I've been seeing a lot of frustration and anger about the 50 Shades of Grey trailer that went up at some point in the last... week, I guess? I don't know. I haven't watched it and I'm not interested. I already livetweeted reading the first book and wanted to shoot myself in the face. I am ashamed for fan fiction writers everywhere that E.L. James is now a success, because she's an awful writer and her idea of romance is incredibly messed up.
I could rant about how 50 Shades is a manual for how to get women to eroticize abusive relationships, but there are many people who have done that. I could make fun of it, but that's been done too by people who are better equipped for that sort of thing. I am a Serious Feminist who has no sense of humour, so I'll leave it to those goofballs. ;)
But I'm also seeing people compare 50 Shades of Vom to Secretary, like Secretary was worlds better. Now, here's where I do that thing I do where I ruin everything that people love, but I think it's important to discuss anyway.
You've been warned: you are entering... the Feminist Killjoy Zone.
Secretary starts off suggesting that BDSM is a decent alternative to self harm. Which... I have weird feelings about. Is it used that way? Yeah, probably, but I think it's possible to still self harm using someone else and ethically I think that's fucked up. Lee Holloway comes from an abusive household, perpetuating the "people into kink are messed up" story. And E. Edward Grey is also filled with trauma, possibly (probably) coming from an abusive relationship with his ex wife, and certainly having overcrossed his boundaries with other women before Lee. Which is fine, of course, and honest, that does happen- a lot of people have been touched by abuse, whether kinky or not, and while self harm isn't a path to kink, it can be for some. So... not great, but ok, fine.
Then you have Mr. Grey sexually assaulting his assistant. I mean I have a whole other issue with the fact that of COURSE she's a secretary, and the tasks she's given are menial and often pointless, which says a lot about women's work. Perhaps it's a critique of that, perhaps not. But he sexually assaults his employee, and then she likes it and even tries to provoke him into doing it again. But fundamentally you have a person in power abusing that power and it's all ok because she falls in love with him.
Now, it's a cute romantic comedy in a lot of ways, and points out some interesting ideas about consent and agency (like the consensual but not enthusiastic sex Lee has with her boyfriend) so we forgive the problematic things, or at least push them to the side. They're still there, though.
And it doesn't stop there. I mean, I watched 9 1/2 Weeks after hearing what a sexy and kinky film that was. The scene that stuck with me, though, was not the food scene that everyone remembers, which is cute and playful and as someone who enjoys mixing food and sex here and there, I could appreciate it. No, the scene that stuck with me was the money scene. "We're going to play a little game", Mickey Rourke says, before throwing money onto the ground and lashing his belt at her while she crawls around, sobbing, grabbing for the bills as she's been told. "I don't want to negotiate with you- now crawl!" he demands, and it's incredibly dark and creepy and traumatising. Apparently the scene was cut on HBO, and I'm not surprised. It's pretty clearly abusive.
But here's the thing that gets me about 9 1/2 Weeks, what I think sets the scene for how BDSM between a dominant man and a submissive woman is portrayed.
In the book of 9 1/2 Weeks, the main female character is not a gallery worker looking for love like she is in the film. She's a successful, well-paid executive looking for casual sex that gets her off. She has agency, and she chooses this fling with a stranger because it turns her on, not because she hopes for love, and she certainly doesn't seem like she'd put up with a dominant type who makes her feel unsafe. In the movie, his dangerousness is part of the allure, part of what makes her desperate to please him.
Don't even get me started on The Night Porter.
I see that dynamic in BDSM relationships in real life, and it's really fucking concerning. Maybe I was brought up in a different kink, but I was always taught that a submissive should be self-sufficient and have agency, because if they gave you control because they were in control of themselves enough to give it, that meant something. If a submissive gave up control because they wanted no responsibility, that not only reflected poorly on them, but on the Dominant taking advantage of them. Codependency is not sexy, but you'd never know it to look at how male romantic leads in films, especially with a kinky theme, behave. I think there is harm done when the only depictions of BDSM (and most depictions of romance, to be honest) in popular media are abusive in nature. It's boring at best, and deeply troubling at worst.
But you know, it's not just how male dominants are depicted. Because female dominants are also shown in media, sometimes. Rarely. Almost always in heels and latex, slender and young and beautiful. If they're lucky, they get to be smart, though often never as smart as the male romantic lead (of which there is always one), and ultimately they desire to be overpowered and outsmarted by said male lead. And usually they're professionals, because obviously women aren't interested in kinky sex by themselves, they need a guy to persuade them in either case. Female dominants are depicted as bored, cold, mentally ill, only in it for the money, laughable, or some combination of the above... and the men they dominate are not seen as romantic possibilities, but pathetic. Their cries for their limits to be respected are the punchline of a joke, or meant to be humiliating. No wonder the male submissives in the kinky scene are so often completely lost about how to engage the female gaze or interest. There's no examples of it, really, except maybe subtext you look really hard for.
I think the difference in how male dominants and female dominants are portrayed is somewhat beautifully depicted in this proposal of what 50 Shades of Hogwarts would look like. The joke of this, of course, is that you have an older woman in a smart suit sadistically hurting a younger, pretty man she has systematic power over for her own pleasure, to exercise her power, and because on some level she thinks it's good for him.
Of course we'd never eroticize someone like that...
...well, not a woman, anyway.
PS: Wanna know what was the closest thing to a depiction of my kinky love life? Here it is.