Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Most Shocking Scene (Not) in Fifty Shades of Grey

by Donna George Storey

It's a professional hazard, but many people have asked if I’m going to see the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey. The answer is yes, tomorrow, a date night with my husband who willingly agreed with no fear for his manhood. I’m not expecting the jaw-dropping sex or exquisite emotional subtlety Hollywood usually offers its moviegoers, but I am “curious” to see how Dakota Johnson makes Ana even bearable as a character and how a female director’s eye translates the story onto the screen. The Fifty Shades phenomenon has inspired lots of people to make lists of “truly” sexy books and movies, but it’s so personal. I myself didn’t find that Vox or Secretary or 9 ½ Weeks did it for me. The one movie I can think of that sent me home with a dark, confused but decidedly sexual buzz was Yimou Zhang's Raise the Red Lantern, which is no less a model for healthy female erotic expression than Christian’s Contract of the Patriarchy. Now that I think about it, the most shocking sexual scene I experienced in a movie theater was the lesbian scene in Lenny. You could hear a pin drop until an older female voice croaked out, “Oh my god.” I was a precocious kid who liked grown-up movies like The Godfather and Cabaret, but I think my parents regretted bringing me to that one.

In any case, I know a lot of people are sick of talking about it, but recent columns here have shown there’s still plenty to say. What we’re talking about when we talk about Fifty Shades is our entire culture’s concepts of sexuality and romance and the varied responses to these assumptions. In the process we can’t help but reveal our own feelings about sex and sexual fantasy: That it’s dangerous, especially for women; that we should take fantasy literally; that it must be elevated by elegant prose or tasteful lighting; that we like what we like, and it’s no one’s place to regulate our desire. This topic is always of great significance to everyone, especially erotica writers.

Besides, there’s something I really want to say about the tampon scene.

Ah, the tampon scene, otherwise known as the “infamous” scene. The “most controversial” scene. The scene that the people who made the movie never once considered including on screen; they didn’t even talk about this most “talked about scene.” I wasn’t able to find all that much online about the content of this “talk,” except people found it gross, but admittedly I missed the first round of discussion when the book was published and my take on it might not have gotten much traction in the press.

By the way, if you find menstruation the most disgusting thing ever, you may want to stop reading right now. If not, I hope you’ll stay with me, because I’m going to talk about the only truly taboo-breaking scene in this notorious erotic blockbuster that is in so many ways quite conservative.

For those who haven’t read the book, Christian Grey, the young billionaire composite of Sergey Brin and Elon Musk and every other reasonably attractive high tech Midas (not Bill Gates, though, do you want to see him shirtless?), is so obsessed with innocent Anastasia Steele that he flies across the country in his private jet to see her when she’s visiting her mother. Ana goes to his hotel room and as always they quickly get naked. Christian nonchalantly asks her—and given his attention to detail, he was probably tracking her cycle—when she started her period. When she tells him it was yesterday, he replies, “Good.” Then he pulls on the “blue string” of her tampon, gently removes it and tosses it into the toilet. My mom told me this is asking for a plumbing disaster, but that’s the worst of it. Christian doesn’t use the tampon to paint Native American designs on his face. He doesn’t shove said hygiene product in anyone’s mouth. He simply has intercourse with Ana, without a condom, “skin against skin.” In the midst of her passion, Ana doesn’t mention any inhibitions about the blood, but the topic comes up in post-coital conversation.

“I’m bleeding,” I murmur.

“Doesn’t bother me,” he breathes.

“I noticed.” I can’t keep the dryness out of my voice.

He tenses. “Does it bother you?” he asks softly.

Does it bother me? Maybe it should... should it? No, it doesn’t. I lean back and look up at him, and he gazes down at me, his eyes a soft cloudy gray.

“No, not at all.”

He smirks. “Good. Let’s have a bath.” (FSOG, p. 431)

When I read this exchange, I paused and let this thought form in my head: As much as I’ve been resisting this on so many levels, Christian Grey is indeed every woman’s fantasy.

Imagine, a man who isn’t bothered by menstruation. He isn’t grossed out. He doesn’t treat you like toxic waste. He wants to know how you feel about it. He’ll even take a bath with you on your second day, which, I don’t know about you, but is usually when I get out the super-size tampons and stick to showers. This guy wants you so much, he’ll have sex with you during your period—happily. “Red sex” is not tolerated even by most erotica editors, yet here is E.L. James getting away with something the rest of us can’t, as she seems to do with everything else about Fifty Shades.

But more power to her—and she has a lot right now--here’s my point. Christian Grey embodies an ideal of a man’s acceptance of the female body and its natural rhythms. Have you ever met a real guy who is so laid-back when you’re having your period? Some are more chill than others, but shrugging and saying, “It doesn’t bother me”?  Okay, the reality of red sex was not portrayed for sure. Real is a college boyfriend wiping himself off with the laundry service towels and observing, “They’ll think I was slaughtering pigs in here.” Perhaps with all the vampires, zombies, Game of Thrones dismemberments and M-rated video games abounding, guys today are more sanguine about the sight of blood, but then again given the icky-eeuw reaction in the media, maybe not.

As a writer, there’s another important question to ask about these two pages of unspeakable audacity. If E.L. James had gotten her book published in the traditional manner, with gatekeeper editors shaping the content because they think they know what the reading public wants--rather than loyal fans who actually know what they want--do you think that tampon scene would have remained in a novel aimed at a popular audience?

