BONDAGE, discipline (or domination), sadism and masochism - BDSM - is a form of erotic practice often seen as a sexual subculture of a deviant nature. BDSM themes and iconography have featured in film for most of the industry’s history and it is often open to extensive debate due to the hard to define nature of the practice itself. BDSM relies on paradox and this use of paradox for gratification. This has been seen within film to sexually intensify power relationships, distinguishing “good” and “evil”. While explorations of BDSM have historically taken place in the terrain of art or marginal cinema, on occasion it will find its way into the mainstream. A notable example is Sam Taylor-Johnson’s 2015 adaptation of the EL James bestselling blockbuster FIFTY SHADES OF GREY.
The key to how BDSM is screened relies on understanding the sadomasochistic relationship as a staged act. Many people within BDSM communities refer to sexual encounters involving BDSM as “scenes”. It becomes obvious that BDSM and film share common interests and a sense of theatre is important for both of them. While FIFTY SHADES OF GREY was a box-office smash, grossing $571 million worldwide, many critics and members of BDSM communities took issue with its representation of the subculture. Taking advantage of the FIFTY SHADES phenomenon by her own admission, adult film writer and director Jacky St James noted that she intended her film THE SUBMISSION OF EMMA MARX (2013) to be a more “honest” representation of a BDSM relationship. In an interview for Salon in 2015, she stated the FIFTY SHADES female protagonist “was so incredibly weak and pathetic […] I can’t believe that that many women in society would feel like Anastasia Steele somehow resonated with them as a character. I hated her. I absolutely hated her”.
Both screenplays were written by women, both were directed by women and both aimed at a female demographic. Both female protagonists in their respective narratives also take on the role of submissive in their relationships and the circumstances through which they get to that point is almost identical. They both use female voice to position audience and emphasise the female perspective of erotica. This already sits broadly outside the conventional parameters of the sex film, pornography particularly, where the producers and consumers are predominantly
male. One is a Hollywood studio film, the other a porn film. Which is the better representation of BDSM?
Theorists have attempted to define different ways of categorising films featuring sadomasochistic relationships. In her 2006 book SEX AND THE CINEMA, scholar Tanya Krzywinska uses the term “fantasy BDSM” to categorise films about women going through the “initiation” stage of their BDSM relationship, something played out as fantasy in both FIFTY SHADES and THE SUBMISSION OF EMMA MARX. Krzywinska also refers to “BDSM subculture” to describe films “located diegetically in the ‘real’ world [that] often deal, lightly, with identity politics”.
ONE IS A HOLLYWOOD STUDIO FILM, THE OTHER A PORN FILM. WHICH IS THE BETTER REPRESENTATION OF BDSM?
She goes on to say that “they often have a persuasive element in that BDSM is presented positively. BDSM practice is couched within the context of love and a central heterosexual romance, to which comedy might be added in an effort not to scare-off a more general audience”. Both films can be placed within this category. However, many would argue that FIFTY SHADES OF GREY does not belong here. Although both films play with the idea of fantasy, unlike THE SUBMISSION OF EMMA MARX, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY disregards other important aspects of BDSM in order to do so.
Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) is controlling and obsessive with Anastasia (Dakota Johnson). His behaviour is frequently questionable; he shows up whenever, in his opinion, she is in danger and sells her property without her consent. These instances are almost never seen within the context of a romantic drama, especially between the two central characters. Grey’s use of psychologically abusive behaviour is pathologised by his sexual pleasure in BDSM and Anastasia’s naïve approach toward her own sexuality makes such representations even more misleading.
ESTABLISHING CONSENT IS CRUCIAL.
IN THE SUBMISSION OF EMMA MARX, the eponymous character (Penny Pax) is also framed as naïve regarding her own sexual desires yet this narrative is a crucial part of her journey to sexual liberation and how she finds that within BDSM. The film tells us that a dominant is not a pathological control freak, a submissive is not weak and, outside a “scene”, these behaviours are not BDSM. There are no scenes in which Mr Frederick (Richie Calhoun) dominates Emma unnecessarily and this is the biggest difference between the two films. Anastasia’s exploration of her own sexuality is barely a narrative feature of the narrative, however it is paramount to THE SUBMISSION OF EMMA MARX and is entirely about her “exploration of the role of power in pleasure”, to borrow a phrase from film scholar Linda Williams in her 1989 study HARD CORE: POWER, PLEASURE AND THE “FRENZY OF THE VISIBLE”.
A consideration of limits in any BDSM encounter is fundamental to establish before any “scene” takes place and establishing consent is crucial. Both films demonstrate this encounter between couples in differing and revealing ways. FIFTY SHADES OF GREY plays on the comedy of Anastasia’s naiveté through the forming of a contract. Consent in THE SUBMISSION OF EMMA MARX is only very briefly discussed before a sexual encounter takes place. Although there is no long conversation regarding the contract between Emma and Mr Frederick, their dialogue repeatedly gravitates towards consent and limits, posing as a reminder to the audience of its importance in establishing BDSM relationships.
Anastasia and Christian never sign their contract and, after a few brief scenes where it is the topic of discussion, consent and limits dissolve into unimportance. Christian even proclaims at one point, “Fuck the contract, I think it’s a little redundant now don’t you?”. This irresponsibly represents BDSM whereby the use of contract and consent appear as just another form of BDSM iconography rather than one of its most important features.
Visually representing Anastasia and Christian’s sexual encounters is vital to FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and the scenes, similar to pornography, dominate the film. The sex scenes that take place in THE SUBMISSION OF EMMA MARX are more seamlessly woven into the narrative. The film opens with a sex scene between Emma’s sister and partner, a couple already defined as “normal” by Emma in her own narration. Their sex acts are choreographed to evoke a sense of intimacy and sensuality not usually seen in pornography’s sexually explicit scenes. Clearly, due to regulation and certification, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY cannot display actual, or simulated, penetrative sex within the film. It gets around this issue much like other mainstream films by using editing techniques such as montage and ellipses.
FANTASY IS A KEY FEATURE OF WHAT IS A MULTIDIMENSIONAL AND PARADOXICAL AREA OF SEXUALITY.
However, because BDSM is typically less about actual penetrative sex and more concerned with sadomasochistic acts, the film is able to include softcore scenes of BDSM, and relies on its representation of fantasy for the audience to fill in the space intentionally left to the imagination. As pornography, THE SUBMISSION OF EMMA MARX shows hardcore scenes of BDSM and these also often begin with BDSM conventions, where we see Emma being tied and spanked without the camera cutting away, before developing into explicit sex scenes.
The representation of BDSM within FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is quite clearly flawed and using the taboo allure of BDSM to make the sexual encounters “dangerous”. This is evident in the representation of Anastasia as a woman conforming to Christian’s sexual desires and whims in order to please him, rather than focusing on her own pleasure or self-exploration. THE SUBMISSION OF EMMA MARX could not be more different in this regard. BDSM is a means through which Emma finds sexual liberation and this is constantly reaffirmed through her narration. The film is able to capture the relationship BDSM has with fantasy and boundaries while foregrounding female pleasure. It does not pathologise BDSM or present controlling behaviours outside of sexual context and contract.
While FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is a commoditised representation of BDSM, it does foreground fantasy as a key feature of what is a multidimensional and paradoxical area of sexuality. Although BDSM presents numerous challenges in being represented on screen due to the unseen elements of the culture, with its emphasis on scenes, it is an exciting and titillating area of sexuality almost perfectly designed for the screen if safety and consent remain clearly at the forefront.