The success of 50 Shades of Grey has opened up a certain conversation, however confused and hastily politicized, about the nature and role of domination and submission in human sexuality. This topic has been explored by writers and artists for centuries, stretching back in its current form to the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, but what’s interesting about 50 Shades in the contemporary context is the extent to which it has been received as part of the popular conversation over normative sexuality. Contrary to popular belief, 50 Shades isn’t about BDSM at all; it’s about men and women.
The conversation that 50 Shades is trying to have is thorny, and one that our contemporary pop cultural discourse seems particularly ill-suited to speak about meaningfully. The problem with the 50 Shades conversation seems to be that the book and movie are either taken too seriously (as a horrific document to misogyny and male violence) or not seriously enough (as laughable “mommy porn” or not “real BDSM”); I consider these the criticisms from feminism and fetishism, respectively. But the key here is to adopt a stance that is neither dismissive nor sanctimonious and instead to consider the phenomenon on its own terms.
To do this, I’m going to take a look at the work of psychoanalytic feminist Jessica Benjamin and her book, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. Benjamin’s project investigates the source and meaning of sadomasochism in human sexuality; in particular, she “seeks to understand how domination is anchored in the hearts of the dominated.” Benjamin is thus interested in discovering the psychic organizational mechanisms that lead so much of feminine sexuality to be organized around passive structures like masochism and submissiveness, and more broadly, how woman comes to be viewed (and to view herself) as the object to man’s subject.
“A sharper perspective on this matter is particularly important to feminist thought today, because a major tendency in feminism has constructed the problem of domination as a drama of female vulnerability victimized by male aggression. Even the more sophisticated feminist thinkers frequently shy away from the analysis of submission, for fear that in admitting woman’s participation in the relationship of domination, the onus of responsibility will appear to shift from men to women…To reduce domination to a simple relation of doer and done-to is to substitute moral outrage for analysis. Such simplification, moreover, reproduces the structure of gender polarity under the guise of attacking it.”
Benjamin’s view of sadomasochism and its role in constituting normative heterosexuality, discussed below, should be considered alongside the understandable but perhaps misguided discussion in certain feminist circles, namely that the book and film are commercialized depictions of male abusiveness.
Read from a certain point of view, 50 Shades is about a pervert billionaire that seduces a virgin girl and pressures her into all sorts of degrading treatment (sexual, emotional, and otherwise) in a way that she’s never totally comfortable with. But this reading isn’t inaccurate so much as it is reductive. There’s far more to be said here.
Let’s take a look.
Benjamin’s critique expands beyond the supposedly illicit world of BDSM and applies equally to the power relationships commonly found in normative heterosexuality, thereby erasing the imaginary line between “normal” and “pervert” sexual behavior in much the same way 50 Shades itself does.
Benjamin reads contemporary theories of infant development in conjunction with Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, locating erotic domination and submission in our paradoxical need for inter-subjective recognition. Axiomatically, each individual consciousness wishes to assert its independent existence (i.e. its claim to subjectivity). But to assert one’s subjective independence is really an act of dependence, because it always means relying on the recognition of another consciousness. To truly be a subject, you need another subject to agree.
The emergent inter-subjective dynamic involves each consciousness wondering whether the other is merely a figment of its imagination, or more troublingly, it’s the other way around. This is a legitimate paradox for the human mind, leading to an unbearable tension that breaks down into a power relationship. A dominant-asserting subject conquers, in a sense, a submissive-recognizing subject.
This dynamic structures all human relationships, but one of its major forms is sexual. To make a long story short, this process starts in early infant life and gets incorporated into gendered libidinal economy in the oedipal phase. Because of the different ways that male and female children identify with dual-sex parents (or simply the culturally established notions of “mother” and “father”), when the essential tension of recognition breaks down into dominant and submissive correlates, it tends to break down along gendered lines.
For the dominant subject (normatively masculine), this means that sexuality will be organized around radical self-assertion in the form of coercive demands for recognition. The dominant wants a submissive to acknowledge the existence and legitimacy of his desire. In other words, a dominant needs a submissive to ratify or legitimize his subjectivity. However, the dominant can only subjugate the submissive so much; at a certain level of domination, the submissive subject begins to approach the status of object. An object, devoid of desire and independent existence, is by definition incapable of offering the recognition that the dominant seeks.
