It seems two opposite camps have been united by the Fifty Shades of Grey film, which grossed nearly $100 million over the long weekend: fans of bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, and sado-masochism (BDSM) as sexual practices; and the conservative ranks of Christian cultural criticism. For the appreciator of BDSM, Fifty Shades is nothing more than an appropriation of the themes, aesthetics, and props of BDSM to eroticize what is at its core an abusive relationship; for concerned Christians, it’s a sign of the normalization of all manner of sexual excess and decadence, an omen of perversion becoming commonplace. Those neutral to BDSM might be equally concerned with the romanticizing of abusive relationship dynamics, regardless of their sexual context. And these are all fair concerns, from their respective camps, when it comes to the real-life impacts of the Fifty Shades phenomenon.
But leaving life aside, Fifty Shades has also been devastatingly bad for the way alternative sexual styles, especially those that focus on power dynamics, function in art. BDSM and its spiritual predecessors have appeared in art and literature for centuries now, with the graphic plays, novels, short stories and novellas by the 18th century French aristocrat the Marquis de Sade forming a cornerstone of the genre. And Sade’s work is interesting for more than its originality: Sade pondered, however oddly, problems of authority and justice in the institutional Church, law, and civil government, with particularly bizarre sexual behavior often acting as a vehicle of his consideration. Sade may not have been a well-adjusted person, but there was a political dimension to his work that was just as transgressive as its erotic elements, and the sexual transgressions he gleefully recounted were used to present interesting questions about power, suffering, and control.
Literature is replete with examples in this vein, wherein power arrangements made explicit through sex reveal power arrangements implicit, and less often contemplated, in ordinary life. Film has also successfully adapted the use of BDSM for framing issues of power. Liliana Cavani’s 1974 Italian film The Night Porter follows the relationship of a Nazi officer and a female concentration camp inmate as it develops into an obviously abusive sexual relationship inside the camp—but then transitions into something more ambivalent once the war ends, and the officer and former inmate meet on more equal terms. Or do they? The film’s use of dark eroticism alongside political horrors past and ongoing invites viewers to question their complicity in instances of domination, personal and political. If one can find eroticism in situations of such blatant abuse of power somehow still alluring, is it not possible to find power itself alluring, despite all the same problems of dehumanization and maltreatment? The Night Porter, like the work of Sade, develops a mindful interest in power and its applications considered through the prism of BDSM-like sexuality, and offers up some transgressive conclusions.
And then there is Fifty Shades. The problem with it is not that it is a stupid film, or that it ignores the broader implications of its use of power, authority, and domination in its eroticism. The problem is just that it comes to the exact wrong conclusion: as to where BDSM is an excellent vessel for highlighting the uncomfortable intersections of power in gender, politics, class, and so on, Fifty Shades recognizes and glorifies the forms of domination we all live with every day through its use of BDSM.
Heather Havrilesky at The Baffler and Arthur Chu at The Daily Beast have already pointed out that Fifty Shades is, among other types of porn, a kind of lifestyle porn. Havrilesky notes that the novels are rife with obsessively detailed scene-setting when it comes to Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele’s luxe surroundings, and Chu duly remarks that branding is heavily present in the film, with no sparkly token or sleek possession going untagged. You could briefly doze and miss the film’s eroticism, but it’s impossible to miss the visual markers of wealth: private helicopter jaunts, spacious offices, finely tailored suits, ritzy cars and top-of-the-line tech. Even the film’s trailer tracks Steele’s erotic journey into BDSM with her vertiginous rise in class, scenes of sexual domination interspersed with scenes of conspicuous prestige blurring into cuts of Steele literally rising higher, first in an elevator, then in helicopters and planes.
Grey, we find, has a troubled past; he’s a broken boy who means well, and just needs an understanding woman to accommodate his tastes, accept his bullyish form of love, and heal him. It is likely that Fifty Shades will be only the first installment in a franchise, following the sequence of the novels; in this installment, we leave Steele mawkish and unconvincingly resolute, knowing she will return to Grey in an attempt to cooperate with his tastes so long as she can continue nudge him toward a functional relationship. Grey’s domination of Steele—both sexual and financial—twine together, and the question isn’t whether or not but how Steele is going to fix whatever wound in Grey causes him such angst. The takeaway message is that power can be reasoned with, that viewed through the right lens, domination all makes sense, and can be properly apportioned so as to minimize suffering, in which case all is right and good.
Unlike Sade and Cavani’s works, Fifty Shades does not use the fertile theme of BDSM to lead its viewers into questioning the legitimacy of power and domination. Intentionally or not, it uses BDSM to advance the idea that domination of the relatively poor and vulnerable by the comparatively rich and powerful is something that can be coped with, that there is nothing therein to resist or destroy, that we are all just trying to get along together, and the obstacle is figuring out how to compromise enough with power and domination to live comfortably under them. Fifty Shades is a pro-capitalist film, at the end of the day, resting on the notion that extraordinary inequality in power is not something to be questioned or resisted as it is something to be accepted and managed, with the management forming the film’s core drama. In this sense, it is a complete waste of BDSM as an artistic conceit, adopting a subject rich with opportunities to explore and invert the realities of power to do nothing more than nod dumbly along with the power inequalities we’re already familiar with.
And, alas, this pro-capitalist sentiment seems also to be oozing out of the Fifty Shades film and books and into real life. You can now purchase Fifty Shades inspired makeup, book a Fifty Shades based honeymoon, take a Fifty Shades fitness class led by a dominatrix, or pick up Fifty Shades branded sex toys at your local Target, among other retailers. A lot of movie tie-in merchandise claims to allow you to become a part of the film, but no Harry Potter wand or wizard hat could bring you as close to Hogwarts as spending cash on Fifty Shades tchotchkes brings you to the world of Steele and Grey. Go to your job, make your money, pay your landlord, then spend what's left on Fifty Shades swag. Don’t ever suspect there’s perhaps something about gross economic inequality that’s worthy of smashing; just keep your head down, and imagine you can come to some kind of understanding with your betters. It’s what Steele does, after all.