Fifty Shades of Grey has been widely criticized for glorifying abusive relationships. But the movie also fails to recognize its true audience when adhering to the male gaze model.
Disclaimer: Fifty Shades of Grey is not my cup of tea. Christian Grey is a sociopath, and as Marama Whyte points out in her excellent book review this week, E.L. James dangerously blurs the lines between consensual BDSM and actual sexual abuse in her novel.
But I want to point to another, almost as disturbing issue, which is specific to the recent movie adaptation: the male/female nudity ratio, and the perpetuation of Hollywood’s issue with gender representation.
It is important to state right away that this is not a problem unique to Fifty Shades of Grey. But believe it or not, the movie actually had a chance to make a difference in the world, and chose not to. That is significant, and I’m going to tell you why.
‘Fifty Shades’ and the female gaze
Fifty Shades of Grey is, as Marama writes in her review, a story all about Christian Grey, told through the eyes of Anastasia Steele. Ana is your average Mary Sue template: a character intentionally written as a blank canvas, which the reader can paint herself on, and thus experience the “romance” between herself and Christian as she reads the book.
And although Fifty Shades of Grey is in absolutely no way a feminist novel and does NOT empower the reader in real life, I believe that one reason women flock to it is that (unlike Ana in the story) they feel in control of Christian as they read it. Here is this dominating, intimidating man, and yet by imagining herself into the story, the reader becomes the master of his universe: he exists within the text, and the reader controls this text by deciding when and how to consume it.
(Note: I am in no way trying to dismiss the book’s glorification of sexual abuse, and the wrongful notions impressionable readers might get about what a real sexual relationship is supposed to be like. I’m just saying, reading the book can make a woman feel powerful, because with Christian trapped within the book’s pages, she literally holds him between her thumbs, and has thus reversed the power balance portrayed in the novel: she can say no at any time, whereas he cannot. The role reversal, by the way, doesn’t make the imbalance of power any less disturbing.)
By this logic, if Fifty Shades of Grey is the reader’s playroom, the movie should reflect this by showing Christian and Ana through the female gaze – meaning that the camera, being the eyes of the female viewer, should follow and explore Christian’s form, not Ana’s.
Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Think about it: who is this movie actually constructed to please?
While Dakota Johnson’s entire body is on full display during most of the Fifty Shades sex scenes, Jamie Dornan is usually covered up from the waist down. The movie actually goes to ridiculous lengths to hide his form, including making him wear a towel or jeans during sex.
I imagine that the main argument for this, which I’m sure director Sam Taylor-Johnson would be quick to point out if she hasn’t already, is that their different states of undress symbolizes the power balance between Anastasia and Christian.
By stripping her naked, Christian is quite literally stripping Anastasia of her power, while he himself remains covered up, physically and emotionally. On the top layer of analysis, this makes total sense.
But as a Hypable.com reader noted in the comment section of our Fifty Shades movie review, it is curious that a movie so heavily geared towards women conforms to the standards of the male gaze viewership model.
Not only is it strange that a movie that has so heavily advertised Christian Grey as the main attraction chooses to keep him hidden from the audience while stripping Dakota Johnson down without a second thought, but it is worrying that we as viewers are so quick to accept this as a logical artistic decision.
Of course Jamie Dornan isn’t going to go full-frontal, we think. Why would he? On the other hand, why wouldn’t Dakota Johnson be completely naked? What does she have to hide? Why should she be allowed to? We came to see a movie about sex, at least the girl should be naked, right? These are all disturbingly normalized questions.
And where it gets really bizarre is that, when it comes down to it, there’s really no ambiguity about whether the target audience for Fifty Shades would rather see Christian’s naked form or Ana’s. Yet we’re expected to accept that of course the female is naked while the male is not.
Because where the audience wants to look is not where the camera (controlled by the director > controlled by the studio > controlled by the industry) wants and/or allows us to look.
Hollywood and the male gaze problem
The “gaze” theory imagines the camera as the eyes of the audience, and is used to describe how the camera’s movements and angles direct the attention of the viewers.
