Fifty Shades of Foucault


The upcoming release of the Fifty Shades of Grey film, in conjunction with my reading of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Vol. I, (because, naturally, the two go together like the proverbial peanut butter and jelly) got me to thinking. What would Foucault say about the particular power/sexual dynamic of the story? Would he value the mainstream discourse on sex it has promulgated? In all likelihood he would laugh at the very idea, since the story depicts an impressionable young woman swept off her randy feet by none other than a power-crazed, über-masculinized bachelor. In a plot twist that hardly qualifies as one, they go through a brief soul-shattering breakup, followed by equally soul-shattering make-up sex, then get married and have kids. (Oops. Spoiler alert?)

Foucault is probably rolling over in his grave at the very suggestion of entertaining this. Nonetheless (or as my husband would say for shits and giggles, less than none), the book/film has a certain value insofar as it reifies Oscar Wilde’s oft-quoted idea that “Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” I would also humbly add to this the experience of desire. Desire is more powerful than the achievement itself; it is a taunting reminder of what you want. Yet the moments leading up to its fulfillment are often the best. Forgive my lapse into binary thinking, but when it comes to desire, there is always a power imbalance. In the best of circumstances, it is imperceptible. But someone is always in control; it is the standard pursuer and pursued narrative.

Desire has the added misty quality of lying in the future. It is something “to-come,” something to look forward to. We cannot help speaking about it, reading about it, seeing it, experiencing it, yet Foucault adamantly claims we are still repressed. He says, “What is peculiar to modern societies, in fact, is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret” (HOS 35).

A seeming paradox, wouldn’t you say? How can you speak on something while keeping it a secret? Maybe we encode and cautiously edit the things we say about sex, or maybe sex manifests symbolically. For all our discourse on sex, supposedly liberated, we are still operating within a prohibitive framework. And anyone who would deny the existence of double-standards is intentionally deluded. The most stark feminist (be it man or woman) often still turns their nose up in silent judgment. And even if you don’t (or don’t intend to), there’s still the sharp divide between subjective perception and objective reality. As illustration, you might perceive yourself as a sexually liberated woman and act accordingly, but if the world calls you a slut and turns its back on you, where does that leave you? Lived reality trumps theory any day.

As Foucault tells us, “To say that sex is not repressed, or rather that the relationship between sex and power is not characterized by repression, is to risk falling into a sterile paradox” (8). This begs the question, who holds the power? The answer should be fairly obvious.

In any case, I’ll update this post once I’ve actually seen the film. That’s right–I will be watching it. Make fun all you want. Call me a product of my repressive social ideology, but I want to see Anastasia getting whipped.


Soft porn without plot or character. Whoever heard of such a thing? Much of the film’s failures can be rightfully attributed to the book, but even then, it misses much of the couple’s fun virtual banter. Bad writing notwithstanding, at least there was a smidgen of individuality–you know, when someone actually fits their character. Sure, Ana would drop a number of expletives befitting an eight year old school girl (what kind of self-respecting English major says “holy cow?”), but she was into the British classics of the Romantic period. Of course. Her lexicon in those pithy email exchanges was underrepresented in the movie, as was her biting sense of humor. I echo a consensus among critics when I say that no amount of good acting (and Dakota Johnson really did give a sensitive performance) can undo bad writing. The screenwriter should have taken more creative license–a lot more. Poor Jamie Dornan finds himself with lines like “what incentivizes them.” Is that even a word? Barf.

When at the end of the film, Ana intones from a soggy pillow, “I’ve fallen in love with you,” you find yourself asking, “How?” There’s no real conversation, there’s no sense of what makes them tick. In real life, the sex to be had from such vacuous characters with virtually no chemistry would have been mediocre, at best.

I defer to my betters:

Anthony Lane form The New Yorker:

“He spends half the time badgering her about a contract that has been drawn up, in which she—“the Submissive”—must consent to his supremacy. Clauses and subsections are haggled over in such detail that one feels bound to ask: How much of a sex film can this be, given that the people most likely to be turned on by it are lawyers?”

A.O. Scott from NY Times:

““Fifty Shades” is both daring and conventional, falling back into traditional gender roles even as it plays with transgressive desires.”

“W.H. Auden once wrote that ‘the proof that pornography has no literary value is that, if one attempts to read it in any other way than as a sexual stimulus, to read it, say, as a psychological case-history of the author’s sexual fantasies, one is bored to tears.’ In defiance of this irrefutable good sense, the ‘Fifty Shades’ phenomenon has spawned innumerable kink-themed think pieces, though the analysis has dwelt less on Ms. James’s psyche than on the fantasies of the tens of millions of women who have bought her books. The writers transform their boredom into mockery and judgment as they circle around a tantalizing, perhaps frustrating question. Why do so many women read these novels, even though they have no literary value?

I’m no expert, but I can venture a guess: for fun. They seem to be the kind of books you can simultaneously have fun with, make fun of, trash and cherish and adapt to the pursuit of your own pleasures. Which brings me back to the laughter at the end of the sneak preview. “Fifty Shades of Grey” might not be a good movie — O.K., it’s a terrible movie — but it might nonetheless be a movie that feels good to see, whether you squirm or giggle or roll your eyes or just sit still and take your punishment.”

I could not have put it better myself. It’s about having a sense of humor; an ability to satirize the trashy. Reminds me of a theory-head from a grad class, who, at the mention of the book, snobbishly exclaimed, “That’s a book for people who don’t really like to read.” I bristled at the sweeping generalization–after all, I was a fellow scholar (with an impeccable GPA I might humbly add), and I did flip through those pages in mocking glee. In what I considered to be an apt response, I turned to a fellow Fifty Shades reader and said, “She needs to lighten up and get laid.”