Monday, February 16, 2015

Fifty Shades of Awkward

Yesterday afternoon, I saw the new film Fifty Shades of Grey, based on the erotic romance novel of the same name by E.L. James.  I hadn't read the books beforehand, which I expect I would have found insufferable if the general consensus about the quality of their prose is even half-true.  (Judging from the stilted, melodramatic, overwrought and thoroughly unbelievable dialogue in the screen adaptation, I suspect that the negative literary evaluation is dead-on correct.)  By way of a hand-waving "review," I'll just say that Fifty Shades of Grey was a far cry from a cinematic masterpiece, but it wasn't an awful film, either.  It fell squarely within my generic category of "Sunday matinee"-quality movies.  Not bad enough to walk out of, but not good enough to pay full price for.

My guess is that anyone who has been keeping up with pop-culture of late knows already that the FSoG phenomenon is to adult (over 30) women what the Twilight phenomenon was to younger (under 25) women a few years back.  Both tap into a host of so-called transgressive and unspoken desires that heterosexual women have heretofore refrained from sharing in polite company and, in so doing, both are as complicatedly liberatory for women as they are subtly re-normalizing,  Somehow, the accidents of Fate aligned two years ago to magically unveil these secrets in a manner that women of a certain age were ready to avow, even if reluctantly and still semi-secretly.  Those women began reading FSoG together in their book clubs, they sipped their wine and winked and nodded to one another in tacit affirmation, they made clandestine purse-to-purse exchanges of the novel in the cereal aisle of the grocery store.  Then, producers Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti (who, not uncoincidentally, also produced The Social Network) let the Freaky Cat the rest of the way out of its bag with a blockbuster Hollywood movie.  And now there it is on the big screen, for God and everyone to see, at your neighborhood multiplex: bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism, dominance and submission, fetishism and pleasures whose names we did not speak.

For whatever its worth, FSoG really is a pretty tame film, framed as it is--and, for Hollywood, must be-- primarily in terms of character-unravelling and armchair-psychoanalyzing.  It's an unrequited "love" story, in the end, with about two-degrees more kink added than what you'll find in your garden-variety major motion picture. For those reasons, I don't have much to add to what's already been written about the film here.  What I do want to talk about, however, is my experience watching the film. Or rather, watching people watch the film.  Specifically, watching women watch the film.

Allow me to describe, first, the mise-en-scène: I caught FSoG at a Sunday matinee screening yesterday, in a theater that was PACKED.  (If it wasn't sold out, it was very close to being so.)  As a consequence, my friend and I ended up sitting in the very back row, the only place we could find two seats together, which ended up being serendipitous for me, as it allowed the best seat for audience observation.  Somewhere around 70% of the audience was female.  Taking up almost the entire back two rows were a gaggle of what I'm guessing were 25-40yr old women, all of whom obviously knew each other and who had arrived and seated themselves qua gaggle. In the seat to my immediate left was a women (on a date with a man who could not have possibly projected more clearly his dissatisfaction with being there).  I'd put her at around 50yrs old, though she had the look and the manner of a certain ilk of middle-aged women whose obvious effort at looking-younger-than-one-is suggested that she was likely older than she looked.  As far as I could tell, almost every one of the more than 25 or so women sitting in my immediate vicinity were drinking wine. .. and had very clearly been doing the same for quite a while already that afternoon.

The first thing that kind of took me aback during the film was the completely inexplicable amount of laughter coming from all of the women around me. I should note, for the record, that FSoG is not a comedy.  It's not "funny."  It is definitely not haha-lolz funny, Theirs was an affected and awkward-- painfully awkward-- laughter.  Like, I'm-sitting-here-with-my-friends-and-someone-just-accidentally-switched-to-a-porn-channel laughter.  Like, I-want-to-make-it-very-clear-to-everyone-that-I-find-this-whole-thing-ridiculous laughter.  Like, OMG-WHY-AM-I-EVEN-HERE? laughter. I might have found their obvious incapability to deal with heretofore verboten representations of sexual desire funny, if only it weren't sooooooo awkward.

They laughed. They gasped and they squirmed and they left to get more wine and they came back, tipsier each time, to laugh even louder some more.  They catcalled and fawned over the male protagonist, but nowhere near as much as they mercilessly ridiculed the female protagonist, aloud to one another, for the sake of one another and, I suspect, for the rest of us.  Her responses, her activities and, much more often, her body were fodder for a kind of genuinely mean discharging of ressentiment that seemed at once juvenile, insecure and profoundly sad . It was all a performance that, about halfway through the film, I found infinitely more interesting that the film itself, which was really not all that interesting.

In sum, my experience watching FSoG, which has little to nothing to do with the content of the film itself, has made me feel (as the film's protagonist says pointedly and, in this case, ever so accurately) "fifty shades of f*ucked up." The fact that adult American women in the 21stC can be so constitutionally incapable of allowing for the multiple ways in which sexual desire manifests itself and is satisfied, even more so the fact that they manifest their suppressed desires in cathected anti-women affects like those I saw in the theater, and EVEN MORE SO that the phenomenon of unveiling the complexity of mature women's sexual desires can result in what amounts to a self-infantilization of women by women, has made clear to me the deeply psychopathological status of female sexuality in the contemporary era.  Perhaps more than anything I've read (or taught) over the last two decades of studying theories of gender and sexuality, my experience sitting in a movie theater yesterday, watching a Hollywood film produced for popular audiences, has made me feel something that I very seldom feel:

Fifty Shades of Awkward.

1 comment:

Traveling Mom said...

I find the whole 50SG phenomenon to be incredibly sad. Like when a woman says "Giving a blow job makes me feel so empowered!" I just want to say "I don't think you know what that word means." When someone else gets what they want and you get nothing but the satisfaction of giving someone what they want- empowered is the furthest thing from what you are. You may be nice, helpful, serving, generous and giving- all nice things. But powerful, empowered, in control are at the opposite end of the spectrum from what you are. Sorry.
The butler is not the empowered one at the start of Downtown Abby. That whole "It's the submissive who has all the power!" bs is really nothing more than the mark not noticing the con isn't over yet. I'm sure all those people had a great time painting that fence with their good buddy Tom Sawyer, but that still doesn't make them anything but the rubes in the story.