And as the audience, we have traditionally been invited to view stories and characters through the eyes of a heterosexual male, meaning that the camera will usually linger on sights considered attractive to the male viewer. (Hint: naked ladies.)
It echoes disturbing old-time advertisements which chopped up women’s bodies, leaving them legless and often headless: constructing a reality in which women had no right to individual identities, and no means of escape from objectification.
And in all the years of cinema, very little has changed in this regard. Whether we’re watching an action movie, a romance, a comedy, or a fantasy, the mise-en-scène tends to be constructed to present a pleasing view to the male audience member: there’ll be a favoring of cleavage, bent-over female forms, and naked or scantily clad women. Very rarely will the male form be on display, and if it is, it’s likely just the torso or backside – and the camera doesn’t often linger on these sights.
As a text, Fifty Shades favors the female gaze – in fact, the reader is the female gaze, always seeing Christian through a woman’s eyes. But still, the moment words on a page are translated to images on a screen, we are immediately expected to assume the traditional male gaze position that has dominated Hollywood for more than 100 years.
It’s no secret that female nudity is much more common in movies than male nudity, to the point where it’s a big deal when a Hollywood actress announces that she won’t take her clothes off in front of the camera. On the other hand, it is still an exciting and/or scandalous rarity when a director does something as inconceivable as show a real-life human penis on the big screen. (Even more inconceivable is that the studio would allow it.)
Remember how big of a deal was made about the brief moments in Gone Girl where Ben Affleck and Neil Patrick Harris went full-frontal? The visuals were criticized for being “unnecessary,” and then subsequently defended for being “essential to the plot”… because apparently subjecting the [male] viewers to male nudity needs a damn good artistic justification. Female nudity, by contrast, is par for the course.
But it’s just a stupid movie, why does it even matter?
“If I may offer my respectful disagreement,” I hear a commenter type (because in my imaginary world, commenters are super polite and always remember their punctuation marks). “You’re making too big a deal about this, my dear well-spoken and intelligent writer. Could you perchance be purveying a slight overreaction to the objectification issues in the movie industry?”
“Why thank you for your fair rebuttal, kind commenter,” I’ll respond. And then I’ll explain that no, unfortunately I don’t think there are any two ways about this. Fifty Shades is perpetuating a serious problem, and it matters exactly because of the nature and target audience of the film.
The truth is that Fifty Shades of Grey, for all its problematic ideologies, had a chance to make a statement here. Whatever issue you take with the story and the characters, all of that had already been established in the books. But adaptation issues and clashes with the author aside, Sam Taylor-Johnson had (I assume) full autonomy to design the visual style of the movie.
We’re watching a story about a woman who is stripped of her power and subjected to the will of the all-powerful Male, but that is only the case because Taylor-Johnson has made it so.
We could, instead, have watched a movie in which Christian Grey exposed himself physically to Ana and the viewers, while never revealing his inner self to anyone. The contrast between his physical self (being openly available to us) and his emotional self (which he fights tooth and nail to keep hidden) would have been that much more poignant.
Instead, Taylor-Johnson made the camera “male” in its gaze, turning our point-of-view character from the novel into the visual focus on the screen. Ana is presented as naked and vulnerable not only for Christian’s pleasure but for the audience’s – despite the fact that the movie is almost solely geared towards straight women! This only serves to prove that it is still considered standard practice in Hollywood to adhere to the male gaze: objectifying the female form while sanctifying the male.
Where female bodies are laid out in their entirety without much thought or consequence, the male form is still considered sacred, private and deserving of protection.
Is it any wonder, then, that women still feel themselves sexualized and objectified in society, if Hollywood teaches men that the naked female body is public domain?
Of course, you might think that this is just a very long-winded way to say that I’d have liked a few full-frontal shots of Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey. But honestly, I’m very over this movie, and believe it or not, I couldn’t care less about The Huntsman‘s penis.
But I think it’s important that we keep Hollywood accountable for its perpetuation of the double standard existing when it comes to objectifying the male and female forms. Is there an actual good reason why female nudity is so common, while the male form continues to be censored and held sacred? No, there is not.
Equality starts with actual equality. In the immortal words of Friends‘ Rachel Green: tit for tat. It really is that simple.