Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Tag: Consent

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

YEAR: 1975
DIRECTOR: Jim Sharman
KEY ACTORS: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.4
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 80%

SEX SCORE: 3.5/5
✔️ So Rocky Horror passes the Bechdel Test, but this is another example where it can be argued that its passing is ‘dubious.’ It does literally pass the binary test, but all the qualifying conversations between named female characters are still about sex…just sex with a woman.
✔️ It is rewatchable. But I’d recommend watching it at the cinema if at all possible – it is so much more fun that way!
✔️ And I do want to fuck the cast. They’re all either very extreme or very normal, but the characters are so horny that they have an undeniable appeal. Also, I love a man in stockings…
❓ Unsure if this really count as inspiring a fantasy as it didn’t get quite as far as a full-blown fantasy, but this film is certainly the first time that I saw a man in heels and stockings look so good and, lets just say, it changed things!
❌ But considering how revolutionary it was at the time it was released and how important it has been to queer representation, I don’t think Rocky Horror is sex positive. Frank is too predatory; Rocky is too exploited; Janet is not a slut. It’s wonderful but its sexual politics haven’t aged so well.

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

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The poster from Rocky Horror showing Dr Frank N Furter sitting on a pair of red lips

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not so much a movie as an experience. A phenomenon. First released to mixed reception in 1975, it has become the archetypal cult film. Regular midnight showings are congregated by hordes of fancy-dressed diehard fans who add their own lines between those on screen and bring props to interact with the story themselves. It’s like nothing else; Rocky Horror is an institution.

OK before we get into it, let’s try to summarise the plot! Average American couple, Brad (Bostwick) and Janet (Sarandon), have a puncture when driving through the woods in a storm and approach a strange castle to see if they have a telephone to call for help. The castle is the home of Dr Frank N Furter (Curry) and his servants who persuade Brad and Janet to stay the night by singing and dancing and, well, taking their clothes. Frank invites them up to his lab (to see what’s on the slab) where he has created a perfect man – the eponymous Rocky Horror – essentially as a sex toy. Later in the night, Frank tricks both Brad and Janet into sleeping with him and then, well, it becomes a bit chaotic! There’s a scientist in a wheelchair, cannibalism, turning people to stone, more stockings, more songs, a musical number/orgy in a swimming pool and eventually Frank’s servants, RiffRaff and Magenta, turn on him and reveal themselves to all be aliens from Transylvania. They kill Frank, release Brad and Janet, and take off in the castle-spaceship to return to Transylvania. Phew…

Image from Rocky Horror, showing the main characters dancing a chorus line in stockings and suspenders

Now, Rocky Horror is a film whose legend is almost bigger than the film itself, and I knew all about it and its following long before I had ever seen it. My mother used to tell me stories of going to see it in the 1980s, singing and bringing along water pistols to create rain, and it sounded like the most incredible thing I had ever heard. I’m a huge fan of immersive cinema now but it was so new when I heard stories about these midnight showings that they sounded like magic and I was desperate to be a part of it. I wanted to see the movie so much – and I wanted to see it in the cinema, late at night, wearing fishnets and throwing pieces of toast into the air. Except that I was about 10 at the time my mother told me these stories and living in deepest darkest countryside so I couldn’t go even if I were allowed!

Sadly, years and years and years then passed and I still had not seen the film so when I spotted it on TV, I thought I’d give it a watch. And, honestly, I thought it was really weird. It was so bizarre and I didn’t get it. At all. I was so disappointed! But when I mentioned this to my mother, she wasn’t surprised – it is a strange film and it does make no sense, and that’s because it can’t easily be watched in isolation. As Roger Ebert wrote, Rocky Horror is a movie that ‘played as a backdrop to the stage show by the fans.’ It needs the fans and the interaction to make sense! So I tried again. I found a proper showing and, although I didn’t dress up as I was there by myself and wasn’t ready for that, it had everything else and it was in-credible. Over the top and immersive and hysterical, and I loved it. And now I won’t watch it any other way!

An image from Rocky Horror showing Rocky wearing gold hotpants

For me, this was the first introduction to how powerful community can be, particularly kink, queer and sex positive communities. Although Rocky Horror isn’t perfect, it was one of the earliest mainstream representations of queerness on screen and these midnight showings ‘provided a place where the socially and sexually marginalised could gather each week and rejoice in each other’s company.’ Even in otherwise pretty conservative cities, showings of Rocky Horror would allow people to gather together and express themselves in a way that would often be frankly dangerous in other circumstances: ‘It was a family. A loose, cliquish one divided into participants and gawkers, to be sure, but a community nonetheless.

