February 20, 2015

Christian Grey: The Disneyland Dom

By Marc Esadrian

Anyone familiar with my original thoughts on 50 Shades of Grey will likely not find this supplemental rant much of a surprise, but I suppose it’s necessary, being who I am, to say something. After all, it would be irresponsible of me to avoid commentary on a subject that hits so close to home (or as close as it can, at least) on the silver screen. So, begrudgingly, I dragged myself to the theater to see the movie adaptation directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, starring Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey and Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele.

I laughed, I winced, and shook my head in mild annoyance over the neutered and underwhelming spectacle before me. When the movie ended, I wondered how many people in the theater found it to be little more than a flat, safe, sterile, PG-13-like buzz kill. Afterward, I put my thoughts to keyboard, struggling with what I should title this commentary. 50 Shades of Fail? Not-a-True-Dominant: The Movie? Or how about Rich and Kinky Boy-Faced Beta Male Tries to Seduce a Smug, Temperamental Virgin? It was quite a conflict.

I finally settled on Christian Grey: The Disneyland Dom, for I think that among the movie’s many flawed premises, the one that irks me the most is the inadvertent message that women might be interested in male domination…permitting you’re a hot Armani-suited billionaire. While I’m happy to see the subject of consensual female submission going mainstream, I feel the idea of it, as conceived in this tale, is tied too closely to the mystique of wealth and bling. If we strip away Christian Grey’s expensive raiment, his luxuriant urban address, his stable of exotic sports cars, his private helicopter, and above all, his top notch “red room” that would make any professional dominatrix drool, what remains? Beyond image, where in this film is Christian Grey really dominant at all, aside from the entitlements afforded him through money? We see him chasing after Anastasia Steele, a woman who, despite her waking desires, repeatedly denies him (a common romantic cliché). In the wake of her rejections and sarcastic remarks, he chases her like a cross between a stalker, a wounded puppy, and a well dressed front-door salesman. And yet he dramatically avoids her at all the wrong moments. In many ways, this man acted like der uber jerken, getting up and abandoning her when he should have enriched their bond, shutting her out when sharing would have maximized intimacy, and wallowing in his own self-pity over a shiny piano while she stands half naked, a foot away. Which brings me to my next peeve.

Second in my list of grievances about the film (but just barely so) is the absolutely dysfunctional portrayal of male dominance we are subjected to, over and over. I understand that a story needs a conflict and that stories serve more as entertainment than enlightenment, but as I originally lamented regarding E. L. James’ trilogy, 50 Shades the movie had an opportunity to present the D in D/s in a more positive light—to show the world that you don’t have to be an emotionally (and psychically) scarred person to partake in these things. We are left, especially at the gloomy end of the first film, not only assuming that Christian’s interest in D/s directly and unequivocally stems from his dysfunction and romantic ineptness, but also feeling like that man is a bit of a wimp and pushover.

Segue to peeve three: Sassy Steele’s domineering and passive-aggressive vibe is tiresomely obvious throughout the film. So obvious, in fact, that no self-respecting dominant male I know of (real dominant men, mind you) would put up with her sneers, snide remarks, eye rolling, and condescending jabs. It’s here where I see the usual girl power scripting of Hollywood, likely uncomfortable with the subject matter to begin with, tinkering more than a little with her character to make her “hipper” and more palatable to the public’s genteel standards. Anatasia’s character was a little playful and opinionated in the books, though she was also naive and subdued. The movie made her much more bold and sarcastic, bordering on hostile, but I certainly didn’t find myself surprised in the least about that. I honestly don’t think anyone churning out films from major studios today is capable of presenting a woman as anything but strong and sassy (and I’ll add domineering, while I’m at it).

This presents a problem with the portrayal of submission for the D/s-illiterate yet nonetheless intrigued female viewers. Ana is not just a brat or a typical SAM (Smart Assed Masochist): she is disrespectful, dramatic, passive-aggressive, and tries her best to be as unimpressed as possible with her seducer throughout the film. Granted, Ana is what they call “vanilla” in BDSM terms. With that in mind, many of her lame reactions to lame dominance were plausible (even if her twenties-ish virginity isn’t). Still, her contentiousness doesn’t set a very good example at all for impressionable women who are on the cusp of taking marginal interest in this way of life. Women drawn in from the 50 Shades Effect who make the mistake of approaching authentically dominant men as their personal Christian Greys (it has already happened to me, and more than once, I’m sad to report) will likely have a very rude awakening when the face of mommy porn meets the concrete of reality.

