Sex, Love and Videotape

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Tag: Abuse

Bridget Jones’s Diary

YEAR: 2001
DIRECTOR: Sharon Maguire
KEY ACTORS: Rene Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 6.7
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 81%

SEX SCORE: 5/5
✔️The cast are definitely fuckable. Colin Firth and Hugh Grant, Rene Zellweger and Sally Phillips; there’s someone for every mood!
✔️ And although the qualifying dialogue has been described as meaningless, which feels unnecessarily cutting, there are plenty of named female characters who talk about other subjects than men so it passes the Bechdel Test.
✔️ It also definitely inspired fantasies – even though she’s supposed to be a mess, Bridget was pretty aspirational for me sexually. It may reveal the limitations of my own sexual fantasies, but I really wanted dirty weekends away in a B+B, I wanted to send secret messages to a coworker that I was fucking, and I wanted to do all of that while I still didn’t think I was perfect. And I really, really wanted a kiss like that between Bridget and Darcy.
✔️ It is also incredibly rewatchable. I cannot recall how often I’ve seen this film but it still makes me laugh every time and still makes me so happy, every time!
✔️ After much deliberation, I also decided that it is sex positive – more on this later!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (free with subscription), NowTV (free with subscription), Sky Cinema (free with subscription), YouTube (from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: body image, dieting, emotionally abusive relationships]

The poster for Bridget Jones’s Diary

I have spent more of my life than you would expect thinking that I would eventually end up as Bridget Jones. It seemed inevitable. Even at the age of sixteen when the film came out, it was all achingly familiar. I come from the kind of middle-class country family who would hold a turkey curry buffet on Boxing Day and my parents had friends who wouldn’t think it unseemly to hold a Tarts and Vicars Party on a summer’s day. I don’t have a pervy Uncle Geoffrey who pinches my arse and asks about my love life, but I do have an outrageous aunt who insists on asking about my sex life, although she would be horrified if I actually told her! I have a cousin who is so exactly Bridget that it freaked me out quite a lot to see her on screen and, if that wasn’t proof enough, through various marriages to various other cousins, there are significantly less than six degrees of separation between me and Helen Fielding, the author of the original Bridget Jones novels. With a messy love life, a cupboard full of control knickers and a fridge that often contained only cheese, I could have been Bridget!

Bridget Jones’s Diary is a modern day retelling of Pride and Prejudice, describing a year in the life of the eponymous Bridget Jones (Zellweger). After her mother introduces her to another eligible single gentleman at the Boxing Day turkey curry buffet, Mark Darcy (Firth), who then insults her, Bridget decides that she needs to revolutionise her life and does so by journaling. She decides to lose weight, stop smoking, and ‘stop forming romantic attachments to any of the following: alcoholics, workaholics, sexaholics, commitment-phobics, peeping toms, megalomaniacs, emotional fuckwits, or perverts.’ Instead, she falls in love with someone who embodies all of these by starting a relationship with her boss, Daniel Cleaver (Grant), a man who ends up cheating on her and breaking her heart. Throughout the year, Jones and Darcy’s paths keep crossing and he eventually tells her he likes her, just as she is. Sadly the manner of his delivery and lies from Cleaver about stolen fiances mean that she doesn’t believe him and it takes her several more months to realise how great Darcy is and they finally get together at the end of the movie, with my favourite ever movie kiss.

An image from Bridget Jones’s Diary of Bridget and Mark kissing in the snow

Despite the similarities in the class of our upbringing, I don’t share many of the particulars of Bridget’s lifestyle, but there is still something so familiar about her, which is probably why she is such a popular character, and that’s one of the main reasons why I do think of Bridget Jones as a feminist movie – its a story of an imperfect but relatable woman who achieves her goals without have to change herself to fit society’s expectations.

An image from Bridget Jones’s Diary of her big pants

But this is certainly not the view of Suzanne Moore, which she shared in her blistering article ‘Why I hate Bridget Jones’ in 2013. Almost everything that I read about this film since 2013 has quoted or criticised her article, in which she slams Bridget as the ‘epitome of post-feminism – vapid, consumerist and self-obsessed.’ She criticised Bridget for wasting the independence that generations of feminists fought to achieve as she uses it to ‘get pissed, appreciate her female friends and speak openly of her sexual desires’ (Although, really, I maintain that the freedom to do these are important victories!). Moore felt that it wasn’t helpful to identify with Bridget as she was only a manifestation of what the mainstream media think women should be – obsessed with self-improvement, constantly dieting and easily distracted by men. Bridget may be funny but it is a self-critical humour as ‘her rhetoric about being a strong independent woman is always undermined by her pseudo neurosis.’ Feminists didn’t burn their bras and jump under horses to give women the freedom to flirt with their bosses!

An image from Bridget Jones’s Diary of Bridget and Daniel at work

I do get Moore’s point – the battle is not yet won. We are not yet living in an equal society and presenting women as overly concerned with their appearance and romantic relationships does comply with the patriarchal image of women as mothers and homemakers, or trophy wives and prizes. Bridget isn’t battling the patriarchy and isn’t trying to reduce or even notice the inequalities she sees around her, but does that really matter? To share a long quote from Caitlin Moran’s introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of the original novel, dismissing Bridget is dismissing the ordinary woman who needs to know that their ordinary lives are also important and also worthy of being a book and a film. Even at our most frivolous, we are of value:

There is a school of feminism, of course, which decries the misadventures of female characters. Why must Bridget obsess about her arse so much? Why must she fall for bad men? Why is she so self-absorbed? Could she not spend these books living an enlightened, guilt-free, empowered existence – engaging only in political activism, literary discussion of restrictive gender-normative tropes, and good works for the poor? What is the point of feminism if Bridget is constantly counting her calories whilst chain-smoking out of her mother’s spare-bedroom window, and banging sexy ass-hats? Whither sexual equality?…Feminism needs the female equivalents of the ridiculous, glorious Mr Toad, Flashman, Basil Fawlty, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Adrian Mole, Ignatius J. Reilly, Falstaff and George Costanza far more than it needs another woman effortfully, and unhappily, trying to live another deserving, upstanding, perfect and dull life, like some kind of angry, teetotal, hectoring nun.’

More than that, I think that there is something very empowering about Bridget admitting her faults to herself and trying to improve. She also manages to do this without too much trauma or pain. Taking Bridget’s dieting as an example, this is not accompanied by self-recrimination when she falls off the wagon nor painfully body-negative descriptions of herself. She wants to lose a bit of weight so she doesn’t need to wear stomach controlling pants anymore but doesn’t seem to make much effort to diet, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a relatable attitude towards food and body shape! Even in her innermost private thoughts, she never berates herself for gaining weight again or calls herself hurtful names. She’s aware of her faults but accepts them with kindness and laughter, and, to me, that is a truly feminist message – an opinion shared by Helen Fielding: ‘I think it’s worrying in the first place that people would think a book about a woman laughing about her foibles is not feminist. It is a mark of strength to be able to laugh at yourself, not weakness.

And I think it’s important to point out that much of the behaviour and language that is thought to be problematic is not seen in Bridget’s wider life – it is all in her inner monologue – and, honestly, how often do we have thoughts that we wouldn’t necessarily share out loud – whether self-critical or perhaps politically dubious. As described in Bustle, Bridget ‘is the poster child for accepting that sometimes, our innermost thoughts don’t always line up with our feminist philosophies.’ Women are often made to feel guilty for our frivolous thoughts, just as Moore did in her criticism above, but they are real, no matter how trivial they may be.

But most importantly, all of this means that Bridget is hugely relatable. Zellweger described her as representing ‘the truth of who we are versus who it is that we aspire to be.’ And I know that that’s why I relate to her. I’m constantly surprised that my life and career aren’t as chaotic as Bridget’s as I often feel like I too am bumbling around, trying to look like I fit in. The only real difference is that we hear Bridget’s thoughts so know how hard she is working to maintain the serene professional exterior. And that is reassuring! It’s reassuring to know that sometimes even those who look incredibly well put together are winging it a bit too! In my own career, I have never been more surprised than when I received feedback from my nursing colleagues congratulating me on how calm I looked during a crisis as I have always felt like a headless chicken – I felt like Bridget Jones!

An image from Bridget Jones’s Diary showing Bridget in her pyjamas

Whether getting drunk alone and singing weepy power ballads, accidentally making a fool of yourself then work or prematurely imagining your wedding to a crush, Bridget represents so many things that so many women could relate to but, equally, that we are taught to be ashamed of – and I’m going to tag in the patriarchy here as feeling guilty about our behaviour like this is one way that the patriarchy holds women back. Yet Bridget not only succeeds, she thrives, just as she is. To quote from a Bustle article, ‘through all the successes, failures, and thoughts that accompany both, she gives a sense of community to women everywhere who think those self-doubting thoughts and feel guilty about it.’

But even aside from these feminist issues, this is an important movie for this blog because it’s also a movie about sex!

I spent a long time trying to decide if Bridget Jones’s Diary is a sex positive movie, because there are pros and cons on each side.

On the positives, I love that sex is shown to be a lot of fun! Daniel and Bridget laugh a lot when having sex and, even as a teenager, I knew that that was the kind of sex I wanted to have. I also liked that, despite Bridget’s body hang ups, they can still have great and comfortable sex. The big pants trope started here, and it’s not really shown as a negative. Admittedly, Bridget’s weight issues have aged badly as her figure is stunning! I would love to look that good as a Playboy Bunny and I don’t really think she can be described as fat. She’s not Hollywood skinny but she’s not nearly plus-sized!

An image of Bridget from Bridget Jones’s Diary

But it’s not perfect. When away on their mini break, it is strongly suggested that Bridget and Daniel have anal sex but, just as Daniel is the only character who never tries to give up smoking, I fear that this is used to emphasise that he’s a bad and corrupt person.

Also, the fact that Bridget’s mother wants a sex life is definitely played for laughs. It is both reasonable and understandable that she would still want sex, and is a perfectly good reason to leave Bridget’s father, a man who is useless and appears to make very little effort to maintain an equal partnership. Instead, Bridget’s mother is portrayed as selfish for abandoning her family. When Bridget is celebrated for her independence and career aspirations, her mother is a joke for wanting the same.

