There was something noticeably clinical about the first Fifty Shades of Grey film. Before it was released on Valentine’s Day 2014, word had already gotten around about director Sam Tayler-Johnson’s conflict with the book’s author E.L. James. It became clear from accounts of that conflict that the director had contempt for the subject material.
(Not that I blame her. The books were very, very bad.)
Watching the film, you can feel that. It’s an erotic film that hates eroticism. Fifty Shades of Grey seems uncomfortable with the enjoyment of sex, disapproving of sexual play, and uninterested in portraying pleasure. The film shows us an entire room full of sex toys, and barely explores any of them. The ending scene of the film has Christian Grey showing Anastasia Steele “how bad it can be” by spanking her by hand instead of using a paddle, flog, cane or any of the very expensive and very available toys Christian very clearly owns. That serves as a representation of why the film fails as erotica: It doesn’t use any of the tools provided. It shows us everything we want to see, but does nothing with them. But the truth is, erotica is all about using those things. It’s about showing us something different. It’s about wish-fallfilment and fancy. Fifty Shades of Grey barely gives us any of that. This is why it fails as an erotic film.
As a writer and consumer of erotica, I like to believe that I have a keen understanding of what makes it readable/watchable. What women are usually looking for is a palpable and enjoyable sexual dynamic between the two partners. It’s all about selling the characters to the audience. Sure, it’s also about sex, but the sex means nothing if we aren’t on board for the story. The story has to be told in a way where if the two main characters are in a room full of people, we still have to be able to feel like they could rip each other’s clothes off at any second. Erotica is much more about selling a relationship than it is about selling sex. The sex serves as the ultimate culmination of their passion. Erotic stories build sexual tension in the nonsexual dramatic scenes so that when the characters are alone again they can explode their sexual energy. That is the payoff.
So although Fifty Shades of Grey seems more like a “film” in the sense that it’s well-shot and tastefully scored and everything looks much slicker, I believe Fifty Shades Darker works better as an erotic film. It is a film that gives (some) women what they want. Christian and Anastasia actually use sex toys in Darker, which rarely happens in the first film, if at all. Those silver balls they use (seen just a few months ago in The Handmaiden) particularly seem like a ton of fun. We see Anastasia feel sexual pleasure over and over again. Christian puts his face right into her vagina, which is something that women like me are thirsting to see onscreen more. Before watching Fifty Shades Darker, the last time I saw a woman being eaten out out onscreen was in Blue Valentine. BLUE VALETINE.
It was very nice to see a man go face first into a vagina without a weepie depressing film surrounding the sex act. The depiction of female pleasure is one of the most neglected areas of cinema. Yet we see men enjoying sex and blowjobs all the time.
Fifty Shades Darker succeeds at what Fifty Shades of Grey failed spectacularly at: Being fun. Anastasia has orgasms. She drives a boat for the first time in her life and GETS HER LIFE doing so. She gets fingered in an elevator (which is personal a fantasy of mine). She gets the thrill of taking off her panties in a public place. Christian opens up to her, and you can see how touched she is by being trusted by him. She also gets to school Christian on many occasions on how to be a better communicator in their relationship. Yes, Christian is creepy. Yes, he is possessive. Yes, he crosses every possible line. But every time he does so, she calls him out on it. We can wring our hands about the implications of their relationship and how maybe if Anastasia read some Gloria Steinem she wouldn’t have to put up with Christian’s shit. But the thing is, Anastasia Steele is portrayed in the film as very well-read and intelligent. She’s probably read feminist theory, and yet this is still the relationship she chooses to be in. Calling Anastasia weak would be denying her agency, and as her promotion in the workplace shows us, she has plenty of that, as well as clear leadership potential.
One particularly great scene in the film occurs when Christian kneels to Anastasia, submitting himself to her. For me as a watcher, that scene showed me that Christian is so in love with her and so afraid of losing her that he is willing to submit himself to someone who previously submitted herself to him. Fifty Shades Darker shows a clear power exchange in that moment. Christian shows he cares more about her than he does having power over her. And that is the painful, heartbreaking truth that drives Elaina to lash out at Anastasia so much. Anastasia was able to move the unmovable just by being herself and that is something that no other woman (including Leila) had ever been able to do.
I would say that the film’s major failure is refusing to choose one female antagonist. By hyper-focusing on either Elaina or Leila, the film would have been able to do a better job dramatically at setting up the magnitude of difference Anastasia made in Christian’s life and how it contrasts with his former relationships. Still, that scene was still dramatically satisfying.
I know there are plenty of critics that disagree with me, considering that the Rotten Tomatoes score for the first film is at 25% while the score for Fifty Shades Darker is very low at 9%. Still, I stand by my opinion. And that opinion is backed up by both films’ audience ratings. On Rotten Tomatoes, audience rating for the first film is 41%, while the rating for Fifty Shades Darker is noticeably higher at 62%. (Of course, these ratings are subject to change as people continue to see and rate the film.)
And though this goes without saying, most film critics are men (who clearly are not the target audience). It seems like an obvious point to make, but it matters. Films made for a female audience are overwhelmingly negatively reviewed by men. Hell, just 3 years ago it was revealed that that male reviewers wholly outnumber female reviewers on the Rotten Tomatoes. None of this is news though. These gender disparities are common knowledge at this point. Still, every time one of these female-targeted films makes a ton of money despite horrid reviews, it’s a reminder that male critics don’t make or break how well these films do with female audiences.
Women are thirsty for their needs to be met in media. And that includes our sexual needs. Fifty Shades Darker isn’t the best erotic film for women out there by far. But it got a wide release and has the ability to be seen by a very large amount of women at their local multiplex. It won’t change any lives, but it will give many ladies what they want. After all, that’s how E.L. James’ book series became so popular in the first place. She was never seen as a great writers by anyone; she merely scratched an itch in just the right spot. She also ripped off another writer, who is frankly more talented than her and there’s really no getting around that. I don’t see why that should stop anyone for enjoying it for what it is. Fifty Shades Darker was never going to win Oscars, but I do believe it did its best to improve on the material.
The only real power a male critic has lies in how a piece of media is regarded. Their influence in terms of film ranking and choosing which films are “great cinema” is undeniable. But, to be blunt, it is also undeniable how little the average female watcher gives a shit. And as Hollywood continues to neglect to meet the needs of female watchers, the question of “great cinema” goes out the window. When people are starving, they’ll eat anything.