Over the past week, many informed and engaged feminist voices are doing something that happens somewhat rarely among the chattering (and twittering) classes: taking low pop culture seriously.
The film Fifty Shades of Grey is based on a text that’s not just “pop,” it’s popular. Record-breakingly so. The novel upon which the movie is based topped the New York Times’ best-sellers list for thirty weeks, and the Fifty Shades series has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. Three of those copies are thanks to yours truly, so believe my authorial ethos when I confess that this is a case where the facile assumption of an inverse relationship between mass appeal and aesthetic quality is warranted.
However, the writers attacking the film adaptation of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey are doing so because the socio-cultural importance of the narrative is taken as a given. These women are concerned that the representation of BDSM in the relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele delivers and endorses a dangerous message about abuse and sexual agency. And I couldn’t be happier that they are.
Discussing Fifty Shades in the context of a growing, challenging, and desperately necessary conversation about the ways popular texts tacitly and explicitly designate women’s bodies as public property is one way that pop culture scholars can expose and resist rape culture.
However, I think there’s another film currently in theatres that is an even more incendiary and distressing account of the intersection between desire and consent: The Boy Next Door.
The previews for this film, starring Jennifer Lopez and written by Barbara Curry, similarly plays on the audience’s appetite for sexual transgression: Lopez plays Claire, a teacher separated from her philandering husband, who engages in a one-night stand with Noah, a much younger man who moves in, sigh, next door to her and her son.
The film degrades into a hackneyed horror plot after the encounter, but it’s the way the sex is filmed and scripted that is truly scary. Noah’s ability to consent is stabilized legally (like a Jane Austen heroine, he describes his age as “nearly twenty”) and behaviorally (more on that later), whereas Claire’s is consistently and disturbingly undermined.
Though the “older woman” trope plays on the titillating assumption of female power, Claire finds herself in a situation that alarmingly echoes the narratives of college-aged rape victims. She is shown guzzling wine after a bad date, is lured to Noah’s house under false pretenses and, once he initiates sexualized physical contact, she tells him “No” at multiple points as the contact escalates.
Despite the obvious violation implied by this exchange, the episode is shot and scored like a steamy love scene.
Women being punished for their sexuality is unfortunately nothing new in the horror genre, and after she rejects Noah’s desire for a relationship, Claire endures cyberstalking, harassment at home and work, and threats against her family before the predictably bloody climax that dispatches Noah and restores the normative family structure (Claire forgives her husband, who has also been terrorized by Noah out of “jealousy”).
However, this film seems to be indicting Claire for simultaneously wanting (she leers at him suggestively a few times) and not wanting (she said NO) sex with Noah. The film’s discomfort with female sexual desire is also apparent in the character of Claire’s best friend, who is taunted by Noah for being too “dried up,” and a high school student who evidently agreed to attend a dance with Claire’s son in exchange for the opportunity to perform oral sex on Noah.
It makes sense that this film hasn’t garnered nearly the attention of Fifty Shades: there’s no best-selling book of any quality providing a built-in audience. Perhaps that’s why its bait-and-switch degradation of female power and sexual self-actualization has slipped under the blogosphere radar. I wish it wouldn’t. Though the female screenwriter has distanced herself from a notorious scene about the Iliad that makes Claire look remarkably stupid, she has had nothing to say about the film’s romanticized and victim-blaming depiction of rape.