…a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
So many virginities to lose.
AM Homes, The End of Alice
In Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele’s virginity describes less the technical status of her not having had intercourse–or even, as Christian Grey deduces, experienced the murky field of “other things”–but rather the metaphysical detainment of never having been in love. Though the film’s establishing scenes indicate that Ana’s Portland is populated primarily with beautiful men, such as artist friend José (Corazón!) and hunky hardware Paul, this life is ultimately as much a waiting room as the lobby of Grey House where Ana and Christian meet.
A little later, in his home, apprised of her maidenhood, Christian asks Ana, “Where have you been?” and Ana replies, “Waiting.” In this transaction, waiting isn’t just a temporal suspension, but a spatial practice: she has not been here, she has been not-here, waiting–for the point at which, having met the right man, she’ll consent quite summarily to the fuck that initiates a life of meaningful fucking. The physical deflowering occurs without formality or lights or bloodshed because this, mere celibacy, is not figured here as among the more significant virginities to lose.
A number of insightful reactions to Fifty Shades have focused on its capitalist fantasy, its oppressive emphases on abundance (his) and scarcity (hers); yet alongside this narrative of consumption is an equally familiar Ouroboros of financial plenitude and resources, on one hand, and tangible consideration and caretaking, on the other. Though Ana initially concedes to submission as a kind of experiment, discovering that certain new sensations (e.g. being stroked with the end of a riding crop) do produce pleasure, the fantasy by which she’s most magnetized–and on which the film’s appeal relies–is that of the singularly attentive man.
Say the contemporary male analogue to Gillian Flynn’s Cool Girl is Ryan Gosling’s Driver: a mechanical genius securely wearing satin, murdering your enemies, charming your children, wordlessly present, thinking of your (plural) future. Christian Grey manifests an affiliated archetype, one that similarly deviates from a version of masculinity at odds with tenderness. In Christian, the promise of money and all it affords–security, travel, invariable convenience–is inextricable from the fantasy of a care expressed in attention paid and problems solved. His isn’t exactly the Miami seduction of Sirk’s Written on the Wind, wherein playboy Kyle Hadley tries and fails to woo Lucy Moore by stocking her hotel room with minaudières; Christian buys Ana a computer. He replaces her car. The question circling the film of whether this is what women really want tends to imagine “this” as voluntary beatings or sugar baby status–in other words, it protects the idea that Fifty Shades is a limit case of one kind or another, and thus fails to recognize precisely what the film surfaces: that at the heart of romantic love, as it’s conventionally conceived, is a discontent machine.
Defining “cruel optimism,” Lauren Berlant distinguishes between an attachment whose breakage results in mere disappointment, and one whose relation to optimism has apocalyptic results for the optimist: “When your pen breaks, you don’t think, ‘This is the end of writing.’ But if a relation in which you’ve invested fantasies of your own coherence and potential breaks down, the world itself feels endangered.”
She draws on the example of a destructive love affair to illustrate: “…if I leave you I am not only leaving you (which would be a good thing if your love destroys my confidence) but also I leaving [sic] an anchor for my optimism about life (which is why I want to stay with you even though I’m unhappy, because I am afraid of losing the scene of my fantasy itself). So this double bind produces conflicts in how to proceed, because massive loss is inevitable if you stay or if you go.”
Cruel optimism thus asks how and why we fasten to forms of being and being-with that present as scenes of fulfillment even as they wear us down. Why do we move toward and stay with that which beats us? Because beyond the beating(s) is a dreamed-of good life, a world past the waiting room that rewards our perseverance. So cruelty obtains not (only) in consenting to pain, but in the seduction that such pain is a necessary, even honorable feature of the path toward a happy ending.
For Ana, then, the fantasy is not only of Christian as her lover, but of Ana herself as loved, as lovable–enough to be found by the right man. For the desire the film articulates through Ana is as much for a man who keeps you in the photograph, who introduces you to his family, whose cell phone appears to exist solely for returning your texts (that is up until the point at which he takes an emergency but otherwise illegible “work call”), as it is a desire for sexual awakening.
Aligned with Ana’s perspective, Fifty Shades stresses the challenges of submission–bearing pain, relinquishing will–and its critiques home in on the problematic of consenting to be hurt and constrained. Indeed, the film’s dialogue confirms a situation in which Ana consents to domination because it pleases her partner. But Taylor-Johnson choreographs at least some of this sex not only as the best (read: only) of Ana’s life, but as a successful exercise in Ana trusting Christian to be devotional to and capable of giving her pleasure, such that his readiness to go down and his quoting Tess of the d’Urbervilles collapse into a coherent fantasy of romantic attentiveness. This, according to the film, is what women really want: a man who goes for his run while you’re still asleep so you can have breakfast together.
In Season 4 of The Sopranos, besotted with her husband’s driver, Carmela Soprano explains to a friend that despite the relationship’s non-consummation, “It is real. We communicate. He looks at me like I'm beautiful. He thinks I'm interesting when I talk.”