But the movie isn’t all bad. For BDSM 101, the film did well with respect to consent, negotiation, and safe words. The War and Peace sized contract scene conveyed, at least, the detailed consent of kinky play partners. It took great pains, in fact, to inform the novice yet curious public that these interactions are based upon consent. Zooming out to see the big picture, the 50 Shades Effect helped to bring BDSM—and, to some degree, D/s—into mainstream discussion. This helps to “normalize” D/s a little more in our culture and foster an environment where more men and women can at least consider the idea of dominance and submission as something other than shameful and pathological interactions between deviant adults.

But normalizing D/s for the general public’s consumption might only swap out the old canards with new ones. It remains to be seen what effect E. L. James’ trendy story-made-movie will have on mainstream views regarding actual dominance and submission. Aside of being annoyed at how much of a cheesy cartoon D/s may now be in the eyes of some, my real concern is that instead of accepting the deeper and wider practices of our world, there will be a polarization between what’s deemed good and bad D/s, where a gamut of consumable acts and ideas are sanctioned and others remain stigmatized. In other words, some progress toward wider acceptance, but otherwise business as usual.

 


March 6, 2014

Stalingrad

By Nina E.

There is no difference between being raped
And being pushed down a flight of cement steps
Except that the wounds also bleed inside.

There is no difference between being raped
And being run over by a truck
Except that afterward men ask if you enjoyed it.

There is no difference between being raped
And being bit on the ankle by a rattlesnake
Except that people ask if your skirt was short
And why you were out anyhow.

There is no difference between being raped
And going head first through a windshield
Except that afterward you are afraid not of cars,
But half the human race.

—from “Rape Poem” by Marge Piercy

If truth be told, there is a huge difference between being raped and these other four fates. When one of the above events happens to someone, the results frequently involve blinding pain, broken bones, massive bleeding, organ shutdown, comas, or death. Those who survive these things are often disfigured or crippled for life, living with chronic pain. In other words, the physical effects from these events are profound. But unless a rape is unusually brutal and savage (a rare event) most women do not die from it and they might even suffer no physical damage beyond a few light bruises and a sore vagina. I’m going to talk more about rape, but first I want to talk about something worse than rape, worse even than the devastating personal traumas that the poem falsely equates with rape, before I return to the subject. I want to talk about war.

Wars are terrible, ugly, and, most of all, massive things. Their sheer size and effects make them hard to comprehend. The physical destruction of shelter, roads, farms, vehicles, food, clean water, and other necessary elements of human survival is only the tip of the iceberg of misery they visit upon us. Wars ruin lives, shatter minds, impoverish people, break up homes, and take from us the things or beings we most love. They tear apart families, drive people to utter despair, or embed immense hatreds in the victims’ hearts that ring like warped harmonics through several generations before they heal. A war causes so much pain, such intense physical and emotional suffering among so many that, in most cases, the scope of the evils wrought by it are incomprehensible in their vastness. How do you get a mental grasp on the reality of war? How do you imagine thousands, tens of thousands, even millions of people dying or suffering terribly and then dying? Even the most well-researched books, lengthy tomes that took years to write, can only convey to us a small part of a war’s grinding, immense horror. Their depictions of war’s effects, even when clear and focused, only spotlight tiny slivers of the total devastation to human lives and human hope.

Among the wars humanity has suffered through few equal the scope of World War II. The vast scale of suffering that huge war caused is indeed incomprehensible, and we are lucky that it is. A mind which could grasp the full extent of that monstrous mid-twentieth century event would likely go mad. The only way I’ve found to comprehend even a small part of such a wide-sweeping hell is to do as some experts do: to look very closely and carefully at a few microscopic bits of the whole and observe how they affected a single individual or a small group. I can’t possibly imagine the unique, individual pain of hundreds of thousands who died in concentration camps, for instance, but I can get a sense of the suffering of those masses by hearing the detailed stories of one or two individuals who experienced the camps and lived to tell the tale. Or I can look at the surviving photographs of skeletal and near-naked people trying to survive the bitter winters with almost no food and little shelter and then multiply that out by six or seven figures and shudder. I cannot begin to imagine the individual hells experienced by thousands of soldiers on the front lines but I can see the plight of a few from the horrific descriptions of those who survived it. And, once in a while, I can get a clear, realistic picture of what a minuscule part of a war must have been like from a work of very good fiction that doesn’t defy informed common sense.