The importance of this community cannot be overstated. It was a safe space at a time when there weren’t enough of these available. Frank is a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania and he is awesome! He’s wearing make-up and stockings and heels and he is powerful. And within the hyperactive and bizarre context of the movie, he isn’t a joke; he makes sense. I cannot imagine how freeing it must have been to ‘see someone like Frank-N-Furter be the leader of a society and be unapologetically confident and sexually ambiguous.’ Not only him, there is gender queer representation all over the place with femme and masc presenting observers among the TimeWarp dancers. Alongside this, Brad and Janet represent the more vanilla, mainstream attitudes so everyone could feel welcome: ‘It is an opportunity to see oneself in a film, it provides a place for self-expression, and it gives meaning to peoples’ lives…Brad and Janet embody the more conservative audience of the film, while Frank-N-Furter and his servants give a voice to those who have never felt represented by characters in film or television.’

An image from Rocky Horror showing a dancing troupe dancing to the Time Warp

I am very fortunate because I have never needed a safe place like this as being myself has never carried the same risks as those faced by LGBT people in the 1970s and 1980s, but I still recognise how much having a community of like minded people has changed and supported me. Interacting with people who share my less mainstream values on sex, non-monogamy or kink has given me the confidence to accept those parts of me with less shame or concern than I would have if I’d faced them alone. So I can completely understand how watching Dr Frank N Furter up there on screen and then making friends with others in the audience who experienced the same challenges would have encouraged a sense of belonging and confidence that helped people accept themselves, and maybe accept themselves enough to come out.

An image from Rocky Horror showing Brad and Janet opening the castle door and shaking hands with RifRaf

But the world is different now and so is Rocky Horror’s place in it. In 1975, Rocky Horror was released into a pre-AIDS world where homosexuality had only been removed from the American Classification of Mental Disorders two years previously (something the WHO wouldn’t do until 1992!) and where Pride movements were still in their earliest stages – the rainbow Pride flag would only be adopted three years later. In 1975, queer communities needed this movie and this safe space as they had so little else.

Now, in 2019, while there is obviously still much work to be done, society is more accepting of queer and trans people, and so Rocky Horror has lost some of its power. You could say that it’s done its job! But now that it’s no longer a ‘boundary breaker,’ what is it?

Well, as dominant cultures tend to do, it’s been appropriated by the mainstream! Rocky Horror has been described as ‘LGBT cosplay for straight people’ and as a ‘chance for the comfortable to dip their toes in their perception of LGBT culture.’ It is no longer a groundbreaking safe place; Rocky Horror is a circus act.

And when viewed in this way, it starts to look much more problematic. Take Frank N Furter as an obvious example – he is extreme and over the top, but outside of the over the top context of the movie and the historical context of the time, he is just a predator. His aggressive form of sexuality can even make him look like ‘a caricature of the LGBT predator conservative lawmakers are so intent on convincing us is real.’ He manipulates Brad and Janet into sleeping with him by hiding his identity until the last minute, a clear consent violation; he builds Rocky to have sex with and literally chases him around the castle when Rocky tries to escape, suggesting Rocky doesn’t really consent to fucking Frank either. And don’t forget that Frank kills and then eats Eddie when he looks elsewhere. He is a monster! As the Houston Press so descriptively put it, ‘remove the singing and he is basically Buffalo Bill with better fashion sense.

Image from Rocky Horror showing a snarling Frank N Furter

In fact, Jef Rouner, writing for the Houston Press in 2017, now has very strong views about the problematic nature of Rocky Horror in the modern world, describing how his relationship with the movie has changed. He went from regular performer and disciple to hesitating to share the movie that means so much to him with his daughter as he’s not certain it contains messages he wants her to hear. ‘Screaming “slut” whenever anyone says Janet’s name is arguably the single most basic call line in Rocky Horror history,’ he explains, and even though she has no more sex than the other main characters, she is the only one to get labeled.

An image from Rocky Horror showing Janet and Rocky wrapped in a blanket

When asked to justify the use of this sort of language, Rouner used to respond with ‘righteous indignation,’ citing tradition and the ‘unique cinematic experience’ of Rocky as reasons why the complaint held no merit. Now older, he has realised that he had been wrong to disregard their concerns: ‘Looking back at it now, I sounded like freakin’ GamerGate. I sounded like every other aggrieved son of privilege beating his chest because his toys made other people uncomfortable. It’s a weirdly conservative mind-set for something that was supposed to be about breaking boundaries.’