But in the end, I gave it the mark for sex positivity as I liked how it described healthy and unhealthy relationships, and how clear it was to differentiate between them.

I was absolutely fascinated by Daniel Cleaver on this rewatch because, more so than ever before, his emotionally abusive behaviour shone through, but I also had to accept that he was still fucking hot. I stand by About A Boy as Grant’s hotness peak, but this is definitely a close second. He’s just so perfect in this role and I can’t blame Bridget for falling for his tricks. I know I probably would have too, and I think this is important as women are too often blamed for the abuse they may later receive. Because there is no doubt that he is emotionally abusive – he gaslights her by dismissing her correct conclusions about his behaviour and sounds in his house when he cheats on her; he basically tells her that she’s stupid and wouldn’t understand his complex life in order to avoid explaining himself; and he emotionally manipulates her into returning to him when he tells her that he needs her: ‘‘I need you, Bridge…If I can’t make it with you, I can’t make it with anyone!’ Also, he had the nerve to say that he thought she’d be alone on a day that is not only her birthday but is also her biggest professional success. What a twat! What a hot hot twat!

An image from Bridget Jones’s Diary showing Daniel rowing a boat

In contrast, I love love love Firth’s Mark Darcy! I’m not going to repeat my deep dive into the Darcy character, but I do love that this is another different version of the character. Not quite as personally socially awkward as MacFadyen’s version, I got the impression instead that this Darcy was actually a bit spineless, which is a shame as I otherwise find him fucking hot. His awkwardness seems to come from an inability to stand up to the women around him – he wears the Christmas jumper to please his mother, he doesn’t have more fun when rowing on the lake despite clearly wanting to join in as Natasha thinks it looks childish, and it almost feels like he got engaged to Natasha as he didn’t know how to say no. Do you think she asked him? Or did he ask out of social obligation? Darcy and Natasha have so little chemistry that I don’t even believe that they work well together!

Which is why I love him and Bridget so. Darcy seems so much more relaxed, so much more himself. Them gently mocking each other when cooking and the easy way that he just fits in with her friends is such a contrast from his stiff appearance at other times. Unfortunately, we could draw an unflattering conclusion that he doesn’t feel threatened by Bridget as she’s so chaotic, but I prefer to think that it comes back to the absolutely world-shaking importance of the fact that they like each other, just as they are.

I’ve been repeating that phrase throughout this post as, to me, it’s what the whole movie is about. Bridget spends the entire film trying to improve herself as she has been made to feel inferior and stupid, admittedly originally by Darcy too, but she finds someone who likes her anyway. And Darcy is clearly unhappy with his position in the world, trying to maintain this image of a serious human rights lawyer and well brought up gentleman but, through Bridget, he is able to relax and accept himself as he really is.

And right at the end of the movie, we’re given a hint that he’s not such a straight guy after all (as in boring, not heterosexual, although I would read that fan fiction in a heartbeat). However dull we might have been led to believe Darcy is, that kiss at the end is everything…

Bridget: Wait a minute…nice boys don’t kiss like that.
Mark Darcy: Oh, yes, they fucking do.

An image from Bridget Jones’s Diary showing Bridget and Darcy in the snow

And, to me, that is literally the dream – a good man with a filthy twist. When I see this film, I like to imagine a different future from that revealed in the later movies and books; a future where being loved, just as they are, allows Bridget and Mark to cast aside their body confidence issues and awkwardness and then have lots of hot hot sex, perhaps discovering a shared love of kink, perhaps even with Bridget dominating Mark so he can enjoy being controlled by the strong woman in his life in way that does make him happy.

Now, tell me that wouldn’t be a better movie than Edge of Reason.

Next week – Die Hard

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Showgirls

YEAR: 1995
DIRECTOR: Paul Verhoeven (as Jan Jensen)
KEY ACTORS: Elizabeth Berkley, Gina Gershon, Kyle MacLachlan
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 4.8
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 22%

SEX SCORE: 1.5/5
✔️ Showgirls does pass the Bechdel Test with lots of talk about dancing and work between the many named female characters
❌ But it’s not rewatchable. Regardless of how interesting and clever I think this film is, it is objectively bad.
❌ Extraordinarily considering how beautiful and naked they are, I don’t want to fuck the cast. They’re prickly and spiky and too too much to be fuckable
❌ And the hostile atmosphere meant that this movie didn’t inspire fantasies.
❓But is it sex positive? I’m going to leave this as a half mark of a maybe. I found it hard to decide as, superficially, it is not sex positive. There’s ample evidence of abuse, manipulation and extortion, but it never glamorises that attitude and does not shy away from showing how awful it is. It also approaches sexual taboos like period sex without any fuss. So…maybe?

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: rape, sexual assault, violence]

Poster for Showgirls of Elizabeth Berkeley’s leg and a strip of her body against a black background

This is my 26th post for this blog – I’ve been writing for it for half a year! And this felt as good a time as any to admit that I have always, always wanted an excuse to obsess and analyse movies in this way. As much as sex Twitter and sex blogging is my heart and my home, movies were my gateway into the idea of Twitter and podcasts and blogs – I joined Twitter initially to follow cinemas and movie writers; my first ever blog post was an ultimately unsuccessful submission to the Prince Charles Cinema when they were looking for a movie blogger; and movie podcasts were the first that drew me to that form of media. Yes, once I found the sex and erotica, I didn’t look back, but I have carried on devouring movie media alongside.

And it was a movie podcast that lit the spark for this particular blogging project. The Dana Buckler Show, which used to be called How Is This Movie, has been my number one movie podcast for over 5 years now and most of my opinions on the business of movies, the complexities of the rating systems and the history of movies in general have come from these fabulously well researched episodes. Although I don’t always agree with Dana’s opinions on the films themselves, his insight and research is incredible and I am always fascinated to hear what he and his co-presenters think, in case it changes my opinion.

Which brings me to Showgirls – a film that is objectively trash. I know I enjoy a lot of films that others might describe as trash, but this really is awful. The acting is over done, the characters don’t talk like real people, the sex is not sexy and, although it has gained a cult following since its release on video, it was a box office failure that squashed the future careers of its star and director. This is a baaaaad film! This series of ridiculous gifs is proof enough!!

Which is exactly what I thought after my first viewing and I discarded it without much thought.

But then I saw that The Dana Buckler Show had an episode on Showgirls and I thought I would give it a listen to see what he thought. I must admit that I was listening in the shower, not quite relegating it to background noise but definitely not expecting to stop and give it my whole focus, which is exactly what I did! I stood there, soap in my hair, mouth agape as Dana and Ashley made me see the film completely differently. And then I started wondering what other films I might have misunderstood, what other films about sex might have been trashed without reason or unjustly ignored because of their sexual themes, what other erotic films might contain undiscovered lessons…and, well, that’s where this blog began!

Showgirls is essentially a modern day retelling of All About Eve, set in the glamorous world of exotic dancing in Las Vegas. Nomi Malone (Berkley) arrives in Vegas, all set to make her fortune, and starts dancing at a strip club called The Cheetah. Unhappy with her role as a stripper and wanting to be a real dancer, Nomi auditions to be a showgirl and backing dancer at the big Vegas show, Goddess. The star, Crystal Conners (Gershon), soon takes a shine to Nomi and acts as a mentor of sorts. Nomi pays her back by pushing her down the stairs so Nomi can become the star instead! But sadly, fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and, after Nomi’s friend is brutally raped and Nomi exacts a vicious revenge, she leaves – to try again in LA.

And, oh my gosh, there is so much to say about this film!

Because I’ve come to realise that Paul Verhoeven may just be too smart for his own good. He knew exactly what he was doing when making Showgirls and he has made exactly the film that he wanted to make, describing it as ‘probably the most elegant movie [he’s] ever done.’ Just like Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut, Verhoeven is a very good and very precise director and he wouldn’t have allowed the film to be released if it wasn’t what he wanted: ‘As for the finished product: I thought it was perfect. Otherwise I would have changed it. I had time to change it. I could change whatever was there.’

Yet Showgirls was a huge flop. Roger Ebert felt it was ‘a waste of a perfectly good NC-17 rating’ and it only made back $20 million in US box office takings after costing $40 million to make. And I find the film to be almost completely unwatchable. It’s just too much and it’s quite unpleasant viewing in places – Elizabeth Berkley is almost a masterclass in overacting, the movie is full of cliches and parts of it are pretty distasteful. And its failure had lasting consequences for all involved. Verhoeven was never given as much freedom again to direct risky movies and Berkley was immediately dropped by her agent.

My main problem with this film is that it staggeringly unsexy. Marketed as an erotic thriller and as an NC17 film from the team who made the staggeringly hot but only R rated Basic Instinct, it somehow manages to be a film about sex that is profoundly unerotic. I have never seen so much gorgeous and beautiful nudity look so plastic and unappealing. All you need do is compare Nomi dancing in the club with the rougher but infinitely hotter dancing in Dirty Dancing to see quite how unsexy this film is.

An image from Showgirls showing Nomi licking a pole

And the sex itself is hilarious! No one ever, ever has sex like this – and I don’t mean because movie sex tends to be unachievable. I wouldn’t be surprised if Berkley gave herself a significant injury as she writhed and whipped her torso around. Roger Ebert described it as ‘masturbatory fantasies,’ commenting on how ‘eroticism requires a mental connection between two people, while masturbation requires only the other person’s image,’ and I’ve heard it described as sex written by as 12 year old boy who has never actually seen anyone have sex. The sex scene in the pool between Berkley and MacLachlan is famous for being so awful – it’s a waste of champagne, terrifying to watch, and is all over in a matter of seconds. I really hope that no one watching it thought that that was what sex was supposed to be like. As far as the overacting, fake orgasms and unrealistic positions go, it’s even worse than porn!

