[The following contains triggers due to its explicit discussion of sexual violence as represented in various texts.]
[Belle de Jour] is possibly the best-known erotic film of modern times, perhaps the best. That’s because it understands eroticism from the inside-out – understands how it exists not in sweat and skin but in imagination. ~ Roger Ebert
[I was] very exposed physically… I felt they showed more of me than they’d said they were going to… There were moments when I felt totally used. I was very unhappy. ~ Catherine Deneuve, Séverine in Belle de Jour
This is wrong, but holy hell is it erotic. ~ Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James
Introduction: Engaging Representations
In the following reflection, I want to try to carefully think about female sexual desire as it is represented in two remarkably similar texts: Luis Buñuel’s award-winning 1967 film, Belle de Jour (BDJ), and E. L. James’ best-selling novel, Fifty Shades of Grey (FSG). I hope to be clear from the outset that what I am trying to think about are these representations of female sexual desire and not female sexual desire as it is experienced by any specific person. Consequently, the comments that follow are not at all intended to try and police female sexual desire as such – I do not think there is any basis whatsoever for me, a cis-gendered person who has gotten by just fine performing maleness, to say what it is or is not permissible for women (or others) to desire in sexual fantasies. The topic I am considering here are these representations of female sexual desire, how they were communicated, and how they have been received.
Furthermore, I am going to leave aside any discussion of gender as social construct, or as something that we learn to imitate, name, and perform – my whole belief in gender as a significant fiction (like money or nation states) – and instead take these texts at face value. These texts wish to tell us stories about what women want, and I will consider them from that perspective.
Having said that, I want to begin by defending my statement that BDJ and FSG are “remarkably similar.” The primary differences between the two stories are: (1) the manner in which the stories are told and (2) the manner in which the stories are received. These differences in form and reception have caused a good many folks who wish to be associated with certain things and not be associated with certain other things, to overlook the fact that the stories being told are very close to being the same story (although that they are not exactly the same story, and do have some other notable differences, which will be explored below).
Both BDJ and FSG tell stories about women whose sexual desires would be considered “deviant.” Even more than that, they tell stories that are provocative because the deviant desires of these women go against what a good many women have been saying about women and sex and violence. In BDJ, we discover a woman who desires to be raped and who is only truly sexually satisfied when unattractive men force her to have rough sex with them. Furthermore, an integral part of her fantasy is that the men who rape her do not know that she secretly desires this – as far as they can tell, when she says, “no” she means “no” – but they force themselves onto her anyway, leading her to the most sexually satisfying encounters of her life. In FSG, things are not so extreme, but the basic premise is the same. We discover a woman who desires to be dominated (not just in the bedroom and the Red Room of Pain but also in her day-to-day life), and coerced by money, alcohol, and prestige into doing things she would not otherwise do (or who is coerced into thinking things she didn’t want to have happen, actually were things she wanted to have happen) – all of which, in the end, are also described as the most sexually satisfying things she has ever done.
That BDJ and FSG are essentially telling the same story, makes it all the more interesting to explore the two points of difference mentioned above. Beginning with the second point, the difference in reception, it is hard to miss the critical acclaim heaped upon BDJ. It won several prestigious film awards when it was released, it is praised as a masterpiece of eroticism, and it regularly appears on lists film critics and guilds have compiled trying to name the best one hundred films ever made. FSG, on the other hand, is regularly mocked by the critics. So much so that some friends of mine who appreciate intelligent books and carefully constructed films were offended that I even wanted to speak of BDJ and FSG together in the same sentence – “Belle de Jour is a masterpiece, Fifty Shades of Grey is pulp fiction,” “Belle de Jour provokes all kinds of thought, Fifty Shades of Grey is about nothing and doesn’t contain a single thoughtful sentence” and so on. However, FSG was a best-selling novel and the entire trilogy has sold over one hundred million copies worldwide. (I should note, here, that I am most interested in Fifty as a book so, although a movie has now been released, and has done well enough at the box office to prompt the making of two sequels, it is worth thinking about why it first succeeded as a book [and here I want to also observe how a good many of the people who loved the book did not enjoy the movie and joined in the parade of those who were mocking it]). So, roughly stated, BDJ has found critical success amongst film critics, film students, and general members of the literati (folks who read difficult authors like László Krasznahorkai or James Joyce, who enjoy literary graphic novels, who listen to a lot of obscure indie bands, and who have seen a good many of the “foreign” movies on Netflix) – a small but élite group of people; whereas, FSG has been universally trashed by the critics but was so succesful that it became something of a cultural phenomenon (sales of blindfolds have gone through the roof!).
