‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and the Policing of Women’s Erotic Imagination

‘Actually…I really liked the Fifty Shades of Grey movie,’ confessed an academic colleague of mine (who shall remain nameless). She followed this statement up with: ‘but you’re the only person I could tell that to,’ because street cred. I think she could tell me because I watch and write about screen media that a lot of people consider to be ‘bad’ taste or ‘poor’ quality – basically, I live for the CW network’s teen TV programming. I have not read the Fifty Shades books, but from what I understand from romance scholar friends of mine, the film is infinitely less fucked up in its sexual politics than the novels. Yes, the narrative of this film is very troubling to me, and at times deeply upsetting and offensive. I liked aspects of the film – in particular, the soundtrack and Sam Taylor-Johnson’s construction of a slick visual style, as well as surprising elements that I thought I’d never see in such a mainstream Hollywood film (female pubic hair! The use of condoms!). I thought that Dakota Johnson’s performance as Anastasia brought strength, wilfulness, and complexity to the character. I liked that the sex was consensual and clearly enjoyed by the heroine, which frankly I was not expecting having heard so much about the books. In fact, the sex was the least problematic aspect of the film, at least for me. On the other hand, the eroticism was sometimes a little lost on me, I think in part due to Jamie Dornan’s too-cold performance as Christian, and the profound, peculiar absence of a desiring female gaze built into the structure of the film image. For me, the worst part about the film is its representation of male stalking, control, and emotional manipulation as somehow sexy and oh-so-romantic. Please. This is the abuse of women within patriarchal culture.

Fifty Shades of Grey still
Anastasia and Christian in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ (Taylor-Johnson 2015).

However, there is a big difference between deconstructing, debating and opposing the sexual politics of the narrative on the one hand, and shaming or belittling women who enjoy engaging in its fantasy on the other hand. This is obviously a narrative that many women are enjoying engaging with. From my perspective, we do an immense disservice to women spectators when we assume that they are unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and that they cannot extricate themselves from the ‘magic spell’ of the mainstream media image. Women are not being asked ‘why do you like this text?’, they are simply being told ‘you should not like it, shame on you.’ The embarrassment felt by my colleague in her enjoyment of the film, her instinctual understanding that she should not disclose it to other academics, illustrates how this shaming works in action. The deprecation of this so-called ‘mommy porn’ suggests a policing of women’s engagement with their own erotic imaginaries and erotic texts – you are only allowed to erotically fantasise in certain ways and about certain things, otherwise you have poor taste/are not feminist enough/are a dupe of mainstream media/should be ashamed of what you find sexy. The discourse around the text as inauthentic – a bedrock of women’s ‘false consciousness’; an ‘incorrect’ representation of ‘real’ BDSM practice etc. – relies on a sexist binary opposition between (masculine) realism, authenticity and precision as opposed to (feminine) fancifulness, fantasy and the unrealistic. Furthermore, this policing is concerned with whether or not women will see the fantasy narrative and then want it to happen in their own lives – and therefore, that this erotic tale is fundamentally harmful to women viewers. As I suggested in my post about Outlander last week, it is entirely possible for women viewers to enjoy aspects of a text while also problematising, disliking, critiquing, and rejecting others – this is what being an active, critically engaged, complex spectator means. Should we demand better, more diverse, and more feminist screen images of women’s eroticism, sexuality, and fantasy? Absolutely, emphatically yes! On the other hand, Fifty Shades does not herald the ‘end of feminism’ as some have ludicrously argued. It is a fantasy, an erotic narrative that has captured the imaginations of many women. It is just one story among many. The work now is to create even more expansive spaces for this imagination to continue to grow and explore new territories of desire.

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