50 Shades is about the powers that beat

50 Shades is about the powers that beat
ROUGH DEAL: The film - starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan (pictured) - is the dispiriting denouement of late-stage capitalism, where cruel conditions are accepted and you learn to suffer the whims of the rich - and pretend to like it

Author E. L. James has often insisted that Fifty Shades Of Grey is wildly popular not because of its titillating trappings of transgression, but because it tells a simple love story for the ages.

But this is a romance for a particular kind of age - a time of growing inequality.

The social order is breaking up and leaving massive human wreckage in its wake.

Dreams of love turn into fantasies of power - who has it and what they can do to those who don't have it.

When security vanishes and social bonds break down, fictional characters enter the new (ab)normal, which can often involve whips, chains and men in expensive suits with mysterious smiles.

The film version of the first book of Fifty Shades is less a shout against the torment than a whimper - or, to be more precise, a lovesick giggle.


Other ages with pronounced power inequities have given rise to vivid sadomasochistic fantasies, such as the late-18th-century novels of the populist-minded Marquis de Sade, whose tales of pain and bondage resonated during a time when the French propertied classes had their boots firmly on the necks of the proletariat.

Dreams of transgression become fantasies of liberation from brutal socio-economic forces.

Our own age of inequality began in the 1970s, when power-hungry capitalists began to attack the New Deal, which had protected ordinary citizens from predatory elites.

On cue, sadomasochism showed up at the box office in 1975 with an adaptation of The Story Of O, in which a woman is trained in sexual submission when she joins the staff of an elite club.

In 1980, the year that union-busting president Ronald Reagan won the White House, viewers channelled sadomasochist revenge fantasies in Nine To Five, in which three working women apply chains and a ball-gag on their tyrannical boss.

By 1986, as financial deregulation unleashed Wall Street, we got 9½ Weeks, which introduced a new stock figure: the vaguely sadistic financier who seduces and abuses a woman of modest means.

More recently, Roman Polanski's 2013 film of David Ives' hit play, Venus In Fur, based on the 19th novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, portrayed a lower-class actress who degrades and dominates an elitist playwright.

Back and forth the stories go. Do you beat the elites (literally) or join them?


In Fifty Shades, the answer is: Join them. The film is the dispiriting denouement of this late stage of capitalism, where cruel conditions are accepted and you learn to suffer the whims of the rich - and pretend to like it.

Under the rules of this cruel regime, the education of sensitive English lit major Anastasia Steele begins when she interviews billionaire Christian Grey in the sumptuous Seattle headquarters of his global empire.

When interviewee queries the ingenue on her plans after college, Anastasia mumbles that she really has no idea.

After all, what could her literary studies possibly have to do with this sleek glass command centre for mysterious market forces, where perfectly coiffed, robotic women serve their overlord in stilettos?

When Christian informs Anastasia that his firm has an internship programme, she glances around doubtfully. "I don't think I'd fit in."

Oh, you'll fit in just fine, Christian's faint smile seems to say.

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