Of course, the first difference between the two stories – that of form – is the most obvious way of accounting for this difference in reception. BDJ is art, and the critics adored it. FSG is populism and the masses consumed it. BDJ bears many of the signature markers of a film Director studied widely for his aesthetic and technical genius. FSG began as.. wait for it… a self-published e-book rooted in Twilight fan fiction (can one think of a lowlier form of writing than that?) and it’s the kind of text that gives self-published e-book authors a bad name (fun fact: it was originally titled Master of the Universe). This difference in form is so obvious to most folks that it may appear to be somewhat banal to point it out here. I do so, in order to get it out of the way. Because there is another formal difference between BDJ and FSG that I suspect is much less remarked upon (not that I see people lining up to compare these stories) but that I find much more intriguing. It is this: BDJ claims to be a story about female sexual desire but it is written directed by men and performed for men. FSG, on the other hand, appears to be a story about female sexual desire written and read by women. Consequently, it is not too surprising that the former’s popularity occurs in an environment dominated by men (especially at the time when it was released, but also afterwards), whereas the latter was popular much more exclusively with women.
It is this observation that I want to use as the launching point for how female sexual desire is portrayed in these two stories. I will begin looking in more detail into the story Belle de Jour tells us before turning to Fifty Shades of Grey – which is a much more difficult text to deconstruct – and then, after a brief Intermezzo asking some answered questions about theory in generally, will conclude with some reference to a third text, Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film, Under the Skin.
Part One: It’s okay to watch this rape – the representation of female sexual desire as written and directed by men and performed for the male gaze
Belle de Jour traversed precisely the opposite trajectory to that of Fifty Shades of Grey. While FSG began as an hugely successful novel and then became a passably successful film, BDJ began as a novel but found true success as a film. This is not insignificant for what follows because the medium in which female sexual desire is explored is quite relevant to the topic at hand.
BDJ, the novel, was written by Joseph Kessel and published in France in 1928. It is hard to find much about Kessel or about this book online – mostly it is mentioned in relation to Buñuel’s film – but the synopsis on Amazon says that it is “an eye-opening glance into a unique female psyche.” This is an interesting observation to make because Kessel was a male, the author and creator of the female psyche explored in the story. It may be better to say that this is a story about a (or the?) female psyche as it is imagined to be by a male author. What is “eye-opening” about it, is not so much that a woman is said to desire in this way but that a man chooses to represent female desire in this way.
Of course, male representations of female desire, a topic of interest to a good many men, tend to play better in films than in novels. Men are less interested reading about sexually aroused women than they are interested in viewing them. Apart from the genius of Buñuel, Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean-Claude Carrière (Melville assisted with the adaptation and Carrière assisted with the direction), this observation probably goes a long way to explaining the success of the film in comparison to the novel. Regarding the relation between the two, Buñuel said the following:
The novel is very melodramatic, but well constructed, and it offered me a chance to translate Séverine’s fantasies into pictorial images… I was also able to indulge myself in the faithful description of some interesting sexual perversions [emphasis added].
Elsewhere in the same text, My Last Sigh, Buñuel’s autobiography, the genius Director who much preferred the company of men to that of women, implicitly recognizes the importance of this visual component when he states that BDJ was his “biggest commercial success, which I attribute more to the marvelous whores than to my direction.”
Essentially, BDJ is a story of female desire as imagined and written by a man, adapted and directed by three other men, and performed for the male gaze. Here two quick points of comparison with FSG are enlightening. Although these are both presented as stories about female sexual desire, the marketing for BDJ is a series of posters and images of Catherine Deneuve’s character in various states of undress, whereas the cover of FSG is… a silk tie.