The (normatively feminine) submissive subject’s strategy exploits this necessary relationship between subjectivity and recognition. Since only a true subject can recognize another subject, as long as the dominant is still assertive and demanding recognition from her, it means that the submissive is being recognized as a subject, albeit indirectly. Paradoxically, it is the masochist’s internal ability to sustain some measure of subjectivity in the face of degrading treatment that ensures her recognition and status as true subject. As Benjamin puts it, “her pleasure, so to speak, lies in her sense of her own survival.”
(I’m obliged to note that for reasons related to length and readability, I’ve significantly simplified these ideas. If you’re skeptical, offended, or want to know more, email me or check out the work of feminist psychoanalysts like Jessica Benjamin, Juliet Mitchell, and Jacqueline Rose.)
With this brief framework in mind, we’re able to take another look at what’s going on in 50 Shades. The principal criticism from both the feminist and fetishist points of view seems to focus on the obvious difference between consent and coercion. Much has been made over Ana’s apparent discomfort with Christian’s sexual proclivities and his aggressively controlling nature, with many observers pointing out that Christian’s behavior crosses a safe boundary.
Indeed, a large amount of the book and movie is dedicated to an agonizing back and forth, involving Christian persuading or pressuring Ana into doing things she isn’t sure she wants to do. Ana responds to his advances with negotiation and compromise at least as often as she expresses flattery and genuine sexual excitement.
On the one hand, making this process so central to the book’s structure and literalizing it into contract negotiation seems to underscore the necessity of informed sexual consent and trust between the two lovers. But at the same time, Christian is often depicted as demanding Ana’s consent, not merely asking for it, substantially distorting Ana’s active consent into passive surrender. Part of what makes the book such a sluggish read is Ana’s continuous and repetitive internal monologue over these things, as she struggles to come to terms with the limits and contours of her desire.
But if we remember that erotic domination and submission is all about the mutual need for recognition, Christian and Ana’s somewhat adversarial relationship makes some sense. Ana’s conflict over her submissive role in Christian’s sexual life as well as her inner debate between her “subconscious” and “inner goddess” (signifying a sexual ambivalence that is apparently quite common for some women) accentuates how essential the submissive’s sustained subjectivity is to the dominant. Fundamentally, it is Ana’s ability to maintain her status as desiring subject (with her own wants and needs independent of Christian’s wishes) while being treated as an object (or quasi-object) by Christian that he finds so irresistibly attractive.
If Ana didn’t persist in challenging Christian’s overbearing self-assertion, she’d lose her subjectivity and become unable to grant him recognition. This, for a dominant like Christian, is the ultimate nightmare scenario. As a prototypical dominant, Christian is terrified not of intimacy but of loneliness and isolation. Overwhelmed with guilt over his overassertive need for recognition, Christian thinks that should he “open up” emotionally he’ll end up truly alone. Christian’s fear is that once he fully asserts himself to someone he loves, there will be no one left over to love him back.
For most of 50 Shades, Ana’s subjectivity is sustained by the very agency that appears to most threaten it, namely Christian’s libidinal fixation and demand for recognition. Recall that recognition can only be given by a subject; a dominant has no real use for an actual object. So, strangely, it is her place within Christian’s desire, her ability to provide what he lacks with her own subjectivity –that is, by her satisfying his desire with her own desire, that actually guarantees her continued subjectivity.
For a time, Ana and Christian’s relationship tracks Benjamin’s framework nicely, as two psychologically legitimate albeit “gendered” ways of dealing with the paradox of inter-subjective recognition. Domination and submission via sex is the only way each can negotiate the paradox of the other.
However and as one might expect, this complementarity is by its nature ill-fated. Mutual recognition seems to continue despite a partial breakdown in tension into dominance and submission, but only as long as the submissive can sustain her subjectivity. Problems arise if a dominant’s assertiveness is so violent and demeaning as to actually reduce the submissive subject to a true object. Once that happens, both partners are locked out from recognizing each other and trapped in a dark, lonely reality.
The film’s peculiar ending is a depiction of exactly this nightmare. Christian goes too far, Ana feels herself reduced to a true object, she cannot survive as a subject, and their shared sense of mutual recognition evaporates. For both, this means living in a world of alienation and grief.
This brief interpretation of the book and movie is not meant to legitimate or condone this dynamic, in many ways a genuine prototype for the unacceptable way that men and women so often relate to each other. Emphatically, Benjamin’s structure (like all forms of psychoanalytic theory) is not meant to prescribe norms, but simply to describe them. Half of Banjamin’s book is dedicated to finding a way out of this deadlock.
