by Tom Meagher
I purposely almost passed on the opportunity to add to the clamour of comment on the social and cultural toxicity of 50 Shades of Grey, because frankly it has been heavily remarked upon by people much brighter than I am. What I did find interesting was Christian Grey’s place in the great body of male leads, and the conceptions of love that inform those characters. The story’s grim valourisation of abuse and past Hollywood standards compelled me to explore the dynamics and background that led to the celebration/condemnation of Christian Grey and the historic and current position of abusive men as romantic heroes.
I would imagine it seems reasonable to most Hollywood executives that they are (to use problematic language) post-gender, post-race, and post all of the ugly stuff of historic inequality. We’re so often told that male-centrism in movies is not about male-domination, it’s about what sells; they simply go with what sells. It’s not about black or white, it’s about the box-office. What we never need to question is why that standard sells. The danger of the repetition of the toxic is that the foundation on which it rests becomes standard, and when the voices of opposition fall silent, that standard is re-established as the default setting, the one that has always worked when everything else falls apart. It rests on the retrospective illusion that progress is at once linear and inevitable, and that we are in our current position because history happened as it was meant to happen.
For the most part Hollywood movies are an exercise in administration rather than in creation. Male romantic characters enact questionable habits by rote, by virtue of how that role has previously existed and the viewers reaction to that standard romantic dynamic. The rare points of departure exist, but continue to be the exception. This device informs us that mistakes in executing new ideas prove the paucity of that idea, rather than external/unforeseen factors, the stubbornness of old values, or an ineptitude in the administration of those ideas. Even revolution brings with it some of the assumptions of the past, and it is usually through a lack of thinking rather than through rigour or imposition that standard ideas remain. I believe those Hollywood execs who say their intention is not subordination based on gender or race. They exist within, rather than produce the inequalities from which they benefit and unthinkingly perpetuate.
Women have been a plot device for male entitlement for as far back as stories were being told, as trophies for creepy behaviour, as the spoils of war, as the property of men, as the maiden-in-waiting for her adorable coercive, overly-persistent prince-charming. This canonical romance fodder is by no means confined to Hollywood’s conveyor-belt of repetitious creepy men and two-dimensional women. Romantic notions of ownership and possession have been cultural touchstones from Homer’s depiction of the Trojan war to countless Marvel and DC superheroes, to the princess in Super Mario Bros. The endless list of women as representative and actual rewards for men in every facet of media almost always stops when the reward is won. In 50 Shades we have a rare peek into the post-prize horror, the abuse and possession that comes from viewing women as things to possess, while glamourising that man as a brooding troubled Adonis with a haunting past.
After seeing that four foot high visual of a man grabbing a woman by the throat on the movie poster for 50 Shades, I asked a number of people who had read the book what they thought it was about. Most said it was a just a story about humping and BDSM, some said they found it ludicrously dull, almost all (whether they enjoyed it or not) found the prose unreasonably bad, but some agreed with its author E.L James that this was not just about BDSM, but a love story.
As I flicked through my memory bank of love stories with which to compare it, I concluded, although not as overtly ‘abusive dressed as sexy’, the scale of abusive or controlling and manipulative man on our screens who are cast as ideal and beautiful love-matches is so frequent it’s past remarkable. On the grand scale of love stories and conceptions of love that have had sustained across cultures for centuries, our depictions of love can be brutal, possessive and obsessive. 50 Shades has it’s place in the pantheon of disturbing fictional relationships, but it is by no means alone. What it does is show us what most of Hollywood’s romantic heroes might be like if we had the opportunity to see beyond the usual ending of the lead character (almost always the man) working out how to ‘get’ the woman.
The first story that crossed my mind was modern day tear-jerker The Notebook which I had re-watched over the holiday season and predictably sobbed uncontrollably. I remembered the great moments of nascent love I’ve had in my life, and of how some messy, many were awkward or downright embarrassing. None were as confidently and creepily coercive and abusive as the character of a seventeen-year-old Noah in this movie. The male lead (swooningly played by Ryan Gosling), gets an idea that he’s in love with a young woman he sees at a local carnival. He pursues this interest by asking her out. When she refuses his initial advances, he climbs a Ferris wheel she’s riding on with her date, and threatens to plummet to his death unless she agrees to go out with him, a concept we’re supposed to find impish, cute, and oh so romantic (imagine this played by a demented wide-eyed Nick Cage, then tell me it’s cute). Threatening suicide if a woman does not defer to your will is not a fun prelude to a great romance, but psychological abuse from the first moment of contact. To be fair, this story actually does go beyond the usual – stop it when they get together – bit, but only to show the couple in their first flushes of love and then when she tragically gets Alzheimer’s in old age. There are undoubtedly some touching and heartbreaking moments of love in their elderly relationship, but this switching between youth and old-age device allowed the filmmakers to avoid the couple’s entire adult relationship.
The enshrinement of these narratives in popular culture oscillate between the sacrificial notions of the romance of male protector-narratives of Titanic to the female subordination and power-imbalances of Pretty Woman. From the love-über-alles yarn of heroic poor men dying for rich woman, to the valourisation of rich guys who purchase sex, and eventually exploit their elevated social and economic position to keep that woman around as his very own PA/sexual escape-pod from the boredom and inauthenticity of his life, the ubiquity of ownership narratives or selfless/pointless sacrifices in popular culture are borne out by a history of thinking about romantic love as a divine and idealised form of male ownership of another human being.
