Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: Fifty Shade of Grey: it's Gamergate all over Again

The movie Fifty Shades of Grey is receiving a torrent of negative reviews. Some of the people behind many of these reviews must be the same ones behind Gamergate, or maybe their college roommates. FSoG is a female-fantasy emotionally-driven movie appealing to women. As such, apparently, it doesn't have a right to exist.

Like in Gamergate, the actual thing that is the movie is different from the thing that is being criticized. Along with the heaps of criticism rightly or wrongly aimed at the actors (more on this later), the bulk of the criticism condemns the movie for being the wrong story; i.e. for being what it IS (a female fantasy), instead of the more acceptable movie that it SHOULD have been (more action, more male fantasy).

What the Story Actually Is

Ana (Dakota Johnson) is a sexually-naive English major who is about to graduate. She ends up interviewing Christian (Jamie Dornan), a young handsome billionaire. Grey is immediately smitten with Ana, despite or because of her naivete. He meets her several times and sends her lavish gifts, appears to be consumed with her. She learns that he has trouble committing emotionally, and instead relates to women antiseptically through BDSM. Though she is still attracted to him, and allows him to give her incredible sex, she ultimately wants more. Herein likes the tension: he wants to keep doing it his way because he is afraid of his emotions; nevertheless, her existence forces him to feel things for her that confuse him. She is drawn to his wealth, beauty, and lovemaking, but she ultimately isn't willing to sacrifice her dream of being in a loving and whole relationship.

The movie hangs around the question: will she sign his "domination contract", giving up her identity, will, and desires, or won't she? The contract is symbolic: who will win the power struggle. Can they find a workable balance? Who will change more?

That's the story.

The movie is a cross between 9 1/2 Weeks and Twilight. The latter shouldn't be surprising, since it started as Twilight fan-fic. Like Edward in Twilight, Christian is a brooding, worldly, handsome guy who lives a secret life and tries to hold himself back from the overwhelming desire he has for Ana because it wouldn't be good for her. He even saves her from an impending car collision, like Edward does for Bella. The difference is that, in Twilight, Bella denies herself and spends the rest of the book/movie trying to get Edward to bite her. In contrast, Ana spends the book/movie unhappy that something is missing from Christian and trying to get him to come to her instead.

The Criticism

A great bulk of the criticism is that Christian acts like a stalker: showing up at her house, at her parent's house, etc. You know what: yes, he does. But this is a fantasy. In real life, no woman wants a guy to do this. In a fantasy, this is acceptable: a powerful, handsome man who is so smitten that he can't stay away from you and does everything to woo your attention. Fantasy, guys, fantasy. Criticism on this point is silly at best, hypocritical at worst. Tons of today's movies have creepy, weird behavior that doesn't work in the real world: police blowing out city blocks, heroes walking away after falling off a building, anything with Liam Neeson, anything set in a fraternity. That's fantasy.

The next is that the movie portrays the BDSM community in a bad light, because BDSM people don't force behavior on unwilling participants, either through bribery or social pressure. First of all, this move isn't about the BDSM community, it's about one messed up individual with particular tastes. The movie doesn't have to represent BDSM people any more than Bob Dylan has to represent folk musicians. Second, I bring you back to "fantasy". Women, even feminists, can have rape fantasies and not condone rape; in the movie, Ana sure seems to be enjoying herself. So I don't know where this talk of coercion is coming from. Again, in real life Christian's behavior is coercive; this isn't real life, it's one woman's fantasy.

The next is the emotionless portrayal of Christian, Ana's lack of connection to some of the proceedings, and the lack of chemistry between the two. That's the whole story right there: Christian lacks emotion, Ana feels that lack, and, while sensually erotic, the sex also lacks something. That's the whole bloody point.

Another big complaint is that nothing happens: the whole movie is about whether she will or won't sign the damn contract. Big deal! Well, actually it IS a big deal, because that's the central struggle of the characters: how can they love and stay true to themselves? This may not sound like a big deal to people who are expecting to see The Avengers, but it's a big deal for the heart.

Critics complain that there wasn't enough kink: yes there was. There was as much as there needed to be, and no more. Complaining that the movie wasn't more pornographic is just stupid. The movie was about the power struggle and the choices that the characters had to make, not about the sex. The sex was there to provide context for the choices, that's it. The movie had to show Ana's vanilla initiation to sex so that it could then later show her initiation into light BDSM. And it had to show all of that to show how something was still lacking between them, however nice it felt to Ana.

So the criticism is largely as follows: It doesn't portray a normal, healthy relationship. It portrays behavior that would be considered threatening to women. The storyline is all about an emotional choice. It doesn't show enough skin. The sex isn't erotic enough. The characters don't seem to be having enough fun. Here's what this all says to me: This movie doesn't appeal enough to straight men. Straight men can't relate to the fantasy story. Straight men find it boring. Straight men aren't titillated enough by the nudity. Therefore we will heap criticism onto every aspect of the movie whether it deserves it or not, because it should not have been made. Hound the directors and actors, burn the book, burn the movie.

Guess what? Not every movie has to appeal to you. Twilight didn't appeal to you, since it was a female fantasy movie, not a male fantasy movie. Every movie with less overt hacking and slaying and more complex emotional tension doesn't appeal to you. So what? That doesn't mean these movies are bad, it means that they are not for you.

This is not to say that you had to like the movie. You can hate the movie, not like the acting, not like the story, not like the soundtrack for all I care. Just don't hate the movie because you don't think people shouldn't be allowed to make movies that don't appeal to your tastes, and don't be hypocritical about the relative reality or morality of the characters when you so don't care about them in your boys-club movies.

My Review

So what did I think of the movie? First, I couldn't believe that the movie I watched was the same one that received all of this critical scorn, until I began to see the subtext behind the scorn. The tension of the story - the idea that Ana wanted one thing and Christian wanted another - was presented well and understandably. The story arc worked. The movie was acted reasonably well enough. It was not a bad movie.

For most of the movie, Ana criticizes Christian for using his game as a means of pushing away a real relationship. Still she goes along with it and likes it. Suddenly at the end she turns on him for his interest in sadism, which I thought was rather unfair. I think this displays more of a failing of Ana's character than a problem with the writing; she flung it at him as a means of hurting him, maybe because she needed to find the strength to force a confrontation with him.

It had problems, and yes, some of these are the problems that are mentioned by other critics. The story is unbelievable, of course, being a fantasy. As a heterosexual male, it wasn't my fantasy (Christian was a "success object" in the movie). Some of the dialog couldn't be made good no matter how earnestly the actors tried to do so. Backgrounds of many characters and even Christian needed to be fleshed out. Christian's character should have had more natural progress; instead he seemed to be randomly, occasionally annoyed. It would have worked better if these annoyances had progressed in intensity and predictably as his character struggled. It was not a great movie, but it was not a bad movie.

1 comment:

Chris Bateman said...

Really liked what you wrote here - reluctant to share it, for various reasons (up to and including no desire to promote this particular franchise), but it's a great take you have here.

Enjoy your break!