A gif from Showgirls showing the ridiculous pool sex

Which, of course, is exactly the point, and this was the huge revelation that I learned from the Dana Buckler Show. Verhoeven was trying to show just how unsexy the sex industry can be and how none of it is real. Just as amateur porn is often hotter than the overproduced, hairless studio versions, this feels too fake to be erotic. And none of the characters are realistic. Nomi is stroppy and unnecessarily aggressive, Crystal Connors is a cliche who talks like she has been written by a man – ‘I like nice tits. I always have, don’t you?’ – Zack Carey (MacLachlan) is too slimy, too polished and slick. All of the women are unrealistically beautiful too. Of course, everyone in movies is hot but these girls are a level above even the Hollywood norm. They are all so fit with tiny waists, flat stomachs and incredible legs, as well as perfectly sized tits that bounce perfectly when they dance. They’re perfect. On top of this, Vegas is too bright. It’s too well lit, too colourful; it’s too much. It’s all too much.

Except for the rape scene near the end. That looks real. It has a touch of the Verhoeven ultraviolence that I recognise from RoboCop and Total Recall but the sexual assault is very real. It’s incredibly shocking considering everything that came before it. And it’s made even more striking as it’s intercut with some of the softest and most romantic moments of the film, as Nomi and Zack dance in each other’s arms. When all of the previous sex has been hilarious and ridiculous and over the top, the simple but brutal reality of the rape is incredibly powerful.

Having now watched Showgirls again, knowing what I learned from Dana and Ashley, I have a new respect for the film and the message that Verhoeven was trying to impart. As I think I previously said about Basic Instinct, it’s really fucking clever! It was just released at a time when we weren’t ready to hear it.

Because Showgirls is about the #MeToo movement, nearly 20 years before #MeToo really existed. It’s about how women who work as dancers and strippers are treated like sexual objects, regularly abused and exploited, and generally not considered to be real humans. Verhoeven exaggerates their beauty to make them perfect and then they can be objectified because they are not real; they’re caricatures. We’re not supposed to find them sexy and, instead, we’re supposed to feel uncomfortable about how they are being used and abused. And because it is all so exaggerated and so blatant, we cannot possibly miss how much misogyny is built into the entertainment industry.

‘Sooner or later you’re going to have to sell it,’ says the man who gave Nomi a lift into Vegas. ‘If you want to last longer than a week, you give me a blowjob!’ says the owner of the Cheetah. And, when talking about Nomi’s nipples, the choreographer states ‘I’m erect. Why aren’t you erect?’ It’s disgusting. And it’s treated as completely normal – this sort of behaviour isn’t what the film is superficially about. All of the women just shrug and carry on. And when Nomi pushes back after being asked to privately entertain an Asian client after being paid a lot for making a personal appearance, insisting that she is not a whore, it’s suggested that she’s the unreasonable one. Yes, it’s unpleasant but that’s how it works. It’s how you get ahead. I sometimes wonder if this is why the #MeToo movement caught so many men off guard – their behaviour was neither new or unique. Everyone did it, it was how the industry worked.

A gif from Showgirls of Nomi pole dancing

And Showgirls strongly hints that this how the whole entertainment industry works, not just the sleazy and cheap underbelly. Nomi hates working at the Cheetah as she is treated like a stripper and wants to be a real dancer, but everything is exactly the same when she joins the Goddess team. Worse, she’s treated the same but they pretend that it’s different, pretend it’s classier: ‘You want tits and arse, you get tits and arse. Here they pretend it’s something else and still give tits and arse!’ It makes her exploitation all the more unpleasant to watch – she thinks she’s got out, she thinks it will be different.

As they discussed on the Fatal Attraction podcast, there are also a lot of other taboos that Showgirls touches against that are rarely seen in other films. She mentions her period more often than I can remember from other films, including a moment when she almost has period sex. It’s also pretty rare to see an interracial couple in a mainstream movie, even more so in the 1990s. It’s trying to be progressive and sex positive, and it nearly succeeds.

When I look at the film this way, it makes me really sad that it hasn’t worked. It could have been so good and so important, but it just didn’t work. It may have been exactly how Verhoeven wanted it, but it looks badly executed. He may have told Berkley to act as aggressively as she did for a reason, but the reasoning has got lost. Sadly, it’s fallen between the cracks when it comes to the success of a shocking movie – it’s not so powerful that you instantly get it and can rave about it, even if you can’t bear to watch it again; it’s not easy enough to watch that you will watch it over and over, and the message can seep in over time; and it’s not superficially good enough to enjoy without understanding it.

An image from Showgirls showing the dancers surrounded by fire

I also think it’s fallen victim to the issues that plagued Jennifer’s Body – it was marketed as a sexy film to bring in a male audience, but that’s not what the finished product provides. In a way, I agree with Ebert’s take that it was a wasted NC17 rating – people went expecting it to be porn, essentially. Expecting it to be better and hotter and sexier than Basic Instinct but it wasn’t. And when giving a movie that rating was so risky, it’s not surprising that it backfired.

This will be a topic that I am likely to come back again, but the rating system in American movies absolutely fascinates me. Because it’s not the same as the UK version – NC17 is more explicit than the UK 18 certificate and UK 15 certificate is more lenient than the R rating. Borderline R rated movies, such as Basic Instinct, often end up with an 18 certificate without much complaint but it was a big financial risk to give a film an NC17 rating – particularly when it’s given that rating because of sex. Violence is less of an issue but sex is a disaster!

Interestingly, despite it being widely considered a flop, Showgirls is the most financially successful NC17 rated film! These films just don’t make any money but the $300 million success of Basic Instinct despite a similarly aggressive sexual plot fooled the movie industry into thinking Verhoeven could do it again. And perhaps he could have if he had insisted on the NC17 rating because he wanted to create a sexy film, but that wasn’t his intention. It was almost as if he wanted to mock the rating system by demonstrating how unsexy sexually explicit material can be. And Showgirls has proved to be very successful on home video – as The Dana Bucker Show postulated, sexuality is much more acceptable behind closed doors. It’s just a shame that neither Verhoeven or Berkley received the praise that they deserved at the time.

I can’t say that I enjoyed Showgirls, even with this new appreciation of its intention, as I didn’t – it’s unpleasant to watch, both in the exaggerated acting and cinematography, and because of the aggressive and exploitative message. I know it has its fans who value the comedy and hilarity of the whole concept but, to me, the sexual exploitation is too all pervasive and I hate that there’s no happy conclusion. Obviously. We don’t yet live in a world where that kind of resolution is anything but fantasy.

And that’s just really depressing!

Next week: Bridget Jones’s Diary

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only. Gifs from Giphy.

Dracula

YEAR: 1992
DIRECTOR: Francis Ford Coppola
KEY ACTORS: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Anthony Hopkins, Sadie Frost
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.4
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 73%

SEX SCORE: 1/5
✔️ This passes the Bechdel Test as Lucy and Mina talk about other topics than men…but really not often!
❌ But it’s not rewatchable. It’s too ridiculous and I don’t get it.
❌ I don’t want to fuck the cast – I love Keanu Reeves but his accent is too terrible and Gary Oldman, well, just no.
❌ And it’s not sex positive. In fact, its incredibly sex negative, particularly regarding women. Independent women with a free sexual spirit are punished – and deserve it!
❌ There’s also nothing to fantasise about. The idea of a man who has waited across time for you may be an old fashioned romantic ideal, but it felt really non-consensual here and unwanted.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: NowTV, Sky Cinema subscription, Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.99), YouTube (from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: this includes discussions of abusive relationships and non-consent]

Poster for Dracula, showing a screaming gargoyle of Dracula’s face

I was 15 at the turn of the century, which meant that I was absolutely the perfect age for Buffy the Vampire Slayer! I was 12 for the first season and avidly watched it every year so I was 17/18 by the time of the fifth and sixth seasons. I mention these seasons specifically because these were the ones where I fell in love with Spike and developed some pretty strong feelings about Buffy and Spike’s violent sexual energy. He was so so hot. The ultimate bad boy, an angry and dangerous man with a leather jacket and bleached hair, who loved that damaged girl. Angel was always a bit meh in comparison – was I too young for him or was Angel just too much of a nice guy? Spike was everything.

I mention this because this early supernatural crush means that I’ve never doubted that vampires are hot! They fulfil a very particular fantasy that plagues many women of a ‘damaged, morally questionable young man who nevertheless can serve as her protector while she reforms him.’ I describe yearning for this kind of love with this kind of partner as a plague because it’s really not healthy – vampire stories are just brightly painted supernatural versions of those damaging relationships where we are drawn to the drama of a dangerous lover, kid ourselves that our love will fix them and stop them treating us like crap, but instead run the risk of falling into potentially abusive patterns. These lovers may not be vampires, but they can still drain you if everything that keeps you alive.

I’ve written before about the abusive control used by Fifty ShadesChristian Grey and his character was inspired by a vampire, Edward Cullen in Twilight. Even Spike is not really a better role model either – his behaviour in the early series is hardly something I’d want to use as a model for my own relationships and later, when he is reformed and his love means that he does recover his soul, he just becomes the exception that we all cling to when really we’re just experiencing the rule.

Because vampires are hot, but also (because?) they are dangerous. Not because they drink blood and kill; the idea of a vampire is dangerous because of what it says about female sexual agency. And, no surprise, it’s not a good message.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! I chose 1992’s Dracula (or Bram Stoker’s Dracula to give it its full name) because it is renowned for being overtly sexual and erotic. I’d seen it years ago and, honestly, I’d thought it was too ridiculous for words, but after hearing a podcaster gush about how hot it was and how attractive Gary Oldman is, I thought I ought to give it another try.

Image from Dracula showing young Dracula dressed as a dandy, wearing a top hat and round purple glasses

Dracula is very faithful to Bram Stoker’s novel, even maintaining the epistolary style with letters and diary entries marking time. It begins in 1492, telling the story of a young, heartbroken count (Oldman) whose bride has just killed herself. In his grief, he calls on demonic forces to avenge her and curses himself forever. Jump forward 400 years and Jonathan Harker (Reeves), a lawyer from London, is sent to Transylvania where he meets a creepy old man who traps him in his mysterious castle, leaving him at the mercy of his three horny wives who fuck and feed on him. Meanwhile, Dracula travels to London to find Mina (Ryder), Harker’s fiancée who Dracula believes is the reincarnation of his bride. Once in London, and looking more like his younger self, he wreaks havoc, killing a young woman, Lucy (Frost), and turning her to a vampire for no apparent reason, kidnapping Mina and prompting a chase across Europe where he is eventually killed.