In this editorial, I’d like to pay tribute to one such fiction: a movie I saw last week. This movie is being largely ignored at the box office (on opening night in our locale there were probably only 12 other viewers in the theater), perhaps due to its “old-fashioned” themes or “difficult” subtitles (it’s spoken in Russian) and panned by the critics for the very things I appreciated most about it. The film is called Stalingrad. It depicts the fate of a small group of Russian soldiers who are scouts for an advance force trying to take back the city of Stalingrad from the Germans by crossing the Volga. The beginning of the film is a scene straight from hell: it shows war at its worst and heroism at its best, as dozens of Russian soldiers, set afire by fuel tanks that were blown up by the Germans in an attempt to stop their advance, continue to run, while on fire, up from the river and into the enemy ranks, screaming and using their bodies as living torches to burn the defending German forces whom they grappled with. When I looked at those courageous, agonized running men, I asked myself, “Could I do that if I were on fire?” As the film progresses, we see highly realistic and detailed views of this once-prosperous Russian city, now reduced mostly to rubble but still continuously bombed. Nobody could possibly be living in those shelled out buildings but, lo and behold, thousands still are: both Russian residents and the German occupiers. The film focuses in narrowly on the half-dozen Russian soldiers charged with taking and holding a specific key building for a few days and the encounters they have with local residents and the Germans as they carry out their orders. This part of the film—the individual lives of a few men during a handful of days—is likely fictional but the circumstances surrounding them (and quite accurately depicted by the film) were not: this five-month siege and reoccupation of the city by the Red Army was the battle that finally turned this terrible war in the Allies favor.

The story of the Russian soldiers wasn’t very likely in one sense and the critics were right to point this out: while taking a building they discover a 19-year-old girl still lives there and refuses to leave her former home. She becomes their goddess, muse, and good luck charm. They treat her first with a level of distant gallantry and later with a fawning worship that is highly unlikely from men stressed to their limits by the extremes of such a war. But it’s a charming story, nonetheless, showing that happiness, smiles, gift-giving, sharing of fond memories, and cooperation can occur, at times, even among hardened fighting men who’ve been literally drenched in blood and seen the worst the world can offer. Great attention was paid to period realism and it was a delight to observe those details in the sets and the props. The intense, stressed boredom of the soldiers, who each live with great individual grief and know that they are the walking dead, simply waiting for their inevitable fate from the stronger German force nearby; their sometimes foolish or callous attempts to relieve their fears and sorrows; and their preoccupation with the brave young girl, who takes their minds off their individual sorrows and likely hopeless fate, are all expertly depicted.

But the film isn’t just about them: there are many other subplots occurring within it, including a few glimpses into the lives of German forces occupying the building across the plaza and who are determined to roust the six soldiers. One not-so-small subplot seems almost a cliché as it unfolds: a German officer is smitten by a beautiful Russian girl who reminds him of his dead wife. Despite her terror of and distaste for him (emotions she dares not express too boldly but which show plainly in her face as she watches him), he visits her regularly and brings her food, clearly courting her and attempting, in his own way, to change her alienation and abhorrence into affection. But things do not go as he would wish and one evening, deeply disturbed by worsening events and personal pressures placed on him by his commander, he comes to the little curtained alcove where the girl lives within a building housing a group of civilian survivors and catches her crouched behind a pillar with a raised knife, hoping to kill him. He easily disarms her and then, in a combination of rage, frustration, and confused desire, he rips off her clothes and viciously rapes her. When he is finished, he talks to her frankly and with great emotion, as men who rape sometimes do with their victims after the act, while she lies crying on the bed. Her pain and horror is apparent, but she listens to him as he talks about his destroyed personal past. When he leaves, she is insulted, hit, and dowsed with water by the survivors living in the same building. In their eyes she’s now a whore, a collaborator with the enemy, although, with just a tattered curtain for a doorway, they all must have known that she was taken against her will. But they desire a scapegoat, someone they can turn their hostility toward without getting shot in return, and this beautiful young woman makes a convenient target.

