There’s been something bugging me about the inescapable press surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey. No, it’s not the endless, ludicrous ‘clickbait’ stories about the commercial efforts of B&Q, it’s not the frankly unfeasible suggestions that the two romantic leads Jamie Dornan and Dakota Jonson hate each other and it’s not, surprisingly, the vocal accusations of supposed depictions of abuse – for me, the film was neither cinematic milestone nor misogynistic mouthpiece (the laughably appalling and undeniably problematic prose of E.L. James being considerably less redeemable).
I’m annoyed rather at the constant emphasis placed upon the film’s gender imbalanced audience. Yes, the film was aggressively marketed at and consumed by women, but collective female endorsement should not automatically render culture less credible. And yet, amid their scathing reactions to the film, journalists, comedians and reviewers alike seemed desperate to remind us that this franchise is a ‘female thing’; a ‘woman’s film’, as if the gender of a film’s consumers is explanatory of its value.
Why are we so quick to classify things as ‘female’? The James Bond films, despite portraying a humorously stereotypical version of boyhood fantasy, tend to escape the same dismissive fate. Of the 100 highest grossing films of 2013, only 15 had women as the central protagonists. It’s a shame really that Fifty Shades of Grey has the (potentially justified) critical derision which it does. With a female director, female screenwriter and female protagonist it finds itself in one of Hollywood’s rarest of positions. Yet its opening weekend took $248 million at the box office, making it the highest global debut of 2015 so far and (more importantly) it is not the first instance of a female-centric film smashing box office records. And yet, with such a lack of representation, films which do centre around women or are created by women are still all too often pigeonholed into the narrow parameters of ‘films for women’. This trend, the devaluation of female orientated creativity and consumerism, is reflective of a bigger cultural issue.
We needn’t look far for evidence of this bias. Take Bridesmaids, the 2011 comedy created by and starring Kristen Wiig and celebrated for its hilarious shut down of the – now redundant – ‘women just aren’t funny’ argument. Intelligent and independently acclaimed as the film may be, it earned a reputation as ‘the female version of The Hangover’ profoundly reinstating the idea that it is not simply a comedy but a comedy for women (incidentally, I am yet to hear reference to The Hangover as the male version of Bridesmaids). I’m reminded also of a male friend who dismissed The Hunger Games franchise as a ‘chick-flick’ presumably based upon the gender of its protagonist and of course the infamous reason why Joanne Rowling adopted her initials for the Harry Potter series.
Whether it be something created by women or something primarily consumed by a female fanbase (or, more often than not, a combination of both) its integrity is all too regularly threatened by dismissive references to its ‘chick flick’ status or ‘fan-girl over-hype’.
It is true that this attitude tends to be targeted most ruthlessly at younger women and girls. The vilification of the ‘fan-girl’ has become a documented product of our times. It seems musicians and bands too commercially reliant upon the admiration of teenage girls warrant significantly less artistic respect than those followed by say, twenty-something males. Annie Zaleski writes about this in an impassioned piece for the A V Club, she states: “Teenage girls… aren’t given enough credit for being savvy culture consumers… The possibility that they could appreciate and want to hear music with substance (and not just blindly worship the cute guy or perky pop star) often isn’t even considered. Besides being insulting and sexist, such assumptions are also wildly incorrect.” This attitude is dangerous. What it ultimately suggests is that what young women enjoy cannot possibly have genuine merit. It’s the same principle which encourages girls to disassociate themselves from things deemed female or girly: ‘I’m only friends with boys’ being the mantra of this internalised misogyny.
Yet, this problem exceeds the realms of pop culture. In the world of fine art and literature this same, lazy marginalisation of those who are non-male, non-heterosexual, non-white is apparent. This week writer Aminatta Forna spoke of her frustration with the academic obsession with categorization and canon-centric approaches to literature. She wrote: ‘I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer. We hyphenated writers complain about the privilege accorded to the white male writer, he who dominates the western canon and is the only one called simply “writer”.’ This emphasis placed upon one’s gender, sexuality or race inevitably fuels the subsequent narrative surrounding their work and dangerously renders it as representative of that group as a whole. Things written by or about women are instantly labelled as ‘for women’ and this is both a hindrance to its readership reach and an oversimplification of the complexities within that group.
It seems almost unavoidable that anything aimed solely at women will find itself dismissed, mocked or devalued in some way. When we have a Hollywood which doesn’t set white, heterosexual males as the default and instead produces work made by and aimed at varieties of different people then perhaps we can look at Fifty Shades of Grey as one example in a group of many. Until then, let’s not use female consumerism as a mechanism for judging merit.
Call Fifty Shades of Grey a nonsensical – albeit ostentatious – joke if you like, but do not equate its flaws with the typical tropes of a ‘female film’, whatever that phrase is supposed to mean.
This article was originally published in Qmunicate magazine