No way in hell, baby.

But it did survive. Of course, this genuinely transgressive moment in Fifty Shades cannot go unpunished. It has to be made “controversial”; the one part of the story--so loyally shepherded by its author to the screen--that cannot be portrayed or even hinted at on film. Clearly society at large wants us to keep the I’m-not-bothered-by-menstrual-blood lover boy in his proper place—erased and silenced.

Good thing I don’t have to keep quiet. Thanks to Fifty Shades, everyone’s giving her or his opinion about sex and romance, how we like it delivered and how we don’t. So I say forget the floggers and cable ties, the abusive childhood and the healing power of true love, it’s the tampon scene that redeems Christian Grey for me... even if it is the hotel doing the laundry.

Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman and a collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

13 comments:

  1. Hello Donna, what a wonderful post.

    However, I've never been with a man who had any problems with 'red sex'. I'm never hornier than when I have my period, and I've never had a lover who was anything other than gratified that I was so horny.

    I did have one who really reveled in the mess of it, and the semiotics of it. He once said... I love fucking you when you're bleeding. I have the nasty fantasy of killing you over and over, and then fucking you back to life.

    Okay... I've been lucky in love.

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    1. You have indeed been lucky! I know many women are hornier during their periods, especially if they're on certain kinds of birth control, so it is reassuring to know that some men are okay with that. As for death and resurrection through sex, god, this is why we have to have more respect for the rich and powerful language of fantasy. The world would be so much more boring without it.

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  2. so great to see a different take on FSOG. i'm fortunate to have lovers who have earned their red wings. ...

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    1. Very cool! I think it should be a requirement to call yourself a sexual sophisticate :).

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  3. Once again, Donna, you've zeroed in on the messages others are missing.

    And how many people can quote FSOG by page?

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    1. It's my academic background showing through again--must let the source speak for itself! All of those professor characters in my stories are another dead giveaway, I suppose....

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    2. Actually, I realized that as soon as I clicked "Publish". Once a PhD, always a PhD...!

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  4. I haven't seen the movie yet though I'm grimly determined to and to try to convince my wife to go with me, and not as a cover either. I'm terribly curious about how all this turns out. I like the fact that a woman made this movie as well as the book, but from what i hear the woman didn't follow Akira Kurosawa's commandment to all of us - "The artist does not look away." From what I keep reading it sounds like she looked away. One reviewer, a dominatrix writing for Rolling Stone, said she would have made a more interesting movie if she had consulted with people who actually have lived that territory first hand and could have brought that world more to life. Or maybe, like Mary Harron, director of the movie version of"American Psycho", she might have turned it into a savage satire of male attitudes towards women.



    My impression, while still waiting to see the movie, and from what you describe, is that they "went for the lunchbox". In other words, made it so commercially acceptable and bland that you could sell it on kids lunchboxes and Happy Meal toys rather than looking the experience squarely, tampons and all, without looking away. Either way a lesson for us of what not to do now that writing this genre is not as dangerous as it used to be in what already seems like The Good Old Days.

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    1. I'd be very interested to hear your opinion of the movie, Garce. Since I decided to see what it's all about for myself, I've been generally sympathetic to the FSOG phenomenon as something that does speak to women. It's the working out of female-male relationships--not the supposedly transgressive and shocking sex--that feels significant to me. There's an interesting article in the New Yorker, "The Accurate Erotics of Fifty Shades of Grey" by Richard Brody, one of the few intellectual treatments of the phenom that isn't contemptuous. I especially liked his comment that filming sex scenes makes a director very vulnerable. It's like writing erotica. But few directors are willing to really go all the way and reveal themselves. Sam Taylor-Johnson totally went for the lunchbox. On the other hand, what could we expect from a project that was made to generate as much money as possible?

      And I also agree that really this is a lesson for us in what not to do and what still needs to be done! As I keep saying, take the energy we might spend on dissing FSOG and use it to write something that expresses our truth about eroticism.

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    2. I read an interview with E.L. James about the movie. She admitted that her approach to sex in both the book and the movie was "coy" (her word), and emphasized that the story was about love, not sex.

      She indicated that she was quite pleased with the transformation from book to movie - and that her most significant concern was keeping her fans happy.

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  5. Donna, thank you for this post. I had no idea that FSOG dealt with "red sex." I wrote one story about that several years ago, and got it published in an antho of transgressive sex, edited by Hanne Blank (note that my story has no other transgressive elements in it - it's about one man with one woman). I retained all rights, but I've been unable to place it anywhere else since then. Editors advise me to remove the menstrual blood, even though it's a major plot point. I had similar experiences with men in my youth, including a husband who seemed to think he would be contaminated if he hugged me during "that time." RG and Amanda, you seem to have met some exceptional men. I know have a smidge more respect for Christian Grey and for E.L. James for inventing him. :)

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    1. Jean, sorry, I just have to say yet again, PLEASE write that story about the union organizer so I can read it!

      I've been very heartened by the responses to this post from people, female and male, who've been in relationships where menstruation is celebrated. We need more of that and overcoming this taboo would do more for happiness in the world than an explosion in flogger sales, imho. While I'm dreaming of a better world, how about an erotica anthology with a slate of stories that deal with different aspects of accepting our natural erotic selves? So not all "red sex," but some and other things that are treated as shameful but don't need to be....

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  6. Oops. I NOW have more respect for Christian Grey & his inventor.

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