Lately I’ve been thinking that I really should read Fifty Shades of Grey. WAIT. DON’T GO. It’s not because I have any great love for syrupy sexist fanfiction (because I don’t [I do]). It’s just that I really don’t want to miss the boat. The film’s cast is going to be announced at this year’s Comic-Con, and hysteria is going to ensue, and when that movie comes out I need to be part of the zeitgeist. Zeitgeist FOMO is worse than any other FOMO. When 50 Shades shade is being thrown on my newsfeed, I need to be able to holla like a schola, or else what am I worth on the internet, really?
But it’s hard because I know it’s shit and I’m going to get angry about genders. I like to get my id tickled, don’t get me wrong, but I prefer it when the tickling says something powerful about sex and relationships, something that leaves me with a “take charge” glow rather than the terrible guilt that comes with complacency. What I mean is, it’s alright if a female character feels weakness, or submits to a male. That’s what I and many of my peers were raised to believe is normal. I don’t mind if those roles (however insane and unfair) are acknowledged and performed. But it’s not alright if that subordination is connected neatly and squarely with desire. Like, it’s sexy because it’s an extreme form of the status quo. Fanfic Girl loves to be tortured and dominated and silenced because it’s the only way to please Christian Grey, who is sewwwww manly and complex. So lazy, so boldly condescending. I mean, did you read it? Am I wrong? I don’t know if I’m pissed because it’s offensive to my vagina, or pissed because my vagina is so fucking bored.
I watched Secretary a few days ago. In many ways, it’s everything 50 Shades could have been, should have been, and by virtue of its popularity, will never be. It centers on a very complicated relationship between a lawyer (James Spader) and his secretary (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who eventually create an S&M dynamic that teaches them both more about human connection than any of their “normal” relationships. Coincidentally, Spader’s character is also named “Mr. Grey.” But he’s not just a thinly drawn fantasy; he’s a person of many contradictions, struggling to just be a man. And Gyllenhaal just wants to be a girl. Neither of them can get it quite right, and the film kinda implies that none of us can, because “normal” is dull and counter-intuitive.
This here is a dominant/submissive situation that is pointedly feminist; both characters find power in their own non-gendered weirdness. Spader is anguished in his own skin, ashamed by the fact that he craves control and inflicting pain. He actually seems to blame his penis for his propensity for sexual dominance, and as a result, he withdraws into himself and plays the soft-spoken gentleman. He doesn’t know how to love and be sexual at the same time, because the line is too tricky to walk and the rejection hurts so bad. When his lovers see what turns him on, they not only dump him, they imply that he’s sick and irreparable.
And Gyllenhaal is another ball of contradictions and neuroses. She’s painfully shy, sensitive, wishes for only simple pleasures and comforting routine. She cuts herself because the pain is an outlet, one of the only things that make her feel alive and engaged with the earth. She needs praise. She needs to feel safe. When she and Spader begin to build a trust, each of them sees that their strange needs (both emotional and sexual) can finally be met. And the fact that such happiness and synchronicity can exist OUTSIDE the realm of the normal scares the shit out of both of them. They take a long time to fall into their routine, not because it feels wrong, but because it feels too right.
Most people have seen the famous scene where Spader loses himself in the utter joy of spankery as Gyllenhaal sweetly shouts, “I’m your SECRETARY!” I do love when they finally reach an understanding; it’s nice to see the devotion and strength she cultivates even with a ball-gag in her mouth. And Spader gets so cute as his defenses fall. But this scene is one of the best, I think; it’s one of their first meetings and says volumes about how such a relationship can begin.
Check Spader out around the 1-minute mark. I love the way he observes that Gyllenhaal is “closed tight. A wall.” He starts out the conversation weary and cold because he’s used to keeping his bizarre brand of masculinity a secret. He’s tired of restraining himself, and this girl seems like an innocent rube who’s going to quit in her first week. But Gyllenhaal has secrets. Secrets of her own. She’s hesitant but curious. She hates herself almost as much as he hates himself. Who the fuck is this girl, and can I save her? That’s what Spader is thinking. And maybe he’s never felt that kind of spontaneous affection before for a normal girl. She’s a woman with sexual needs so specific and aberrant that maybe she could be the one.
Both of their performances are masterful. Gyllenhaal plays the perfect mixture of shy and straightforward, and her sexual evolution in this movie is a delight to watch. Spader is so alluring, so awkward and so wounded. This scene is great because you can watch his breath catch as he realizes how helpless this girl makes him feel. That push-and-pull of power and weakness between them makes for one of the most insightful heterosexual romances you’ll ever ever watch unfold.
So I’m going to read 50 Shades, but just know I’m going to hate every minute of it. Having experienced a story like Secretary, how can I dumb myself down again and go back to feeling such manufactured normalized pleasure? I dunno, you tell me. Did you get through 50 Shades? Does it have merits that I’ve missed in my scathing pre-judgment? Is it even possible to reach feminist conclusions in a work of fiction that fetishizes female submissiveness? Comments please.