Even though I haven’t read the books, I was excited as the next person to see Fifty Shades. The film, more hyped than the New Testament, making sex mainstream, begged to be watched immediately. Except, is Fifty Shades of Grey showing liberated sex we can all feel good about? Is it inspiring and empowering and consensual? Or is Christian Grey, as many have suggested, akin to an abuser? Are we being mis-sold a dystopian Prince Charming story as female friendly porn, when it’s actually anything but?
Twilight fan-fiction was always going to appeal to me. I hated Edward Cullen being so withholding, not least because it painfully reminded me of all the godly boyfriends of my youth who thought kissing was totally a sin. And Jamie Dornan is smart casting: his turn in The Fall, as a calm yet stealthy strangler, oft showing off his torso, had all the sparkling intensity you’d want from a BDSM boyfriend. He was just scary enough, and completely, unrelentingly hot.
But Christian Grey – and I really have to ask – SERIOUSLY? I get that he’s sexy. He’s rich, wears nice clothes, flies helicopters and owns an amazing apartment. He’s a total catch. But, when alarm bells ring it’s pertinent to listen. And when he unlocks that playroom, what bigger warning is there? It’s so problematic, in fact, that every woman that’s been there previously has taken out a restraining order. Why else would he have to get a woman (not girlfriend, he’s very clear about relationship status) to sign a non-disclosure agreement to stop her from talking about anything he does? And don’t get me started on the contract…even if it is negotiable.
We’ve all succumbed to someone we shouldn’t have on account of them being hot or us being horny, and Anastasia is always in her right to date, kiss, fuck Christian. She can’t be blamed for her wants, just as I must be vindicated for finding Pierce Brosnan, post-60, super fine. But the level of control he wishes to assert over her begs the question: can a relationship be consensual if one player holds all the cards and the other is mute, even if both parties agree? Agreeing to partake in something in the bedroom is very different from agreeing to its day-to-day equivalent: tie me up by all means, but the second you start tracking my phone or asking me to turn location settings on so you can see the street address I’m messaging you from, we’re no longer in an equal relationship. Submissing in one department does not automatically mean submissing in all areas of life.
Christian has his excuses, his reasons. But the way that Jamie Dornan’s serial killer character in The Fall has a complicated, devastating back story that, in part, made sense of his murderings, Christian Grey’s history accounts for his segway into sociopathy, but doesn’t excuse it. It documents the steps he’s taken to regain control of his life, sure, but it also unfavourably paints him as an abuser by way of abused person.
I’m cautious to call censorship on anything, though. Especially sex in cinema. But this smacks of a missed opportunity. The only thing it succeeds in, sexually, is engaging in foreplay. So, the foreplay itself doesn’t seem that stimulating to me: if someone blindfolded me and tickled me with a peacock feather for an unrealistically long amount of time I’d feel nothing but itchy. But I get that not everyone wants to be smacked in the face with a cock on their first trip into the playroom. There was a lot of stroking with a riding crop too (and later some risqué whipping), but otherwise the sex was surprisingly tame. And there are way better movies which not only feature sex but have a storyline too. Nymphomaniac was epic, comfortable in its explicitness whilst building the kinds of characters I genuinely connected to. In comparison, Fifty Shades of Grey was a rom-com with some sex thrown in. A little kinky, sure. But also a bit boring looking, considering.
The film struggles with nudity too. An 18 rating and not a single cock? I understand why the camera stays with our female protagonist naked for so long: to develop the sense of her burgeoning sexuality, as she’s literally laid bare for Christian and us. However, the camera lingering so long on her breasts, and merkin (is it a merkin? I’d really like to know), isn’t handled in a titillating or even sensual way. Don’t cover her up, that’s not what I want. But there’s no in-point for the audience here: how can I relate to her or pretend I am her when she’s blindfolded and all I can see is her naked body? It’s not always objectified but it is objectified. Which wouldn’t be a problem if his body was too. But aside from one shot of his arse and a smidge of pubic hair, Christian Grey is disappointingly covered up. I’d even go so far as to call him a prude.
I realise that nothing I’m saying is revolutionary. Audiences and critics are constantly calling crap on this film, and as for the text that it’s based on, no-one’s asserting literary merit. And there’s obviously something in the phenomenon of it: are women so repressed they can’t ask for what they want in bed? Is there a voice in each of us that has fantasies we assume others would balk at? Women watch porn right? And is that not better than this?
Fifty Shades has unarguably identified a gap (heh): perhaps that we want more sex in our rom-coms, or we want more rom-com in our sex, or we want the choice to explore our relationships in ways we haven’t dared before. And as first steps go, at least this has started the dialogue. I don’t know if every screening is the same, but the showing I went to was 90% female, women aged 20-60 (approx), a demographic often overlooked when it comes to bigger budget films. But I was left wanting more: a more believable plot, more feminist strength, more cock. And I also want the audience to know that there are other movies they can see which explore female sexuality better, and by better I mean on a broader spectrum. I can’t be the only person that thought even the sex in Basic Instinct was better and that was made in the fucking dark ages. And Nymphomaniac, trust me, is the most beautifully fucked up exploration of female fucking, from BDSM to asexuality, from falling in love to losing your orgasm. So don’t settle for Christian Grey because he’s your first. Promise me that, okay?