From a film buff perspective, Coppola made some really interesting choices for the cinematography, deciding to use only traditional practical effects and utilising actual magic tricks in some places. It’s no surprise that among its Oscars win for costume and make-up was one for sound effects. These techniques give the film a very real but knowingly dated feel that I quite liked. It feels appropriate for 1897, a time when cinema was first beginning.

Sadly, from a feminist perspective, I stop agreeing with Coppola’s creative choices. I’m sorry for those who rate this film as I really did not like it! It’s so over the top that it’s essentially a caricature and is only a hair’s breadth away from actual farce. Disconnected shadows mimicking strangling Harker and Dracula admitting that he doesn’t drink [dramatic pause] wine feel straight out of Leslie Nielsen’s spoof movie, Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Image from Dracula showing Oldman in full elderly vampire make up, bouffant white hair and long fingers with his hands dramatically over his face

But my main concern with his exaggerated style comes when looking at the sexual content. Because Coppola chose to make his Dracula a dramatic romance, rather than a horror, and ‘his accent on romance has dissipated Dracula’s single overwhelming force: evil.’ Are we supposed to sympathise with Dracula? Understand his plight? His horrific and frankly abusive actions in the novel or other retellings were more palatable somehow when he was clearly the enemy but he envisioned here as a tragic hero.

Problems with this characterisation arise because I can completely ignore everything supernatural about him, and Dracula is still fucking creepy. ‘Many women are flattered when a man says he has been waiting all of his life for them.’ Roger Ebert claims, ‘But if he has been waiting four centuries?’ It’s creepy! It’s manipulative and creepy and patriarchal and I don’t get it. How is this romantic? Maybe Dracula is a horror movie after all!

Except there are no jump scares, no tension or dread. At its core, this is much for of an erotic film. For example, Harker becoming a meal for the vampire brides is definitely an orgy – three beautiful women, including Monica Belluci, are topless and writhing all over him, kissing his neck, tearing off his clothes and biting his wrists and neck. There are long, lingering shots of licking tongues and at one point, I’m almost certain they’re feeding off his cock – shots of belts being removed are followed by a vamp woman kissing down his stomach, at which point Harker jumps up screaming. Is he screaming because someone has bitten his cock, or because he is being sexually assaulted?

Image from Dracula showing Reeves on the bed with three vampire women kissing him

Dracula himself also feeds in a very sexual way. When feeding on Lucy, he either is in the form of a wolf, mounting her like he’s fucking her – a ‘literal sexual predator’ – or he appears as a mist, covering her writhing body as she struggles and moans beneath him, sounding more and more orgasmic as her transformation progresses. Oh, and her tits are out too. Even Mina, straight-laced and conservatively dressed Mina, becomes more naked as Dracula’s hold over her increases. She becomes more wild, more bedraggled, which of course needs gaping clothes.

Image from Dracula showing Dracula in his wolf form mounting a scantily clad Frost

Now, my issue isn’t really with the nudity – although it does feel gratuitous and there’s not enough male nudity in response. In fact, so gratuitous is the nudity that Roger Ebert describes it as ‘an orgy of visual decadence, in which what people do is not nearly as degraded as how they look while they do it.’ But I mainly take issue with this choice as at only serves to exaggerate the already concerning sexist tones that are implicit in the Dracula story, creating an ‘overt, intentionally discomfiting’ sexual atmosphere.

As I alluded to above, the study of vampires has long been the story of female desire and how terrifying it is to men and the patriarchy. Talking to NBC, Anne Stiles, an assistant professor of English literature at Washington State University, described how obvious the ‘sexual undercurrents’ were in the original novel: ‘You have penetration, an exchange of bodily fluids. He has mesmeric powers. He is very seductive. It’s an easy, veiled way to write about sex without censorship.’

And the moral judgement associated with having sex and being sexual is made clear through the two female characters, Mina and Lucy. Mina is modest and chaste, wearing dresses with high necklines and holding out for marriage; Lucy has a more ‘aggressive sexuality,’ wearing more revealing clothes, dreaming about sex and flirting with her three suitors. The simple act of courting three suitors invokes judgement from Mina, and so the audience who are experiencing events through Mina’s words. Lucy is supposed to be shocking, indiscreet, even indecent, and so she is punished.

Image from Dracula showing Mina and Lucy, and their differing levels of exposure

In ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers,’ Sady Doyle argues that Lucy’s transformation into a vampire symbolises the transformation from girl to woman, and Lucy’s sexual desires certainly become more explicit the closer she becomes to being a vampire. She is no longer flirting with faux-innocence and innuendo; Lucy is asking directly for what she wants and who she desires. So, obviously, she’s a monster now. She’s terrifying. The girl needed to be saved, the woman needs to be destroyed.

It’s also never explained why Dracula chose to transform Lucy into a vampire. He could have just fed on her – but again, it feels like an unnecessary risk when there are so many other random people in London who wouldn’t draw such attention. Unless you take Van Helsing’s (Hopkins) view that she was asking for it. Lucy was outrageous and sexual and flirty so she called Dracula to her; she deserved what happened to her. Oh, rape culture, so good to know that it still existed in 1992 (and 1897 for that matter!).

Professor Abraham Van Helsing: Hear me out, young man. Lucy is not a random victim, attacked by mere accident, you understand? No. She is a willing recruit, a breathless follower, a wanton follower. I dare say, a devoted disciple. She is the Devil’s concubine!

Except that Lucy never expressed a wish for Dracula or for the darkness or the Devil. She was just flirty with a high sex drive and the privilege of enough independence to choose how she wanted to live her life and who she wanted to marry, which is terrifying to the patriarchy.

The other aspect of the vampire sexual cannon that Coppola maxes out here is the idea of the dominant vampire and helpless victim. Whether using mind tricks or just their animal magnetism, the vampire’s victims feel compelled to follow, compelled to wander out into the night and into the arms of their attacker. This, again, gets my feminist hackles rising as it’s intended to rob women of their own sexual agency. ‘It’s the idea that women can’t be blamed for desire,’ can’t be blamed for falling under the spell of a more powerful man who is ‘virtually unassailable in terms of power, and generally intellectually superior due to the centuries of wisdom he has accumulated.’ Women can’t be blamed but they can be still be punished, because giving in to their desire is accepting the demonic influence of sex. It’s not our fault, we’re too weak and inferior to cope with such strong emotions. Urgh…

An image from Dracula, showing Mina drinking blood from Dracula’s chest

But even beyond this, the use of mind control has huge implications when considering whether Mina in particular consents to what Dracula does to her. It’s pretty clear that Jonathan doesn’t and I’m highly suspicious of Lucy’s ability to give informed consent, although I guess she could be so horny that she follows a random wolf-like stranger into the garden on the promise of sex, but I don’t believe Mina fell in love with Dracula in any kind of normal way. He forces himself upon her, he stalks and manipulates her, she feels his presence everywhere. When she finally capitulates, does she love him? Or is she under his spell?

The final feature of Coppola’s Dracula that makes me angry is the explicit connection that Coppola makes between being a vampire and AIDS. 1992 was a difficult time in the history of HIV and AIDS. The AIDS epidemic had been spreading throughout the 1980s and by the early 90s, the virus was known and the method of transmission was known, which meant that the stigma associated with HIV was also in full swing. AIDS was a disease that predominantly killed gay men, intravenous drug users, and other groups of people who were vulnerable and marginalised. Treatment options at this time were limited at best. Being diagnosed with HIV was synonymous with developing AIDS as there was no way to prevent the progression of disease. Sufferers became increasingly unwell, becoming thinner and weaker, almost as if some unseen force was sucking their life away until they died.

And it’s all about blood. Blood and penetration, and sexual indiscretion. ‘Does Dracula have AIDS?’ asked a panel of AIDS experts, in an early example of clickbait; ‘I’m not living in the dark anymore’ stated an AIDS leaflet from Illinois that used Dracula as its figurehead and warned against going ‘batty’ over someone. As the AIDS crisis escalated, it was suggested that Dracula could be ‘more terrifying as a political metaphor for the spread of contaminated blood.

Coppola makes sure the connection is forced home by including clips of microscope images of blood cells when Dracula is feeding and talking about infected blood – vampirism is a blood-borne illness, he seems to be insisting, passed on by these hyper-sexual dominating monsters who prey on those who are weaker or infect those with a rampant and uncontrolled sexual desire who willingly taste his blood. ‘Love and blood equals…oo-er, death’ mocks a review in the Independent, such is the clumsy, overloaded nature of the analogy. To which I say, fuck you. Even in 1992, we knew better than this. Fuck you for perpetuating stigma by suggesting a link between AIDS and evil, fuck you for belittling the suffering of AIDS victims by insinuating blame or weakness. Just fuck you.

Actually fuck you to this entire film.

I cannot believe that 1992 was so long ago that these exaggerated patriarchal depictions of female sexuality or clumsy metaphors for the dangers of sex were acceptable. Is it satire? Is it farce? Frankly, I hope it is – otherwise it’s just offensive.

Sorry. This one isn’t for me…

Next week: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Jennifer’s Body

YEAR: 2009
DIRECTOR: Karyn Kusama
KEY ACTORS: Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 5.2
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 44%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ Are the cast fuckable? It’s Megan Fox as a hot cheerleader. Of course, the cast is fuckable! She’s deliberately sexy but it works!
✔️ And it passes the Bechdel Test – Needy and Jennifer talk about a demonic ritual if nothing else!
✔️ I’ve only watched it once but I really enjoyed it and would watch it again so, yes, rewatchable!
❌ But it didn’t inspire fantasies. The sex is, well, inexperienced and I have no desire to literally eat men…
✔️ It is sex positive, however. Both main characters have sex – the hot one and the nerdy one – and nothing bad happens to them because they’ve had sex! It also showed realistic first/early sexual experiences with obvious condom use that wasn’t really played for laughs, beyond the simple intrinsic hilarity of comfortable, consenting sex!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.49), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: this review contains discussions of trauma, sexual assault and rape]

Jennifer’s Body poster, showing Megan Fox in a short cheerleader skirt sat in front of a blackboard that says ‘Hell yes!’

