A Quick Hitter--Postscript on 50 Shades

I saw two reviews this morning for 50 Shades of Grey.  Grantland's Wesley Morris, who has become my go-to movie reviewer with the passing of Roger Ebert, says that it is conventionally terrible.  In other words, it is bad, but probably not entertainingly bad in the way I hoped.   So, no reason to see it.

Amanda Hess's review in Slate has a different, and potentially more interesting, take.  She claims that the film is actually very self-aware, in the sense that it knows that many people "hate read" the 50 Shades books, to use Hess's phrasing.  The film approaches the material in the book, Hess claims, from the point of view of someone who is attempting to read the material from the perspective of ironic distance.  [Ed: Will Leitch says something similar]  The story is crap, the characters are crap, the situations are crap, and the movie knows this as it is portraying the same story, characters, and situations.  It is as if the movie is giving you sideways glances and saying "I know, right?  This is total schlock.  Who takes this stuff seriously?"

I have no idea if Hess's thesis is true--based on Morris's review, I am likely not going to see it.  But, to the extent it is true, then it represents a problem.  The first problem, obviously, is that some people might not be in on the joke, and may take the material at face value.  But, perhaps more importantly, even if you think you are in on the joke, you may not be as in on it as you think.

The reason you approach something from an ironic, cynical perspective is that you think by doing so you are disavowing the underlying message of the source material.  In this case, you would be saying "sure, the relationship described in 50 Shades of Grey is unrealistic/problematic/impossible, and if someone accepted it at face value we would have a problem, but it's fine because I'm not taking it seriously."  You get the benefit of having the "right" attitude toward the source, while still being able to enjoy the source.

I think that this sort of ironic move is a kind of self-delusion.  You may think that you are shielding yourself from the underlying message with your ironic stance, but the underlying message is still working on you.  In other words, in this case, no amount of "ironic" posturing about the relationship described in the movie is going to shield you from taking on board the message the author wants you to take away from the relationship.  Irony is not a vaccine that gives you immunity to what you are being told to accept.

Slavoj Zizek makes this point, in the (perhaps unexpected) context of the film Kung Fu Panda.
You might think that mocking the militaristic, racist notions found in kung fu movies makes it OK, but in reality the movie is getting you to buy into these ideas.

This seems a particularly relevant concern here, as the description of the story provided by Morris and Hess's reviews suggests that the relationship described in the books/film is deeply problematic.  Judging from a description of some of the scenes, it seems that the relationship between the couple is far beyond the kind of "birthday day," playing around with power dynamics that seems to me to be potentially OK.  Instead, it seems we get real, legitimate inequality demanded by the man and accepted by the woman.  That's a big problem, and I don't think the weird contractual negotiations in the film that both reviewers mention fixes the problem. Both reviewers also mention a scene where the guy flogs the woman while she cries, which gets right to my concerns about violence in this context.

I guess I am coming around to more sympathy to the religious critics of 50 Shades of Grey (though, minus the gender essentialism of  folks like Dr. Greg).  It does sound like a very problematic vision for romantic and intimate relationships.  And a wink-and-a-shrug, ironic stance doesn't make it any better.

[Postscript:  The best take on 50 Shades is from the amazing Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig.  All of the goodness can is captured in the title:  "'Fifty Shades of Grey' Wants You to Kneel and Submit to Income Inequality."  Zizek would approve.]

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