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11 February 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey: “Mister Grey Has F***ed You Already, and You Don’t Even Know It” (Film Criticism)

A few seconds after the opening credits start, many female viewers sitting behind me in the theater began to scream. Another round of audible gasps was heard the first time Christian Grey appeared on the screen, and to think that his face was not even focused. Obviously, Christian Grey has already seduced many viewers long before this film adaptation was ever made. Understandably, Christian Grey is handsome, sexy, young, rich and debonair with a hint of lost boy vulnerability.

Ever since E. L. James’ prosaic trilogy became a worldwide hit, critics have scratched their heads in wonder. Why do so many women, and some gay men (we should not forget) enjoy reading these erotic novels?  There are many explanations, from Jacques Lacan’s notion of “desire” and “fantasy” to issues regarding women’s sexuality in the digital age. I will discuss them later.

For now, let me focus on the social aspects of the movie. To start, this is a criticism of the movie and not the novel.

Capitalism (or Materialism) is a Handsome Stud

“Fifty Shades of Grey” is about the seductive power of capitalism or materialism. Christian Grey embodies everything seductive about capitalism. He is attractive, driven, controlling and rich. He is a survivor. Christian was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was an orphan and grew up in many foster homes. However, from humble beginnings, he rose to affluence and power because of pure perseverance and courage, or so the film claims.  He is now endowed with many talents. He can fly a plane and a helicopter. He owns and drives expensive cars and his employees obey his every whim.  He is almost omnipresence and he can easily be in one place in a nick of time. It is interesting to note that all of Christian’s employees, including his driver, look like super models. A fashion model is after all an embodiment of plastic beauty that capitalism wants us to emulate, from Barbie to Beyonce. In contrast, Anastasia's friends, relatives and acquaintances look like ordinary real people.

Christian is like capitalism. It evolved from a simple act of trading of basic goods, and centuries later, it has evolved into something powerful and dominant. Capitalism has influenced every aspect of human existence: from the way we think, the things we value, the things we desire and our notion of love and self-worth. Just walk around any malls in the Philippines, the alluring countenance of capitalism is all over. We are regularly being seduced to buy into capitalism. If we wear beautiful clothes, have the latest gadgets, prescribe to a certain standard of beauty, drive a car and be involved with a specific type of person with a great job, the possibility of being loved and being happy is ensured. Christian Grey is already in our lives. He is not a fantasy. The fantasy is that we believe that he can genuinely love us. The truth is “he just wants to use us for his consumption.” He lives to dominate.

“I’m a Dominant. I want you to willingly surrender yourself to me, in all things.”

We are all Anastasia Steele, the ordinary working class. Take note that her surname is a cacography of the word “steel,” as in the product that workers produce in factories. Like Anastasia, we are the symbolic virgin and we are easily mesmerized by the trappings of wealth and power that capitalism showcase.  Who isn’t seduced by all that power and beauty?

Unfortunately, capitalism is not a romantic lover. As Christian said, “I’m not a hearts and flowers kind of man, I don’t do romance. My tastes are very singular” and “I do not make love, I fuck hard.” Figuratively speaking, capitalism does not love us; it fucks us hard.  Capitalism only has a singular aim as well: to consume.

Capitalism like Christian is a control freak. It plays the dominant role and the working class must play the submissive part. In return for our submissiveness, we are rewarded but not on our terms, only on the terms of capitalism.

In a way, Anastasia’s constant appeal to Christian to give her equal power in their relationship is similar to the working class’ demand on our prevalent capitalist system to change.  However, capitalism is a cold beast despite looking so attractive and powerful. Even if capitalism works benevolently such as helping charitable organizations, capitalism still hides its ugly truth. As Oscar Wilde puts it in his book “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,”

 “(Charity) is not a solution (to poverty): it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible…Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it.”

Christian is the same. He hides or shows his philanthropic work at his convenience. He sometimes shows his vulnerability but he refuses to give up his sadistic games. Many capitalists brag about their charitable work but they hide their crimes and their dirty roles in making charity necessary. Capitalism creates the poor that in turn needs charity.

Materialism seduced us into playing its game by offering us material rewards sans genuine freedom and equality. This is materialistic love.  Like Christian’s brand of love, capitalism operates on a contractual level. The “contract’ that Christian insists on Anastasia is symbolic of capitalism’s social contract on ordinary people.  The contract is a safeguard or a protection that capitalism uses to absolve it from its exploitative machination.

Christian Grey’s playroom, hidden to the public, is akin to capitalism’s hidden machination. In the film, Anastasia (along with the viewers) does not get a glimpse of what Christian actually does. Anastasia just gets to hear suspicious phone calls and Christian only gives her incomplete information about his dealings. All Anastasia see is superficiality that hides the deception. 

On the surface, the promise of wealth and power that capitalism offer is enticing, but it a clever deceit.  You do not need to be on the left to know how capitalism has disenfranchised many people, damage the environment and dehumanizes people.  Christian is the same. His kind of love is intimidating, seductive and exhilarating but his love is also fake and exploitative. Capitalism, like Christian, does not care what we really need and what makes us loving complete human beings; capitalism prescribes what we need, desire and what will make us happy.

Throughout the film, Anastasia’s struggle to change Christian is futile.  Christian sums up why capitalism will never change when he said, “It’s just the way I am,” and so is capitalism.  Surprisingly, Anastasia is a progressive character, and ended up becoming victorious in the end.  In her last attempt to reconcile her love for Christian and her need for respect, she challenges him to play his “game” to the extreme.  This is also Anastasia’s way of finally determining her limits. How much is she willing to be used? 

Fortunately, despite Christian’s smoldering charm and power over her, she refuses to be used under his terms.  Perhaps, this is the working class finally awakening from the manipulative clutches of materialism. 

But then again, this is just the first part of a trilogy so we should not wave the flag of liberty just yet. Anastasia is far from liberation at this point.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson (working on Kelly Marcel's script) may not also be aware of the message of his narrative. The film works like a full-length seductive advertisement, complete with branded products and a soundtrack full of popular songs. The tone of the film is sentimental and romantic. As you watch it, you are blindly seduced by all the artificial beauty and explicit but flaccid sex scenes. 

Part 2: “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the Real BDSM and the Lacanian Desire and Fantasy (Soon)

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