It was a massive opening weekend for soft porn / chick flick Fifty Shades of Grey – the most profitable weekend ever in the United States for an R-rated film: $237.7 million. Its success, ubiquity and, undoubtedly, bawdiness has unleashed a torrent of unsurprisingly hostile reviews. The prudish feel outraged, the BDSM community feels misrepresented, and the more cultivated sections of society were hardly expecting much in the first place.

The film buffs are right. Formalistically, it’s a dreadful film – clunky and mind-numbingly dull. But to understand such a film in these terms is redundant.The BDSM community, too, may well have a case, but it rides on the fact that only orthodox and educational depictions of their practice should be allowed, and this misunderstands the function of film. And the prudish will always be outraged.

None of these reactions are in any way unexpected. But it is a little startling to see the volume of anti-Grey sentiments – from all quarters – that understand the film to be dangerous and disturbing, or somehow very bad for our psychic health as a society. But their words ring with shrill panic that would be more at home in the 1960s.

Although it is a noteworthy first in terms of its open explicitness, Fifty Shades is not as new as it may seem. It is aligned generically with the gothic melodrama, which has a long history of both critical rejection (largely by males) and popular success (largely among females), and spans centuries and media – from the stage to the paperback novel, and now the big screen. It is also a genre that is well established as being (and this is important) outside the confines of realism. The delight and appeal it has offered audiences over the course of centuries lies specifically in how it adopts the register of hyperbole.

The world of melodrama is alluring in the first place only for its fundamentally different laws and principles to everyday life that draw a clear division between the world of the film and the world in which we live. Asserting that Fifty Shades is dangerous to society is to assert that women are, somehow, unable to tell the difference. Certainly, the film doesn’t represent, in the literal sense, an especially empowered role model for women, but is feminist allegory the only media we can condone for women to consume? What are we even doing ‘condoning’ anything in relation to adult women’s media consumption at all? If a film portrays a coercive sexual relationship, does it necessarily follow that it’s working in service of the perpetuation of misogyny?

Even from a purely logical point of view, the thinking is flawed. It understands its female viewer to be so submissive to its fantasy that she is likely to replicate its values in life to the letter. It assumes that she is bound to accept without question the values of the film in much the same way as Ana Steele accepts the advances of Christian Grey, but then argues that women have the capacity to be agents in their lives. Surely if it’s assumed that they ought to take command of their lives, they have the capacity to view a film in a complex way that isn’t simply swallowing an ideology wholesale in its most rudimentary form?

Men are, however, not being subjected to the bad influence that’s being decried. Fifty Shades is overtly and unashamedly for and by women. The melodrama has been kryptonite to men in recent history. This guy was horrified to have been spotted at the cinema. The film is far too camp to bear any significant influence on the average heterosexual male’s sexual predilections. The numbers tell us that, on average, male audiences do not exactly love the film, with men giving it a rating of just 2.8 on IMDB. And according to the words behind the numbers, male audiences, from the film buff to the layman, absolutely despise the film.

Peter Travers from Rolling Stone wrote, “I’m shocked — shocked, do you hear me?!? — that the film version of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey is such a dull, decorous affair, about as erotic as an ad for Pottery Barn. Strictly intended for gluttons for punishment-by-boredom.” IMDB user Dougal_95 commented, “There is only one sure-fire way to improve this catastrophe and that is, quite literally, with fire. Burn it. Burn it all to ash and spread the cinders across the resting ground of Cthulhu. Without this worthy sacrifice, surely the monster will rise up to wreak havoc upon us deserving mortals.”

It’s safe to say that the danger of Christian Grey copycats ranks as a fairly minor threat on the wide spectrum of forms of abuse that women of the world are likely to suffer every day. Indeed, it would seem the only report of Fifty Shades-induced violence we’ve seen so far has been three women attacking a man with a wine bottle in a Glasgow cinema after he asked them to please keep quiet. A (male) eyewitness described the scene:“Besides being the worst film I have ever seen, three women were getting arrested and put in a police van when we arrived … There were also several incredibly drunk women vomiting in the aisle and corridor, and several complaints from the other screen about drunk and rowdy folk.”

