Jul 312012
 

A digression, which will tie into the peculiar relationship dynamic at the heart of Fifty Shades.

The CW network is reviving the old Beauty and the Beast show, which originally starred Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman. This time, instead of a sewer-dwelling human-lion-hybird being, the new Beast is a human (with a facial scar) who operates as a vigilante. From Slate:

All of these shows invert the idea of a man who’d be willing to use force to defend the woman he loves or his family. Instead, the violent heroes mark the women they love as special by restraining their violent tendencies around them. […] Violence, in these cases, is normal rather than something deployed when every other effort to protect someone or to resolve a solution has failed. And they rely on the very traditional idea that women are a calming, domesticating presence, even as these shows add a sense of danger to every interaction women have with men. What happens, they almost never bother to ask, if these very violent men stop loving these women and turn their talents for violence and intimdation [sic] against their own families, violating the sacred circles that mark the women in their lives as special.

It may be outwardly appealing to escape into a fantasy of a man who will change his nature for you. But that’s a risky, dangerous premise.

In The Godfather Part II, one of the most profound scenes is when Michael Corleone confronts his wife, Kay, who is threatening to take their children away, because she can’t handle the violence and betrayal of Mafia life. Michael responds with an eerie, almost psychotic calm.

Don’t you know that I would use all of my power to prevent something like that from happening?

(Detailed transcript of the scene)

Michael’s rhetorical question is chilling because it shows just how easily a powerful man can turn on a dime and use the power that once kept his family safe from external enemies to intimidate his wife into obedience. The masculine, public, violent sphere of Michael’s Mafia family has completely subsumed the feminine, private, domestic sphere of Michael’s nuclear family. Michael’s earlier statements that he would keep his family separate from his gangster life were to no avail.

Kay realizes she is basically a prisoner of the man she used to love, and now that she has born him children, expendable. The powerful qualities of Michael that attracted her have turned against her.  (“A liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested.”) Later in that scene Kay tells Michael that what he thought was a miscarriage was actually an abortion, and he retaliates by hitting her. The steelhard man has gotten even harder.

We see this conflict repeated in crime dramas like Goodfellas, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, in which the male protagonist tries to mediate between two worlds: the feminine, caring world of his nuclear family and the masculine, violent world of crime. Much as they try, they can’t keep a good balance between the two, and sooner or later the criminal world intrudes on his family world.

Looking at Fifty Shades, we see the same kind of worlds colliding, represented by Ana and Christian. Early on, Christian starts using his vast powers to surveil and control Ana, and she doesn’t mind very much. His ceaseless attention and possessive qualities feeds her narcissism. Furthermore, she is drawn to him in no small part because she thinks she can help him to the righteous path of domestic, vanilla monogamy.

This is the fundamental problem with the Beauty and the Beast premise. Not only is there a fundamental inequality of power, but the Beauty has the burden of managing the Beast’s emotions, that she is somehow responsible for his violence acts.

So what happens if and when Ana is unable or unwilling to meet Christian’s high emotional demands? Would he turn his vast power against her? Christian Grey, who can track cell phones and fly in a personal helicopter and has personal bodyguards and Ana’s signature on a non-disclosure agreement, would be a terrifying antagonist.  That’s probably not going to come up, because it would spoil the fantasy. Can Walter White can make crystal meth and kill mobsters and then come home and be a good husband and father? Likewise, can Christian’s possessive, controlling ways, his lack of respect for boundaries, his aggression and deceptiveness (traits that have served him well in the corporate world) be made compatible with domesticity? In a fantastic narrative, yes. In a more realistic or skeptical narrative, probably not.

Back to the story:

Post-coitus, Christian plays the piano and forestalls any attempt at a conversation with Ana with an offer of more sex.

“I want to get something straight,” I whisper as my pulse starts to accelerate, and my inner goddess closes her eyes, reveling in the feel of his lips on me.

[…]

“The contract.”
He lifts his head to gaze down at me, a hint of amusement in his eyes, and sighs. He strokes his fingertips down my cheek.
“Well, I think the contract is moot, don’t you?” His voice is low and husky, his eyes soft.“Moot?”
“Moot.” He smiles. I gape at him quizzically.
“But you were so keen.”
“Well, that was before. Anyway, the Rules aren’t moot, they still stand.” His expression hardens slightly.
“Before? Before what?”
“Before,”… He pauses, and the wary expression is back, “more.” He shrugs.

