WOMEN

'Fifty Shades Of Grey' Proves Female Sexuality Is Still The Ultimate American Taboo

02/13/2015 09:29 am ET | Updated Feb 13, 2015
Focus Features/Universal Pictures

If scores of men get dragged to see Fifty Shades of Grey this weekend by their female Valentines, they might be surprised that, as NYmag's David Edelstein notes, they "probably get the better deal."

Even "Fifty Shades of Grey" -- a movie by female director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, based on a book by female author, E.L. James, with a screenplay written by female writer Kelly Marcel, and a primarily female audience in mind can’t escape the ongoing legacy of Hollywood’s male gaze.

Hollywood has long been an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. That means that to a large extent, movies have been made by men for men. As a result, most of the films we watch tend to be dominated by the male point of view, and what film theorist Laura Mulvey calls "the male gaze."

Basically, movies use images that make women into objects of desire, as Mulvey explains in her 1975 essay. In more prude cinematic times, this meant cameras lingered on closeups of passive, beautiful women's faces. Today, that means more than one in four women onscreen get partially naked (compared to less than one in ten men.)

But "Fifty Shades of Grey" is based on source material in which female pleasure is paramount. The wildly popular trilogy titillated women all over the world with its female narrator's accounts of being ravaged by the immensely attractive, immensely damaged Mr. Grey. And yet, its film adaptation's failure to escape the male gaze makes it the bizarre epitome of Hollywood's eternal problem.

You can't talk about the inherent difficulty of making a titillating film for a female audience without talking about the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which sets guidelines and rates American films in a notoriously secretive way. The most controversial issues in American film have typically been sexual, and the way the MPAA rates sex on screen tends to uphold the male gaze. Movies that have tons of gratuitous female nudity can still receive an R-rating, such as "Wolf of Wall Street." Movies that explore female pleasure or orgasms, on the other hand, are likely to be hit with an NC-17 rating. ("Blue Valentine," for instance, was initially slapped with a NC-17 rating for showing Ryan Gosling perform oral sex on Michelle Williams. Upon appeal, that was reduced to an R rating.) The same goes for male frontal nudity.

All this bolsters Hollywood's portrayal of female sexuality as a thing to be looked at, not experienced.

While we don't know exactly how the biases of the MPAA directly or indirectly affected the film, it's still interesting to look at how "Fifty Shades" works with what titillation it does portray.

First off, the film's sensuality relies heavily on female nudity. Dakota Johnson, who portrays female lead Anastasia Steele, spends quite a bit of the film in the buff; her nipples practically deserved an end credit. Christian Grey, played by Jamie Dornan, who supposedly serves as the seductive force of the film, has far fewer skin-baring moments (and of course, no real frontal reveal). The camera slowly pans over Johnson's naked body. We get only brief glimpses of Dornan's.

In Anastasia's numerous sexual encounters with her tortured lover, the audience is positioned firmly in Christian's point of view.

This is typical of Hollywood films, where women are far more likely to be eye-candy for the men who desire them than vice versa. Except this was based on a book about male eye candy, a man described as a regular "Adonis." Is it so hard for filmmakers to conceive of independent female sexual pleasure, as seen through the eyes of a woman?

In another grand tradition of American cinema, the film doesn't leave out the book's most violent scene, in which Christian whips Anastasia with a belt as she holds back tears. Meanwhile, the numerous sex scenes only hint at, say, Christian pleasuring her orally.

Female-focused erotic pleasure, it seems, might be more taboo than any deviant masochistic behavior that goes on in Christian's "Red Room of Pain." Better just to show the girl naked or biting her lip. Audiences will understand what that means.

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