It’s not my flavour of girl power, but it’s hard to argue that men held the reins in this scenario, which, in my mind, unfolds in a scene about as manly as a Chippendales show. And it suggests that a more complex form of desire lies behind the Fifty Shades fervour igniting in the loins of women across the globe, and that it is hardly some kind of masochistic sexual Stockholm syndrome.

Fifty Shades exists at the very lightest end of the pornography scale, showing virtually no full frontal nudity, with the primary purpose of titillation. There is no doubt it’s lighting nether-fires the world over. But titillation is an involuntary reaction. It circumvents the ideological, betrays one’s most closely held values, and defies one’s identity. It’s unwise to be too literal in translating what someone finds sexually stimulating into something that tells us anything obvious about who that person is. Those correlations are fluid, idiosyncratic, complex and bizarre. For example, the Japanese porn genre Yaoi, or “boy’s love”, depicts male homosexual sex, but is targeted at a largely heterosexual female audience who claim to enjoy the freedom of watching adult sex that doesn’t correlate to their own bodies.

The mind is full of a lifetime’s worth of weird unconscious associations, and porn exists as a useful, imaginative pressure valve for exploring incongruities in one’s sexual identity. Sometimes our bodies react to things our minds might find difficult to explain, and we shouldn’t be so quick to jump to the conclusion that there is a strong relation between male-dominant soft porn and the desire for feminine subservience in real life.

A lot has been said about the position of women in relation to pornography over the decades. Most of this commentary has, ironically, not been particularly interested in the agency of women, and has focused on what porn does to women and how it uses their passive bodies. This is not to say exploitation does not occur, but we ought to be careful of what it means to take it as a given.

Radical anti-porn feminists such as Andrea Dworkin (whose books include such titles as Men Possessing Women) say much about what porn subjects women to, but say very little about what women do with porn. The nature of this discourse has begun to shift in relation to the production of porn, thanks to women such as the eloquent Duke University law student Belle Knox, who is funding her expensive college education by performing in adult films. Such women are largely met with indignation or condescension when they explain that, in the formal porn industry, women work under safe, controlled conditions, set their own limits, feel empowered, and have the rare fortune of being paid more than men. But this is not precisely the point I want to make. What has yet to be explored in any detail is how women viewers actively use porn for pleasure.

There is still relatively little data, but in 2009, the Nielsen ratings reported that as many as one-third of the visitors to porn websites are women. Another major survey found that 8% of female internet users watch porn online, even despite the fact that the industry caters in the vast majority to male tastes. So a fair number of women are definitely watching porn.

We also know that women watch porn differently to men. A fascinating study at Queens University, Ontario, found some interesting things about the differences between male and female sexuality. After measuring physical and reported responses to various scenes on video, including men and women exercising, heterosexual and homosexual coupling, and even the coupling of bonobo chimps, she found that the heterosexual male participants were only really aroused by the images of women exercising, and by female homosexual and heterosexual sex. Women, on the other hand, were all over the charts.

Dr Meredith Chivers explains:“No matter what their self-proclaimed sexual orientation, they showed, on the whole, strong and swift genital arousal when the screen offered men with men, women with women, and women with men. They responded objectively much more to the exercising woman than to the strolling man, and their blood flow rose quickly — and markedly, though to a lesser degree than during all the human scenes except the footage of the ambling, strapping man — as they watched the apes. And with the women, especially the straight women, mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person.”

It is well established that female sexual arousal involves a complex interplay of visual, sensual and psychological elements that implicate powers of empathy and identification, and are far from literal. Women being turned on by a sexual scene involving apes does not necessarily mean that they want to be in on the action. Why is it accepted as truth that when women are watching Fifty Shades of Grey, they are literally imagining themselves to be Ana Steele?

Prominent cultural theorist Roland Barthes describes film as inducing a “para-oneiric” state – an effect in the viewer that is similar to dreaming, and that onscreen events work in such a way that the viewer observes streams of images over which they don’t have conscious control, similar to the way they do when they dream. He argues that watching a film places the viewer in a state suspended between consciousness and unconsciousness, in which visual stimuli interplay with unconscious associations and desires to produce emotions and physical experiences. This is the same libidinal place from which sexual fantasy arises, which is why movies and porn can be as weird and varied as your strangest dreams.

