Author E.L. James has often insisted that Fifty Shades of Grey is wildly popular not because of its titillating trappings of transgression, but because it tells a simple love story for the ages. But this is a romance for a particular kind of age — a time of growing inequality. The social order is breaking up and leaving massive human wreckage in its wake. Dreams of love turn into fantasies of power – who has it and what they can do to those who don’t have it.
When security vanishes and social bonds break down, fictional characters enter the new (ab)normal, which can often involve whips, chains and men in expensive suits with mysterious smiles. The film version of the first book of Fifty Shades is less a shout against the torment than a whimper — or, to be more precise, a lovesick giggle.
Other ages with pronounced power inequities have given rise to vivid sadomasochistic fantasies, such as the late-18th-century novels of the populist-minded Marquis de Sade, whose tales of pain and bondage resonated during a time when the French propertied classes had their boots firmly on the necks of the proletariat. Dreams of transgression become fantasies of liberation from brutal socioeconomic forces.
Our own age of inequality began in the 1970s, when power-hungry capitalists began to attack the New Deal, which had protected ordinary citizens from predatory elites. On cue, sadomasochism showed up at the box office in 1975 with an adaptation of The Story of O, in which a woman is trained in sexual submission when she joins the staff of an elite club.
In 1980, the year that union-busting President Ronald Reagan won the White House, viewers channeled sadomasochist revenge fantasies in Nine to Five, where three working women apply chains and a ball-gag to their tyrannical boss. By 1986, as financial deregulation unleashed Wall Street, we got 9½ Weeks, which introduced a new stock figure: the vaguely sadistic financier who seduces and abuses a woman of modest means. More recently, Roman Polanski’s 2013 film of David Ives’ hit play Venus in Fur, based on the 19th novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, portrayed a lower-class actress who degrades and dominates an elitist playwright.
Back and forth the stories go. Do you beat the elites (literally) or join them?
In Fifty Shades, the answer is: Join them. The film is the dispiriting denouement of this late stage of capitalism, where cruel conditions are accepted and you learn to suffer the whims of the rich — and pretend to like it.
Under the rules of this cruel regime, the education of sensitive English lit major Anastasia Steele begins when she interviews billionaire Christian Grey in the sumptuous Seattle headquarters of his global empire.
When interviewee queries the ingénue on her plans after college, Anastasia mumbles that she really has no idea. After all, what could her literary studies possibly have to do with this sleek glass command center for mysterious market forces, where perfectly coifed, robotic women serve their overlord in stilettos? When Christian informs Anastasia that his firm has an internship program, she glances around doubtfully. “I don’t think I’d fit in.”
Oh, you’ll fit in just fine, Christian’s faint smile seems to say.
She’ll fit right in so long as she gives up her autonomy and agrees to a contract in which he is the master and she is the slave. In lieu of an internship, Christian offers her the starring role of sexual submissive to his dominant.
The price of admission to the world of the dashing entrepreneur is the willingness to be spanked and cuffed, along with the acceptance of his dictates on everything from what to eat to which gynecologist will inspect Anastasia’s genitals. In exchange, Christian will arbitrarily dispense various goodies: a new car, couture dresses and private helicopter rides. Exactly 15 women have occupied the position before Anastasia, presumably discarded once the game grew dull. (Hopefully they got to keep the clothes).
A sensitive English major, it turns out, will make a fine submissive. Notably, Anastasia is a fan of Thomas Hardy, whose 19th-century tale of a peasantry wrecked by industrialization, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, presents a poor and inexperienced woman who dreams of a better life, for which presumption she is raped by her wealthy libertine employer. Christian will send our young heroine a first edition of the novel as a gift. A blueprint?
“There are some people who say I don’t have a heart,” admits Christian. “Because they know me.”
Yes, we do know Christian — even if Anastasia doesn’t quite get it. We understand by now that in this unwitting parable of the globalized economy, you hand over your life to the one with the money, and he screws you — perhaps even gently at first. But later, he’s sure to break out the cat o’ nine tails.
When the prospects of ordinary people grow dim and social mobility declines, dreams begin to alter and diminish. In the 19th-century tales of Jane Austen, characters with severely restricted possibilities of bettering their situation had to focus on marrying up as the only way out. Today, it looks like we are returning to that paradigm. Anastasia forgoes an internship, which would probably lead to nothing more than a spot on the squad of stilettoed underlings, in favor of winning the hand of the dark prince and turning him from his nasty ways.
Is it any wonder that this is the fantasy of millions of American women? Why wouldn’t those shackled by low-paying jobs, bonded to childrearing with little social support and lacking possibilities for advancement and consumption become seduced by the dream of access to limitless supplies of money and the leisure time in which to explore kinky sex?
Why would they not want to be carried aloft in helicopters over the drudgery of professional and domestic life? To be distracted by mild titillations in which pain becomes pleasurable and shackles magically liberate?
Because the Fifty Shades trilogy is, at its core, a conventional romance, Cinderella will eventually get to live out the traditional feminine narrative of getting married and having kids with the billionaire-prince. (We’ll have to wait for two more movie installments for that resolution.)
But this fantasy requires a blindfold. You have to pretend that the overlord will have a miraculous change of heart. You have to unlearn the rule of late-stage capitalism: Satisfaction is never guaranteed.
Unless, of course, you happen to be on top.