I’m starting to think I need to change the subtitle of this blog – it is a blog exploring movie sex and movie love but it is increasingly becoming a blog where I rant about the patriarchy and feminism. Because I’m starting to realise quite how much movies reflect the attitudes of the time that they were made, and because they are produced in an undeniably male dominated industry, they seem to act as magnifiers for all the niggling problems that grate against women. And horror movies and their obsession with sex and women make it even worse!

So here we are again – week two of my Halloween specials, and I’m writing about another film that was critically panned when it was released and yet hindsight has revealed a film that is not only good but was significantly ahead of its time. It’s just that it wasn’t made for men or for the male gaze (regardless of what the marketing may suggest) and so was completely misunderstood.

Jennifer’s Body tells the story of two teenagers who had been friends since they were children – Jennifer is hot and mean; Needy (I don’t know why she’s called that if not as an over obvious label) is bookish and quiet, but they’re friends. They go to see a band in a dive bar and the venue burns down in mysterious circumstances. In the chaos, Jennifer gets a lift with the band, supposedly for safety but actually because they had picked her out for a violent demonic ritual. Unfortunately for them, Jennifer isn’t a virgin as they’d expected so the ritual backfires, turning her into a demon succubus who feeds on other teenage boys. After she kills Needy’s boyfriend, Needy fights back, killing Jennifer and ending up in a secure mental health facility.

Image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer and Chip, dressed for the prom and in a dirty pool. Jennifer has blood all around her mouth after taking a bite from Chip’s neck

Doing my research for this film actually made me really angry – there was just too much sexism! Together, it had a cumulative effect of not only infuriating me but also damaging the careers of some very talented women. Jennifer’s Body was written by Diablo Cody, straight after she won the Academy Award for writing Juno; and it stars Megan Fox in her first role after Transformers. It should have been an escalating point for both of their careers but it wasn’t. It’s critical failure meant that Cody moved to writing for TV until 2018’s Tully and Megan Fox hasn’t yet done anything really impactful (Sorry to Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles fans!).

What upset me most was that they were both affected by different but equally cliched patriarchal bullshit and neither did anything that would have been more than a blip in a male colleague’s career. Cody made a poorly received film, sure, but she was subsequently brought down by the fact that women aren’t allowed to fail. Our actions not only speak for all women and our failures risk closing doors for other women in our industry, but we are certainly not allowed second chances. As Anne Cohen wrote for Refinery29 last year, there was a disquieting tone to the reviews – ‘as if by this one critical failure, Cody had signed her own Hollywood death warrant.’ And it proved to be true.

Megan Fox’s story is more troubling but no less typical. After publicly criticising the work environment on the sets of the Transformers films, she was fired by Michael Bay who also published a letter from some of his film crew that ripped her to pieces in an unnecessarily personal and vitriolic fashion. Should she have criticised Bay so publicly? Probably not. But did she deserve such an obvious and sadly successful attempt to blacklist and discredit her? Absolutely not! Calling her ‘everything from “dumb-as-a-rock” to “Ms. Sourpants” and “Ms. Princess” to “trailer trash…posing like a pornstar”’ is not an objective and fair appraisal; it’s mean and cruel and reeks of that attitude shared by angry men who have been slighted by a woman who they feel is beneath them.

Which, sadly but not unexpectedly, brings us around to the #MeToo movement. Frederick Blichert writing for Vice expresses hope that ‘a poor-faith campaign to frame an actress as difficult may meet some resistance today’ after the methods Harvey Weinstein used to blacklist women who displeased him have been revealed and themselves discredited. But it’s not just the treatment of Megan Fox that hasn’t aged well now – Jennifer’s Body as a whole is a movie that should be looked at completely differently now we are in a post-#MeToo world.

An image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer in a prom dress, covered in blood, floating above a dirty pool

Because the entire plot revolves around the question of what happened to Jennifer in that van with the band. Except we don’t really need to ask what happened; the implications are clear. Just as in Practical Magic, the supernatural is used as a metaphor or substitute for emotions or experiences that are too powerful or difficult to explain – rather than being assaulted or raped by the band, Jennifer is ritually sacrificed. She then processes her trauma by acting out a ‘cathartic fantasy…using her victimised, violated body to wreak bloody vengeance on the patriarchy.’ In a dark, twisted way, it’s kind of empowering! These men have used her body for their own gain and yet it is her sexuality that allows her to take revenge, using that body to ‘entrap and feed on those who once objectified her.’ Jennifer really is a feminist revenge hero!

And there are two particularly interesting aspects of her revenge that I wanted to mention. Firstly, her actual attackers almost get away with it, and they definitely benefit from the ritual, enjoying huge success until Needy wreaks her own bloody revenge. Instead, it is the people around Jennifer who suffer. Considering how rarely abusers and rapists are convicted, this feels right somehow. And despite occurring in a supernatural movie, it feels real. Constance Grady at Vox felt that this reads as a ‘dark bit of satire’ now when we consider how many men have had abusive behaviour revealed during #MeToo but whose career has not suffered long term. Trauma and abuse cause a lot of collateral damage around the people who have been abused, but too often there is devastatingly little impact on the abuser. In fact, many recent reviews mention the election of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court and how it sent a message to teenage girls that ‘whatever their male peers do to them in their youth doesn’t really matter.’ That’s not supernatural; that is real.

But more interestingly and more importantly, Jennifer’s Body is a slasher film that doesn’t punish its female characters for having sex. Spoilers for next week’s post on Halloween: this is not common in horror films! Characters losing their virginity is usually the same as signing a death warrant, but Jennifer is saved by her sexual experience…in a dark, twisted way. If she were a virgin, she would have died when she was sacrificed but her sexuality gave her the power to fight back. And once again, that’s kind of empowering. No wonder the patriarchy and all those male critics didn’t enjoy this film!

But they’d be almost forgiven for expecting Jennifer’s Body to be a ‘normal’ horror film with sexy hot girls getting naked and being killed, because that’s exactly how it was marketed. And I’m afraid that I was one of the many, many people who were put off by the aggressively sexual promotion – I’m wary of slasher films as I don’t like jump scares and I didn’t need to see another overly sexualised film where another naked girl is killed, so I didn’t bother.

Promo image from Jennifer's Body showing Megan Fox in a cheerleader outfit, lying down

It has been suggested that the marketing choices were deliberate and were supposed to draw in a male audience: ‘Come for the scene of Jennifer and Needy making out, get hit in the face with an hour and forty-seven minutes of female storytelling. How do you like that, boys?’ It feels like the much trailed kiss between Jennifer and Needy was only there to appeal to this demographic as it doesn’t quite fit with my interpretation of the rest of the film and felt unnecessary. Megan Fox is hot and is ‘on display for men to pay to look at’ but she’s knowingly hot, knowingly sexy. She’s exaggerating and playing up to the cheerleader stereotype so that her ugliness (in massive inverted commas as she’s still gorgeous) when she’s hungry is more pronounced. She even jokes about looking normal when she’s supposed to look rough. But there seemed no reason for the kiss, except to exaggerate Jennifer’s sexual predator status…and to appeal to the male gaze.

Image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer and Needy at school. Jennifer has no make up on and looks relatively plain

But if that was the tactic, it seriously backfired! Critics and horny viewers didn’t get it. It wasn’t sexy enough to be hot, wasn’t funny enough to be humorous, wasn’t scary enough to be horror, and wasn’t trashy enough to be trash!

Watching it now, I can’t believe that no one realised at the time that it was satire – hilarious, cutting, subversive satire that turned all those movie tropes in on themselves. And it is not a fantasy for men! Roger Ebert describes it as Twilight for boys, with Megan Fox in the Robert Pattinson role, except that I recall Pattinson was shirtless’ as if straight boys want ‘demonic cheerleaders’ in the same way straight girls want vampires. The more I read about how badly the film was received initially, the more I wanted to scream ‘it wasn’t made for you!’

Because Jennifer’s Body is about being a teenage girl. It’s about how cruel we can be to each other and how we cling to toxic friendships way beyond their natural life because so much else is changing. Jennifer was an arsehole to Needy long before she became a demon. In fact, her possession didn’t really change her personality that much – just her focus. But it took that kind of dramatic crisis to end their friendship. There were no demonic possessions at my school but, wow, there was drama! We really hurt each other and were mean and screamed at each other. And we’d run home and cry at how much someone had changed and how we couldn’t believe the way they were acting, and then we’d make up the next day and start again. Being a teenager sucks!

Image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer and Needy in front of their school lockers. Jennifer is pulling a strand of Needy’s hair

And Jennifer’s Body is about how there is no perfect victim – something that is too often forgotten. Jennifer was a bitch and went to that bar intending on hooking up with the band, but that definitely doesn’t mean that she deserved what happened to her. As was so eloquently put in that Refinery29 article, ‘Jennifer may be a mean girl possessed by a demon, and her murderous rampage sets her up as someone who needs to be stopped, but she’s also a victim. She’s a beautiful girl with low self-esteem whose been taught that her entire self-worth is wrapped up in her looks and sex appeal. Wouldn’t you want revenge for that?’

Megan Fox got in. She knew exactly what she was doing, vamping up her sex appeal and exaggerating her plastic and bouncy character, as it made her vulnerability during her attack more shocking. She did it so well that I actually felt quite sorry for her when Needy finally killed her. And she knew how important it was to be that imperfect victim, that real person who does bad things but still did not deserve her fate: ‘If I was to have a message, it would be to be a different kind of role model to girls….It’s O.K. to be different from how you’re supposed to be.’ Fox told The View and quoted in the New York Times. ‘I worry that’s totally lost.’

And it was totally lost. ‘2009 just wasn’t ready for this movie’ Vox claimed, and I am so pleased that it is finally receiving the recognition it deserves, appearing on lists of top horror movies directed by women and being reclaimed as a ‘forgotten feminist classic.’