Here, the tragedy is not simply how arguably low Carmela’s standards are, but also how resonant: in light of the view that men do not communicate, look, or listen, such standards of interpersonal exchange appear exceptional. Ana and Christian, too, struggle to square what it is that makes or will make them real: for Christian, it’s the contract, that which signifies consensual belonging (“If you were mine, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week”). For Ana, it’s a more mutable sense of intimacy, sometimes about proximity and contact (“Why can’t I touch you?”), sometimes penetration (“Why won’t you let me in?”).
For the film, these needs create frustratingly illusory conflicts, stretching the running time, boring the viewer. At the same time, they point to a problem far more pervasive than exoticizing or pathologizing critiques of the film suggest: regular old hetero romance as deeply, irresolvably ambivalent toward freedom.
Announcing its BDSM content, the film is replete with images that connote ownership through restraint. There’s the contract itself, the taxonomizing form of which demands further formality (e.g. all the trappings and rituals of a “business meeting”); Christian’s variety of cuffs, both actual and repurposed-as; repetitive close-ups of scarlet knots and brass rings. Narratively, Christian’s “control in all things” extends from Ana’s whereabouts to her ingestions (Cosmopolitans, no; birth control, yes), and the idea is that such acute limits enable correspondent pleasure: hold me down so I can be free.
Yet two moments comprise a counterpoint. In the first, Christian surprises Ana with a helicopter ride from Portland to his home in Seattle. Ana marvels at Christian the pilot (what can’t he do?) and at the city glittering below. There’s a grandiosity to this, a cheesy steroidal boost to dinner and a movie straight out of The Bachelor and The Millionaire Matchmaker. Later, Christian confesses that despite his 15 previous submissives, Ana is, in a sense, his first–first helicopter passenger, first sleepover–thus suggesting that he, too, has virginities to lose.
In the second instance, Christian ambushes Ana while she visits her mother in Georgia, and again his surprise not-date is a flight; they go up in a glider that’s towed by a leader plane until Ana, exhilarated, gives the signal to let go. In a sparely plotted film about a man with unlimited resources, why do we see essentially the same scene twice?
Fifty Shades’ ostensible concern is domination, belonging to; so what do we make of these interludes in which characters are briefly afforded a happiness that their relationship otherwise erodes? For all the film’s enunciations of ownership and constriction, these scenes carry a second voice. We get protracted close-ups of Ana’s and Christian’s faces, their expressions ecstatic as the plane swoops and spins. It’s not just the fact of flight that so emphatically conveys release, but letting go of the lead.
In Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, Patrick Bateman has dinner with his secretary but doesn’t kill her; instead, briefly, he considers a form of life alternative to serial torture: “…in the cab on the way across town to my apartment, I imagine running around Central Park on a cool spring afternoon with Jean, laughing, holding hands. We buy balloons, we let them go.”
For Bateman such a fantasy is more perverse than any involving decapitation or urinal cakes. We recognize him as a prior iteration of a man who exerts control in all things; thus does he long to be so carefree in love that even his grip may be loosened. Fifty Shades insists in its second voice on the entanglement of control and release, and on the ambivalence toward freedom inimical to romantic love as it’s dreamed of at the center, not the edge. In love, Ana is as caught as the caged bird depicted in the motif of her bedroom wallpaper; there would be no pleasure for the lover in caging something that wasn’t built to fly.
The spectacular pinnacle of the film’s sadism is Ana’s final beating, which looks a lot like what Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) seeks from sadist K (Jamie Bell) in Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Volume II. Christian has Ana restrained over a table, naked, to count along for six strokes with a broad leather paddle. They’ve just fought, and Ana complies because she thinks it will show her something essential and as yet obscured. This act will give her access, insight to Christian, the intimacy she has learned to desire through exposure in certain forms–like when Ana visits her mother and overhears her laughing with her husband in their bedroom, and the sadness on her face is the comparison of her relationship with Christian to this notion of normalcy. She doesn’t want to be, actually or proverbially, in the next room.
So Ana plays her part. Watching in a theater, I felt the deviation between this scene and earlier modes (comedy, camp). I wondered how it felt to the groups of women seated throughout. The film seems to use Ana’s beating to draw the curtain on Christian’s true perversion: moralizing, it scolds us for ever being turned on by his proficiency with neckties and ice cubes, because the Advanced version to which all that training progresses is pure, unsexy pain.
When Ana says, show me how bad this can be, she is saying, show me how bad this already is. Ana agrees to bear something not preferable, even uncomfortable, even acutely painful, because the payoff might be closeness; she agrees, as people do, to something that consists of and creates distance for the false promise of increased intimacy, that which involves “an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others that will turn out in a particular way.” There is waiting, then there is work, and at an ever-receding horizon, happiness and death.
What is dramatized in that last beating is not the limit of Christian’s sadomasochistic perversion, as the film explicitly depicts, but the quotidian masochism threaded through romantic attachment, and the learned low standard that makes a non-optimal situation appear worth our voluntary pain. At the moment it purports to be about an abusive relationship, singular and corrupt, Fifty Shades of Grey is definitively about relationships: conventional, and often cruel.