As the few short days that are the span of this film pass, the German officer and this young woman bond; in fact, they fall in love with each other. I was pleasantly surprised to see the makers of Stalingrad take a brave and bold step to honestly depict an alternate reality associated with rape that happens more often than modern feminist propaganda would like us to believe. In the tunnel vision that is feminism, victims of rape are always deeply traumatized and hate their rapists. In the much larger world that we all live in, things are not always that simple—or politically convenient. When it comes to real human reactions people are complicated and women don’t always end up despising their rapists. Human emotions don’t follow the convenient political scripts set out for them. We don’t always toe feminist propaganda and turn into traumatized victims of a terrible male monster who “fattens on fantasies…like a maggot in garbage” (Marge Piercy). And men who rape are not always vile animals who callously laugh at their victims or derisively kick them on their way out to their next “act of violence.” Rape is Sex, and as such it is a very intimate act that can affect the emotions of both parties in profound and unexpected ways.

Being a former rape victim, there is no question in my mind that rape is frequently a horrible experience for the female, an experience that can scar her emotions for years, but still, things aren’t ever as cut and dried, as black and white, as caricatured, as feminist anti-rape propaganda paints them. The “bad guy” is sometimes a good guy or, at very least, a “neutral guy.” Sometimes the “abused victim” is not badly affected by the rape. Sometimes she even attempts to tease and torment a man just to see if he’ll break down and take her despite his good intentions. And sometimes, as this frank look into the realities of war depicts, the event is a mixture of both bad and good. Something as pure and liberating to the soul as deep affection and even a dedicated, constant love can arise from an act that the feminists tell us is bestial and only signifies intense hostility.

The German captain in Stalingrad bares his heart to his victim after committing his acts of rape and then does his best to protect the woman he’s supposed to, according to feminist rhetoric, walk blithely away from without a second thought for her welfare. He does so at a deep cost to himself. But, as is so often the case in war, it is all to no avail. Ironically, her life is callously mown down by one of the alleged “good guys”—the Russian soldiers—a young, angry and careless sort who automatically assumes, like the other civilians, that she’s an evil whore who willingly has sex with the enemy. The German’s chilling scream of rage and horror when his woman is taken from him with a bullet to her forehead is the sound of a man who has just lost his soul and his reason to live, not the sociopathic chuckle of a cold, calculating beast, feeding his obscene hungers without a second thought for the helpless. I applaud the director of Stalingrad,  Fedor Bondarchuk, and its writers,  Sergey Snezhkin and Ilya Tilkinfor, for honestly depicting both the complexities of war and the complexities of rape, neither of which can be easily understood by the narrow good-guy/bad-guy generalizations that those with an axe to grind (or a political objective to obtain) so love to use to box in and limit rich human experience, experience which doesn’t always follow the rigid rules set out for it by blazing, “poor little female victim” or “men who rape are all pigs” rhetoric.

 


May 25, 2012

50 Shades of Grey

By Marc Esadrian

“If I do this thing, will he be my boyfriend?”

Well, someone has finally done it, as you probably know by now: BDSM erotica has been brought out of the shadows and into the garish light of mainstream “mommy porn” publishing. Indeed, there is still a buzz going on about the book, 50 Shades of Grey, by E. L. James.  After a thorough review of the books (yes, it’s a trilogy, for those of you who have been living under a rock and still haven’t had the details of this book crammed down your throat yet), there isn’t much to be excited about for those with a lick of real-world experience.

We’ve read such things before and in various iterations with far greater intensities, aside of having lived the commonly described scenarios out in real flesh. Delve into the history of erotic literature and you’ll find the legacy of shady erotic fiction present with us since the days of De Sade and beyond. Delve into human history and you’ll find the practice of bondage and discipline during sex isn’t exactly new. But for a very wide swath of impressionable readers, these subjects might as well have come from Mars—sexy Mars, that is.

