Saturday, 14 February 2015

A note on Fifty Shades -
the book and its contracts

Friends were discussing the film of Fifty Shades of Grey. One had gone to see it, the other said he would refuse to see it because it was degrading to women.

I haven't seen the film, nor am I likely to, but I did read the book and this seems like a good moment to reconsider it if only because, according to some, the film is better than the book, a book from which they are very quick to distance themselves on three grounds: first, that it is badly written and risible in style; secondly because it is 'boring'; and thirdly, because it is degrading to women.

I read the book at the time out of a normal curiosity but also on the assumption that anything dismissed in these terms by so many while so many more were reading it, must have something interesting in it. I don't think I was wrong.

1. Who writes it, who reads it, who directs it, who watches it

The book and its successors have apparently sold over 100 million copies by now, chiefly, I understand to women. It was written by a woman, with a female central character, and the film was directed by a woman. It seems to have been a great success with a good many women and there must be some interest in that fact, mustn't there? The book was not commercially hyped at the start: it was a form of fan fiction, an e-book whose reputation travelled by word-of-mouth up to a certain critical point at which it became news.

2. The visible risible

On the 'risible style' question there was a very funny and beautifully written Guardian article by Victoria Coren, titled Finally I get the sex in Fifty Shades of Grey. In it Coren points to the inadvertent comedy of some of the passages about sex, specifically about the constant contracts, and decides that the real focus of erotic desire is food. She presents this neatly and makes an interesting point about food as an object of desire, touching on, but not exploring ideas about eating as an erotic act. There is no reason she should explore them. It is a light comic article she is writing, not a thesis: what she wants is laughter at a point neatly made and the matter stops there.

There is, however, a genuine connection between sex and eating. We have quite a few transferable terms that I won't bother to list here since that is not my immediate concern. But there is one major difference in that, as far as food is concerned, there is only one agent, the eater. The eater is in control. The food is not going to talk back or engage in complex psychological games. In other words the discourse itself is eminently controllable. But control and agency in gender relations, and especially regarding the act of sex, is always disputed and remains a key - perhaps the key - issue. (One feminist argument has been that, from the male point of view, the woman is in effect treated as the food and has therefore no agency at all.)

The other problems with the 'risible' argument are that it doesn't touch on the uncomfortable subject but diverts from it and that giggling at something that is an object of desire downplays the nature of the desire. (I could write more about this, but there is not the time or room to discuss everything in a single blog.)

3. Dullness is boring
It is a common distancing device to declare something we don't like 'dull'. It assumes we are above all this kind of thing, have been there and back several times, and don't need some dullard to instruct or entertain us. It imples that we have done the things presented to us and have found them otherwise to the point of ennui. Like the 'risible' argument this depends on dismissal without engagement: it is a kind of white lying, a form of manners.

4. Control / Agency
This, to me, seems to me the crux of the debate.

There is a history of serious literature of sadism / masochism with either men or women as submissives. Fifty Shades is not a major addition to that genre. What is interesting is so precisely for the reasons Coren dismisses. It is the contracts of consent that hold the book together. These written contracts echo the unwritten contracts in any relationship of trust. Those unwritten contracts are full of tension.

In other words the actual theme is deep enough. The writing is poor, but I doubt anybody has read the book for its literary quality, nor for the occasional food porn, nor indeed for the relatively tamely (and lamely) written sex scenes. The narrative and erotic tension of the book is all to do with thresholds and contracts. The rest amounts to little. The contracts are a sequence of permissions but also a developing index of desire both for the transgressive and for the complex triggers of mixed feelings everyone experiences in any sex act - and I mean both men and women.

In all the political rhetoric on the issue, in the striving for control, agency, guarantees and advantages, a crucial complexity is lost.

5. Complexity: an anecdote

I am myself a fairly complex creature, a straight white male of the species, however complicated by some not uncommon factors of circumstance and some relatively rare ones, also of circumstance. Two years ago I had a conversation with a gay male friend who was - to put it bluntly - looking to seduce me. He, being a highly sensitive and intelligent man, suggested that all human beings are potentially androgynous and that all it would take would be an act of will on my part.

