The final image with which we are left in “Fifty shades of Grey” is of Anastasia Steele, hair pinned tightly back, uttering a single word – “no” – as a grey elevator door conceals her from view. The reason that its sequel “Fifty Shades Darker” managed to hit £7.56 million in its first weekend at the UK box office,[1] and global revenues in the hundreds of millions,[2] lies in large part with the complexity, turbulence, and instability that this image brings to the concept of female desire. To say that the “Fifty Shades…” series has carved a clear space for an exploration and examination of female sexuality in modern society is somewhat a cliché at this point; both the book trilogy and the presence of the films among mainstream media have ignited debate and discussion among their audiences, which range from pointed feminist critiques to the opinions of the average husband. But what is it that we can understand of our modern conceptions of female desire from its depiction in the film series? And how might we anticipate audiences to respond to the image that is presented on screen?

The darkness of the cinematography throughout much of the two films is reflected in the complexity of Anastasia’s position as both a desiring agent and an object of desire. While her desire is being given an active role in shaping the narrative of the films in a way that can be seen as a refreshing break from standard mainstream cinema plot tropes, it is explicitly mitigated to fit to the film’s overarching adherence to an utterly unoriginal male-centric perspective. Anastasia is defined by her relationship to Christian Grey, which is itself characterised by her exaggerated passivity. She is reduced almost to caricature: visibly unable to speak or even properly move. The first interaction we see between her and Grey results in her somehow managing to fall over thin air.

Anastasia’s desire is depicted only through obvious, predictable movements – such as biting her bottom lip – rather than any vocalised elaboration or extra dimension. This clichéd image is supposed to be a poignant reference back to the beginning of the two characters’ improbable relationship, which is founded upon Grey stalking and coercing Anastasia until she relents. I’m not sure whether it is more confusing that Grey somehow persuades Anastasia that he is a good choice for a romantic entanglement or that she seems to be reduced to this dusty visual stereotype of female desire.

John Berger, in Ways Of Seeing, depicts his view of the nature of the role men and women play in forms of art. He argues that, generally, “Men act and women appear. Men look at women and women watch themselves being looked at.”[3] This obviously has ramifications for the “Fifty Shades…” films’ audiences, but it also can be seen to apply to Anastasia. Anastasia’s own feelings towards Grey appear to develop from this hollow desire to be desired rather than an active desire that breaks gender normative repression and constriction. We see this through the cinematography: it is Anastasia’s body that is the target of the camera’s lens and it is Anastasia’s body that is routinely objectified. Yet we also see this self-reflexive desire in the force that drives her actions – she is consistently overwhelmed by his desire for her rather than her own for him. Of course, in a film series that is pretty much entirely defined by sex, we are to expect overt sexualisation; but if the controlling and manipulative Christian Grey, whose gaze structures the movie, is presented as not having any capacity to be able to view her as an authentic person, how are we supposed to?

The first film makes no attempt to present any subtlety to Anastasia’s interaction with Grey, nor does it dwell on Anastasia’s intentions within the relationship. In a narrative of female passivity as old as time, things happen to Anastasia rather than happening because of her. Her life is constantly altered by Grey, who controls her and appears just about everywhere she goes. This dynamic is disturbingly glamourised. “Fifty Shades Darker” pretends to present a more dynamic image of Anastasia, more active in her relationship with Grey. However, this new “empowered” image of Anastasia is still secondary to Grey. The film’s narrative relies on the fact that Anastasia, confronted with her partner’s various past lovers and wild “dark desire”, must somehow lessen Grey’s desire to a level with which she can comfortably co-exist. Her desire is rendered almost insignificant by comparison.

The entire premise of the first film dictates that Anastasia will submit to almost anything in order to give pleasure to Christian. Whilst clearly this a part of the dominant/submissive narrative, the portrayal of the extent to which this is taken is nevertheless striking. Christian controls what she wears and who she sees; his requirements are deeply unsettling and she must manage these against her own desire.  What seems most explicit is that there is no clear way to allow Anastasia her own space for desire unless she abandons her emotional needs and accepts Grey for the heartless figure he is made out to be. Her only other option, as made clear in “Fifty Shades Darker”, is to attempt to shape Grey into something entirely different: something entirely implausible for his character. This is where the tension in the film series arises, and it would be difficult to have created even some form of plot if this conflict between the two did not exist – the space for female desire is necessarily carved out as secondary to male. Even in desire, in what appears to be unhindered choice, the power of women’s presence within their own sexuality must be severely qualified.

To feel a connection with this (misre)presentation of female desire is to enjoy the problematic nature of a film series that expresses the urgency of female desire whilst still defining that desire through objectification and oppressive limitation. It seems paradoxical to suggest that women may be able to relate to the ideas that the “Fifty Shades…” series seems to express, almost like defining an identity by absence; yet throughout history this is a position women have often been encouraged to take. Partly this has been enforced through the deliberate omission of discussions pertaining to female desire, and female passivity in sexual desire was also theorised in this way by Freud. In his essay “On Narcissism” (1914), Freud defines women by lack, depicting that they may only direct desire inwardly and to objectification of themselves, rather than to external objects. He states that, “strictly speaking, it is only themselves that such women love with an intensity comparable to that of the man’s love for them”.[4]  Though this view has since been widely rejected, this outdated construct of female desire seems to map very well onto the narrative of “Fifty Shades Darker”.

It seems therefore that the “Fifty Shades…” films depict a presentation of female desire through the male gaze: a view that is more relevant and enjoyable to men. It is this that makes the films’ profound popularity among women troubling. Perhaps to enjoy a presentation of female desire that is diminished and constructed through the male gaze, as seen in the “Fifty Shades…” series, women must abandon a part of themselves, or at least distance themselves somewhat from the active desire and identity they surely experience within their own lives. Through the camera lens’s use to portray Grey’s, rather than Anastasia’s perspective, the female gaze is physically distanced from the action, leading to the objectification of Anastasia; women watching are taught to define their sexuality, visually, by male perspective. Feminist theory depicts that women often derive pleasure from this same place because female desire has, for so long, been mediated through the eyes of men. Women have little narrative by which to construct their views or expectations of their own desire – only that of the male gaze that is so rigidly enforced.

The “Fifty Shades…” films create an emotional distance, asserting an acceptance of passivity and of muting of female desire; this conforms entirely with a historical narrative in which women are not expected to express or even feel desire as an integral part of their identity. There is little of substance in Anastasia’s character; while it may be argued that an enjoyment of “Fifty Shades” and a resonance with its protagonist represents only a surface level enjoyment of female desire, there is nothing original in the perspective of these films.

[1] Charles Gant, “Lego Batman stacks up ahead of Fifty Shades Darker at UK box office”, The Guardian, 14th February.  https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/14/lego-batman-fifty-shades-darker-bafta-uk-box-office

[2] http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=fiftyshadesdarker.htm

[3] John Berger, Ways of seeing, 2nd ed. (London: Penguin, 1972)

[4] Freud, Sigmund. “On Narcissism.” On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, edited by James Strachey et al., 1914-1916. pp.67-102.