Fifty shades of sexual ambiguity

Let’s get one thing straight: Fifty Shades of Grey is feminist cinema – not because its creator (EL James) and director (Sam Taylor-Johnson) are women, but for the simple reason that the film ventures into the rarely trodden realm of female pleasure on the big screen. Yet it is debatably progressive.

Whether this new genre of soft porn-meets-chick flick is good or bad cinema, a key question the film raises is whether BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism) is empowering or objectifying for women, and further probes why we place these affective responses in contrasting boxes.

In keeping with the predominantly female readership of James’s record-breaking literary series, the tagline to Taylor-Johnson’s sex epic – “lose control” – invites women to break out of missionary mundanity at the hands of a dashing, psychologically troubled young man who doesn’t make love, but fucks – “hard”.

At a late-night screening of Fifty Shades of Grey on Valentine’s Day at Hyde Park in Johannesburg, the back rows were packed out, leaving a patchy, half-full middle space scattered with couples, girl groups and singles perched in hot anticipation. Forty minutes in and my partner seemed to go cold. Twenty minutes later a young couple climbed over us and left, followed by two more couples and a final duo of nonchalant quitters who departed with only half an hour to go.

The film has a smattering of compelling, soft-core S&M sex scenes but they are strung together with clichéd dialogue that fails to establish the chemistry needed to invest in its central characters – virgin college student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan).

Nevertheless, it seems too easy to dismiss it on these grounds alone.

Thirty years ago, feminist film critic Laura Mulvey called for a “new language of desire” in mainstream cinema. In one of the most influential pieces of film criticism to date, Mulvey railed against the damage that the objectifying “male gaze” can attribute to the female spectator’s sense of her own sexuality. Despite its multiple failings, Fifty Shades does go some way towards answering Mulvey’s call.

The film kicks off with a reversed “male gaze”. We begin with Grey taking a breathy morning run around the city of Seattle before returning to the closet of an immaculate high-rise apartment where we watch a male body dressing for work.

This heterosexual “female gaze” is at once diminished by the cut to an infantilised portrayal of Steele, who clumsily and conservatively puts herself together before rushing off to interview Grey about his impressive success story.

While walking into his office – another spotless, modern space with a skyline view – Steele trips and ends up greeting this powerful, strapping man on her knees. From the start, Grey holds the dominant card, marked by a piercing, steady, downward gaze while Steele oozes a fetishised vulnerability expressed through sweet-toned stammers and shy upward glances.

The film’s depiction of submissive-dominant power play opens it up to the critique that it conveys a sexually inexperienced student who is groomed into accepting a sexual dynamic in a relationship as a naive, ill-equipped and ultimately unequal partner.

Domestic violence campaigns urge potential viewers to boycott the movie for its perceived glorification of sexual abuse, arguing that “Hollywood doesn’t need your money; abused women do”.

This position has come under scrutiny for trying to garner support for a serious issue by blacklisting a film in which kinky sex takes place between consenting adults. Indeed, the argument threatens to censor fantasies that the ground-breaking success of both book and movie dare to unleash and legitimise.

As opposed to the unstintingly submissive portrayal of Steele in the novel, Taylor-Johnson conveys a multifaceted young woman with agency. When Grey introduces Steele to his “red room” of BDSM paraphernalia and proposes a contract between himself as the dominant and Steele as his submissive, the protagonist through whom female spectators negotiate this world of pleasure and pain responds with turned-on curiosity and self-respecting resistance, asking “what would I get out of this?” She insists on holding on to her free will, telling Grey straight: “I don’t want to be your sex slave.”

Working in the escapist medium of cinema, Taylor-Johnson plays with the notion of a fantasy “man in the sky”, depicting Steele in numerous upward elevator shots when she travels between sex scenes. In the ultimate power shot, she is pictured from below before the elevator doors open into a scene where she bluntly renegotiates their sex contract, ruling out fisting and genital clamps. Grey unflinchingly strikes out these clauses. The implication is clear: Steele is not entering into a relationship with any grey areas.

Although the film takes a more nuanced approach to sex and power than critics care to admit, it is a stretch to pitch it as truly engaging and provocative feminist cinema. It fails to fit the requirements of the Bechdel test, which dictates that feminist films feature at least two (named) women who talk to each other about something other than men.

But it would be simplistic to limit the feminist label to a single definition, especially when the notion of women’s “empowerment” is such a subjective call when the realm of fantasy enters the fray.

Undoubtedly, there will always be 50 shades of feminist cinema. Though the submissive female fantasy cannot be decontextualised from an overarching patriarchal power structure, to censor and shame this type of desire is to incite unnecessary guilt and alienation. It also risks maintaining a limited feminist “club” for those willing to sacrifice un-PC ways of accessing pleasure in order to adhere to theoretical ­ideals.

The number of couples willing to walk out of the film on a night when sexual stimulation is top of the agenda illustrates how profoundly dull the movie is between sex scenes.

Still, by broaching female sexuality from the bold angle that it attempts, Fifty Shades warrants acknowledgment that mainstream cinema is at least taking small steps in the right direction.

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