February 20, 2015

Christian Grey: The Disneyland Dom


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.

 


May 25, 2012

50 Shades of Grey


“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.