We Need To Talk About The Recent Exploitation Of Female Submission In Film
And probably avoid seeing both 50 Shades and The Boy Next Door.
Women have always been the objectified focal point of film.
British film theorist Laura Mulvey penned the now-infamous essay on the male gaze prevalent in contemporary cinema, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in which she explored the patriarchal umbrella encompassing the industry. In the essay, Mulvey writes,
There are circumstances in which looking [at a targeted object of desire] itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at […] it can become fixated into perversion […] whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other.
The idea of objectifying women isn’t revolutionary. From less severe examples like the way Mrs. Robinson is framed in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, to the obvious sexual objectification of Megan Fox’s character in the first two Transformers movies helmed by Michael Bay, the male gaze has perpetuated itself time and time again.
In many ways, the aforementioned examples play firmly into Mulvey’s first half of her male gaze definition. The way attractive female leads are often framed is intentional in producing an arousing image of their female characters.
These women are wanted by the men who gaze upon them relentlessly on screen, and the best way to correspond that feeling of twitching excitement is to use the camera as a way in which to vicariously “see” what the male leads are seeing. The camera hovers over curves, closes up on a woman’s breasts, and tracks her entire form from her face to just below her rear.
For audiences, the message is clear: this is the type of women men want to pay ten dollars to watch, and this is the type of women female movie-goers should aspire to be so that they, in turn, can be watched.
Like Mulvey insists that there is a sense of erotic fantasy in being able to watch a women on screen, undressing every curve of her figure with your eyes as the camera slowly pans down, and that there’s also a sense of erotic fantasy in imagining oneself as the object of intense desire.
In the past few months, however, the narrative that the gazing mechanism instills has been radically changed. While the first part of Mulvey’s thesis still applies – being able to actively control an objectified other – the latter half has added a perverse twist.
Instead of being surreptitiously told that being wanted as an object of desire is stimulating, films like Fifty Shades of Grey and The Boy Next Door insist that the only way a woman can be gazed at wantonly by a man is if she submits herself to him, emotionally, physically, and sexually.
Fifty Shades of Grey has been the subject of controversy since the book was released and the conception of its inevitable film adaptation was announced. The story, which started as a fan fiction alternate to Stephanie Meyer’s popular vampire series, Twilight, follows Anastasia Steele, a virginal literary major who’s tasked with interviewing the illustriously illusive icon Christian Grey. After their first meeting, they become infatuated with each other.
But while Anastasia keeps her infatuation to herself, allowing small pornographic fantasies to play out in her mind, Christian begins to effectively stalk her. He shows up at the hardware store she works at and other locations without so much as batting an eye.
Although the Anastasia played by Dakota Johnson in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adapted film is far more headstrong and quick to question Christian than she is in the book, she still confesses to feeling uncomfortable with his blatant actions of pursuit. As it wanes on, however, his perusal of her overtakes the fear she has about the danger of the situation. She’s willing to submit herself, voluntarily adding levels of stress and anxiety that could have been avoided because she feels desired by this potentially dangerous man.
It’s beauty and the beast syndrome. She’s virginal perfection, a wholesome, untarnished canvas. She’s kind, intelligent, perceptive, witty, and ambitious but she’s found herself completely infatuated with the beast. It’s not a matter of him voluntarily changing for her, he simply can’t change, as Jamie Dornan’s Christian yells toward the end of the film. In order for their love affair to continue, she must sacrifice for him since he can’t change himself for her. She must submit herself to his beastly desires, even if it hurts her in the long run.
Just from this, readers can surmise two pieces of information: the pleasure gained from sexually wanted by a man is of more importance than the risk of being hurt; and the more dangerous a man seems and the less women know about the men pursuing them, the more attractive they become.
What marketing campaigns sell as a new fantastical romance is really just a game as old as time: predators pursuing prey.
Inevitably, Anastasia agrees to go on a few dates with Christian, which of course, inevitably leads to one of the first big moments in the book and in the film: the night Anastasia agrees to sleep with him and lose her virginity. This is the moment the tone of the book changes. Upon learning that Anastasia is a virgin, Christian promises to rectify the situation.
“What do you mean? What situation,” she asks in the book.
“Your situation, Ana. I’m going to make love to you now.”
There’s no question about whether or not Anastasia wants to have sex with him, wants to lose her virginity to him, or even is ready for that step in their relationship. What he’s saying to her isn’t that he’s going to make love to her, but that he requires her to submit herself to him.
Christian uses sex as a way to persuade her to stay with him, to abide by the contract he has all his submissives sign. The first time he uses a blindfold on her, after tying her arms behind her head, he begins teasing her until she’s visibly shaking and uses this sexual leverage to hear her gift the softest first agreement to parts of the contract.
When she says okay, he ravishes her. It’s only after their session, when Anastasia starts asking about him and asking him why he can touch her while she can’t touch him that he gets up to leave.
