— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) February 4, 2015
The film critic has spoken. Yay.
On February, 13th 2015, Fifty Shades of Grey will lift its curtain for theater goers and expose them to a buffet of mild BDSM and otherwise hardcore "bornography." (Bornography is where an un-compelling story is redeemed with prolonged scenes of violence or sexuality; Fast and the Furious is, by definition, as bornographic as 50 Shades). But before you remove your thinking cap and tie your wrists behind your back, let's Google search "50 Shades of Grey."
Here, we're immediately exposed to the titillating charlatanism of E.L. James, author of Twilight-fan-fiction turned Amazon bestseller 50 Shades of Grey trilogy. From the metadata of 50shadesmovie.com: “Based on the book, the Fifty Shades of Grey movie follows the relationship [sic] billionaire Christian Grey and college student Anastasia Steele.”
Dope. This everywoman totally scored an ideal partner. She is in a relationship. With an abuse-victim turned industrialist who manipulates women into acts of sexual fetishism (BDSM) with hyper-specific rules (location, arrangements, even associated gynecologists!) to overcome his debilitating trauma. And it's totally cool. Because he's rich. It sounds like another American delusion. Consider how many undocumented cases of sexual abuse our nation buries under its smallpox-ridden, ancestral-genocide landscapes. Christian Grey, if anything, is exemplary, a hero, a manchild Rockefeller--
Yeah right. Grey should hire Zizek as his therapist and quit sociopathically manipulating women living on the other side of a socioeconomic chasm. Women who, interchangeable as they are, unburden him from otherwise impossible existence. Although I like the color motif of this franchise. Grey, the perfect hue for an ambivalent, undefined antagonist, an amoral, cthulhu-ian monstrosity. It would be a stretch but one might assay that 50 Shades surpasses the outdated good vs. evil narrative, approaching the frighteningly stark depiction of a genius like H.P. Lovecraft.
Notice: Anastasia, a “college student”, is purposefully undefined in the film marketing. Is Anastasia a college student who also LOVES FARM FRESH, who CANNOT MISS BURNING MAN, who is 420 FRIENDLY, who is ATTRACTED TO UBER SUCCESSFUL ONE-PERCENTERS? Aspiring screenwriters are crying, deservedly, in unison, GTFO. Studios are dumping hundreds of millions of marketing dollars on a franchise starring a “college student” who lacks any characterization? There’s not even a fucking adjective.
From a narrative and marketing standpoint, Anastasia is an empty vessel. Perhaps this is strategic. She might embody an empty identity that readers/viewers can then superimpose with their own social identity. According to Benjamin R. Barber, fellow at Annenberg School, University of Southern California, in Consumed (2007, W.W. Norton & Co.), “Business itself plays a role in forging identities conducive to buying and selling.” Yet where is Anastasia’s identity established except through the consumptive/productive bulwark of Christian Grey?
Speaking of fetishism and sociopathy, Grey’s and Steele’s enjoyments, mutual, separate, stem from two perverse fantasies. Christian will gladly “play” with any nondescript woman who’ll succumb to his rules so that he can mitigate his trauma and further his capitalistic pursuits. It’s a simple dramatic premise. Grey's company is his identity. He follows his fictional logic to its conclusion: Keep having sexual encounters with Ana and do not let it impede his financial success; manipulate anything and everything to attain utter dominance. Ana, sadly, because she’s only defined within this fictional logic as an object of Grey's enjoyment, must preserve the relationship. If she were to become “identified” i.e. by completing university and getting a job, she would cease to fulfill the fetish that drives Grey, mainly that of punishing the identity-seeker i.e. the "bootstrapping" "middleclass." Anastasia, therefore, will bend herself to the will of a man who owns a helicopter, a steel-encased sex parlor and a society-erecting firm. Why? Because if not allowing herself to be defined by Grey, she risks invisibility and marginalization.
Ana bends over for Grey the same way an exploited college student takes a salary position at below market wage, for the "experience." Namely the experience of a perceived existence. Anastasia in choosing to align her identity with the staggering businessman disappears from the story if she walks away. This is another narrative loss for feminists. If Ana ends the arrangement (I can't call it a relationship; she is defined by him, rendering them unequal), the story naturally follows Christian and the next everywoman that he manipulates to his and her mutual, separate enjoyments.
So, as it plays out, our actual society is blessed with a piece of “art” called 50 Shades of Grey. Yet, this bornography, in its frank implausibility—billionaire? college student? wtf?—exists insofar as it tempts its seemingly repressed audience with scenes of mild BDSM. Without the sex scenes the audience for the franchise disappears, too.
Apropos. the supposed group of people who are buying this “art” en masse, the middleclass, they're allegedly going extinct as well. And Anastasia Steele is the perfect stand in for such a vanishing class. Isn’t the metaphor beautiful? As anyone working a salaried jobs knows, options are scarce. Bend over, and forego your identity to the cruel calculations and staggering organizations of an interested corporation. They'll whip you, and buy you a nice lunch, fly you across the country for a meeting. Sounds strangely familiar to Ana's tutelage with Grey. In the process, one develops a social identity, that is left behind if one leaves the arrangement (sexual or professional). Essentially, if you take a hike, you are like the fictional Ana, you cease to move the narrative forward.