A typical image search for BDJ will also turn up several images of Deneuve mostly naked. There are no images of naked women in FSG – there are only words.
Furthermore, according to the standards of beauty established at that time, Deneuve is a remarkably beautiful woman. She is flawless (with, perhaps, the exception of a birthmark on her character’s back – observed by one character but never by the audience). As Renata Adler observes of Deneuve and the other sex workers, in a New York Times film review from 1968: “All these clean, lovely, well-dressed people preparing for their unspeakable practices are very attractive.” This is critically important for performances of female sexual desire that are geared towards men – men do not want to think about women they find unattractive in sexual contexts, they only want to think about beautiful women longing to be sexually dominated.
Not only that, based upon the reaction to the film it also appears that men like to imagine women who have fantasies about being raped – and they also seem to like to bring those imagined women to life and watch them play that role. That the rape being enacted is said to be the fantasy of the beautiful woman who is being raped is that which makes it permissible to watch the rape unfold. Additionally, all the technical skill that Buñuel brings to his films, all the creativity he has and all the thought that he inspires, provides an additional line of defense, making the enacting and witnessing of this rape fantasy permissible. After all, this is Art (with a capital “A”) and it should be evaluated as such. As Art, the rape scene (and other scenes, like one scene where Séverine is bound, called a whore, and has mud thrown in her face) may provoke discomfort but it also provokes thought. These serve two purposes: the provocation of thought justifies the existence of the scene, and the provocation of discomfort justifies the viewing of the viewer. Subtly, there is also a moment within the film that furthers this justification of the viewer. In one scene, Séverine peeps through a spyhole in order to watch a john who likes to pretend to be a disobedient servant who is then whipped by the sex worker. Séverine expresses discomfort and disgust at what she sees, she looks away and draws back from the spyhole… only to go back to it a moment later, simultaneously disgusted, curious, and aroused. She wants to watch this kind of thing, too.
The implicit arousal, both of Séverine and the viewer, is important here – after all, BDJ is referred to as a masterpiece of eroticism, not a masterpiece of getting us to ask ourselves hard questions about sex, violence, and rape culture. But we should not be fooled: BDJ is a fantasy written by men about beautiful women who have fantasies about being raped by the kind of men who wouldn’t be able to even approach them in conversation a normal social context. As such, I believe that BDJ is both emblematic of rape culture and a contributing factor in the perpetuation of rape culture. BDJ makes it permissible for us to watch rape. And if we are uncomfortable with the arousal it permits, at the very least it permits us to watch rape in order to think about rape. I do not believe it is necessary or desirable to watch rape in order to think about it. This is not a medium fit for that message. Despite all the protestations of the straight, sensitive, thoughtful men I have known who saw BDJ, despite the discomfort they said they felt when they watched the rape scene (even as they rush to acknowledge the film as a masterpiece), I do not believe that a single one of them, even in the midst of their discomfort, did not also, somewhere with their mind or eye, register the fact that Catherine Deneuve has an extremely attractive body and, when her shirt was ripped open, I do not believe that a single one of them did not have their eyes flicker to the part of her breast that was exposed, searching for a nipple. Later on, when she was face down on a bed, I do not believe that a single one of them did not notice the lines of her back or the way her hips curved into her waist. No, when straight men write, direct and watch this kind of sexual performance, for all the discomfort it may produce, rape is still being presented as erotic.
The film that best exemplifies the point that rape is not a message men can communicate view a visual medium is Gaspar Noé’s 2003 “mystery thriller,” Irréversible (a film I have not watched). It features a ten minute long, uncut, rape scene that culminates in the assailant beating and kicking the woman into unconsciousness. Noé stated that the scene needed to be filmed in this way in order to communicate the true brutality of rape. However, like Buñuel, Noé chose an actor (Monica Bellucci), who was widely considered to be the most beautiful woman in French cinema at that time. Perhaps men think that only women who are high on the spectrum of culturally constructed standards of beauty are likely to be raped (although the facts go very strongly against this: to cite one example, people with intellectual disabilities that also impact cultural conceptions of beauty – say people with Down’s Syndrome – are far more likely to be survivors of rape than members of the general public, with one study finding that 80% of the people with intellectual disabilities surveyed had been raped and had been raped more than once)? Or, and I think this is a large part of what is going on with Buñuel and Noé, men only like to make and watch movies about rape – no matter how disturbing – that involve beautiful women. Consequently, a quick google search reveals a good many porn sites have taken the rape scene from Irréversible (which I have not watched) and have made it available to viewers who want to watch it while they masturbate.