So what is Rocky Horror now?

Well, to me, it’s a testament to progress. It is dated and it is problematic – but as are so many other movies from the 1970s. The 1970s were a problematic time! We do live in a different time now, thank goodness, and we can’t expect media from the past to represent current attitudes. It can still be enjoyed if we look at it critically and understand what was important and what is important, and what we can and have learned from it.

And it is definitely ‘encouraging that the world no longer needs Rocky Horror the way it did in decades past.’ So maybe it is now just the ‘richest sources of holiday costume ideas’ to come out of the history of cinema. And maybe it is an excuse for the conservative and conventional to drag up and maybe it too problematic to be anything other than a bit of fun.

But, oh, what fun it is! I still love watching this film and still love to dress up and sing along. And maybe, just maybe, there are still people who will benefit from seeing ‘two conventional young sheeple having their eyes opened to all the possibilities of absolute pleasure’ by going to the movies and spending ‘two hours in the dark with a bunch of other weirdoes!

Next week: Colette

Thank you to ‘Rainbow Revolutions‘ by Jamie Lawson and Eve Lloyd Knight for providing a great history of the fight for queer rights. Definite recommendation!
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.

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.

What women want

YEAR: 2001
DIRECTOR: Nancy Meyers
KEY ACTORS: Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt, Marisa Tomei
CERTIFICATE: 12
IMDB SCORE: 6.4/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 54%

SEX SCORE: 1/5
Not sex positive – I suspect this was supposed to be sex positive – or at least vaguely feminist – but it hasn’t aged well at all and the male gaze is too infuriating for it to count.
I don’t particularly want to watch this again – I fear that it will only age further…
It didn’t inspire any fantasies – it’s more of a romance than a sexual film, but it’s certainly not a romantic trope that I’d like to be involved in: misogynist undermines professional woman, almost destroying her career, and yet she falls in love with him anyway!?
I don’t want to fuck Mel Gibson. Helen Hunt, maybe, but not enough for a point…
✔️ Somehow this does pass the Bechdel test, but I’m giving the mark very begrudgingly – women talk to each other about something other than men but they rarely both have names and are almost always interrupted by men. Urgh.

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

STREAMING: YouTube (from £2.99), Amazon Prime (free with subscription)

[Content warning: this contains brief mentions of sexual assault and discusses potential non-consensual sex]

A poster for What Women Want showing Mel Gibson smiling forward with Helen Hunt looking passed him

I wish I could remember how What Women Want came across in 2001 when it was released. Eighteen years is a long time but this film feels like a million miles from current acceptability and it seems inconceivable that it was made this century, let alone that it became the second highest grossing romantic comedy of all time! When I added this film to my list, I wrote ‘#MeToo’ next to it as I feel this should be shown to anyone who doubts how difficult men can make life for women – professionally, socially, romantically, publicly. It’s essentially a public information video!

Because Mel Gibson’s Nick Marshall is awful. Was he seen as the hero he thinks he is back in 2001 or did we notice how fucking awful he is? Luckily it seems that reviews at the time were similarly appalled, with Salon stating the film ‘does nothing but condescend’ women and should be seen as ‘an intriguing if ugly little nugget of social history,’ but I was still shocked at how far it went. In the opening scene and subsequent long walk to his office, Nick is condescending, patronising and dismissive. He literally sexually assaults a women, ‘accidentally’ grabbing her breasts, he harasses another, and men are shown to be in awe of his prowess. Less than 15 minutes in and I already feel like I need a shower…

This really bothers me as I don’t think Nick was intended to be such a monumental twat and the Guardian review at the time even felt that ‘from the outset, it is made crystal clear that he is supposed to be lovable.’ He isn’t an evil figure who is shown the error of his ways; he’s a normal, pretty cool guy who becomes heroic – and gets the girl.

Mel Gibson holding items from a box including a bra

My dislike of this film can be summed up by a quote from Nick’s therapist: ‘If you know what women want, you can rule.’ Not help them, not make their lives easier, not act in a more empathetic and understanding fashion towards his equals; he could rule. Urgh, really?

The more I watched, the more I became convinced that the writers of this film don’t actually like women. They certainly aren’t doing us any favours once they ‘reveal’ what we’re thinking – it’s all stereotypes or weak attempts at humour. Women are shown to be constantly calorie counting, anxious or rude. They also seem to be either secret lesbians or attracted to Gibson’s character, further emphasising his value. Oh, and don’t forget that his secretaries have no thoughts at all. Hahahaha, how funny to belittle women in the work place. (This film made me really angry!)

