Monday 21 May 2018

Post Weinstein and #MeToo is it Time Up for the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon?


Sex bombs: The Fifty Shades franchise has been controversial
Sex bombs: The Fifty Shades franchise has been controversial

Meadhbh McGrath

This weekend, women all over the world will flock to cinemas for the final instalment in the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise.

For those unfamiliar with EL James' trilogy, it follows a naive young woman, Anastasia Steele (played in the film by Dakota Johnson), who becomes embroiled in a steamy affair with billionaire businessman Christian Grey (Northern Irish actor Jamie Dornan).

Harvey Weinstein Photo: PA
Harvey Weinstein Photo: PA

Sprinkled with scenes of light bondage, the wildly popular yet divisive series offers an uneasy blend of BDSM sex - in the infamous Red Room of Pain - and controlling behaviour outside the bedroom that blurs the line between abusive male power and consensual kink.

Fifty Shades of Grey was first released in 2011, a novel that originated as fan fiction based on the vampire romance Twilight. Critics were appalled by the quality of the writing (lest we forget the "inner goddess doing the merengue with some salsa moves"), but fans were rapt. It became a publishing sensation, selling more than 100 million copies worldwide, and immediately caused controversy: was it empowering to women or did it celebrate female disempowerment? Was it feminist? Post-feminist? Anti-feminist?

The film adaptation arrived in 2015 and, like the books, was a critical flop but a box office success. With a female director and screenwriter (Sam Taylor-Johnson and Kelly Marcel), the alarming sexual politics of the novel were moulded into a more intriguing, push-pull power dynamic, with BDSM a bargaining tool between the couple.

For the sequel, the female team was replaced by director James Foley, Niall Leonard (husband of EL James) on screenplay and John Schwartzman behind the camera, and Fifty Shades Darker proved more conservative and faithful to its source.

The third film arrives in a dramatically different, post-Harvey Weinstein cultural climate. As allegations of sexual harassment against high-profile men continue to pile up, can women still indulge in a romantic fantasy about being aggressively pursued and controlled by Christian Grey?

"I think there's a new sensitivity to and awareness of women being subject to sexual harassment, and maybe the audiences who have taken pleasure in the previous films will find it a little harder to do this year," says Diane Negra, Professor of Film Studies and Screen Culture at UCD.

In the lead up to the film's release, the marketing for Fifty Shades Freed has focused on Ana and Christian's wedding - the early teasers that urged "don't miss the climax" have been mostly replaced by posters of Ana in bridalwear.

"Based on the trailer and advance publicity, there's a sense that maybe [the studio] wants to spin it in a more conventionally romantic direction, which is in some ways a tricky move for a franchise that established itself on the basis of an unapologetic erotic premise," says Negra.

"The Fifty Shades franchise stands out in the marketplace because it's meant to be unabashedly romantic and erotic. The chick flick is not an erotic genre - it's very, very chaste."

Fans will be pleased to hear that Fifty Shades Freed still has plenty of sex - considerably more than the previous two - yet it also features more of the trappings of traditional romantic narratives: The film opens with Ana and Christian's wedding, and we are treated to loving shots of the frothy lace wedding gown before a Pinterest-perfect ceremony including an enormous wall of white roses.

Yet almost the first time Christian speaks, he's scolding Ana, forbidding her from taking her bikini off on a topless beach. "Do you want to be ogled by every guy on the beach?" he barks. It's uncomfortable to watch, but Ana immediately brushes off his attempts to control.

"You insist on defying me. What should I do about that?" he asks in bed. Her reply: "Learn to live with it."

Throughout the rest of the film, he struggles to do so, but Ana is tougher and more assertive this time around. There are still traces of her naivete - such as when she gapes at a set of handcuffs like she's never seen a pair before in her life - but for the most part, she's in the driving seat (and even literally takes the wheel of Christian's sparkling Audi during a high-speed car chase).

Whenever Christian exhibits signs of controlling behaviour - berating her for not taking his surname, refusing to let her go to a bar with a friend - Ana pushes back. "You can't keep me in a cage," she tells him.

She frequently lets Christian (and the audience) know that she's happy to play the submissive in bed, but that the give-and-take of their sex life is separate from the power struggle of their marriage. In this film, Ana uses her 'safe word' for the first time, warning Christian: "Don't use the red room to even the score."

The film also draws an interesting contrast between Christian's behaviour and the explicit male violence perpetrated by the villain, who brutally attacks Ana in the film's most shocking scene.

Ahead of the release of Fifty Shades Freed, some critics have slammed the film as inappropriate and accused it of glorifying sexual abuse.

But women are owed a bit of credit here - audiences don't just blindly consume whatever is in front of them. They are capable of distinguishing between fiction and reality, and understanding the difference between submissive fantasies and real-life sexual assault. And Fifty Shades doesn't talk down to women: Ana, functioning as the audience's proxy, knows when Christian's demands on her are unreasonable and responds with a spectacular eye-roll.

Of course, Fifty Shades isn't perfect and there are moments that are undeniably harder to stomach in the current landscape. Although the film acknowledges Christian's behaviour is troubling, he is forgiven and allowed redemption, when he learns to forgive the mother who abandoned him (the source of his controlling urges) and creates a family of his own.

Executives tried to keep critics away from Fifty Shades Freed by delaying the press previews until the afternoon before the official release, but reviews haven't deterred audiences before - the first two films raked in $950m worldwide.

In any case, Fifty Shades isn't designed to please a roomful of (mostly male) critics at a daytime screening - it's designed for communal viewing, for women to enjoy with a group of friends and a few glasses of white wine.

The Fifty Shades series was produced and marketed as entertainment specifically for women, and the franchise ends still aimed squarely at women, with the final shot of a smiling, satisfied Ana in the Red Room.

As Negra points out: "Some people make the assumption that most of the audience members are watching the Fifty Shades films 'straight', and I don't think that's the case. There have always been large numbers of women that have found this franchise just laughable.

"In film studies, we often assume that popularity means pleasure. We don't account for cases like Fifty Shades, which is seen a lot by women in groups. Women feel a coercive social effect - they want to see their friends, they want to go for drinks and see a film, and this is the only film available, so they go."

Sitting in a deathly sombre press screening would make anyone long to have their friends there too, to appreciate outlandish moments such as Ana telling an Ivanka Trump-alike to "go climb in your s***-coloured car and drive back to Seattle" or the cartoonishness of the wicked book editor villain.

Hollywood film-making, meanwhile, is still overwhelmingly male and superhero-centric. Negra identifies sizeable gaps in the market in terms of dramas for women and representations of sexuality that are shaped to speak to women, noting that Fifty Shades has little to no competitors in those respects.

"In terms of the kind of popular culture options that women have, when it comes to Hollywood cinema, there's not a lot out there. With Fifty Shades, there may be a sense of women feeling 'ah, that's for me!' and we don't get that too often," she explains.

Given the torrent of horror stories that followed the Weinstein scandal, not to mention the 24-hour news cycle, women deserve a little escapism, and you could do a lot worse than rounding up your friends to bid farewell to Fifty Shades.

Irish Independent

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