Valentine’s Day is a day which has become a day fuelled by card companies in order to make money, and to make single people feel awful about themselves. This year, despite none of us actually being single in February, my housemates and I decided to combat this most commercial of days by hosting our very own Galentine’s Day. This was a girls-only evening featuring snacks, face masks, nail polish and a screening of Fifty Shades of Grey. I had downloaded this film in advance, a part of me cursing myself for allowing it to take up valuable space on my laptop. But when we started watching it, it was clear that no one wanted to take it seriously – we all yelled at the screen about the lack of foreplay, lack of anything actually kinky, lack of decent dialogue, etcetera.
It made $94,000,000 on its opening weekend alone. What is so appealing about this poorly-concealed Twilight rip-off which kept audiences flocking to the cinema?
To explore the answer to this question properly, we must first look into the strange and uncomfortable world of mainstream pornography. 35% of all internet downloads are pornographic. The entire worldwide industry is worth $4.9 billion. Yet the vast majority of mainstream pornography is aimed solely at men, with the women in the films often being abused and/ or coerced whilst filming it (as can be seen in the fantastic documentary, Hot Girls Wanted, which can be found on Netflix). Of course, feminist pornography does exist (Erika Lust is the first example which comes to mind – details of how to watch her films can be found on the resources page) – but the films are few and far between.
I think this information explains why the Fifty Shades franchise is so popular, both as books and films. The amount of mainstream media produced in order to appeal to the needs of feminine sexuality is next to nothing. One exception is the lacklustre Mills and Boon company printing what Wikipedia describes as ‘escapist fiction for women’ promoting what many consider to be rape fantasies, on top of horribly formulaic stories. Nevertheless, these novels are churned out at an alarming rate, with over a hundred released each month. However, even the success of these stories cannot prevent them from being considered distasteful. They are often separated from the rest of fiction in bookshops, and condemned by many feminist speakers.
I remember being questioned to great length in sixth form by my incredulous male friends after admitting that yes, I did indeed masturbate. The point being that female sexuality is still vastly considered taboo in our society, whilst male sexuality remains catered for in everything from internet pornography to deodorant adverts.
In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, women the whole world over were finally given what the internet had kept from them all these years – erotica from the perspective of a woman, written by someone who knows what women want, or at least what middle-aged mothers (the main target audience of this series) want. Feminine erotica had existed before, of course (in the aforementioned Mills and Boon), but never had it been so accessible, so mainstream, or so naughty.
(N.B. Fifty Shades of Grey is by no means as kinky as it makes out to be, and is also very damaging to the perpetrated image of people with fetishes, but it’s certainly kinkier than other erotica out there.)
The issue I have with Fifty Shades, aside from it being appallingly written, is the way in which it presents the character of Ana, and her sexuality. It is revealed from near the beginning of the ‘plot’, that Ana is a virgin, and has never even masturbated before. The point of this article is not at all to shame virginity, but the way in which this story deals with it makes me furious. Once again, we can see mainstream media in which a woman’s virginity is fetishized and ‘taken’ by a man, as if having sex with him changes who she is. This is something seen time and again in Mills and Boon, as if virginity makes the female protagonist more attractive.
The fetishisation of virginity can be seen throughout the characterisation of female characters throughout the history of fiction. Whether it is in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Doctor Who, women are forever put into one of two categories – the virgin or the whore. The virgin is pure, innocent and ripe for corruption on the part of the male protagonist; the whore is rebellious, fun and is likely to corrupt the male protagonist herself, or is merely a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG – see resources page for details). These tropes are seen in cinema throughout the years, as male writers again and again fail to write meaningful and different female characters. I’m generalising, of course, but I for one am tired of seeing women at one of these two extremes in fictional works. Ana is the perfect example of this. She is a virgin to the extent that she has never even masturbated before, and is therefore not only able to be corrupted by Christian by him taking her virginity, but also by him introducing her to the world of BDSM. Neither of these extremes mentioned are healthy, well-rounded, or even creative examples of female sexuality in our media, and need to stop being seen on our screens.
The portrayal of BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey is something else which is highly problematic. The fact that it isn’t all that kinky isn’t the big problem here, although it is disappointing. The real problem is how the author seems to think that BDSM can be an umbrella term for all kinds of abuse. Not that it is identified as abuse at all. When Ana sends Christian an email saying that she doesn’t want to get into BDSM, Christian comes over to her flat, ties her up and rapes her into submission, something which the story clearly presents as both sexy and romantic. Here we can see again (first discussed in my review of Being John Malkovich) the issue of men who cannot take no for an answer. It’s used to present persistent and stalker-like tendencies as romantic in media again and again. It is this attitude which shows Christian to be the ideal man within this story, instead of the rapist he is.
Speaking to an expert in BDSM, I have it confirmed from the horse’s mouth that “That’s not how you treat subs. When someone is tied up and in your power, unless you are completely certain they are comfortable, you check in on them. You ask if they’re ok, if they want to carry on, if there’s anything making them less than happy. After all, it’s only sexy if they are enjoying it to. Otherwise, it’s rape.” (For more thoughts on this and other important topics, please check out The Science Inquisition Blog, linked in my resources page.)
These attitudes towards sex and female sexuality (seen in Fifty Shades of Grey) are a product of the environment of the media as a whole. The denial of mainstream erotica, the two extremes of female characters and the trope of men who cannot say no are components found time and again in the media and again in this franchise. If we are to progress as a society and develop more egalitarian attitudes towards sex and representations of it, we must start to portray healthier relationships in our media. At the moment, no gender is portrayed accurately or with enough diversity. Relationships and consent must be taken into account when writing stories for cinema. Once topics such as female pleasure are explored to the extent that they are no longer quite as taboo, I believe we will be dealing with much more varied and healthy representations of them.