50 Shades of Shakespeare

It started with an embarrassed fumble. “Oh. I think you took it out to early. Try putting it in again.” He looked anxious and flustered. Perhaps it was his first time. I mean, he didn’t even try to make me buy the large instead of the regular; that’s what cinema cashiers usually do, isn’t it? On the other hand, maybe he was nervous because I had a maniacal glint in my eye and was ordering a single ticket for 50 Shades of Grey rather late on a Thursday night. The manic or maniacal glint was due to the fact that I wasn’t quite sure what had compelled me, half way through a documentary on South American river otters, to get into the car, drive into town, and buy a ticket for the film adaptation of a book that I thought was utterly terrible. Maybe the sight of Steve Backshall abseiling down a waterfall compelled me. Maybe it was severe FOMO. Make of it what you will.

50 Shades of Shock?

 My enjoyment of this film was a result solely of its audience. The woman in front of me entertained her husband with comments such as “… and he was such a nice boy on the TV”, which I can only assume was a reference to Jamie Dornan’s role as a psychopathic serial killer in The Fall. The row of young women beside me, who were very drunk and shrieking with laughter throughout. This packed, late-night, and for the most part inebriated audience was the only entertainment that my evening jaunt afforded. The entire film was like a satire of itself, as it seemed to point out its own pitiful ridiculousness. Unfortunately, this satire wasn’t a funny one: it was all too, too sad. Soon I began to feel like a terrible misanthrope who had crashed a hen party. 

First of all, let’s get straight to the sex. The publicity for this film promised edgy sexual tension and a suggestion, if not a depiction, of some really kinky moves. Like so many promises of this kind, it lead to disappointment. Unless you are as young as Anastasia is supposed to be in the film (I’ll come back to this point later), or you did not grow up in Britain, you might have heard of “BBC bonking”. Sex on the BBC, after the watershed of course, often appeared as a terrible and unwelcome imposition on a literally put-upon woman in a costume drama. The woman would lie back (perhaps thinking of England) with a really miserable look on her face as her husband (or some type of gross sexual predator) grunted and worked away on top, perchance banging her head miserably against a pseudo-antique, World of Pine headboard. There would be no nudity, no fun, and the message was loud and clear: no one enjoyed sex; it was a shameful but irresistible male impulse, and it always lead to unwanted pregnancies. Despite the generous amount of well-formed nudity from both leads, the sex in 50 Shades was remarkably like BBC bonking. Both actors looked depressed, miserable, and uncomfortable throughout.

Dakota Johnson’s Anastasia spent the entire film switching between boredom, hysterical giggling, and tears of humiliated confusion. This third state predominated, and was much more believably performed that the hammy heavy breathing that supposedly indicated desire. I think many of us can relate to Anastasia’s confusion. Who hasn’t had a flirtation with someone who confused them, and perhaps messed them about. The mixture of anger, confusion, humiliation, and lack of self-esteem that results from this kind of toxic romantic entanglement isn’t unfamiliar. I have found myself feeling at a loss and crying hot tears of defeated frustration after a puzzling encounter (or even a series of them) with a potential love interest. In these cases, my next move was to avoid developing a relationship with this toxic individual. Once you realise this is going on, why would you want to? Ana, on the other hand, is depicted as internalising these feelings, blaming herself, and continuing to pursue the blowing hot, cold, and cruel Christian. Sadly, Ana is not alone and this is by no means a fiction. Many women pursue cruel men and maintain relationships with emotionally or physically abusive partners.

This abusive relationship, and let’s be clear it is abusive, is made all the more disturbing by Ana’s naïveté and vulnerability. Ana is supposedly in her last year of college (or university if you’re English), she’s inexperienced with men, and, it seems, with the general workings of everyday life, like sending emails for example. Some of the students I teach are in their last year of university. Unlike Ana they are savvy and bright, but they are young. Despite only being five or six years older than many of them, I can’t help but be impressed by their youth. Some are ferociously intelligent and most are considerably more streetwise than I am, but in some subtle ways many still retain childlike traits. I imagine that they, just as I was, will be transformed by their first year in the world of work and shed some of those vulnerabilities. Ana, whilst she is legally an adult, compared to the younger adults I teach, is practically a toddler. This impression is compounded by her costume in her first appearance in the film to interview successful business man Christian Grey. Her opaque tights, gauche ankle boots, and navy cardigan and pleated skater skirt look decidedly like a school uniform. The sight of her absent-mindedly fellating a borrowed pencil labelled “GREY”, all wide-eyed and kitted out like a school girl made me so angry that I crushed my cold, slimy, regular-sized Nachos to smithereens. But as I seethed and crushed and gurned at the screen, I became aware of noises of approval or excited nudges between neighbours throughout the audience.