“You’re not staying,” she asks, obviously crestfallen.
“I told you, I don’t do that.”
In this moment, his message is crystal clear. Either she can abide by his wishes and submit herself to him -and the contract he so desparately wants her to sign- or she can’t have him at all. It’s like teasing a child with a lollipop and then removing it from sight, telling them they can only have the candy if they agree to be spanked.
He wants her to hand over every ounce of control in the situation over to him so he can act as her sexually dominating ventriloquist. He uses the exact same technique when he coerces her into participating in sexual acts she isn’t sure she wants, when he’s telling her what she can eat, and when he pressures her into marrying him just five weeks after meeting each other.
He gazes upon her forced submission with euphoric glee, and in return, the audience is told that to captivate a man like Christian Grey, an incredibly wealthy, powerful and sexual man – the very idea of fantastical perfection – women must annihilate the very parts of themselves that they like, their very independence.
Anastasia submits her finances to him, allowing him to buy her anything she needs and wants. She submits her sexual boundaries to him, allowing him complete control during acts over which she’s routinely expressed. She submits her freedom to him, allowing him to watch her every move and hire a bodyguard to ensure she never leaves his eyesight, and she submits part of her very essence to meet his guidelines for a suitable wife.
Even when her best friend Kate pulls her aside and interrogates her about the choices she’s making, if this is really what she wants, she can barely give an answer before Christian comes up and speaks. She submits her desire to be treated as an equal to ensure she can stay by his side, even if that means tossing away parts of her character she once stood proud on.
The loss of control at the hands of a dominating man is a theme echoed in Rob Cohen’s The Boy Next Door. In the film, Jennifer Lopez plays Claire Peterson, a single mom going through a rough separation with her husband Garrett (John Corbett). At the beginning of the film, she’s introduced as an independent character leading a fulfilling life without her husband by her side.
Enter Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman), the twenty-year-old nephew of her elderly neighbour who immediately takes an unhealthy interest in Claire. Like with Anastasia, Claire immediately feels uncomfortable with the amount of time Noah tries to spend with her. He invites himself over to her house for nightly dinners, and as time wanes on, starts to spend countless hours just hanging out in Claire’s kitchen, talking about anything that will keep her in front of him for as long as possible.
Claire, although freaked out by the attention, submits herself to having him in her house, and eventually starts fantasizing about what could be between them. She knows it’s wrong, and although she has no desire to pursue Noah, like with Anastasia and Christian, the more Noah shows up at her house, the more Claire’s willing to ignore the rationale in her mind urging her to explore the consequences of the budding relationship. The idea of being wanted by a man, especially after her husband cheated on her, gives way to her small submissions.
The turning point of the film comes when Noah effectively rapes Claire one night.
Claire, obviously inebriated, stumbles over to Noah’s house. What starts off as innocent conversation turns into Noah trapping her between a wall and his body and slowly kissing his way down her body all while Claire tells him to stop repeatedly.
He doesn’t listen, though. He begs her to let him have his way with her while he gropes her breasts, and even with her begging him to stop, he manages to coerce her into the position in which he’s wanted her all along. In the end, Claire involuntarily submits herself to him.
The worst part of the scene is the raw sexual energy the director gave it. There are erotic pants and moans echoing around the room, and their silhouettes tell a vastly different story than the reality taking place. This direction makes the entire sequence seem romantic and sensual, but the act itself is one of the most despicable things in the film.
Like with Fifty Shades, the message being force fed to audiences is that, to ensure a man’s kept sexually intrigued by a woman, she must submit herself to him and allow him complete control, even if she doesn’t want anything to do with the act.
It’s lewd, and it’s a dangerous, abusive message being handed out at each screening around the world. Unfortunately, it’s the type of romance that sells, and it’s being disguised as a charade for adventurous, alternative sexual lifestyles that simply doesn’t reflect the trusting, equal relationships that exist within those communities.
Christian tells Anastasia that he’s interested in BDSM when all he’s interested in is finding meek women who are willing to submit themselves to daily acts of emotional abuse, controlling behavior, eating disorders, and sexual coercion. It’s predatory submission hidden within uneducated written accounts of alternative sexual practices.
This has become the new wave of sexual provocation in film. Where the use of gaze as directional technique had its faults, at least it wasn’t overly dangerous. The ideas being perpetuated by these types of films have a direct effect on the audiences going to see them, and their raw success will create the ripple effect within Hollywood.
There is a difference between voluntary sexual submission shared between a couple and the forced submission that comes with a fear of not being desired by a certain type of man. Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t BDSM; it’s abusive submission. The Boy Next Door isn’t an erotic thriller; it’s a glorification of the worst kind of submission a woman or a man can be subjected to – rape.
The types of submission stories studios are trying to present as overwhelmingly romantic tales are showing up more and more in the mainstream. Unless they step back and take a look at what they’re creating, chances are they’ll continue to do so.
After all, sex sells, no matter how it’s presented.