If we learned anything from the pop-culture powerhouse that is the 50 Shades series of books and movies about a woman being tied up and physically dominated by a strong man, it’s that there is a big market for female-disempowerment stories.
Two-thirds of the way through the movie series, though, the cultural winds have shifted. At the moment, making movies about a sexually passive woman seems deeply problematic, at least to Hollywood types who don’t want to be accused of being retrograde when it comes to anything dealing with women and sex. Universal Pictures, which distributes the 50 Shades movies, has hit upon a solution: Pretend that a movie about a woman who likes to be handcuffed, blindfolded, and whipped is a female-empowerment story.
In Times Square, Universal has rolled out a gigantic series of billboards advertising a 180-degree reversal of direction for the film series, which began with 50 Shades of Grey (2015), continued with 50 Shades Darker (2016), and will conclude with next week’s release of 50 Shades Freed. Three new posters show Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) in sexual command: In one of them she’s sitting on Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), taking his head in both hands while his arms are out of the picture. In another they’re both prone and laughing, again with her on top, again with her grabbing him and his arms not seen, and in a third she is taking his shirt off as he leans back passively, his arms raised and behind his head as if he’s expecting to be handcuffed by the sex police. Still another poster shows Ana in a wedding dress over the legend “Mrs. Grey will see you now.” The trailer for the movie begins with wedding scenes, complete with Grey going all gooey in his wedding vows.
What gives? The whole point of this series is its indulgence of a female fantasy about surrendering to masculine authority and control. It’s pretty much the opposite of the way feminism is usually discussed, as a movement that seeks to shift more power from men to women, which is why Rich Lowry labeled the story “an anti-feminist juggernaut.”
From a marketing standpoint, advertising 50 Shades as just another psychologically healthy romance story — hurrah for enthusiastic consent and frilly weddings! — seems completely demented. Despite the notoriously awful quality of the prose in the three 50 Shades novels (titled the same as the movies) by E. L. James, the smutty subversion of feminist ideology seemed to be the main driver of their popularity. Wikipedia claims that more than 125 million copies of the books have been sold worldwide. All three books were commonly sold with covers hinting at male domination and female passivity, such as the designer necktie with which Grey binds Ana’s hands. This is not a tale of sexual equality. It’s about total female surrender to the will and overpowering physical force of a man, at least in bed. And the vast majority of its audience is female.
Observing feminist writers try to square their evident attraction to this material with their equality-first politics has been amusing. In Slate, Amanda Hess wrote that she felt “flushed, tingly, a little out of control” after a screening of the first 50 Shades movie. “I left the movie feeling like I’d just been on a first date with someone I’d secretly crushed on for a long time. I’d definitely see it again.” The books, which made famous Christian’s sex dungeon full of whips and leather restraints and much other exotic gear ordinarily meant to subdue animals or the dangerously insane, merely “depict the lightest of bondage,” argued Sarah Marshall in a piece called “The Strange Feminist Politics of 50 Shades Darker” for The New Republic. What the story is really about is “Christian’s lavishly loving pursuit of Anastasia’s pleasure.” Marshall derided the book’s reception as “endless pearl-clutching headlines and editorials bemoaning the rise of ‘mommy porn’” and suggested that no one should be surprised to learn that “normal women all over the world actually wanted to read fiction about bondage and submission, sadism . . . and all manner of unpublishable acts.” The first 50 Shades film “helped women reclaim their sexuality in so many ways,” wrote E. J. Dickinson in a piece published in Salon and the Daily Dot.
Yet the 50 Shades franchise is at odds with the new, bizarre attempt to classify as abusive any sex that takes place without enthusiastic or express verbal consent reiterated at each stage. As the Harvey Weinstein moment gave way to the Aziz Ansari moment, some angry feminists warned that any male failure to read the mind of the woman with whom he has an intimate encounter will be subject to grave social punishment, if necessary the kind of public humiliation via revenge porn that Ansari has suffered.
Yet Hanna Rosin of Slate has it right when she writes, “One of the many ways in which [the first 50 Shades book] conveys a message hostile to modern feminism is its insistence that a woman’s words, in the context of sex, mean nothing; her body is telling the truth.” That is indeed the message of the 50 Shades franchise, and it happens also to be closer to the truth than the ludicrous proposals of Ansari’s detractors. A woman who doesn’t stop a man from undressing her is giving consent. A woman who performs sexual acts requested is giving consent. These have always been the agreed-upon rules for sex, and those who are castigating Ansari won’t change that. Feminists who are made to feel flushed and tingly by the 50 Shades series should be honest enough with themselves to admit that they don’t actually want to have sexual encounters in which men keep asking, “May I do this now?”