I answered that that was possibly true, and that there are many circumstances in which human beings turn to their own sex, and they may have been so inclined from a very early age. I accepted that there was nothing closed or final about sexuality but explained that my life had been predicated on one form and, chiefly because I loved the person in whom that form was embodied, I would, in all courtesy to him, not want to change it.

Going by his argument (not that he argued it) it would also be possible for me to move in the direction of either sadism or masochism, depending on whom I was with. But again, this option was one I would not take because not only my own form of relationship but the form of the person I loved was predicated on something different. The relationship worked. I wanted it to work. (It has worked for close on forty-five years now.)

Pain and control, or its loss, are central to the sexual act: it is an unavoidable part of its pleasure for both men and women. For both there is a pleasure in losing control: for both there is a degree of pain-as-pleasure. The borders are constantly shifting and that is a part of the excitement. The predictable is not exciting. The potentially transgressive is. The sexual act, after all, is a form of transgression into both another's being and our own. The whole point of erotic writing is to maintain the prospect of transgression. It is all suspense and threshhold.

6. Words and Contracts

We have words for things, events, and conditions, but words are an imperfect parallel to that which they refer to. The apocryphal words of Samuel Goldwyn that "a verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on" have, like a great many apparently nonsensical statements, an element of truth. We do what we do and we look for reassurance in words. To make extra sure we write them down and have them witnessed and signed.

There was a debate at some point - it may still be alive - that, since it was difficult for a woman to prove that she had not given consent to this or that sexual advance, there should be some form of recordable evidence to that effect. A signed consent-contract was actually suggested. It was quickly pointed out - not surprisingly perhaps - that if each subsidiary act to the point of intercourse had to be signed for, intercourse would never happen. But is this right?

In Fifty Shades contracts are the only available erotic element. They are contracts about control that Christian Grey is constantly producing for Anastasia to sign. Look, say the contracts, you control it. You can say when to stop, when to put a curb on my desire. Ana does the signing. The tension lies in what she signs up to next. What she signs up to is not marriage or even a declaration of romantic love.  The contracts are her own self-trials for which Grey is a relatively dimensionless proxy, a fixed entity you might have met in earlier form in the Mills and Boon novels, which were also read - almost exclusively - by women. Like Rochester or Heathcliff their 'heroes' were projections, not models. Christian Grey is given a history but has no internal life except that which the writer / persona chooses to reveal or guess at. All the interiority is Anastasia's. All the threshholds and transgressions are hers. His were in a past in which there are no more decisions to be taken.

To repeat: Grey, like other such figures, is a projection not a model.

We, being a paradoxically - and often hypocritically - moral generation, are keen on models. We ourselves, of course, are too clever to be taken in by so-called models but we worry (so desperately we worry) about the idiots,  dupes and weaklings out there who might impose their models on us.

7. 'We are better than this'

There are millions on millions of women out there who have read this book for reasons of their own. Many of them are now likely to be queueing at the cinema to see the film (one photo I have seen shows chiefly a mass of young women waiting to go in). I doubt they are thinking that either Christian Grey or Anastasia Steele are role models but in Anastasia - or so I suggest - they perceive something of their own situation in terms of control and agency. It tells them they have the choice, even with a handsome, master-of-the-universe businessman like Grey. They have the agency. They are in control.

Is it good that they should make this assumption? I don't know, but I am not willing to call the readers or viewers of such mass-selling works idiots, dupes, weaklings or perverts. I have no wish to patronise them either with jokes or with literary hauteur.

The question of hauteur also arose at the conference in Glasgow. I will try to think about it later.


Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

The French are now getting into Fifty Shades of Grey in a big way and I must say that the French title 'Cinquante Nuances de Gris' sounds a lot sexier to me!

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

Gwil W said...

I've ever known a film hyped liked this one since I can't think when . . . perhaps it was ET or maybe Jaws.
Result: Today, Saturday, in Vienna Fifty Shades is being screened an unbelievable ninety-nine times at a dozen or so cinemas. I know it's that many screenings because I've just looked on the cinema page in our daily newspaper. The impression is, as you say, it's the teenage girls who are going for it. If they all start behaving strangely in the next days I'll know the reason why.

George S said...

It is an interesting phenomenon of the times. The underside of gender wars combined with whispered notoriety.