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Propaganda, Power, and Porn in Fifty Shades

I may get kicked off the Internet for saying this. But, when you look at it from the right angle, the Fifty Shades of Grey movie is a feminist victory.

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the idea of “porn for women” was a huge and often painful feminist debate. Porn was said to be either an unthinkable concession to the patriarchy, or else the key to women’s sexual freedom. Mainstream porn, everyone agreed, was a problem. It was exhaustingly straight—frustratingly narrow in the variety of women’s bodies on display, and structured around male gratification. The ways it both required women to give sex upon command, and degraded them for being willing to give it, felt judgmental at best, outright violent at worst.

And so the feminist voices of the day either advocated banning porn outright or trying to re-envision what porn could be if it kept women in mind. Did it need more plot? Did it need to be more physically and sexually diverse? Did it need to be (oh, please yes) more empowering?

Flash forward to 2015, when a film geared to women wanting to get their rocks off is the biggest thing at the box office. Until I saw Fifty Shades of Grey this weekend, I was one of the few people in America who had managed to more or less avoid it. What I knew about E.L. James’s book series could be summed up by a conversation I’d heard between two women at a hair salon: “I mean, who cares if the writing is bad?” one of them said. “I was just sitting there turning pages. I felt like a machine designed to have orgasms.”

While the Fifty Shades series has already been extensively beaten up by critics with a vigor that masochistic heroine Anastasia Steele might appreciate, I wonder how much of that comes down to confusion about its genre. By the standards of a mainstream movie, Fifty Shades has paper-thin characters, ridiculous dialogue, and no real plot. By the standards of porn, however, it’s practically Citizen Kane. Never has this much money, cinematographic craft, and acting-school talent been poured into nonsensical dialogue and scenes that basically only exist to set up the next round of fucking.

Much has been made of hero Christian Grey’s emotionally abusive tendencies. The series started as Twilight fan fiction, and Christian has the same obsessive, twenty-seven-text-messages-in-a-row, do-you-really-need-that-second-drink personality as Edward Cullen. In real life, you’d drop the guy at the first red flag. But fantasies aren’t always wholesome; in fact, the invitation to readers to explore unwholesome scenarios without getting hurt is the whole point.

Women’s romantic fiction often contains these perplexing male characters who seem to have no interests outside of obsessing over the books’ heroines. That’s what men look like when straight women define them as pornographic objects—beings who exist solely to inspire and fulfill desire. Straight men have written women the exact same way for generations, but most only notice the creepiness when the genders are flipped.

Likewise, the sex in 50 Shades is nothing to write your congressman about. What Christian and Anastasia do to each other is mostly the sort of lightly naughty tie-me-to-the-bedpost sex that most Americans will have at some point. Unlike in the books, where Anastasia grimly assents to Christian’s BDSM tastes to make him love her (which is the real problem with the series) director Sam Taylor-Johnson has the good sense to make it look like both parties are having fun.

All that said, although Fifty Shades’ existence is a kind of victory, its reality is far from empowering—not because of its adherence to the conventions of pornography, but its adherence to the far more pernicious genre of rom-coms. Before having sex with Christian, Anastasia is a “dowdy” mess who can’t get through a sentence without fifty interstitial “ums.” She perpetually looks to be on the verge of tears. She works part-time in a hardware store, and despite some noise about attending college and “liking books,” she has no intellectual or professional ambitions.

Powerful corporate executive Christian Grey, doesn’t just awaken Anastasia sexually—he makes her get an expensive makeover. He takes her on private jets and teaches her about wine; for all the sex in this movie, the real money shot is when Christian Grey, like a sexual Oprah Winfrey, surprises Anastasia with a new car. As Heather Havrilesky pointed out in these pages, ultimately, it’s not sex that heals Anastasia, it’s cash. She’s an ineffectual, unemployable creative type who self-actualizes by submitting to corporate interests; when Christian Grey proposes an arrangement that is initially degrading but ultimately beneficial for them both, you don’t know if he’s about to fuck her or make her write some sponsored content.

In this respect, Fifty Shades could do with a lot more porn, and a lot less “romance.” Sex is ruthlessly egalitarian; even if it’s about handcuffs and flogging, it doesn’t work unless everyone involved gets what they want. If the film’s central storyline worked off the premises of sex, rather than heterosexual propaganda, it might come up with something that could actually empower women, beyond just getting them off.