But for our purposes, Benjamin’s work nonetheless suggests that there has been a certain failure to thoroughly and thoughtfully problematize 50 Shades from both the feminist and fetishist points of view, particularly by failing to appreciate the way dominance and submissiveness is often related (as a matter unconscious thought process) to normative structures of masculine and feminine identity and sexual enjoyment.
One film goes further with this idea by removing the diegetic male element entirely. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy depicts a sadomasochistic relationship between two women. Though written and directed by a man, the film features an all-female cast. It hardly needs saying that Burgundy is a superior film in just about every way, but it is interesting to note how both films say essentially the same thing about love, sex, and sadomasochism.
In addition to giving us a chance to examine erotic domination and submission outside of the traditional gender polarity, Burgundy also gives us some insight into sadomasochism by shifting our focus from the submissive to the dominant. While 50 Shades explores how being a submissive partner can be both thrilling and uncomfortable, Burgundy is about the less obvious way in which being a dominant can be just as distressing.
Set in a kind of timeless bubble of rural England, Burgundy tells the story of Evelyn and Cynthia, two women who spend their time studying butterflies, pinning moths, and engaging in elaborate sadomasochistic role-play. Evelyn, the ardent masochist of the two, has Cynthia conduct detailed scenarios scripted on index cards that involve shaming, punishment, and physical subjection.
As the story progresses, Evelyn demands new and intensified forms of debasement, ever increasing in their specificity and severity. Eventually, as their sex lives begin to fully revolve around Evelyn’s sexual needs, it becomes clear that Cynthia is not quite comfortable with domination. She yearns to relate to Evelyn on a deeper level and in a more tender fashion, much the same way Ana plays along with Christian’s cold fantasy while pining for a different kind of emotional intimacy.
In Burgundy’s most striking scene, the two women wake up next to each other and Evelyn asks Cynthia to say things to her while she masturbates. Cynthia begins with words of love and affection, but Evelyn quickly clarifies her desire to be spoken to in a scolding, humiliating manner.
This dynamic plays out magnificently on the screen until it becomes apparent that the lovers’ recognitional tension has broken down. At this point, the film depicts the dual nightmare fates of the dominant and the submissive. According to Benjamin, “once the tension between subjugation and resistance dissolves, death or abandonment is the inevitable end of the story.”
After getting into an argument over fidelity, Cynthia walks out on Evelyn as the latter begs and pleads for her to stay. This scene, though brief and somewhat understated, is absolutely key to understanding Evelyn’s masochism. Since her erotic submission has always been about the need for recognition, the worst possible situation for Evelyn is one in which Cynthia simply stops asserting herself through domination. Once this happens, Evelyn’s safe sense of being recognized by her vanishes, and with it the security of her subjectivity.
In 50 Shades, we see Ana dreading the same kind of abandonment in the constant jealousy she feels toward “Mrs. Robinson.” I’d further note that in Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, the submissive Severin had only one request of the dominant Wanda: that she promises to never leave him.
Meanwhile, we see Evelyn’s fear in the form of a literal nightmare toward the end of the film. Dreaming, Evelyn finds herself walking in the woods until she comes across the enormous chest that she commonly locks Cynthia in at night (at Cynthia’s eager request, of course). Evelyn opens the chest to find a skeleton inside, signifying her fear that one day, Evelyn’s personality will not survive all the mistreatment she has Cynthia inflict; in other words, Evelyn fears Cynthia will die in a subjective sense and that there will be no one left over to love her back.
This is the same exact fear that Christian has in 50 Shades, namely that Ana and her love will, in a psychical sense, fade away and die because of his sexual needs. Therefore, both Christian and Cynthia fear that their submissive will become a true object lacking in subjectivity and incapable of participation in mutual recognition.
To conclude, we see in both 50 Shades and Burgundy how erotic sadomasochism stems from the paradox of inter-subjectivity. As postulated by Hegel in the master-slave dialectic, inter-subjective recognition inevitably breaks down into a relationship of domination and submission, which itself leads to a complete failure of recognition once the dominant becomes so assertive as to reduce the submissive subject to a true object.
Oedipal factors tend to place men and women on opposite sides of the dominant-submissive complementarity when we speak about the shape and character of broad sexual normativity, but Burgundy reminds us that there is nothing inherently male, female, gay, or straight about either sadism or masochism. Rather, varying degrees of dominance and submission are likely to be a major part of any human sexual relationship and individual people will always relate to these concepts in unique ways. The rub, in all cases, is how we can use this understanding so that even as we experience domination and submission as a source of genuine thrill and pleasure in our personal sex lives, we don’t lose sight of each other’s subjectivity.
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