It made me so angry because the depiction of professional women is exactly what we have spent decades trying to undo. It is the Patriarchy writ large, emphasising that women just aren’t as good as men professionally. In 2001. I may be accused of missing the joke…but the redemptive arc did nothing to fix this particular discrepancy.

Whether their thoughts demonstrated frustration or suppressed intelligence, the humour and plot devices serve to undermine the female characters rather than uplift them. Nick’s assistant silently screams in her thoughts about how over qualified she is to be getting him coffee, but he doesn’t promote her – he encourages her to move her boyfriend to the USA from Israel. He gives Judy Greer’s file clerk a better job only when she decides to kill herself. He never appears to change his general opinion of women in the work place, just gains more respect for a select few and gossips with a few more. The fact that he eventually realised how good Darcy is at her job remains the exception rather than his new rule.

Helen Hunt is holding a poster board and looking over at Mel Gibson

Before this realisation, Helen Hunt’s character, Darcy, is particularly poorly served and I hate that she is used to confirm all the awful stereotypes that professional women face. She is literally hired because she is a woman, not because she is the best candidate, and her ‘competition’ (Nick) is told this. What a way to undermine her before she starts! She is also described as a ‘bitch on wheels,’ a very lazy criticism of a professional woman, despite clearly being charming and empathetic once we meet her. I couldn’t help but worry that hearing her anxious and self-depreciating thoughts undermines her further, revealing her insecurities. Does it make her more real and a better role model to know how much she worries about being taken seriously? Or is it fuel to the misogynistic fire that claims women aren’t fit for such professional responsibilities?

A publicity shot of Helen Hunt

It is also such a cliche of gender inequality that men repeat exactly what their female colleagues have said and are given all the credit, and here Nick goes further by stealing their ideas before they’ve even said them out loud. I would have loved to have seen him hear a good idea and encourage the thinker to speak up more, using the fact that his voice will be heard to promote them like a proper ally, even if this had to happen after his epiphany. He literally never used his gift for anything but selfish pursuits.

This is never more clear than when he uses his psychic ability during sex, and using these abilities does raise questions about consent. In two situations, Nick hears thoughts that contradict what the women say out loud – Marisa Tomei’s character Lola thinks regret about turning him down and Darcy pleads in her head for him to ask her inside after a date. I ranted in the Fifty Shades post about how we have to trust the words spoken to us, not whatever clues may be drawn from body language, but does this apply to thoughts? Obviously it’s a hypothetical question but it is an interesting one. Do we ever think in our best interests? I know I let my thoughts and desires run free in directions that I’d never want in reality and would hate to think these are being used to discount my well considered spoken words. I’d go as far as to say that we have as much control over our thoughts as we do our bodily responses (i.e. not very much!) so I’m inclined to feel that Nick is unfairly manipulating the situation in his favour by using these women’s thoughts as an excuse to act. Is it consensual when he has this kind of power?

It feels particularly invasive for Lola as her overheard fears match exactly what happens, despite still desiring him in her thoughts. She turns him down initially as she’s worried about getting hurt, fears he uses to make himself seem like a more sensitive man, and then he forgets and discards her after they fuck, just as she knew he would! Yet she’s portrayed as a crazy girl. We shouldn’t be criticised for having ‘crazy’ thoughts – it’s our words and actions that count and Lola’s were ignored. She tried to protect herself and she was overruled.

This rant is getting away from me so I have just one more thing to say about hearing women’s thoughts during sex. Isn’t it interesting that when he listens and responds to what Lola wants, the sex is incredible. He is even declared a sex god! Can you think of better proof that women should speak up more and men should listen more?

I think it’s safe to say that this film has not aged well! But a recent article by the AV film club suggests that it feels so upsetting now as Nick’s redemption arc is too familiar to that of Mel Gibson himself following his own #MeToo disgrace. Gibson went from anti-Semitic drunk whose career appeared to be over after recordings of violent threats to his girlfriend were discovered to being welcomed back with open arms following his nomination for the Academy Award for best director in 2016 for Hacksaw Ridge. He is described as a ‘blueprint for “a #MeToo comeback,” which other publicly disgraced men can now follow.’ The bar for Nick’s redemption is hilariously low – he forgets his daughter’s prom but is a hero for being called to rescue her there, he costs Darcy her job but is a good man worthy of her love for admitting to lying and getting her job back – and it doesn’t seem like it’s enough. As with these men ‘recovering’ from accusations of sexual assault, their penance is rarely enough.

So what do women want? We just want to be heard.

Next week: Eyes Wide Shut

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.