These relatively recent snapshots of idealised love as eternal and immutable property have a rich and uncomfortable relationship with the romance of obsession, which places the object of affection as just that; an object, stripping that beloved other of the humanity of their imperfections. The upshot of the power-relations that surround the imposition of romantic love as the ultimate quest, the Holy Grail of meaningfulness and secular religiosity is that it places idealised forms of beauty and goodness into socially fluid and volatile constructs of power that often deny the agency of the beloved if the scales fall and that beloved fails to live up to the divine expectations of the lover.
50 Shades, as a manifestation and sexualisation of an abusive relationship, packaged and sold as ‘hot’, was perhaps unusual in its mainstreaming of unambiguous manipulation (and that it provided fodder for us to snigger at the peculiarities and cultural novelty of ‘female sexuality’), but burgeoning abusive behaviour is hardwired into the ‘normal’ aspirational heterosexual love-stories we watch and re-watch. Long before the divinity of heterosexual couple-love became a staple of Hollywood’s lazy conservatism, the path was well and truly beaten for them by a dangerous notional cocktail of male predators and female gatekeepers, whose bodies and hearts can be won through deceit or grand gestures that, off-screen could be bullet-points in the Dummies Guide to Stalking (Hugh Grant starting a cringe-inducing international incident with the United States as UK PM as a gesture of power and abandon a la Love Actually – or indeed any story in Love Actually, or the iconic creepiness of John Cusack with a boom-box in Say Anything). Follow any of these stories past their ‘happy ever after’ conclusion and the male characters would very likely display some creepy, dangerous Christian Grey-like behaviours.
The problem with the notion of romantic love relationships as unconditional, unchanging and unending is the impossibility of its demands, the demands of the dominant partner setting out the terms of those impossible demands, and the difficultly of leaving a lover within the confines of those aggressive expectations.
One of my favourite opening lines from a novel is from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ It opens at the scene of a suicide and the first line is:
“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”
This beautifully written line is infused with inescapability and the hopelessness of a love unrealised – Garcia narrows the choices of the rejected lover only to death when he invokes words like “inevitable” and “fate”to describe the power and destiny and ultimate cruelty of love, begging the question: if the absence of mutuality can only lead to death, what does the withdrawal of mutuality inevitably lead to? Disturbing indeed, but this idealised ‘love as the search for ideal beauty’ can traced all the way back to the ancients, a time where power relations, indeed all relations between men and women, and indeed men and men would be unrecognisable in today’s world, but somehow this conception of love has sustained through millenia. Ideal forms of reaching for beauty is so enshrined in our conception of how we love that there is an ill-conceived idea of love as our only unconditionality. That wonderful human need for affection and love that can inspire and delight is repeatedly framed in an almost religious craving for the eternal – an immutability that can be grasped in the beauty of one lover. The arbitrary and unchosen nature of love itself is often framed as inescapable, using deterministic language like destiny, eternity and unconditionality.
The loved one’s reciprocation is not even remotely required for this devotional love. Take the common Hollywood theme of leer from afar, turned stalking pest – like Ben Stiller’s character (and, as it turns out, all the male characters) in ‘There’s Something About Mary’. The consent of the female character is entirely optional. Love, conceived this way is relational only in terms of woman as a means to the man’s goals of fulfilling his desire for her. This desire allows him to invade this other human’s space, private moments and movements.
Conceptualised through a lens of male entitlement, heterosexual love can be normalised in the most dangerous of ways, and Christian Grey can be easily conceived of as a seductive romantic hero rather than a controlling manipulator. The dark side of the romantic idealisation of the other is linked with male infantalisation of women, sexual entitlement to women in general, but particularly to ‘my’ woman. This intensification of control and objectification is reinforced and validated by a social edifice that commands and worships male domination, the sexualisation of young women, and the disposibility and demented desexualisation and mumsification of older women, to the point where it is a either a seam-busting joke, or a disastrous near family destroying abuse-storyline if an older woman expresses any sexual desire (see Thirteen or even Patricia Arquette in Boyhood).
In 50 shades, we see the egregious result of every Hollywood ‘ending as beginning’ in a way that still lionises the abuser. Hollywood’s classic arc is to portray a controlling man only up to the point where he ‘gets’ the girl (which, of course, is presented as romantic). If we could attach a three-years-later scene to our Pretty Woman example, where Julia Roberts’ doesn’t live up to the idealised notion of ladylike perfection that Gere’s character groomed and trained her to be, the unsurprising and disastrous results wouldn’t shock us. We would have clearly seen the warning signs. Gere was a creep from beginning to end, but, goddamn it, he got the girl, he saved the girl, he showed the girl how to live ‘properly’. Thank heavens for Hollywood’s abusive creep instructing women on their behaviour.
The status quo is not difficult to enact. It is the path of least resistance. Hollywood does not enact the privilege of the abusive, white, heterosexual man, rather it is reflexively reproduced by the society that so keenly values those attributes, and their relationship to power and ruling classes, and projects it back to that society. The fact that the systematic supremacy of those attributes have been in operation for as far back as memory reaches means there is no requirement to consciously exercise oppression or even acknowledge its existence. Routine reproductions of power and oppression are more often imposed by not thinking, or enacting, but through box-ticking and repeating criteria. Hollywood exists in this unconscious repetition of established norms, popping up only very occasionally to think.