50 Shades of Grey may not be such a revolution to the erotic literature world or those who practice master-slave and dominant-submissive relationships, but it may very well be a great example of the viral power of e-publishing and the practical use of writing fan fiction. Perhaps all those Harry Potter and Twilight fan fiction writers now feel just a little more justified with their keyboard hobbies? As a tale that is apparently interwoven with “shades” of domination-submission and what some might naively label darker sexual themes, the result, ultimately, is still a typical romance story pattern dressed up in saucier threads. Good woman Anastasia Steele meets Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome, Christian Grey, who is a bit shady, but she gradually tames him as he obsessively courts her under the enigmatic guise of reserve. Of course he’s terribly young and handsome. Of course he is a billionaire with his own private helicopters, and a man who buys mansions upon a whim. Of course he speaks fluent French, is well-endowed, and incredible in bed. Of course he treated all the other women like servants and deviant paramours—until the female protagonist steps into his life. Then he’s smitten, but tells her nonetheless to keep her distance—such delicious conflict. And, of course (spoiler alert), they eventually live happily ever after and—ta da!—married with children in a palatial home dripping with wealth. A perfect teen vision, perhaps?

Banality aside, the books are amusing reads…for guilty pleasure reading, that is. It’s clear Ms. James is an entertaining writer, if not a little repetitive. The slanted subtexts in the story leave much to be desired, however, and as much as I’m happy to see the mainstream bestsellers list contain a book associated with the pariah that is BDSM (that is, the pariah it tends to be when Rhianna or Brittany Spears aren’t singing about it), I’m not entirely thrilled about the stereotypes it portrays about those who are partial to these practices—playtime or otherwise. For instance, we learn that Christian Grey, the dominant male character in the story, is the way he is, for the most part, due to severe childhood abuse. Well, of course he’s that way; his mother was a crack whore. And now the fact that he’s an eccentric deviant with a penchant for dominating women makes perfect sense! I’m sure the American Psychological Association would agree, as well as what remains of Kraft-Ebing’s cliff notes.

Little gems like these in the story are pretty toxic to the idea of accepting the practice of domination-submission positively and looking at it as thus. We learn as the tale progresses that Christian Grey is basically a freak tormented by demons of his terrible past, where his mother’s pimp would put cigarettes out on his chest, for instance. He’s taken in by rich foster parents and by the time he’s a grown young man in his late twenties he is the head of a multibillion dollar enterprise. The protagonist, Anastasia, is required to sign a “contract” that gives Grey complete control of her life—including her sex life (they haggle over the details by email—an enchanting discourse, without a doubt). Grey, being the eccentric, control-mad pervert that he is from his childhood of abuse, introduces our virgin 21 year-old flower (why are virgins always more attractive as romantic heroines in these stories?) to bondage and Sadism, and for her, it’s oh so very overwhelming, but exciting, and it’s not long before she’s rattling off orgasm after orgasm and listening to her “inner goddess” as she navigates the path of submission. Excuse me?

I could go on, but I won’t, as that might prove to be rather boring. The plot, stretched over three books, serves as little more than staging for the next sex scene—but this is par for the course with romance novels, is it not? Needless to say, this trilogy is enjoying popularity because it somehow found its way into the mainstream, and we all know the topics in these books are seldom explored in the mainstream. In that light, the 50 Shades series of books successfully exploited an interestingly untapped niche. But does it truly deserve to sit pretty there, enjoying all this hype? Is it possible a better series of books could be sitting in its place? I doubt I have to explain my obvious position on either of those questions.

Without a doubt, 50 Shades has its flaws. My primary contention is how silly—and toxic—the story casts the practice of dominance and submission. Readers are aligned to view these practices as a result of damage, emotional instability, and an inability to properly seek intimacy. In that sense, how far along have we come in this book compared to such wonderful television shows as CSI or Law & Order, which chronically pathologize master-slave and BDSM relationships for the sake of entertainment? The crumby reality is it hasn’t really come too far at all, and that’s a shame, for the opportunity to present male dominance as something positive and natural and female submission as something actualized and informed has been lost once again. I have no doubt these books have helped a large demographic of people to find interest in such practices, though I tend to wonder what preconceptions will need to be debunked and outright smashed as they proceed to explore the reality of dominance and submission. In this sense, 50 Shades Of Grey has conspired to support the mainstream’s perfect cognitive dissonance on the subject of personal subjugation, which is to say, a distanced love-hate relationship with it all. I hope you’re ready, ladies and gentlemen: the next wave of the kinky and slightly confused are already among us.