You might have heard about this story everyone’s talking about on TV, on the radio, or around the water cooler: all about this rich, creepy weirdo who uses his money and inherited power to objectify and possess women, even going so far as to commit sexual assault in public locations?
No, I’m not talking about President Trump; I’m talking about “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Two years ago, the blockbuster novel was turned into a blockbuster motion picture, and the ladies had their very own fantasy franchise – “Twilight” for the young housewife who woke up one day and realized their high school dream guys sparkle neither in the sunlight nor in the sack. And who are we to judge? It’s just porn without the penetration, with a set of shackles standing in for the proverbial glass slipper. A little kink in one’s eye never hurt anyone, and millions of men had author E.L. James to thank for their wives’ and girlfriends’ sudden interest in erotic exploration.
Here’s the short version. Millionaire playboy Christian Grey (Jaime Dornan), a tormented sexual deviant with all the depth of the J.C. Penny catalogue he seems to have leapt from, becomes fixated on a mousy college student with the highly probable name of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). After stalking her in a series of increasingly bizarre and potentially illegal ways, he coerces her into signing a contract in which she will allow him to first deflower, and then employ her, as his submissive sex slave (and if you’re looking for BDSM accuracy, forget it; you’re getting the equivalent of a fourteen year-old’s understanding of sex, relationships, and sexual relationships). Ultimately Anastasia submits to ownership, and finds liberation in serving the emotionally distant and literally untouchable man-child who sobs over secret pain in a bedroom filled with UFC and “Chronicles of Riddick” posters.
And if you’ve haven’t been paying attention, the ladies love this. Seriously. The “Fifty Shades” series has replaced “Sex and the City” as the Gurl Power rallying cry for feminine self-empowerment. There’s perceived strength in submitting to the Male Gaze and enacting a man’s secret fantasies because it turns the tables and shifts the balance of power to her. The man only thinks he’s in control, becoming a slave to the one woman who can exemplify that which no one else can give him. Or something like that.
But things have changed between the release of 2014’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” and its follow-up, “Fifty Shades of Darker” (and no, I’m definitely not talking about character arcs or thematic development). In our Brave New World of Trump’s America, is Anastasia Steele relevant? In a time in which women march on Washington and protest a President accused of taking his sexual pleasure by force, does the fantasy serve the intent? Maybe. The theater in which I saw the film was filled with ladies of various ages, all of whom reacted appropriately to the intended beats. Yet, if prerelease tracking is any indication, current events may have changed the target audience’s comfort with the concept of what some might consider demeaning or dehumanizing behavior.
“Fifty Shades of Darker” is better than its predecessor only by ironic virtue of the lunatic series of events that unfold, none of which seem to connect or build toward anything. It’s like they’re making it up as they go along, improvising wish-fulfillment scenarios that only serve to reinforce our female protagonist’s refusal to be anything more than a life support system for a series of readily-fillable orifices. The entire film is like a roll of toilet paper unspooling, devoid of pacing, structure, or anything remotely resembling a coherent story. It’s in this rambling, soap opera-like vignettes that “Fifty Shades of Darker” finally unmasks itself as the R-rated porn it’s tried to convince us it isn’t; the episodes that play out between sex scenes – orchestrated to the histrionic screeching of tomorrow’s forgotten Pop artists – are the big-budget equivalent of the Plumber showing up to fix the nubile young lady’s leaky faucet. If we could fast-forward, we would.
If you saw the trailer, you’ve seen the movie. The stalker subplot, in which one of Grey’s former sex slaves attempts to kill Anastasia, lasts a grand total of ten minutes; and its resolution happens off screen. Even the film’s big (non-sexual) climax, in which Christian Grey appears to die in a helicopter crash and then hilariously strides through the front door of his home literally seconds after CNN announces his miraculous escape, is played out in less time than the romantic interlude in which he shoves a pair of metal balls into Anna’s vagina to enhance her evening at the family costume ball. No, I’m not making that up.
Yes, there’s a vague and boringly obvious cliffhanger, but the real unresolved issue is how “Fifty Shades of Darker” will be received in our current socio-political climate, and how that reception affects the third (and hopefully final) installment. After all: this is a franchise that seems just as determined to objectify and subjugate its audience as any other blockbuster, just less willing to admit it.