So films, dreams and sexual fantasy have interesting intimate relationships with one another, a relationship that correlates interestingly with the film genres generally associated with either males or females. For example, recent research indicates that women tend to dream more vividly and intensely than men. Work by dream researcher G William Domhoff at the University of California also indicates that women’s dreams tend to be longer, more detailed and feature more characters than men. Women dream equally of characters from both sexes, while men tend to have dreams that feature mostly other men and themes of aggression. It’s a lesser known fact that women have sexual responses during REM sleep (the primary dream phase) as frequently as men do, including lubricating and becoming engorged – even if the dream is not what would be considered erotic in conscious life.

Domhoff’s research also shows that there is no proof that dreams necessarily serve a particular known adaptive function and are the sensory by-product of the brain processing information. They do, however, perform an important social function in terms of being able to relate bodily experience to social reality in a safe way. So, for example, they can be used by people in psychotherapy to interpret their reactions to things that might trouble or excite them in the safety of the explicit absurdity of dreams. No one can be held responsible for a dream they have had.
Fifty Shades provides that same emotionally rich, projective, imaginative, dreamlike space. When you have a dream about a person doing something bad to you, it is not actually that person who is doing something bad to you. The entire scene exists inside your mind, is generated by you, and speaks to aspects of yourself in varied and complex ways. Dreaming and watching films allows us to reflect on the relationships between those aspects of ourselves. In a world where women are in many ways still subservient to men, Fifty Shades functions as a personal fantasy that focuses on themes of control and is populated with images that emerge from daily life in just the way dreams are.

A woman sitting in the darkened cinema in front of Jamie Dornan’s naked body has expressed her agency by taking her place as the subject of the fantasy by choosing to buy a ticket and go to the movies. From that point onwards, it is simplistic to think that the only thing she is likely to take away from the film is a primitive identification with Ana’s experience. Ana’s character is just one of the facets of this complex fantasy, and certainly not the only one. (And I would argue her role in the fantasy is far more about trying to understand Christian Grey than it is about being owned by him.)

In many ways, the Fifty Shades fantasy involves women taking command of the image of Christian Grey. An incredibly two-dimensional character, he feels like he belongs in a half-remembered dream. Not only does his identity belong to his female author, but Dornan as actor has submitted himself to his female director, and his objectified image on screen submits itself to the women in the cinema. On so many levels, this film is about a man submitting to a woman’s fantasy – not the other way around. There are also moments when the camera clearly asks us to identify with Grey himself as it explores the blindfolded Ana’s body.

The experience of such a controlling position is in thrilling contradiction to the idea that the film encourages women to embody female submission. The dreamlike world of Fifty Shades allows women to experiment empathically with masculine dominance to which they are so regularly subjected, not so that they can be sympathetic to it, but so that they can feel what it is like to embody it, understand it, and master it.

Let me be clear: the film does not in any way represent any conscious feminist message, like this socialist feminist version, but serves an entirely different purpose, and moralising over the dangers of the film may in fact be more harmful than the film itself. It allows women to compute the confusing pressures and demands of being both a sexual and social agent within a patriarchal society in a way they may not have the room to do consciously in their lives.

There is a problem, though – but it has nothing to do with the plot or the characters or even the BDSM. The danger exists in the fact that it is hegemony at work, and the way that at the very instant feminine fantasy becomes acknowledged as a real rather than a shameful fallacy, it also becomes a massively profitable commodity. This means that it no longer belongs to her, and that it must acquiesce to the broad market trends, and her exploration is stunted and limited.
The approval for open female sexual pleasure has come from the industry, rather than the community. Acceptability has been conflated with publicity. Women should be able encourage each other towards the same kind of nudge-nudge, wink-wink private yet acceptable exploration of sexual fantasy as men, in which they can retain control of their sexual agency while not being compelled to share it so it can be bought as market research.

Fifty Shades represents a rapid and dangerous shift from taboo to public property that may have the risk of colonising female sexuality such that porn is ‘okay’ – as long as it is endorsed by a major Hollywood studio or large publishing house, and limits their freedom to go down the healthy rabbit hole of much, much more weird and unusual things than can be found at Grey Mansion. We can only hope that Ana and Christian represent just the start and not the end of something good.

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