It turns out that in many eyes to enter into a barely speaking sexual relationship with a controlling, possessive, angry man / stalker who wants to punish you as a proxy for his drug-addicted mother, a relationship like Ana and Christian have, would be living THE DREAM. It turns out that you can buy what are basically 50 Shades themed underwear from shops like Ann Summers, which are displayed adjacent to the book. At one point, Ann Summers sold a frilly, pale bra, knickers, and suspender set called the Anastasia. I know this to be true as I bought the knickers, unaware of the connection with 50 Shades (still, at that time blissfully ignorant); I had no idea that pants in a pale colour that cover the majority of the backside in fact meant that one was dressing up an infantilised, sexual ingénue about to be initiated into a confused world of a millionaire’s personal brand of BDSM. Someone should tell Marks and Spencer. In short, the disempowering, cruel, manipulative relationship depicted in both the novel and the film of 50 Shades of Grey is something that huge swathes of our society perceive as sexy. It turns out that you can also get Shakespeare knickers. Whilst there is something disturbing about them (who would want the face of a dead poet glowering from their groin?) I wonder if the connotations of wearing these undercrackers are preferable to those of 50 Shades underwear. At the very least, like the prose, they are certainly more substantial. Anastasia has her sisters in Shakespeare. Phebe, for example, in As You Like It, or Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Both Phebe and Helena are cringe-inducing representations of womanhood. Their low self-esteem and devotion to cruel and condescending male figures (although one is a woman in disguise) is exaggerated for comic effect. Helena debases herself like a dog in her pursuit of the cruel Demetrius.
I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you (II.1).
 Many performers will deliver this speech on hands and knees, I saw one production in which Helena stuck her tongue out panting with canine eagerness, desperate to draw some comedy out of this embarrassing spectacle. In response to being rejected by this man Helena leaps to hyperbolic claims about her own ugliness. “No, no, I am as ugly as a bear; / For beasts that meet me run away for fear” (II.2). Instead of railing against Demetrius, she turns her anger in on herself, and reduces herself to this animal state. Phebe too runs after Ganymeade who does not love her, and is downright rude to her. However, unlike Anastasia in 50 Shades, whom audiences seem to aspire to be (if underwear sales are anything to go by), nobody would want to be the female butts of the jokes in these comedies. Audiences go away from As You Like It aspiring to be the wisecracking Rosalind, not desperate and stroppy Phebe. These women are not the heroines. The heroines of tragedy are another story. Characters like Ophelia, Desdemona, and Cordelia are praised exactly for the submissiveness and patience that is so disturbing in this film's female lead. Just as you would with Anastasia, you’d like to take each of them aside and give them a good talking to about standing up for themselves and encourage them to GET OUTTA THERE. This feeling is wonderfully summed up by the YouTube series Sassy Gay Friend by The Second City Network. My favourite is Ophelia, whose sassy friend tells her “there is something rotten in the state of Denmark and it’s Hamlet’s p*ss poor attitude!”. Is Shakespeare’s treatment of characters like Ophelia and Desdemona (and their acquiescence) applauded or critiqued? Are these characters Anastasia-like reinforcements of that pervasive, negative female stereotype: the submissive and virtuously long-suffering woman? In some ways this is a choice to be made by actors and directors. The line between comedy and misogyny in the depiction of characters like Phebe and Helena is a fine one. Are women being lampooned, or a particular behaviour in some women? Is this funny, or is it just humiliating? A company performing Shakespeare can decide how they will deal with the darker side of Shakespeare. Often, in performance and in the classroom, these complex plays are used to provoke discussion about the role of women.


Perhaps it was really that which compelled me to go and see 50 Shades of Grey: the hope that respected director Sam Taylor-Wood might have taken the immensely popular story and used it to make a statement. Instead Taylor-Wood created a faithful recreation of the book, which was certainly what the audience wanted: as I walked back to the carpark surrounded by the sea of tipsy women gambolling out of the cinema, everyone seemed to have had a good time. Even the designated drivers seemed to have enjoyed it. With a sinking feeling of despair - both about the representation of women in film today and about the fact that I might not have enough change for the carpark – I scrabbled around in my purse in front of the ticket machine (absolutely no euphemism intended). Stuffing my last lonely five pence pieces into the machine, I dropped my keys. The evening ended as it had begun: with an embarrassing fumble. 

Embarrassed fumble.

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