Now both Noé and Buñuel could argue – as somebody argued to me about BDJ – that those who get off on watching this kind of thing are the “wrong kind of audience” composed of people who, presumably, are too uncultured, too violent, and too stupid, to watch the rape scenes in the “right way.” However, as opposed to this form of élitism – wherein the fellow making the argument presumes that there is a “right way” for straight men to manufacture and consume rape, and then also takes for granted than his way of engaging in this consumption is the “right way” – I believe that the proper argument to make is that one should not view these scenes at all. Indeed, of the folks whom I know, not a single one of the survivors or of those who have journeyed with a loved one through the trauma of sexual violence, expressed anything close to a desire to witness these scenes. Far from it, they were horrified that these scenes existed and, just as importantly, horrified that people would choose to go and view them. Those who chose to view such scenes became unsafe people – people who would never learn the stories of those around them because they chose to watch these played acted out on a screen. It seems to me that, for straight men in our culture, the choice is not one between a right viewing and a wrong viewing, the choice is between viewing or not viewing. You can be as disturbed as you want to be in order to feel okay about your viewing but, ultimately, what matters here is the extent of male participation in rape culture and not the extent to which men are discomfited by that participation.
Finally, before I move on to FSG, the second point that highlights how BDJ is both emblematic of and contributes to rape culture is when we consider what Deneuve said of her role and how people have responded to her words. The hypocrisy of this whole undertaking of male constructions of female sexual desire is exposed when we remember Deneuve’s account of events. In an interview with Pascal Bonitzer, published in The Private Diaries of Catherine Deneuve, she states that she was “very exposed physically… I felt they showed more of me than they’d said they were going to… There were moments when I felt totally used. I was very unhappy.” So, what we have in this case is the following: (a) a story claiming to be about female sexual desire – specifically, a woman who desires to be raped by men; (b) this story is written as a novel by a man and then adapted and directed by three other men; (c) the female lead in this movie, the female who is said to do the desiring, talks about feeling “totally used” and exposed and, essentially, sexually exploited. Consequently, it is hard not to conclude that BDJ is actually a story of male sexual desire – the kind that has been forbidden because it is violent – acted out by a female body that is exploited in order to satisfy the demands of the male gaze.
Here it should also be mentioned that Monica Bellucci has stated that she has never been able to watch all of the rape scene in Irréversible – meaning that she has tried and failed to do so, presumably because of the discomfort it caused her. I also think of ways in which Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, the two female leads of Blue is the Warmest Color, describe their experience working with Director Abdellatif Kechiche (like Irréversible and BDJ, Blue is the Warmest Color was critically acclaimed and won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2013). In that movie, a lesbian sex scene takes up about ten minutes of the film and was filmed over a period of ten days. That this scene involves an art student and a character who is supposed to be fifteen years old creates problems for any members of a North American audience who want to describe the scene as consensual (fifteen is the age of consent in France, but is not the age of consent here). However, this matter does not seem to be mentioned by the critics. Instead, they all rushed to speak about how these scenes aren’t really about titillation or arousal or sex (although there is plenty of very graphic sex involved) but, instead, are about the portrayal of an all-consuming love, of being as honest as possible, of speaking of the fullness of an experience, etc., etc. It seems that the male gaze wants to watch naked culturally-constructed beautiful women engage in sex acts, so that they can talk about what they watched as anything but naked culturally-constructed beautiful women engaging in sex acts. Even those who have been critical of this approach, largely female voices rooted in queer and feminist discourses, and who have spoken critical of Blue is the Warmest Color in terms of heteronormativity and performing for the male gaze tend to neglect this matter of consent. However, it seems hard to pass over this so easily — the age of consent is lower in France… plus the actor isn’t actually fifteen… so on with the show! I’m not sure that the matter is so easily resolved.
However, back to the subject at hand — the sex scene itself. Speaking about filming it, and about working with Kechiche in general, Seydoux stated that, “The director has all the power. When you’re an actor on a film in Franceand you sign the contract, you have to give yourself, and in a way you’re trapped.” Exarchopoulos added that “sometimes there was a kind of manipulation, which was hard to handle.” She also stated that:
[Kechiche] told us he didn’t want to hide the character’s sexuality because it’s an important part of every relationship. So he asked me if I was ready to make it, and I said, “Yeah, of course!” because I’m young and pretty new to cinema. But once we were on the shoot, I realized that he really wanted us to give him everything. Most people don’t even dare to ask the things that he did, and they’re more respectful—you get reassured during sex scenes, and they’re choreographed, which desexualizes the act.
In another scene, Kechiche ordered Seydoux to hit Exarchopoulos over and over again, screaming at Seydoux to “hit her!” and “hit her harder!” When this produced both tears and snot, Kechiche ordered Seydoux to kiss Exarchopoulos and “lick her snot.” Both women were clear that the entire experience was horrific and stated that they would never work with Kechiche again.
In response to this, and references the actors made to suffering while working under his direction, Kechiche stated the following:
How indecent to talk about pain when doing one of the best jobs in the world! The orderlies suffer, the unemployed suffer, construction workers could talk about suffering. How, when you are adored, when you go up on a red carpet, when we receive awards, how can we speak of suffering?
The way in which this exemplifies rape culture should be obvious but, in case it is not, I will state it explicitly: the women in the film have had their bodies exploited, exposed, and abused. In return for this, they are given a reward. Because they are given a reward, they are expected to accept the exploitation, exposure, and abuse and if they do not, if they speak out as they did, then their voices are mocked, their sufferings are trivialized and their characters are assassinated.
What is less obvious but equally significant, is how critical responses to BDJ have more subtly but nonetheless essentially treated Deneuve’s words in the same way that Kechiche treated the words of Seydoux and Exarchopoulos. Melissa Anderson, in her short piece on BDJ on the Criterion website, notes Deneuve’s words but is quick to point out several things: (1) Deneuve’s role in BDJ remains one of her most iconic; (2) Deneuve herself is “judicious enough to distinguish her experience of making Belle de jour from the final product, calling it a “wonderful film””; and (3) Deneuve returned to work with Buñuel for an even more difficult and sexually-demanding role in Tristana, where Deneuve plays a girl sexually abused by her guardian who later comes back and marries the man who abused her. All of these reasons have been deployed in various ways to undercut the words of rape survivors: (1) it can’t have been that bad, she got something good out of it; (2) it can’t have been that bad, she is judicious enough to recognize the genius of the work and the director; (3) it can’t have been that bad, she went back to the fellow she claims abused her. These are classic arguments deployed by rape defenders.
Patricia Zohn, deploys a similar argument in her piece in the Huffington Post. This is the only other piece I found pairing BDJ with FSG. In it, Zohn urges women to turn from FSG to BDJ which is considered “the real thing” and “the very essence of no, no, no, yes, yes, yes” (and this is taken to be a good thing, something women want). Zohn notes that Deneuve spoke of having a bad experience but also notes that Buñuel said that Deneuve was difficult to work with, “a bit of a pain,” who “chafed” under directorial control. Buñuel’s complaints about Deneuve’s “on-set prudery” are also highlighted as is the observation that Deneuve was “so shy” that her hairdresser sometimes had to “bind her breasts” in order to prevent them from being shown. Zohn also goes on to mention how Deneuve states that BDJ was an important film for her and how it can still relate to not only men’s sexual fantasies today but, mostly, to the sexual fantasies of women. Lastly, in a surprising twist, Zohn doesn’t mention that BDJ is based on a novel by the same name written by a male author. Instead, she says that the idea for the film and the character of Séverine came from Melville’s and Buñuel’s conversations “with real women about their fantasies” and was also based upon their visits to “real bordellos in Madrid.” All of this serves to: (1) minimize Deneuve’s perspective (Zohn’s choice of the words “prudery” and “so shy” is not a neutral choice); (2) prioritize the perspective of Buñuel (Deneuve was just a difficult actor); (3) repeat the “it can’t be that bad” argument (Deneuve praises the film); (4) draw attention away from male constructions of female desire performed for the male gaze (real women in real brothels expressed these desires – although one cannot help but wonder about the dynamics at play in that brothel and if the women were performing a role within a particular context and power dynamic); and finally, (5) even draw our attention back to an object so adored by that male gaze – Deneuve’s breasts.
It is significant that both of the people making these arguments, Anderson and Zohn, are female. I suspect that readers of the Huffington Post and other public content would be more uncomfortable if male voices were speaking this way in response to Deneuve’s remarks. Note that the male critics I read did not respond in this way to Deneuve. In fact, they did not respond to her remarks at all. In the context of Roger Ebert’s review, Deneuve’s remarks simply do not exist. This silencing-into-nonexistence is a common tactic employed by those who have the ability to determine which voices are recorded and repeated and which are silenced and forgotten. Here is another example of it: a friend of mine watched BDJ as a part of a University course, and the professor prepared the class a great deal for the content that was going to be displayed in order to ensure that people were not triggered and in order to ensure the class that they were “the right audience” for the film. However, in all that preparation my friend and his classmates were never told how Deneuve felt about her experience. Going back to Ebert, not only does he disregard what Deneuve said about feeling over exposed, he actually praises BDJ because it shows so little! While the female actor was left feeling violated, male critics praise the eroticism of the film because “it understands eroticism from the inside-out – understands how it exists not in sweat and skin but in imagination” (on this point Ebert is being a bit irresponsible as a film critic – I believe what is shown in BDJ would have been considered much more provocative in 1967 than it is today, and Ebert is writing his review of Belle after his viewing of Eyes Wide Shut, which came out in 1999 and leaves much, much less to the imagination). Within rape culture this is typical of how men do – the voices of women go unheard and assertions of exactly the opposite of what the women have said are taken as truisms.
However, the female critics do explicitly engage Deneuve’s remarks. As women, they are able to justify rape culture in public in ways that would be less permissible to men and, by doing so, they make rape culture that much more natural and normal and “okay.” This is how systems and structures of domination and subjugation have always worked – a contingent of the oppressed or vanquished or abused must be brought over to the side of the oppressors, otherwise the context of oppression can never be naturalized or normalized enough to work. It happens with colonialism (setting up local client rulers who learn the benefits of betraying their own people and who are then more susceptible to accepting and propagating the ideology of the colonizers) and it also happens with patriarchy and rape culture.
With this in mind, I turn at last to FSG and the way in which it represents female sexual desire.
Part Two: “You’ve had six orgasms so far and all of them belong to me” – the representation of female sexual desire as written by women for women
Given the way in which BDJ is dominated by men – written, adapted, and directed by men, and performed for men, in the medium most suited for male sexual desire – I originally thought that FSG despite the quality of the writing, may be a more liberating or legitimate alternative. After all, FSG is written by a woman and has almost exclusively been purchased and read by women. Not only this, but it is written in a medium that is more conducive to eroticism as people like to imagine it – that is to say, to eroticism as something that engages our imagination. FSG shows us nothing. Instead, we read about what happens and here the atrocious prose actually forces us to use our imagination. Thus, for example, the following sentence – “Hmm… he’s soft and hard at once, like steel encased in velvet, and surprisingly tasty” – can only possibly be erotic if I’m working my imagination to make it so. Furthemore, as semi-creative writing, there is no female actor or person behind the role of Anastasia (Ana) who can be manipulated, exploited, coerced or abused by men engaged the production, distribution, or consumption of this book. Ana only exists on paper in in our imaginations. She doesn’t even appear on the cover (which, remember, shows a silk tie because this is a story written by women for women about female sexual desire, not a story written by men for men about female sexual desire). All of these things suggest that FSG may be a better representation of female desire than that which we find in BDJ.
