FIFTY SHADES OF GREY vis à vis the romance-industrial complex (uh oh, a rant)

DISCLAIMER: I don’t watch that many movies in movie theaters. The screens and lights and noise overwhelm me, and I usually end up in less than optimal seats, and it really has gotten quite expensive since I stopped going to movies regularly, I don’t know, 10 years ago? So I end up watching a lot of torrented stuff or going to the local $2 cinema, months or years after the movies were popular.

This is someone who does not believe that "no means no"

This is someone who does not believe that “no means no”

All this to say that I am sometimes pretty stunningly behind the times when it comes to what’s on in current cinema, or trends or tropes or references, and maybe I’m not the right person to be saying the things that I’m going to say in the rest of this post. Like, I’m not a cinemaphile, or a pop-culture maven. I’m just a middle-aged lady who mostly likes period pieces and children’s animation, because that’s the level of violence and tension I can handle. (And even still I got stressed and motion-sick watching Big Hero 6 in the movie theatre three months ago.)

So, when I say I didn’t find Fifty Shades of Grey to be a radical departure from the standard rom-com fare—like, it is firmly on that spectrum and not really that far out on it, either—I haven’t done any serious academic inquiries on the matter. I haven’t surveyed the entire history of cinema, or even rom-coms, to reach this conclusion. I’m just telling you what I’m feeling, as someone who…

  • used to love Revenge of the Nerds until I just couldn’t sit still for the nerdy persistence and entitlement and RAPE anymore;
  • watched all the John Hughes classics in the ’80s, when I was a teenager, and I’m pretty sure there was a lot of won’t-take-no-for-an-answer going on in those;
  • has a lot of class resentment and therefore DEFINITELY notices the expensive gifts and exotic travel modes and favor-sharking in any on-screen romance;
  • sees how “sweeping someone off their feet” starts as early as Disney princess movies.

This is my background. This is my expertise. I’m just a consumer of the culture, and I am disturbed as hell. Not by Fifty Shades of Grey, per se, but by how easily the movie fits in with what else is on offer for pop-culture expressions of romance.

This movie doesn’t show anything in the power dynamic or the relationship that you can’t find in a dozen other, “more mainstream” offerings. And I don’t know—because again, I don’t fall in that demographic—but I don’t think that the movie captures the energy in BDSM convincingly enough to get more people to try it, that is, more people than already were going to based on the book and the hyper-marketing push in sex-toy land.

What the movie does is distill existing attitudes about consent and women’s autonomy and romance. No, it crystalizes them. Fifty Shades of Grey is the sugar cube on the end of a string lowered into super-saturated sugar water. It pulls everything out of the culture around it and makes it really obvious.

The character Christian Grey insists that he doesn’t “do romance”, but everything he does has been done elsewhere, in different movies, better. And stating it loudly and digging his fingers into Ana’s arms isn’t enough to distract from the fact that everything he is doing—from the displays of jealousy to the “you’re saying no, but your body says yes” to the extravagant and unasked-for gestures of “generosity”—is basic boundary-violating and entitlement and gas-lighting and shifting lines in the sand. The bad writing and barely civil nods to kink are drawing more attention to it, that’s all. Meanwhile, the rest of our romance culture goes unexamined.

So yes, Fifty Shades of Grey is a shit movie, by my standards. Yes, I would wish that the portrayals of negotiation and BDSM were more accurate AND NOT ACTUALLY FUCKED UP. But I am less worried about that than I am about how thoroughly the bullshit “romance” culture has soaked into our culture. This crap movie is just a drop in a vast, vast sea of saccharine, and we need to come ashore, my friends.

I mean, yay, for getting people talking about it, but we have something much bigger to worry about. Staying aware of the constant tug from the romance-industrial complex (okay, that’s mostly movies. And Valentine’s Day), and finding ways to steer ourselves toward an authentic, real understanding of our own loves and desires and kinks… those are the tasks ahead of us.

Fifty Shades of Grey is not helping or hindering, in that regard. It’s just a tatty little string floating in the water, drawing our attention to what was there all along.


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