In her new book, Jacki Willson explores the anarchic nature and re-appropriation of fashion and femininity. Here, she considers the idea of the feminist erotic in film…
The critical reception of Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) was on the whole negative. Yet the idea of erotica for erotica’s sake was dismissed as a something to wince at. The critics may or may not have had a point. What is important to note though is that it was an erotic blockbuster that was made to appeal to the book’s hoards of dedicated female fans. This was a film that was written by a woman, produced by a woman and had a woman as one of the two protagonists. Could one say therefore that a film, which was led by a team of creative women and enacts a young woman’s sexual adventures could be described as a feminist gesture?
The director/artist Sam Taylor-Johnson (formerly Taylor-Wood) has already produced an incredibly erotic film of a cowboy type male figure masturbating furiously in Death Valley. This was an updated contemporary road movie, which took freedom, masculinity and sexuality to another visual level. But how could one though picture women’s sexuality so freely on the big screen? Tracey Emin’s animated drawings of a masturbating woman in heels gives a similar anarchic feeling of sexual liberation. However, the pleasure is of course particularly gendered in its use of space and accessories. Emin’s drawn woman is on a bed, within a room, as opposed to standing with jeans dropped in the open and vast American wilderness. Jane Campion’s Sweetie (1989) is an alternative example of a freer female sexuality in cinema. It figures the character of Sweetie who ‘shags’ loudly and joyously. There is also another film by Campion, An Angel at My Table (1990), which explores the sexual awakening of the New Zealand writer Janet Frame. This is a positive representation of naked female eroticism. It is a pleasure that comes from a connection with another, of feeling beautiful and seeing oneself as beautiful through a lover’s eyes.
Sleeping Beauty (2011), directed by Julia Leigh, with Emily Browning, as the lead actress, is painfully opposite to this idea of the erotic. In this narrative a young woman takes a job, which entails going into a narcotic induced sleep whereby elderly clients can then take advantage of her bare unconscious state (with the only rule being no penetration which of course is flouted). Leigh’s film is a perversion of Disney’s princess, for this young woman awakens from a long sleep, not to her romantic ideal and her happily-ever-after, but to a cigarette burnt neck and drowsy abused body. Life has made these bodies destructively inward-looking. Whether through alcoholism, poverty or shame these are characters who have become painfully isolated from feeling; the physical demonstration of feeling has become impossible or irrelevant.
Fifty Shades of Grey is however perhaps not the answer to this sexual redundancy – it is not erotic, nor is it intellectually or artistically hard-hitting. What it does do though is add to a spate of films, which act as a reaction against our present erotic vacuum. This has produced a culture where schoolboys think that sexual relationships are purely about men ‘fucking really hard’ – as Christian Grey states in Fifty Shades – rather than reciprocal love and affection. Opposed to this way of thinking, the female lead Anastasia Steele is a self-confessed incurable romantic and yearns for pleasure, which is not devoid of love. Of course the fantasy of being controlled and desired by a rich, attractive, successful, alpha male is a gendered stereotype. The ‘princess’ fantasy of submission and romantic hetero-normativity is a restrictive ideal, which dictates that one particular fantasy is ‘the’ female fantasy. I am also not supporting the stereotype that women somehow never want sex for sex’s sake – that they are just turned on by the textual narrative of Mills and Boon erotic romance, rather than the genitally explicit visuals of a porn film.
What I am suggesting though is a feminist erotic, which is calling time on our numb sexualized desert-land. The worry of course is the ideological undercurrent to the wallpaper of sexualized commodifed images, which surround us everyday. This is what is so disturbingly powerful about Sleeping Beauty because its deathly conclusion becomes a pointed metaphor for what can be possibly the only result of this mainstreamed paralysis of feeling.
Being Gorgeous: Feminism, Sexuality and the Pleasures of the Visual by Jacki Willson is out now
Jacki Willson is a Cultural Studies lecturer for Fashion, Textiles and Jewellery students at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. She is the author of The Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque (I.B.Tauris, 2008).