According to Barber, our hyper-capitalist narrative is past servicing wants and in the business of producing them. A book like 50 Shades is not addressing what we want, it's forcing itself, via procedures (like that sycophantic Kardashian tweet) into the position of being wanted. And the middleclass only exists insofar as it bends to the whim of the Spectacle. Anastasia knows this, and that’s why she allows a one-sided, arguably abusive relationship to persist -- yes, with melodramatic discord, but ultimately consent, otherwise this franchise would be a preposterous saga about brainwashing bleeding into arguable rape.
Christian Grey’s efforts reek of sociopathy, fetishism, and, instead of being critiqued from the outside-in or the inside-out, become heralded, without recourse, in the realm of celebrity. ANY GIRL IN COLLEGE WITHOUT AN IDENTITY CAN STAND IN FOR ANASTASIA STEELE. But, if we unfasten the negligee of hype, perhaps we’ll see more than BDSM bornography. The bestselling-erotic-fiction cum Valentine’s Day must-see movie is perfectly suited for our current financial calamity.
Ours is a society at its widest-to-date financial disparity. It's an impossible notion to swallow. Even the afore-linked video fails to capture the emotional gravitas of knowing that even we, the racing-to-escape-the-minutia-of-proletarianism, the “creative class” might disappear one by one. We're most fit for success, too. As Barber explains, "Not products but emotional leveraging, manipulating lifestyles, and the shaping of human purpose define the new corporation." Perhaps Ana is better suited dropping out of college and practicing a reverse manipulation on Christian Grey. Then, after the novel, in an imagined future, she can turn this learned, manipulative prowess against the middleclass, and convince them to submit to the will of the mega-industrialist who employs her.
Never mind. This depth and complexity seems unfathomable, given 50 Shades' embarrassing prose. And, aside from James' failure at language, the psychology is terribly implausible. There’s nothing to LEARN from the Steele-Grey fantastic encounter. No truth emerges. Theirs is a sexual power dynamic that in reality, would NOT transpire outside the realm of fetishism, if at all. Christian is hypothetically “striking” the perfect "college student" i.e. consumer of a service that sells the promise of later defining oneself through a career, i.e. a somebody who could be ANYBODY.
And knowing one could be anybody, where is that party’s sexual power? What party can truly say they are operating as a sexual partner when they themselves survive only in denial of what they actually are? We then might say that this fictional "relationship" is precisely NOT that. It’s not a plausible relationship in fiction because it’s a zero probability affair in the world we inhabit.
But, even if we could define Steele-Grey as having an “affair,” we are left with a more damning problem. Could this affair ever transpire at all given the undefined party that Steele represents? Namely a “college student” without, per Barber’s definition, any substantive identity in a consumerist society. Realistically, the Grey-Steele sexual encounter would be merely an usurping, a syphoning of power from the already oppressed to the already oppressive. Worse yet, every encounter--the very event that titillates audiences--further suppresses any retaliatory act by the oppressed. Any backlash against the dominant could be met with, But aren't you letting them treat you unfairly? In fact, don't you enjoy it? Seen as such, the conversation becomes less table-appropriate and more a dialectic of sexual politics. “Who’s going to fist who?” Kris Kraus might jest.
Mr. Grey is the perfect embodiment of hyper-elite sadism met with adamantly middleclass masochism.
It is as if a vanishing caste were screaming, passionately, with every lashing, with every spanking, with every smacking, Please, yes, more, MORE!! Keep hitting us, beating us, punishing us. Both fictionally, as the protagonist does, bemoaning her sessions with the de facto industrialist/megalomaniac. And symbolically, as consumers ravaging the pages, begging for more pulp fiction, more pages to turn. Consider the pleasure of anticipation the submissive feels as they are blindfolded and awaiting a paddle strike or crop whip. It's an apt metaphor for anxious 50 Shades moviegoers, no? The delayed stimulus is an integral part of the bound-and-gagged's pleasure. And given Hollywood's still incredibly insular craft, one would say that 50 Shades fans are the ones with their hands tied behind their backs, perhaps on their wrists and knees, derrieres lifted skyward, begging for the scarf to be pulled up so they can SEE Mr. Grey, now!
But what do we, those who identify as not-hyper-elite, i.e. all but perhaps a handful of global denizens, see when we gaze at the celluloid version of today's protagonist par excellence? Consider too this lingering issue of identity: we love to toss out "one percent" as a classification of another, but at the same time that it’s defined by our perceived condition as "financially average."
Perhaps we see ourselves, reflected by Mr. Grey, as finally "middleclass". It appears then that we, the ideal, stable (and infinitely contradictory) producer/consumer are in fact impossible because, as experience suggests, those of us "succeeding" rise to frenzied, yet enviable routines, while those less so dangle a paycheck away from poverty. Those who walk away, who break up with a consumerist identity, if not for phantom income, are reduced to poverty, or at least a lack of agency, reduced opportunity for actual democratic participation (Salam explains in Slate how the upper middleclass is vastly more likely to engage in politics, and more capable of collectively donating enough money to affect change).
In reality, millions of people are buying into the 50 Shades fantasy—phallic swelling, prickling areolas, engorged clitorises alike—flooded with serotonin shots of “Mr. Grey will see you now.” In fact, the real Mr. Greys, the CEOs of mega corporations like NBC Universal, have no intention of relating to the everyperson who’d earnestly purchase the very commodity that heralds his dominion. Such is the charlatanism of E.L. James—profiting, as she sells us a fantasy that obfuscates where it might enlighten. Perhaps Rousseau was right, "The arts fling garlands of flowers over the chains which weigh [us] down." Perhaps I don't resent James' ethos, as wish she'd craft a finer garland.