It’s just a shame it’s taken so long for these women’s voices to be heard…

Next week: Halloween

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Practical Magic

YEAR: 1998
DIRECTOR: Griffin Dunne
KEY ACTORS: Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman
CERTIFICATE: 12
IMDB SCORE: 6.3
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 21%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ It is indeed rewatchable, but it took me a long time to get there!
✔️ With so few significant male roles, I’d worry if this failed the Bechdel Test but luckily it passes with ease!
✔️ Considering this film has a predominantly female cast, and I’m quite underwhelmed by the men on screen, and I’m straight, this perhaps shouldn’t get a mark from me but even I can’t deny that the cast are fuckable. 1990s were a successful time for them both and arguably their hotness peak so yes, fuckable!
✔️ I almost didn’t give it a mark for inspiring fantasies but I couldn’t ignore that kiss. Sally and her husband’s kiss to Faith Hill’s famous song, This Kiss, is everything.
❌ But despite much soul searching as I love the feminism of this film, I can’t give it a mark for sex positivity. ‘Since when is being a slut a crime in this family?’ Gillian asks but she does suffer. She is the more promiscuous sister who is shown to party with millions of friends and makes jokes about locking up husbands on her return, and she ends up in an abusive relationship. She suffers for her sexuality, and it saddens me that this is the case because it is otherwise a hugely positive and feminist movie.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £3.98). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: this review discusses bereavement, abusive relationships, effects of trauma]

Practical Magic poster showing Bullock and Kidman looking out of the poster above a cluster of lit candles

I remember when I first watched Practical Magic. I was fourteen and at a sleepover. We’d put aside our usual action films and chosen a selection of horror movies from Blockbuster instead, in aide of Halloween. This was the first film that we watched and it terrified us (me) so much that we couldn’t watch anymore and had to return to Die Hard again to recover. Witches, possession, reincarnation; it was too much. This used to be my benchmark for years – I couldn’t watch Practical Magic and that was only a 12! How could I watch any real horror film?

And I didn’t watch it again for years. Until last year, in fact, when all of the 20th anniversary articles made me realise that it may have just been too much for a fourteen year old and I should try it again. Honestly, it is even more terrifying now but in a completely different way, and I loved it. I loved it!

Practical Magic is a film about the Owens family, a matriarchal line of powerful witches who live under a powerful curse – any man who falls in love with an Owens woman dies young. Gillian (Kidman) and Sally (Bullock) are sisters whose father dies because of the curse and whose mother then dies of a broken heart. They move in with their spinster aunts who are more open with their witchcraft, providing curses and love potions to needy villagers. Despite being so afraid and trying everything to avoid love, Sally does get married and has two daughters, before her husband is killed. Gillian, choosing pleasure, runs away and falls for a dark enigmatic man, Jimmy, who ends up abusing her. While trying to escape, Sally and Gillian accidentally kill him, raise him from the dead, and then kill him again. Jimmy ends up haunting them, possessing Gillian and it takes an entire coven of women to rescue her. (This summary is much too simplistic – go watch it!)

Gillian dancing next to a pool surrounded by admiring men

Practical Magic terrified me so much more watching it as an adult because it is essentially a story about how dangerous love can be – dangerous if you fall for the right guy as he could die and leave you heartbroken, and dangerous if you fall for the wrong guy as he could abuse and hurt you. Love is pain and despite the message that it is possible to survive, there is so much hurt in this movie that it terrified me.

I am in a hugely fortunate position as I have never been in an abusive relationship so I cannot personally relate to Gillian’s experience and I have not been significantly bereaved so I don’t know Sally’s pain, but I could imagine it; I could feel it. I was sobbing within the first 25 minutes of the film as Sally wailed that ‘he died because I loved him too much.’ That’s the fear. That’s the big one. I definitely have an optimistic outlook but it is based on a knowledge, or even perhaps a morbid expectation, that it could all come crashing down at any time. In the back of my mind, meeting and marrying the man of my dreams only means that I’ll be even more destroyed should he die; a potential pain that I would never experience if I were alone. It sometimes seems the only way to balance out the extreme joy and happiness I have experienced, so Sally’s bereavement because of her love projected my ultimate fear onto the big screen.

Of the two sisters, I am definitely Sally. Gillian ran headlong into love, wanting to feel so much that it was worth any pain, but Sally was more realistic and tries to avoid the risk. She even uses logic to wish for a man so perfect that he couldn’t exist because ‘if he doesn’t exist, I’ll never die of a broken heart.’ Cold logic, it’s the best way to proceed!

Sally looking into a candle flame

Magic is used so powerfully in this film to signify unavoidable emotional experiences. Sally tried and tried to avoid falling in love but she couldn’t. Yes, she was pushed towards her husband by an incantation from her aunts but once she’d open her heart to it, their love was real. Devastatingly, that’s why her husband was killed. In the film, it’s magic; in real life, is the force behind love any less powerful?

This use of magic as a metaphor for emotion is even more powerful if Gillian’s possession is viewed as a metaphor for trauma. She has fought to leave an abusive and harmful relationship but she cannot escape, even when her abuser is dead. She is literally haunted by her relationship, literally haunted by her past. And when Jimmy possesses her, she acts and speaks and feels in ways that aren’t how she would usually behave – they’re remnants of Jimmy, they’re her trauma made real. She’s exhausted by it; she’s almost destroyed by it. And she needs her people to save her. She needs her family and sister and community to help her break free, long after she has physically left her relationship. And, as Refuge discussed with Stylist magazine last year, ‘it hammers home the point that “leaving an abusive partner can be very dangerous…Women are at the greatest risk of homicide at the point of separation or after leaving a violent partner.”’ It’s exaggerated, it’s magical and supernatural, but it feels so real.

Gillian and Sally performing a resurrection spell on dead Jimmy

Practical Magic handles the issue of Gillian’s abuse with a lightness that could be misinterpreted as disinterest, but I think actually creates a much more realistic story. Buzzfeed felt that this is why critics didn’t like it when it was first released, and I think it’s 21% Rotten Tomatoes rating might be the lowest I’ve posted yet: ‘Many of them didn’t understand the tone of a film that smirked and made jokes and leaned into love even as it took on a story about abuse and the hurt that comes from it.’ But women have a long history of laughing off abusive behaviour from partners, both to minimise it to themselves and to others, and to protect themselves from recrimination. Gillian jokes that she drugs Jimmy so she could get some sleep at night but we all understand that this strongly hints that he doesn’t accept her refusal or believes in consent and suggests that he has also sexually abused her. Her quiet ‘he’s strong. So much stronger than me’ at Sally’s concerning questioning broke my heart. But the film doesn’t overdo it. We know what’s happening and it’s enough to see the effects. It’s even perhaps more powerful for that – we believe her without seeing.

Gillian looking resignedly forward, trying to brush off Jimmy’s attention as he tries to kiss her neck

Despite these difficult and heartbreaking themes, Practical Magic ends up being a really life-affirming and heartwarming film – and not because Sally gets a happy ever after. That plot line with her too-perfect-to-be-real police officer is almost an annoying distraction, although Buzzfeed’s review did correctly note that it’s the light and dark next to each other that enhance both: ‘The movie acknowledges that abuse and trauma are things that happen. But it puts a love story side by side with that hurt, a reminder that life does go on even after it tries to tear you apart.

But, for me, the true happy ending is between the women themselves and between the witches and the community. As Aunt Frances, played by the fabulous Stockard Channing, states, ‘we need a full coven.’ Gillian is saved by her bond with Sally but it took everyone to put her in a position to do that. And that includes the community that shunned them. I loved this idea that finally ‘coming out,’ as one character dubs it, is what brings them together. Distrust and division are perpetuated with secrecy and insincerity, and although there was definitely a risk in revealing themselves, it is a great feminist message that women don’t need to fight or fear each other and are much more powerful together.

Which, of course, brings me on to the fact that they’re witches. As my first Halloween themed post in a feminist movie blog, it had to be witches!

Gif of Gillian and Sally dresses as witches

Witches are the ultimate feminist hero and embody everything that the patriarchy fears: ‘Witches, sluts, and feminists are the trifecta of terror for the patriarchy…[they] embody the potential for self-directed feminine power, and sexual and intellectual freedom’ historian Kristin J Sollee explained to The Guardian in 2017 to promote her book on this subject. Most witch traditions seem to stem from groups of women who didn’t need men, who defied the patriarchy and so must be evil and untrustworthy. Only someone in league with the devil could survive without a man! Buffering the Vampire Slayer, my favourite Buffy podcast, tells the story of the Alewives – women who brewed ale and were financially independent because of this. They were important members of the community, didn’t need men to survive…and traditionally made the ale in large cauldrons while wearing pointed black hats, suggesting they were an early source of the idea of witches. And, even more terrifying to the patriarchy, these groups of women can’t be controlled, which in some countries is still ‘enough to sentence her to death.’ And so they can be blamed for anything, for everything.

Practical Magic presents an interesting perspective on the story of witches as they sit on the border between horror and fantasy. Some witches are evil and terrifying and come from darkness – crones, hags etc – whereas some witches are good and fluffy and light – Sabrina, Wizadora etc – but Sally and Gillian are neither and both. They’re friendly and sunny with the ‘thickest, most lush movie hair’ yet seen and grow herbs to make lotions, and yet are capable of murder and reincarnation and both know deep, deep darkness. I mentioned Sady Doyle’s book ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Motherslast week and she writes about how witches have always lived ‘on the razor’s edge between benevolence and malevolence, horror and fairytale,’ which is why they are so terrifying – they are unknowable. Are they helping or harming? Are they good or bad?

Except, of course, that there is one eternal truth of witches: ‘they kill men who harm women.’

Next week: Jennifer’s Body

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Gif from GIPHY.com. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Gone Girl

YEAR: 2014
DIRECTOR: David Fincher
KEY ACTORS: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 8.1
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 87%

SEX SCORE: 2/5
✔️Rewatchable. God, is it rewatchable. I can’t drag my eyes away.
✔️And it passes the Bechdel Test. Admittedly, much of the talk between named female characters is about Amy but it passes the rest!
❌ But I do not want to fuck either of them, no matter how hot they are! They’re terrifying and deeply, deeply unattractive because of it.
❌ And there’s nothing here to prompt fantasies for me. It’s messed up!
❌ Finally, it’s not sex positive at all. Sex is a weapon; relationships are a lie. It’s. Messed. Up!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on. Seriously, I’m going to reveal all sorts of plot twists so if you’ve managed to avoid them, please watch it before reading as the reveal is incredible!