[…]

“So, let me be clear. You just want me to follow the Rules element of the contract all the time but not the rest of the contract?”
“Except in the playroom. I want you to follow the spirit of the contract in the playroom, and yes, I want you to follow the rules – all the time. Then I know you’ll be safe, and I’ll be able to have you anytime I wish.”
“And if I break one of the rules?”
“Then I’ll punish you.”
“But won’t you need my permission?”
“Yes, I will.”
“And if I say no?”

He gazes at me for a moment, with a confused expression.
“If you say no, you’ll say no. I’ll have to find a way to persuade you.”

Ana is still dissatisfied with the contract. Christian brings out a new edited version of the contract, which is not all that different.

Again, instead of talking about this, they turn it into a teasing session with him chasing her around the kitchen.

Except it isn’t teasing.

“Anyone would think you didn’t want me to catch you.”
“I don’t. That’s the point. I feel about punishment the way you feel about me touching you.”His entire demeanor changes in a nanosecond. Gone is playful Christian, and he stands staring at me as if I’d slapped him. He’s ashen.
“That’s how you feel?” he whispers.
Those four words, and the way he utters them, speaks volumes. Oh no.  They tell me so much more about him and how he feels. They tell me about his fear and loathing. I frown.
No, I don’t feel that  bad. No way. Do I?

Finally, finally, Ana makes an unambiguous, direct, clear statement of her wants and desires. She doesn’t like impact play at all, at least not when it is couched as punishment.

Crap.  He looks completely and utterly lost, like I’ve pulled the rug from under his feet.
Taking a deep breath, I move round the table until I am standing in front of him, gazing into his apprehensive eyes.
“You hate it that much?” he breathes, his eyes filled with horror.
“Well… no,” I reassure him. Jeez – that’s how he feels about people touching him?
“No. I feel ambivalent about it. I don’t like it, but I don’t hate it.”
“But last night, in the playroom, you… ” he trails off.
“I do it for you, Christian, because you need it. I don’t. You didn’t hurt me last night. That was in a different context, and I can rationalize that internally, and I trust you. But when you want to punish me, I worry that you’ll hurt me.”

The narrative is unclear whether Ana actually enjoyed the previous chapter’s scene, or whether it was something she put up with for Christian’s sake.

In the former case, this is a manageable problem. Ana likes impact play when it isn’t “punishment” or punishment. That is something that Christian can work around. Impact play is not neccessarily part of either kind of punishment. It can be purely recreational.

In the latter case, it’s more serious. It means Ana is doing something that she doesn’t want to do, solely because it pleases Christian. That’s a recipe for bad feeling, and indicates a deep-rooted problem: he’s kinky, she’s vanilla.

One of the most common types of questions on the Savage Love podcast is what to do when a couple don’t share kinks. The most recent podcast was full of them. She’s a cuckquean, he doesn’t want to stray. He’s an adult baby, she can’t bring herself to be a mommy. Dan Savage usually says that this is a surmountable problem, and the couple can work out something in which the non-kink partner plays along, or the non- kinky partner lets the kinky partner get their needs met with a third party.

“I want to hurt you. But not beyond anything that you couldn’t take.”
Fuck!
“Why?”
He runs his hand through his hair, and he shrugs.
“I just need it.” He pauses, gazing at me with anguish, and he closes his eyes and shakes his head. “I can’t tell you,” he whispers.
“Can’t or won’t?”
“Won’t.”
“So you know why.”
“Yes.”
“But you won’t tell me.”
“If I do, you will run screaming from this room, and you’ll never want to return.” He stares at me warily. “I can’t risk that, Anastasia.”

There’s another problem only just revealed. Christian does not fully accept his own desires, and cannot express them in a way Ana can understand.

Christian breaks down and begs her not to leave. The steelhard man is melting before Ana’s eyes.

“Don’t leave me. You said you wouldn’t leave me, and you begged me not to leave you, in your sleep,” he murmurs against my lips.
[…]
This is a man in need. His fear is naked and obvious, but he’s lost… somewhere in his darkness. His eyes wide and bleak and tortured. I can soothe him. Join him briefly in the darkness and bring him into the light.

Ana believes she can do what years of professional therapy can’t do. She even thinks of it in terms of mythical heroism, that she’s Orpheus or Persephone descending into the underworld. (Remember, Orpheus looked back at his love’s face, and Persephone became addicted to the food of the dead; neither of them got away clean.)

This is what prompts Ana to make the worst decision of her life, worse than filling in for a sick Kate, worse than drunk-dialing Christian Grey, worse even than signing that non-disclosure agreement without reading it.

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