Show Hide image

The 50 Shades film trailer shows us Grey's decor is almost as bad as his BDSM rope-work

Not only does the film look like a bunch of sexist tropes strung out in a row, but if Christian Grey's knots are anything to go by he's rubbish at kink as well.

If the trailer for 50 Shades of Grey is anything to go by, the film looks to be awful. From the offset, it’s packed with sexist film tropes and lazy stereotyping.

Dowdy brunette female protagonist? Check. Stylish, slim, blonde female secretary? Check. Smartly dressed man, his face hidden because it’s important that we immediately understand, as viewers, that looking at the women on screen is going to be far more important than looking at the men? Check.

The opening images we see of Christian Grey, the leading man, are as hilarious as they are unoriginal: with faceless cutaways, we are offered up his environment as clues as to what sort of man he might be. Big man, big office, big… desk. Voiceover saying he’s “intimidating”. Ooh, scary. We see a close up of his finger tapping on his desk. Such a powerful, impatient, dominant man, can’t possibly keep him waiting. Or maybe he just needs to pee?

Anastasia Steele, however, takes up little space, and meekly says “there’s really not much to know about me - look at me”. She’s not being self-deprecating, just self-critical - because all submissive women are like that, obviously. “I am,” he replies, staring at her - because clearly she can only be interesting if a man says so. And that surely is all a woman wants, right? To be seen as something attractive to a man.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We barely have time to explore the politics of on-screen gender representation because we immediately get thrown into a montage of exciting activity. Grey is in a photo shoot; wears expensive suits; gets driven around by a chauffeur; jumps in a helicopter; strides around a penthouse suites; plays a grand piano; pilots a two seater airplane. So much man. Wow. But there’s nothing transgressive in having wealth displayed as aspirational, and particularly in having a rich male character seducing a less-well off female one. It’s the premise of many a rom-com and of the book itself, but the trailer goes one step further: Grey’s opulence is seen as desirable, as wank-fodder for the viewer. It’s as if capitalism itself had ejaculated all over the screen.

And we haven’t even got to the fleeting sexy bits yet.

Set to a breathy remixed version of "Crazy In Love" (where Beyoncé sounds like a cat hacking up a particularly large fur ball) we see in the barely-kinky part of the trailer a series of brief shots, cut together in the hope of appearing tantalising - but watching it frame by frame (I did it so you don’t have to), they are painting by numbers. “My tastes are very singular”, Grey says, taking out a silk blindfold, because obviously that’s unique and unusual and nobody ever does that in bed. A moment later, it’s clear Ana can see out the bottom of the blindfold: not so much a BDSM fail, as incompatible with the character of Grey.

In addition, the rope work we momentarily glimpse is dreadful. You’d think the producers would hire a consultant to at least make it appear convincing; if a character is supposed to be a Big Bad Dominant, then at least make that look persuasive. The trailer really doesn’t bode well for the sexual content.

But, you see, it’s not about accuracy, it’s about fantasy. “I don’t do romance”, Grey says, as he slides his hand up under Ana’s skirt under the table. Apparently, sex and romance are incompatible, and only in films, where men are supposed to be rich and mean and bad boys who don’t want relationships, can women’s fantasies get truly satisfied. There’s nothing progressive about that. It’s not empowering. It’s not even authentic - those who enjoy BDSM have little hope that the film will represent kink in an accurate way.

Worse, though, this trailer offers an entirely unoriginal promise, one that just reinforces the status quo: women - find a rich man and you will have your fantasies fulfilled and discover true happiness. I have little doubt that this film will be successful at the box office, but I fear the impact it will have on how young women see their sexuality: if sexual contentment and wealth are always conflated, then we’re dooming a generation of women to disappointment - and of not having their sexual needs met.

Zoe Margolis is a journalist and writer, famed for writing the Girl With A One-Track Mind blog. You can find more information about her work, including on sexual health, at her website. She's on Twitter as @girlonetrack.

KEVIN C MOORE
Show Hide image

Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism