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Fifty Shades of Whiteness

02/19/2015 03:02 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

The cinematic adaptation of the bestselling novel Fifty Shades of Grey makes me think that the next venture for the franchise might be a ride at Disneyworld.

In attempting to explain the sexual dynamics between a dominant and a submissive, Fifty Shades of Grey renders sadomasochism as a hybrid of popular genres. The initial meeting of Christian Grey, the dashing if socially awkward, dominant millionaire, and Anastasia Steele, the scrappy ingénue who is on the cusp of graduating from college, feels like Cinderella. Christian takes Anastasia on a helicopter date to another city; he turns her frumpy VW into a brand new sports car; he magically sends his elves to fix her computer and to buy her new clothes.

Christian then mentors Anastasia in the art of sadomasochism like Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel self-defense in The Karate Kid.

The film then attempts to illustrate Christian's dominance over Anastasia by turning him into a superhero; he appears at a late-night bar faster than a speeding bullet; he intuits what she is drinking at a hotel bar across the country; he teaches her how to fly. His dominance outside of the bedroom comes into sharp focus only when he stalks her; he shows up at her workplace or appears in her apartment uninvited. The film portrays sadomasochism more like a scene from Sleeping with the Enemy rather than as a sexual performance, which according to literary theorist Lynda Hart, lies "between the body and the flesh."

In an effort to spell out the practices of sadomasochism, Christian asks Anastasia to sign a written contract. They met in a boardroom. They sit across from each other. Mr. Grey's obsequious assistants serve sushi. Anastasia strikes out the use of nipple clips, and questions the use of butt plugs. A xylophone-inflected soundtrack plays in the background making the codes of sadomasochism feel more like an episode of the game show Let's Make a Deal than an erotic negotiation of power predicated on dominance and submission.

Yet the scene that sends the most problematic cultural message is when Anastasia asks to be whipped to experience the limits of the relationship, not because such punishment will give her pleasure. Mr. Grey obliges and whips her naked body as she sobs on a leather bed. Beyond triggering the 1970s feminist critiques of sadomasochism, this scene plays into a more contemporary cinematic context. The last time that filmgoers witnessed the brutal whipping of a female character was in last year's blockbuster hit 12 Years a Slave. The film featured the violent, sadistic master whipping a partially naked enslaved woman. In the 19th century such depictions attempted to arouse the sympathy of Northern audiences to join the abolitionist movement. In the 21st century, such depictions aimed to inform audiences of the brutal history of enslavement in the United States.

The whipping of an enslaved woman in 12 Years of a Slave and of an ingénue in a Fifty Shades of Grey raises many questions. First, how are the films connected? How has the history of chattel slavery helped to provide the language used in sadomasochism? What does it mean that the dominant and submissive are often synonymous with master and slave? For instance, Anastasia asks Christian if he wants her to be his slave? Also, what does it mean that the whips, handcuffs, ropes, and hangings, often used to discipline enslaved people, serve as the tools of sadomasochism? How has the history of slavery provided a phantom backdrop to sadomasochism?

While I realize that there might be technical answers to these questions in the broader history of sadomasochism, I am more curious to think about how these images of whipping in both Fifty Shades of Grey and 12 Years a Slave become legible in the culture. Does it matter that Christian and Anastasia are white? What would it mean if they were black? Consider, for example, another cultural moment: in 2001, in order to shred her sexy schoolgirl image, pop icon Britney Spears sung, "I'm a Slave 4 U." As a white woman, Spears used the language of sadomasochism in order to facilitate her transition into a more sexualized, mature persona. Conversely, Beyoncé, for all her theatrical dazzle, could never pull that off without triggering the troubled history of slavery, but Spears, like Anastasia in Fifty Shades can, because for white women of power and privilege, being whipped or someone's slave is a fantasy or, at least to them, the pathway to a more sexualized self.

Further, it is not a surprise that there are no Black characters in Fifty Shades of Grey, because of the ways which such characters may unwittingly trigger the violent and sexualized history of slavery. Beyoncé, however, does make a cameo in Fifty Shades, however covertly. Her popular song, Crazy in Love, forms the soundtrack of one of the first consensual scenes in the film when Anastasia agrees to be tied up and humped like a barn animal in the plantation South. On the surface, Beyoncé's sultry, breathless voice sanctions the act, serving as a lubricant into the unknown subterranean world of pleasure and pain. On a more profound level, Beyoncé cautions Anastasia. She does not sing of girl power nor does she even tell Christian "to put a ring on it", instead she whispers a warning to Anastasia about the consequences of being "crazy in love."

According to the logic of the song "Crazy in Love", only foolishness would cause Anastasia, a romantic, not a pledged submissive, to actually agree to be undressed, bound, and whipped. Only Hollywood would turn sadomasochism, a complicated sexual performance, into a white college girl's extracurricular activity. And only whiteness would allow for the whipping to be seen as elective in a coming-of-age narrative rather than as unavoidable in the violent history of slavery.

Jim Downs is the author of Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction. (Oxford U.P., 2012)