men, performing for and in service to clowning and lascivious female fans. This film will be much more my speed.

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