I don’t know about you, but I could use some goddamned distraction right about now. Between wincing every time I look at the news and our burgeoning kleptocracy and global warming and what feels like a neverending In Memoriam scroll of our best and most loved artists, I need to forget about the entire world and its problems for at least two hours. I don’t want to turn my brain off—quite the opposite. If I could then spend some quality time arguing with a bunch of people about that movie afterward and not think about whatever in the hell is going to happen to the Affordable Care Act, it would be ideal.
Fortunately for me, Hollywood has deigned to notice that lady audiences exist this week, and has proffered up the sequel to that endless source of mom jokes known as Fifty Shades of Grey. I have been looking forward to Fifty Shades Darker ever since Universal saw fit to greenlight the sequel. I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of an English major, and of an English major focusing on the 19th-century novel, and think foul scorn that any dudely critic should dare to invade the borders of my realm. By which I mean: while all of you were snerking about middle-aged women getting off, I was busy counting all the ways Fifty Shades Darker riffs off of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, especially the whole women’s-economic-fantasy angle.
(Sorry to be snippy. Betsy DeVos is now in charge of determining whether universities should care about Title IX sexual assault guidelines.)
This is not a measure of quality, by any means, but it’s pretty hard not to notice the naïve young heroine trying to build a career, the brooding love interest/employer with a dark and mysterious past, the heroine’s conviction that she can fix what’s wrong with the love interest, the mentally disturbed ex showing up at the foot of our heroine’s bed, the sexually depraved other ex, and the blindingly gratuitous financial wish fulfillment. Oh, and the dual Red Rooms.
On the surface, this is not very surprising. As you may have heard, Fifty Shades Darker started life as Twilight AU fanfiction; Twilight started life as Pride and Prejudice fanfiction; Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre partially in response to Pride and Prejudice. Likewise, romance authors have been cheerfully ripping off Jane Eyre since about two minutes after its publication in 1847, from every questionable workplace romance to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. More recently, E.L. James is very fond of dropping literary references in her novels, and Fifty Shades of Grey is filled with the dumbest and most pointless references to Tess of the D'Urbervilles imaginable. What is surprising, then, is that the big similarities between Jane Eyre and Fifty Shades Darker are not superficial at all, and they’re even more pronounced in James Foley’s film.
Granted, Jane Eyre is rather short on explicit sex scenes. Likewise, Fifty Shades Darker is rather short on believable character development. That said, Jane Eyre also features characters telepathically calling to each other across great distances and ridiculous melodramatic plot contrivances about madwomen locked in attics, so it’s not like realism is much of a metric here. This is a good thing, for my distraction purposes.
Also good for my distraction purposes: those explicit sex scenes in Fifty Shades Darker are a lot better than they were the first movie. I mean, they’re still nowhere near as outré as everyone who hadn’t read the books assumes, but it’s positively thermonuclear by current Hollywood standards and features 300% as much cunnilingus as Blue Valentine. (SO THERE, MPAA.) I approve. I approve less of the more typical tendency to feature Jamie Dornan clothed 50% more than his costar and the rampant male gaze everywhere, but I can report that this movie features a female gaze scene on par with Thor and Twilight, and that is some rare company. Here’s how I know it worked: I have now upgraded Jamie Dornan’s raw sexual magnetism to “dry toast” from “wet cardboard.” He is now welcome to play St. John Rivers in the next adaptation of Jane Eyre.
But that UNFing is still underlit and pretty conventional by HBO standards, and it stands out in contrast to the real scenes of desire on display. Fifty Shades Darker does not do a very good job of hiding its actual motivations, any more than Ana’s sleazetastic new boss Jack Hyde. Financial concerns drive the plot from start to finish, and the sex everyone showed up for is just window dressing. This is not a huge surprise; the book remains the only erotic/porn/romance novel I have ever read to include student loan payments as a plot point, and E.L. James’ notably clunky writing gets significantly better when she’s describing consumer goods. I wasn’t expecting quite such perfect camerawork on yachts, apartment interiors, cars, helicopters, swanky parties, and schmancy clothes, all the same.
