With 50 Shades, it was two things:
(1) I needed a light read b/c I was already reading two difficult books. One that I don't even plan on finishing any time soon: The Second Sex. Finally! And one that I'm still enjoying in small increments: Eimear McBride's A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. 50 Shades might have (and give) many orgasms but this book is so freaking good that it doesn't need sex scenes to be orgasmic. For the very first time I've found myself thinking the style is more important than the content.
(2) Jamie Dornan. He's my new Ryan Gosling. Jamie Dornan is to blame for my obsession with 50 Shades. That's actually the secret to making the terrible prose bearable: just read it with Jamie in mind. When I first heard of this trilogy, it aroused no interest from my part. A CEO, helicopter rides - YAWN. Obscene displays of capitalist-patriarchal power are a definite turn-off. The moment I walk into a building like Grey House, or however the hell his company is called, I become Ana - inadequate and wanting to get the fuck out of there as fast as possible (actually, I don't walk into buildings like that; I actively avoid them). Plus, I had misunderstood how their relationship started. I thought the interview was a job interview for a position as his assistant, and a professional power dynamic that is reproduced sexually makes me want to vomit. But anyhow, Jamie Dornan! I'm refraining right now from using a ton of objectifying adjectives.
This is an addendum to my text from this week's Dilema, which I have written before having the chance to see the movie, before having seen some of the movies I will talk about here.
In general, I insist on the fact that a book / movie / etc. does not exist in a vacuum. It must be analyzed in a larger context. With 50 Shades, I'm tempted to make an exception and say it makes more sense to analyze it in the context of romance books. (But of course: part of the fun is to put it in a much larger context. Taking a bad text like this and projecting whatever the hell you want on it is one of the reasons why I love media culture so much.)
In 2012, I discovered Felicia Day's Vaginal Fantasy Book Club. I have never had any interest in romance novels. They just sounded boring as fuck. But throw in some vampires, werewolves or something like that and you've got my attention. It still felt like a total waste of time to read those books. I suppose what really drew me to them was the fandom. It's always fascinating to discover that so many people are so into this very specific thing. I myself remain a spectator because I get distracted, I'm interested in different things, so it seems impossible for me to stick to one subculture and get so immersed into it that I feel compelled to contribute to discussions on forums and post comments and so on. However, I do tend to get addicted and for a short period spend way too much time obsessing over stuff that I will barely remember a few years later.
I haven't read many books picked by the Vaginal Fantasy Book Club, but I think I've read enough to know a thing or two. The first two were steampunk romance: The Iron Duke (Iron Seas #1) and Soulless (Parasole Protectorate #1). The Iron Duke has a seriously problematic sex scene that can only be described as rapey (and let it be noted that this word is appropriate only when discussing fiction). Soulless also has a sex scene where her consent falls in a rather gray area. And after having read the latest alt pick for Vaginal Fantasy, Sylvia Day's Bared to You (Crossfire #1), I am convinced the articles decrying the abusive relationship in 50 Shades are completely blown out of proportion, and I also came to the conclusion that romance books have created a safe space. Romance novels are written by women, read by women, discussed extensively on forums etc. so I suppose it's considered by many a safe space where anything goes. Even violence and patriarchal power dynamics. This might not completely gel with my feminist views, but I do respect safe spaces created by women for women and I do think there's value in discussing these books. Just watching the latest Vaginal Fantasy episode, which discusses the main pick for February, The Story of O, is enough to be reminded that trashy books are one of the best starting points for discussions about female sexuality / agency / desire. (It's also important to note that a lot of women who write or read romance are feminists - all the more reason not to dismiss these books as junk.)
Sylvia Day's Bared to You is a very strange book in that it's incredibly similar to 50 Shades. Like some people on goodreads have said, it's almost as if Day made a bet she could write a better 50 Shades. And indeed, it is better. It would be difficult to write smth worse. Prose-wise at least. Because the content itself is worse. The very fist sex scene in Bared to You is already problematic [I really do need to erase this word from my vocabulary, it's getting annoying]. Wherein 50 Shades is all about consent, this first sex scene from Bared to You perpetuates the classic misogynistic myth that "NO" means "yes." Plus our handsome dark prince is even more fucked-up than Christian Grey. He gets all rapey in his sleep. Yeah. Some feminists were talking about gaslighting in 50 Shades. I seriously cannot think of anything in the books or the movie that could be considered gaslighting. Instead, that can be found in Bared to You. After plenty of vanilla sex, out of nowhere, he tells her he's into BDSM and wants her to be his submissive. She's obviously reluctant but he keeps insisting she's a natural submissive. It's another classic example of misogyny: you might say or even think you're not submissive, but your body is telling me smth different. That's exactly why I love the negotiation scene in 50 Shades: she wants to leave, he points out that her body is saying the opposite, they play a little sexy game, and... she leaves. He asks if she's sure she wants to leave but he doesn't insist, he's not trying to turn her "no" into a "yes." He has no choice but to let her leave. It's the best representation of desire-doesn't-automatically-mean-consent.
