The Fifty Shades of Grey trailer arrived this past Thursday to equal parts scorn, hilarity, and bewilderment on social media. Was it supposed to look like a horror movie, everyone and their inner film critic wondered? And if so, why? Were the filmmakers making an ironic comment or just screwing with their poor dumb intended audience? What in the name of Pauline Réage was going on?
Luckily for all of you, I have a theory. Well, actually, I have a couple of theories:
First, two genres rely on anticipation as a basic plot mechanic: horror and erotic thrillers. They require a slow build in order to function both narratively and emotionally. Otherwise, they become nothing more than a series of increasingly ineffective jump scares, boob shots, or gore. If you want to tell a coherent story and achieve the intended goal of either scaring the audience or turning them on, you need to reveal just enough throughout to keep that prickle of nervous interest going. In both genres, this sort of delay has the added benefit of getting around censors, who tend to punish overt displays of gore or nekkidness but don’t care as much about the images that audiences produce in their own minds with the right sort of suggestion.
Since the erotic thriller has been functionally moribund for nearly twenty years, modern audiences are far more familiar with delayed anticipation in the context of horror movies. FSoG’s trailer editors may be selling a dumb movie, but they are plenty smart in using this kind of film language to get the point across. This is not an exercise in camp or an inane sex comedy for dudes; this is a Very Serious Film Based on a New York Times Bestseller, shot by the cinematographer for freakin’ Atonement. (It may not do much for various other organs, but at least your eyeballs will be happy.) It involves, like, meaningful stuff, and is in no way repurposed YA fanfic.
Even back when both types of movies were box office mainstays, there was considerable overlap between the genres, usually blurring the roles of antagonist and female sex interest while carefully delineating between “sex” and “romance.”
Of course, the problem with referencing the heyday of hard-R boobs ‘n’ butts dramas is that FSoG flips this dynamic. The antagonist is a dude, and he’s both the romantic interest and the sex interest. This does not compute in the context of grunge-era erotic thrillers. Women were supposed to be objects, and whatever subjectivity the plot allowed them to have was usually negative. You had to go to horror to find a female character who drove the plot, and even then, she usually didn’t have consensual sex.
(This is usually the part where someone starts yammering on about sex and death and la petit mort and whatnot. I respect y’all too much for that, and besides, c'est des conneries. Sure, we boink to forestall death, but we mostly boink to boink.)
But there is another disturbing aspect to FSoG’s trailer that goes beyond genre conventions, and it gets at something more basic. Namely, there is some problematic shit in the novel, and the trailer gives every impression that it will be in the movie as well. Contrary to what the censors think, it isn’t the sex, either. That said, I am less interested in analyzing what’s wrong with FSoG’s portrayal of sex and romance—trust me, plenty of other people have that covered—and far more interested in figuring out why it has had such an impact on our society despite being seriously fucked up. The usual explanation, which is that women are stupid, obviously does not hold a lot of water with me.
There is also an argument to be made that FSoG’s fans are grown-ass women who are perfectly capable of distinguishing between reality and a poorly-written fantasy that doesn’t actually involve all that much sex (and most of it fairly boring at that). Even if it did, why is it so incredibly important to demean them for it? As it turns out, the answer to both questions is the same. Namely, what is being eroticized here is the notion that female desire is dirty, dangerous, pathetic, and above all wrong.
…OK, maybe not quite that wrong.
All the same, a whole slew of women have found a workaround to the ridiculously contradictory messages that we hear every day: that we be as attractive as possible to men but any attention to our appearance is vanity, that we have no worth beyond being desirable by men but having sex with them makes us worthless, and above all that our sexuality only exists for men even as we should be ashamed of it. That workaround is available in a wide range of e-reader formats and paperback, and it features some of the worst characterization and metaphors for sex that I have ever read, but it gets the job done. Namely, it provides a context in which “dirty, dangerous, pathetic, and wrong” becomes OOH SO DIRTY! DANGEROUS! AND WRONG! It’s porn for people who are afraid of sex. And in one of the more impressive positive feedback loops in art, every person who sneers at its fans as stupid pathetic sex-starved middle-aged moms helps reinforce the conditions that made it popular in the first place. It feeds on itself, and it won’t stop until you do.
I would really like something more positive to write about regarding female sexuality in the United States sometime soon, so please consider this a public service announcement. Yes, that trailer looks like it’s advertising a horror movie. Think long and hard about why.
La Donna Pietra (@ladonnapietra) is a Duke City denizen with opinions about pop culture, gender, and ice cream.