That said, Fifty Shades Darker isn’t so much a simple fantasy of reveling in sudden wealth. There’s one telling scene in a (well-lit) walk-in closet that features row after row of designer dresses, all with carefully turned visible logos, and Ana staring at them in bewilderment remarkably like this:
“Mr. Rochester obliged me to go to a certain silk warehouse: there I was ordered to choose half-a-dozen dresses. I hated the business, I begged leave to defer it: no—it should be gone through with now. By dint of entreaties expressed in energetic whispers, I reduced the half-dozen to two: these however, he vowed he would select himself. With anxiety I watched his eye rove over the gay stores: he fixed on a rich silk of the most brilliant amethyst dye, and a superb pink satin. I told him in a new series of whispers, that he might as well buy me a gold gown and a silver bonnet at once: I should certainly never venture to wear his choice. With infinite difficulty, for he was stubborn as a stone, I persuaded him to make an exchange in favour of a sober black satin and pearl-grey silk. ‘It might pass for the present,” he said; “but he would yet see me glittering like a parterre.’” –Jane Eyre, Chapter XXIV
(Pearl-grey silk makes a great dress, as it turns out. SO THERE, EDWARD ROCHESTER.)
Ana, like Jane, is worried about the implications of being bought, and not just because she’s landed her dream job working in publishing. Here’s the real fantasy of Fifty Shades Darker: that an English major could graduate from WSU and in two weeks get a (paid! full-time!) job at a small publishing firm that is expanding to young and innovative authors, one of whom apparently makes a bunch of references to Dante’s Inferno in his new novel. (My distraction level went through the theater roof. It was wonderful.) Moreover, within a week, Ana has her boss’ job after he makes a pass at her. E.L. James cut a lot from her novel while adapting it, and I was frankly impressed by her willingness to edit large sections of the really boring sex, but she left all the workplace stuff in, every bit of it. That’s how important she thought it was.
It doesn’t matter that it is at least as unrealistic as Jane inheriting twenty thousand pounds from her estranged uncle in 1847, and it says something about American women’s financial conditions in 2017. Here’s your real economic anxiety right here: things are so bad that we can’t even have dumb fantasies about fucking without also fantasizing about getting a fucking job. As a character in another of James Foley’s movies said: “ABC. ‘A’, always. ‘B’, be. ‘C’, closing. ALWAYS BE CLOSING. Always be closing.”
You can tell a lot about people based on their fantasies. In fact, their stupid mindless entertainment often gives a better window into the things that scare them, motivate them, and inspire them than the supposedly more artistic and loftier fare they cop to watching. The marriage plot—the social advancement of middle-class women by sexual attraction and marriage to upper-class men—has been around since at least Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740). Never mind that it’s an impossible fantasy for the vast majority of people over the past 277 years. Instead, it has been one of the primary drivers of the English novel as an art form, not least because it can lend itself to some truly fantastic character development when done well.
Charlotte Brontë did it very well indeed, transforming the marriage plot into a reflection of a new class of educated middle-class women who wanted to provide their own financial security and also marry for love and attraction. Jane Eyre was, in 1847, thoroughly reflective of the rapidly-changing situation for English women. A court decision in 1845 allowed women to inherit money from distant relatives without certain tax penalties; the entire latter half of the decade saw a vicious financial recession and broad political upheaval. Knowing that one arcane piece of English law allows a modern reader to understand how precisely love, sex, and money suddenly intersected for women two centuries earlier. You can imagine much more clearly how a contemporary governess might have felt reading Jane Eyre after her pupils were asleep, and how it might have gotten her through long days working for a jerk.
When done badly, you get, well, Fifty Shades Darker, but occasionally you get something else, too: a similar window onto the inner lives of all the women who bought those books and movie tickets to distract themselves from the families they worry about taking care of and the jobs that don’t pay them enough and the financial industries bent on screwing them over and the relentless pressure to define themselves by the things they buy and other people’s opinion of them. You get what passes for a female power fantasy in a threatening and borderline abusive romantic interest who is willing to change himself completely out of love for you, in a skyrocketing and fulfilling financial career, and in the chance to worry about the implications of being bought rather than the reality that your student loan company owns you wholesale. You get a fantasy about being the center of the universe when your government has made it clear that your vote does not matter; about being the most important person ever in a world where the movie industry has largely decided that you exist one week out of the year; about female sexuality being an awesome and wonderful thing instead of a source for bad jokes at your expense.
Fantasies matter. They get us through our days, and occasionally they can provide the material for good and brilliant art that expands our understanding of what it means to be a human being. Fifty Shades Darker is neither a good movie nor a smart movie, and I have every expectation that it will remain a punchline for reasons both good and bad. Film nerds need distractions too, after all. But if you really want to know what drives a bewilderingly large and underserved audience, it’s worth some consideration.
Oh, and say hello to your mother for me.