[CW: rape, abusive relationships, murder]

STREAMING: Netflix, Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £3.99), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

Gone Girl poster showing Ben Affleck under a cloud of smoke hiding Rosamund Pike’s eyes

This week is usually the week for a ‘bad’ film – one with a bad message or one that’s really sex negative. It’s previously been a chance for me to rant about offensive humour or the patriarchy. This week’s movie, however, is not a bad film at all. In fact, it’s a pretty incredible film! But Gone Girl still gets to go in the ‘bad’ movie slot as it only scores 2 out of 5 – from a sex positivity perspective, it is a bad film. And although I couldn’t give it marks for its sex content as, wow, all the relationships are weaponised in a grossly unhealthy way, Gone Girl does have some fascinating and pertinent things to say about marriage and, you’ve guessed it, the patriarchy!

Gone Girl begins when Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) discovers that his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), has been abducted from their home. Investigations suggest that she’s been murdered and soon Nick is the prime suspect. He’s been having an affair, there are money problems, and Amy’s diary reveals that their marriage has been on the rocks and she is afraid of Nick. He has been violent towards her, he has pushed her to the ground; she fears he might kill her. Except that Amy isn’t dead at all. And, other than the affair, none of the terrible things she accuses Nick of are true either. She’s planned the whole thing to frame Nick for her death as revenge for being such a terrible husband. It was going exactly according to plan until she is robbed and has to turn to an old lover for help. Unfortunately, Desi is as bad a person as Amy and keeps her locked up in his lake house, nominally for her own good and acting like a blueprint for how to be an emotionally abusive partner. Amy can only escape by murdering Desi after framing him for rape as justification for her act, at which point she returns to Nick and manipulates him into staying with her.

Nick at a vigil got his missing wife, speaking from a microphone

It’s so fucking messed up!

Before I properly get into what I find interesting about this film, there are a couple of problematic themes that I want to cover, and these certainly contribute to why this isn’t a sex positive film. The first, and most potentially harmful, is the idea that a woman would lie about being raped for her own gains. Ouch. Twice Amy ruins the life of someone who has wronged her (one of whom she kills) by fabricating a rape – and she is believed. It’s because of exactly stories like this, and the always present power of the patriarchy, that he-said-she-said disputes rarely side with the accuser. How do you know she’s not making it up? they ask. Can you prove it? And to add fuel to the fire, here Amy does have evidence but she’s made that up too. It makes a great story, without doubt, but it saddens me every time I see it as it’s just one type of story but it drowns out the millions of real ones; the one falsehood that rape deniers bring up as evidence when they don’t want to believe an accusation of assault. And now we have ‘proof’ that evidence should be distrusted too, even physical and DNA evidence can be manipulated. This is not a good message and one that I wish would stop getting airtime.

My other potential problem is one more of language than theme, because I don’t know how to talk about Amy: she’s a psycho, she’s insane, she’s batshit crazy…she doesn’t have a diagnosis of a mental health disorder, she’s just not a good person. Although Amy’s choices and decision making processes aren’t rational or potentially that healthy, I am very aware of the damage that can be caused by resorting to language associated with mental health conditions to describe bad people. It perpetuates unhelpful stereotypes and encourages stigma. So yes, Amy is horrific; she’s arguably one of cinema’s greatest villains, but I’m not going to call her a psycho.

Amy looking to the right, standing in front of Nick who is looking at the floor

So…Gone Girl. Wow.

This is going to sound strange considering the fucked up and murderous conclusion of the film but there is a lot about the film that is really quite relatable.

Not the conspiracy or murder, obviously, but in how our true selves are revealed as we progress through long term relationships and marriage, and how disappointing this can be. In her book, ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: monstrosity, patriarchy and the fear of female power,’ Sady Doyle suggests that Gone Girl – book and film – were so successful because ‘that kind of rage bubbles underneath the surface of many “normal” marriages, and behind the smiles of many seemingly happy women.’ Through Amy’s extreme actions, women were able to ‘vent their daily indignities and unspeakable anger safely and without consequence.’ Now, I don’t mean to suggest that many, or any, married women are suppressing an anger of that degree, but it’s not such a stretch to imagine a large proportion of women who find out many years down the line that their marriage isn’t what they expected.

Because who among us hasn’t worked to only show the best of themselves in a new relationship? Who hasn’t pretended to be more interested in their potential date’s hobbies, or pretended to be someone slightly different to who they really are to make themselves more attractive? And this might not be a conscious effort; sometimes we just don’t share our whole warts and all selves straightaway. But we can’t keep up the charade forever so what happens when the NRE (new relationship energy) and shine has gone and we realise that we don’t like who our partners really are or who we are with them?

Amy and Nick in a bookshop

And this is again is where the influence of the patriarchy can be felt. In a traditional marriage, women are much more likely to be the ones to change and make sacrifices for the marriage, fulfilling their role as housewife. Once children arrive, this divide between who we were before the marriage and who we are now widens, with women tending to take on the majority of childcare responsibilities. It’s really not hard to imagine this as a situation that breeds resentment and anger. And I say this as someone who is very happily married! As Sady Doyle put it, Gone Girl is a reaction to the ‘daily, grinding violence of subservience and loss of self’ associated with an unfulfilling marriage: ‘if you’ve been through enough, the difference between making a man better and making him sorrier can be tough to figure out.’

Viewed in this context, Amy’s anger and violence could almost be a direct attack on the patriarchy, and is perhaps more understandable for that. Discussing it on the Unscrewed podcast, Jaclyn Friedman felt that Gone Girl ‘takes seriously the suffering of misogyny’ – all those little slights, little oppressions and little dismissals, all those micro-aggressions, that wear us down or wear us out. Or in Amy’s case, fire her up.

And, obviously, Amy takes this way too far! Nick may not be that great a guy but he doesn’t deserve what happens to him. But I think that’s why Amy is such a fantastic and horrifying villain. She’s not a megalomaniac, she’s no Bond baddy in her evil lair; she’s a fucking genius but her end goal feels oddly suburban, even in the context of her incredibly complex plan. She could be any disgruntled and disaffected housewife; she could be anyone of us. Her complaints aren’t irrational, her reaction is. So what’s stopping more women responding in this way?

Terrifying attack on the patriarchy aside, I do think this film has some very interesting perspectives on relationships in general. Although Amy’s version of events prior to the beginning of the film is manipulated for her own gain, she does state that the start was real – ‘it had to be.’ And the beginning of their relationship is just adorable. It’s exactly what Hollywood has led us to believe new love should be – softly lit, with flirtatious humour and beauty all around. They look good together, they have adorable in-jokes and literally sweet familiar gestures like the lip swipe after walking through the sugar snow: ‘We’re so cute. I want to punch us in the face!’ It’s perfect; they’re perfect. There was a lot about their marriage at that stage that made me wonder if I wasn’t making enough effort in my own – I’ve never made a treasure hunt for our anniversary, for example! ‘We were the happiest couple we knew,’ Amy boasts.

But she also makes it clear that this perfection isn’t real and isn’t without effort: ‘I forged the man of my dreams.’ And not just in her efforts to mould Nick. This, of course, is where the famous Cool Girl monologue comes from:

Oh, this is a powerful idea. And I’ve written about it before because it was such a familiar idea to me. I have spent so much of my life trying to be the Cool Girl and always feeling like I didn’t make the grade. Knowing and recognising the Cool Girl, and knowing and recognising how easy it is to fall into the trap of being the Cool Girl is such an important part of new relationships. She’s a movie trope, like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but that doesn’t stop men from wanting her, and wanting women to be her.

(As an aside, I actually only stopped trying to be the Cool Girl when I essentially gave up dating and met up with the man who would be my future husband for sex! He wasn’t supposed to be important so I didn’t bother to pretend – we wanted to fuck each other and luckily that didn’t change the more we got to know each other. As a dating strategy, it was hugely liberating and I’d definitely recommend it!)

Amy’s take on the Cool Girl is also interesting because she doesn’t see it as a universally bad idea. She and Nick both became better people for pretending to be exactly what the other wanted. It made her smarter, it made him better – hence forging the man of her dreams! But forging really is a violent and explosive metaphor that suggests a lot if energy and effort, and Nick’s unforgivable sin was no longer making the effort to maintain the delusion. Although Amy clearly resents what she had to do to be the Cool Girl, it was worth it to be part of the whole. Their marriage looked good from the outside so it was worth it. Except Nick stopped pretending and Amy realised that she didn’t like who he’d become – or perhaps who he really was: ‘He actually expected me to love him unconditionally.’

And this is where Amy’s ideas about marriage, in my opinion, do split from reality and where her true villainy lies. Yes, Nick may not be the same as when they married, but she isn’t either. Her dismissal of him without taking any responsibility is irrational. Also, Nick’s version of events don’t exactly paint her as the ideal wife – and I don’t mean ideal as in Stepford. Her anniversary treasure hunt quite obviously does not bring Nick joy and yet she persists. She’s trying to force him to remain that person he was pretending to be, even when it’s obvious that it’s making him unhappy.

And is that fact that Nick barely knows his wife his fault or hers? Maybe he wasn’t paying attention or maybe she was keeping too much hidden. Whatever the truth, they did not communicate enough for the relationship to work. Long term relationships require constant adjustment and compromise, especially when the two of them have gone through such significant life changes by losing their jobs and moving from New York to Missouri. How could they stay the same?

My final point on this movie is about how it plays with the idea of appearance vs reality. This is, of course, Amy’s main complaint in their marriage, but it extends beyond this one area. Amy has always had to maintain an outward appearance of success and overachievement because she has constantly been in competition with her fictional alternate in the Amazing Amy books her parents wrote. Appearances were important to her – which may be why Nick’s actions were so unforgivable.