Concerning the other two literary alternatives to 50 Shades, via Vaginal Fantasy:
(1) The Story of O. I have not read this book, but after having watched the Vaginal Fantasy episode I think I might. Even though I couldn't even watch the movie. It's... it's so clear that she's getting raped again and again that I just don't think I can stomach it. The only reason for which I'd want to read / see The Story of O is just to have a clear picture of BDSM fiction. Any type of erotica written by women should be mandatory reading for a feminist. Besides, to a certain extent, I think I understand what it's about. It's about the erasure of the self. If I knew a thing or two about Eastern philosophies, I would probably understand this better.
Also: the end of Story of O reminds me of a Mexican movie, Año bisiesto / Leap Year. The year this movie played at TIFF, it got bad reviews from film bloggers - mostly, they seemed to have a problem with Monica del Carmen's body type and the type of sex her character was into. So exactly what made the movie so special. To see that body type (my body type, I suppose) in a sexual context was so new. To see a judgement-free representation of female sexual agency was also rather new. The only scene that revealed the sad fact that despite her agency she still couldn't escape sexist gender roles was the one where she had to clean up his mess, even though, technically, the role playing was over. The end is very close to The Story of O - she asks her lover to kill her during sex. Strangely enough, her request didn't shock me. It made me think of Marilyn Manson's concept of romanticism that was at the basis of Eat Me, Drink Me. Consuming each other. Literally. Needless to say, I was glad Laura's lover did not go through with it. Año bisiesto is a very sad movie, with a sexual yet vulnerable female character. Even though I didn't love it, I still don't think it deserved all the vitriol it got.
(2) Kushiel's Dart. I remember so little from this book. It kinda pissed me off. I wanted to like it b/c it was fantasy, and I was desperate for an alternative to Game of Thrones written by a woman, but this was just so freaking long and I hated the dialogues. I guess Carey was trying to replicate the French spoken at Court during Louis XIV or... who the fuck knows what she was doing? Her prose is overwritten and ridiculous. Had it been shorter, I guess I would have liked it more b/c there are some interesting aspects in there (the wicked Melisandre - she brings her pain and pleasure but she also betrays Phèdre; I think I'd give this book/series another shot just to see where these two end up; there's also a male character who is some sort of knight, I think it was Joscelin, and who obviously is a virgin and who obviously falls in love with Phèdre).
Last weekend I watched Nine 1/2 Weeks for the first time ever. I had forgotten who directed it, but I didn't even need to see Adrian Lyne's name to know it was his work. It's the same misogynistic paranoia about women's sexual liberation, just a little less obvious than in Fatal Attraction. If a woman wants to explore her sexuality she will be punished and humiliated. She must know she will never have the sexual freedom of a man. That's what the ridiculous scene with the suit is all about. It's about knowing she cannot have the same freedom.
To be fair, yes, the movie is based on a book written by a woman: Elizabeth McNeill, Ingeborg Day's nom de plume. (However, this doesn't change my interpretation of the movie.)
I was unpleasantly surprised to find out that Ingerborg Day worked for Ms. Magazine. That sm who is supposedly a feminist can get into such a toxic relationship with a man is rather difficult to accept. Reading it through her biography (I've never been a fan of "Nică nu e Ion Creangă"), the relationship from Nine 1/2 Weeks really does seem like a form of self-flagellation - for her father's past, for her own anti-Semitism.
John (at first I was like: oh my gosh, there was a time when Mickey Rourke was cute, but then: what's up with that serial-killer smile? what a creep!) is not interested in negotiating. They never discuss limits and safewords. For him, it's not just about control. It's definitely not about her trust. He gets off on her humiliation. I almost expected to hear some BS about how he didn't think he deserved her love and that was why he pushed her limits more and more till she would finally leave him. Like Adam did in the 2nd season of Girls, when he got all rapey with his new girlfriend, Natalia. He was feeling miserable about himself, so yeah, sure, "why not abuse this sweet girl just to make her hate me as much as I hate myself?" And speaking of rapey scenes, of course there's one in Nine 1/2 Weeks as well, right at the beginning when he knows she's been going through his things. I mean, just the thought that he's been somewhere out there spying on her for hours is so scary. That's exactly why none of the sex scenes in this movie are actually hot - as a viewer, I'm constantly afraid for her.
I've never felt scared for Ana. Of course it's heartbreaking to see her cry like that at the end, but even then you know it's not just about the physical pain. In that moment, she realizes their relationship can't work. Their sexual compatibility only goes so far, he's not willing to do the emotional work. She's fallen for him and the impossibility of an "us" breaks her heart. Honestly, it would have been great if the book had ended there. I wish they at least didn't make the sequels. Everything that works in this first movie will be completely ruined in the next two.
(To be continued...)