Since the film came out, I’ve heard from a few friends what a miserable waste of time they thought it was. Now, having watched it, it’s obvious why they thought that: there’s not much bondage or sex in it. I’m shocked. Have all of my friends been watching hard-core porn? I tried it once and didn’t like it. Let me explain: The Descent is a terrifying film, right until the point that you see the monster. The same goes for porn. I don’t want to see the beast. The penis is not always visually attractive. The word itself, or its more familiar epithets, spoken or written are not particularly sexy. The brain is a much better sex organ, if you ask me. No, much better leave it all to the imagination. Like painting or music, it’s what you miss out and what your audience’s imagination supplies that matter. So to all my friends who’ve watched the film and didn’t like it, who are you? What have you done with my sweet innocents who think that snogging is cheeky and sex is something that should only happen after they’ve met your parents and been given the seal of approval? My God, do you guys use tinder!? Too much sex would have made this film art house or pure pornography and that would have made it (for me) really, really dull. As it is, there’s just enough naked bums and beautiful breasts to make it erotic and not enough to let it slide into the genre of pornography. Perfect.
Then there’s another camp, the one that says Anastasia Steele is weak-minded and Christian Grey is a fundamentally evil rapist and that this romance is ultimately a glorification of an abusive relationship. Grey turns up in – and not at the door – but actually in Anastasia’s flat after she sends him a witty ‘It’s been nice knowing you!’ text as a reply to his suggestion of signing a BDSM relationship contract. He then ties up her hands and they have sex. Later, Grey gets upset when Anastasia says that she’s off to see her mother on the other side of the country the next day. Why didn’t she say something about it sooner? So for these critics, the BDSM portrayed in the film is not a shade of grey but very clear black-and-white-this-behaviour-is-illegal and Christian Grey has serious control issues. Grey takes advantage of sweet young Anastasia, stealing her precious virginity and exposing her to a dangerous world of pain, punishment, pseudo-rape and weird mind-fuckery of not letting Anastasia touch him (more on this later). I’m wondering if the viewers who think this were simultaneously watching The Fall and got confused? All of the sex (and the spanking) is consensual. There is no rape. And as for the getting a bit grumpy that Anastasia doesn’t tell him that she’s buggering off to the other side of the country, well yeah, I would be pissed off too if my boyfriend told me that he was off the next day. I would have liked a few days notice, if you don’t mind. Don’t be such a bad girlfriend, Anna!
Wittgenstein would have a lot to say about this film and I think, defend me when I say that this isn’t an abusive relationship, and I’ll tell you why: there are moments where it is very clear that Anastasia’s idea of what all these handcuffs and whips are for does not coincide with what Grey’s idea of a good time is. Her use of the word ‘punishment’ is worlds apart from his idea of what ‘punishment’ is for and entails. This is obvious to the viewer if they’re concentrating. Grey’s demeanour makes Anastasia’s character believe that he gets pleasure from hurting her whereas STJ makes sure to capture enough warm smiles and cheeky eye-brow raises from Jamie Dornan’s very subtle (rather than wooden) performance to show us that all the tying up and smacking bare bottoms is just a bit of fun. It’s elaborate and very expensive foreplay. It’s frivolous, harmless fun. His formality and all the ‘Miss Steele’s is sexy by it’s restraint, a nice little nod to the idea of bondage in itself. In a world where I’m free to sleep with strangers through a program I’ve downloaded on my phone, restraint and formality is becoming sexier and sexier. The script has Grey’s character repeat over and over that if Anastasia doesn’t want anything to do with this set up then that’s OK. The fact that she doesn’t turf him out when he door-stops her is because, well, she doesn’t really want to, if she did she would’ve told him to test his adherence to his own contract and tell him to fuck off. So according to critics, how is the girl’s character being controlled if she consents to something – having been given a choice of yes or no? People who think this is an abusive relationship don’t know they’ve been born. Anastasia’s fixation on the idea of BDSM being about pain is a language problem, not an issue of abuse.
This soft-core porn has a hard-core centre. I sit in the camp that says E.L. James doesn’t know how lucky she is that Sam Taylor-Johnson took her piece of pig’s ear and with her magic sewing machine and thread, turned it into the most beautiful clutch Harvey Nics has ever seen.
Anastasia has just finished college. It seems a bit weak of her to squander her hard-won academic prizes on this bloke who comes across, in her own words, as high-handed and arrogant, rather than getting on with her career. But – hang on a second – this girl just majored in English literature, she knows her Austen well.
I remember an ex-boyfriend asked me, “Who’s the most attractive man in English literature?”
“Well, Mr Darcy, obviously.”
“Well, he’s mysterious, which makes him sexy, while his formality screams reliability and security, and I’m a nice safe North London girl who likes a bit of tall-dark stranger, but not too much danger.”
“The mystery can get very boring,” said the Old Etonian, “and the formality ends up looking aloof and arrogant.”
He was right. He was, himself, Darcy incarnate with Byronic good looks. We all fancy a bit of Darcy for a while – until we realise that there’s nothing but some mummy issues and five years at an English public school beneath the mystery. But having been in Anastasia’s shoes, I can say that the attraction to a Darcy type is overwhelmingly powerful… and fun. And here’s where STJ really comes into her own; I think that her first husband, Jay Jopling (who is an Old Etonian), was emotionally unobtainable as was Christian Grey. And I think that because I stick by the sweeping generalisation that all Old Etonians are emotionally unavailable.
Anastasia’s character cries at a few points in the film, and it seems as though she’s unhappy because she feels abused by the tying up or hurts from the spanking; but no, her character is miserable because Grey isn’t allowing her to show him affection. Grey doesn’t allow Anastasia to touch him affectionately or sexually. STJ has made this facet of this character symbolic for the emotional unavailability of the Darcy’s of this world. This is where the pain of the love story lies, not the spanking. As I found with my own Darcy – and in subsequent relationships – having your affection denied is as painful as being ignored.
Because for those of us who are not horribly insecure (as many people who end up emotionally hurting others tend to be) love is a simple act of enlightened self-interest that involves comforting and encouraging the person that we find physically desirable. But for the Darcys or Greys of this world, it isn’t that simple, either because they’re depressed, self-centred or just not able to understand that love is not complicated. The bit that puts women in the driving seat is the belief (albeit entirely wrong) that they have the power to change their men and make them happy. I like STJ’s representation of Anastasia’s character as someone who is addicted to trying to teach Christian that love is a simple, beautiful thing between two people which involves taking and giving; like so many women, she’s not going to give up. All the leather and silk is just beautiful window-dressing for this popular, stereotypical romantic hero.
I hope Aaron Taylor-Johnson is as enlightened as his wife and capable of showing the affection and support that love requires. For the following two instalments I am devastated to hear that Universal is considering E.L. James to direct. From what I’ve heard of the next two books, Anastasia manages to get at the gooey centre of Mr Grey. I am sorry that E.L. James could be so monumentally selfish as not to allow STJ to finish off what would have been a real erotic fantasy: solving Mr Darcy.