Nick standing next to a ‘Missing Amy’ poster with a ‘shit-eating grin,’ to quote Amy

The film also dwells a lot on public appearances with regard to the murder investigation and trial. Nick’s reflexive smile when on camera or when taking a selfie mark him out as insincere and suspicious; Andi, the young woman Nick was fucking, fundamentally changes her appearance once his infidelity is revealed to make him look worse: ‘Why is she dressed as a babysitter? The girl with the giant come on me tits?’ The main role of Tanner Bolt, the fancy lawyer that Nick hires, seems to be to manage the optics of the situation as it got further out of control, reminding Nick that ‘this case is about what people think of you. They need to like you.’ The truth doesn’t matter, Bolt seems to imply. It’s how he appears.

Which, of course, is the crux of the whole plot and how the movie ends.

Nick and Amy are back together; she’s persuaded him to stay by becoming pregnant and using the guilt of his own absent father to convince him not to leave her. And his tour de force performance to persuade the American public that he wasn’t a murderer worked so well that Amy sees some hope in him after all. Their marriage filled with resentment as their real personalities were revealed has become a knowingly sham marriage where they keep up appearances and, I can only imagine, torture each other forever more!

‘Promise me we’ll never be like them,’ Amy asked Nick early in their relationship, eager not to be one of those drab and predictable couples who argue all the time.

Well, they’re certainly not like other couples…

Nick Dunne: You fucking cunt!
Amy Dunne: I’m the cunt you married. The only time you liked yourself was when you were trying to be someone this cunt might like. I’m not a quitter, I’m that cunt. I killed for you; who else can say that? You think you’d be happy with a nice Midwestern girl? No way, baby! I’m it.
Nick Dunne: Fuck. You’re delusional. I mean, you’re insane, why would you even want this? Yes, I loved you and then all we did was resent each other, try to control each other. We caused each other pain.
Amy Dunne: That’s marriage.

Wow.

This movie is messed up…

Next week: Practical Magic

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Fifty Shades of Grey

YEAR: 2015
DIRECTOR: Sam Taylor-Johnson
KEY ACTORS: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 4.1/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 25%

SEX SCORE: 1/5

✔️ Passes the Bechdel test – if you can believe it!
Definitely not sex positive – oh my gosh, the shame that is built into this plot! It is so clear that EL James is not a kinkster.
Unfuckable cast – Jamie Dornan is undoubtably hot but Christian is such a knob that I would never want to fuck him. Dakota Johnson’s Ana, maybe, but only if she leaves Christian and discovers her sexuality without his toxic influence.
No fantasies – see above.
Unwatchable – I’ll listen to the soundtrack. I don’t need to see this again and I’m not rushing to see the sequels.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (from £2.99), Amazon Prime (to rent £3.49 or buy £4.99), iTunes (rent £5.99, buy £7.99), Ratuken TV (from £7.99)

[Content warning: this post discusses abusive relationships and sexual assault.]

Ana is pressed against the left of the image with her arms above her head and Christian leaning over her to kiss her

I have a confession and don’t judge me too harshly for this one. I don’t hate the Fifty Shades novels. Yes, they’re appallingly written and yes, Christian and Anastasia’s relationship is abuse, not kink, but they’re easy to read and gripping and, more importantly, they were my gateway into erotica. I have to look fondly back on them for that if nothing else. Before reading these books, I clung to the sex scenes in mainstream novels and it took these trash stories to prompt me to look for something better. And, wow, did I find it!

Fifty Shades introduced me to erotica, which led me to sex bloggers and dirty Twitter where I meet my husband and made some really great friends, and which eventually led me here – writing about the filth in movies! But the (justified) disdain for the novels and the 2015 film from within the kink and BDSM community put me off ever seeing the movie and so I watched it for the first time for this blog. I was curious; surely it can’t be that bad?

So what did I like? The soundtrack is fucking hot! I danced to the Ellie Goulding track at my wedding for our first dance and it can only mean love to me now, and the slowed down Beyoncé ‘Crazy in Love’ has such a languid, lazy melody over that hard bass beat that it’s just sex. It’s sex in a song.

Other than that, it proved to be the hate watch that I was expecting. God, it’s awful! And worse, it is frankly dangerous.

In a way, I feel sorry for the actors and director etc as they had nothing to go on. The word vomit of complaints that I am about to unleash are largely against the source material. I really don’t think Jamie Dornan brought his A-game to act in this and his Christian Grey is as flat as the written character. Dakota Johnson manages to create a more interesting Anastasia than EL James could ever have imagined, but her best efforts didn’t stop it being rubbish! Even the wide vistas and beautifully crafted shots couldn’t rescue the film from the drivel that is its plot…

My issues with this film fall into three overlapping areas: the relationship is abusive, Christian does NOT understand kink, and this is not how BDSM (bondage, domination, submission, sadism and masochism) and D/s relationships are supposed to work!

Now that I know more about D/s (dominant and submissive) relationships and know people who live that lifestyle, there is no doubt that Christian is an emotionally abusive partner. For a start, insisting on non-disclosure agreements should be a massive red flag as it effectively isolates Ana from her friends and family, preventing her from talking to the people who should be advising her against him! He is extraordinarily jealous, framing his need to know where she is and who she’s with as being for her own safety in a classic gaslighting technique, and his tendency to appear when he’s not invited to control and manipulate events makes my skin crawl.

Christian Grey, standing in a window looking out over Seattle

He also spends a stupid amount of money on things that she did not ask for, reducing her financial independence and ensuring she feels in his debt. I have driven some shit cars in my life but I would be absolutely furious if some random guy I was fucking sold it without asking me, even if he bought me a shiny new one and even if I was in love with him. Finally, although I could probably think of more, he takes control of her body by insisting she takes oral contraception, something renowned for causing side effects, and managing eating and alcohol intake by shaming her. Urgh…

I was especially horrified when Christian told her that her ‘body tells me something different’ when she tried to leave, claiming signs of arousal meant that he knew what she wanted better than her and, more worryingly, that her words were less important than his interpretation. Jesus, this is sexual assault! This is how rape defendants claim they weren’t doing anything wrong and it has been widely shown to be absolute bullshit. Perpetuating this myth is so so dangerous! No matter the somatic and bodily response, believe their words. No means no, for fucks sake!

Christian is facing Ana and holding her face in his hands

Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised that Christian doesn’t get this as his understanding of consent is laughably poor for someone who claims to be into kink. Although I’d say that his requests are too extreme to be practical, everything he asks for might be acceptable if Ana agreed, including the borderline non-consensual sex. Except. Except she did not agree to any of it. She never specifically says no but this is too much and they don’t know each other well enough for him to make assumptions in the absence of a yes. Christian is so insistent on his ridiculous contract but he does not allow her to seriously negotiate the terms and he definitely does not see how the control that he is incapable to releasing would affect her ability to consent.

In case it needs to be said, consent is situation specific, consent changes with circumstance, consent can be withdrawn at any time and consent is not valid if it is coerced. Also, I really think consent should be enthusiastic! Ana’s inexperience and naivety is practically her only character trait but this will definitely effect her ability to consent to a circumstance that she literally had to google to understand. Does he really think that she is capable of clearly seeing through the rose tinted blindness of her first love to make a decision like this when Christian is telling her it’s the only way they can be together?

‘What would I get out of this?’
‘Me’

His use of contracts is also really messed up! Some D/s couples do have contracts but I don’t know of any that are this strict or this all encompassing. Also, he’s asking her to agree to sexual practices that she’s never tried or heard of. She even asks what butt plugs are for crying out loud! If she’s never heard of butt plugs, how is she going to agree to fisting?!

All of this so far has made me very, very angry, and I could have ranted for much longer, but it’s the limitation and misrepresentation of kink and BDSM that just makes me sad. Sex is supposed to be fun! It’s supposed to be a exploration that they do together. And even if fun isn’t the emotion that you’re looking for, pleasure should at least play some part on it!

A view unto a mirror showing a top less Christian looking at Ana, who is walking away wearing his white shirt

Throughout the film, Christian doesn’t seem to be enjoying this kinky sex that he’s so insistent on. It appears more like a release – he’s so wound up that he has to let off steam to release the pressure and then he can go back to hating himself. It’s framed as a character flaw that is the result of childhood abuse and something about which to be ashamed. It’s also not clear what gives him pleasure – as Ana asks ‘Is this what you want? To see me like this?’ Does he get off on seeing her in pain, full stop, or in giving her the pain she wants? The first is psychopathic; the second is more recognisable within a consensual BDSM scene.

This is where Dakota Johnson is so good in her portrayal of Ana – she looks like she’s enjoying the spanking. She looks like she’s discovering a kink of her own and is gaining pleasure from what Christian wants. Except that he wants more straightaway. He isn’t willing to wait until she’s ready for more; he doesn’t train her or discover her tolerance to pain or explore together what will give them both what they need. God, he’s such a cunt!

Also, having met many people who identify as dominant, I’ve learned that one of the commonest misconceptions is that being a Dom gives them the right to be an arsehole! Although the submissive is more obviously in service of the Dom, the Dom is supposed to be looking out for their sub and taking care of them, even in Master/slave dynamics. Everything he demands is supposed to make the sub happy by giving. It’s why communication and proper consent are so vital! Otherwise, it’s just abuse.

Again, urgh…

The Fifty Shades series – books and movies – have been an entry point to kink and BDSM for so many people and, sadly, not everyone looks elsewhere to find out how to do it safely and properly. I hope I’ve communicated how this film is dangerous and I’d recommend reading real life stories or better written erotica to get a more accurate idea if how to be safe, how to explore and how to have fun! This GOTN post from 2014 when the film was first in the news is a good place to start (as is her blog in general), Kayla Lords writes beautifully about her D/s relationship, and Bibulous One’s blog gives a hotter and safer view of pain play and BDSM. I’d also recommend erotica anthologies edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel, such as the Best Women’s Erotica of the Year series. Let me know if you want more recommendations – there is SO much better writing available than Fifty Shades of fucking Grey!

Next week: Magic Mike XXL

Copyright
MovieStillsDB has a broken page for this film so images are free downloads from GetWallpapers and taken from old reviews. Images may be subject to copyright.