Additionally, the sexual desire of the female lead in FSG is not pathologized as it is in BDJ. In BDJ, the woman who exhibits sexual desire has a back story related to childhood sexual abuse. It is uncertain if Buñuel, Kessel, Melville, and Carrière mean to pathologize the specific manifestations of Séverine’s sexual desire (that is to say, Séverine’s specific rape fantasies are a direct result of having being raped as a child) or if all female sexual desire is pathologized in this film – it’s hard to know because all female sexual desire in BDJ is embodied by Séverine. In contrast to this, Ana is a virginal character with no sexual violence in her past (that back story belongs to Christian – which is problematical to some members of the BDSM community, as are the portrayals of other people who engage in kink in FSG, an issue very well explored by Andrea Zanin in her article, “crazy and criminal: on those damn books, and why they matter”). Granted, the whole obsession with virginal status thing is symptomatic of patriarchy and its appearance in FSG is problematical – as though virginal women are permitted to experience sexual desire with a single male partner, but women who have multiple partners and a range of sexual experiences are sluts if they experience sexual desire? – but at least female desire itself is not pathologized.
Furthermore, having only glanced at the book myself, I was under the impression that consent was not a concern given that there are pages and pages of what seems to amount to contract law detailing what is permitted by whom, when it is permitted, what safety words to use, and so on. However, I was wrong about that. Anastasia never signs the contract. Instead, what she signs at the outset is a Non-Disclosure Agreement, agreeing not to discuss anything about Christian and his sex life with anybody else. Consequently, when he later punishes her for rolling her eyes by spanking her, this is done without her consent. Later still, Ana struggles with herself for enjoying the spanking – something a good many survivors of sexual violence have had to struggle with as they come to understand that arousal does not equal consent… but Ana appears to comes to the opposite conclusion (like most assailants who engage in ongoing relationships with the people whom they assault, Christian strongly argues to Ana that arousal does equal consent). Later on, when Ana actually does refuse a come-on from Christian, he is incredibly turned on by this experience. On another occasion, he discovers that Ana is going on a trip that she did not mention to him, and so he has quick, rough sex with her, refusing to let her orgasm, in order to punish her. And this is just the beginning of the problems with FSG. I won’t speak much about it all here, as a good deal of thoughtful criticisms, like the one I mentioned above, have already addressed these matters online. The long and short of it is that FSG is problematical, not because it involves BDSM, but because how of consent is framed within James’ presentation of things, and because of the kind of violence that is both normalized and eroticized. As written by James, a whole host of non-BDSM-related violent, abusive, manipulative, stalker-type behaviours are considered the objects of female desire. The seemingly obvious conclusion, at this point, is that James’ text has so internalized the male gaze, that even the female sexual desire it presents has become colonized by patriarchy, thereby exemplifying Lacan’s statement that “our desires are not our own, they are the Other’s.” Our desire is never simply ours – as if it is a part of some core of our being that is untouched by outside influences. Rather, just like the core of our being, our desire is formed by any number of other influences – even though, as Lacan also says, we do not simply clone the desire of the Other (often that desire is not so easily known) but modify it in some ways to make it our own. Consequently, in this reading, James’ text represents the sexual desire experienced sincerely and genuinely by female subjectivities subjected to the desires of men (or, more properly perhaps, of heteronormative, patriarchal capitalism). That her representation resonated so deeply with so many other women, then might speak to the extent to which the desires of women in our context are still disciplined (that is to say, created, framed and bounded by) the desires of men.
But I feel that I am overstepping at this point and this conclusion, just like my previous conclusions about the words of Melissa Anderson and Patrica Zohn in relation to BDJ, is immediately problematized when one remembers that I am a cis, straight, bourgeois, white, settler male making a judgment call about female sexual desire and how women speak about it. Who am I, as a man, to determine which women are speaking “properly” or in a “liberating” manner about female sexual desire, and which women have been co-opted by patriarchy and have become female apologists for rape culture? Isn’t this process of decision making, itself, an exertion of male power over women, a silencing of (some) female voices, and an example of a man choosing which women are “the right kind” of women and which women are “the wrong kind” (here the parallels to my friend’s argument about BDJ having a “right” and “wrong” audience make me quite uncomfortable)? I do not know how to escape these charges if they are brought against me – and I am bringing them against myself.
It is precisely for this reason that I gave up on trying to have a position on many matters some years ago. How can I, as a man, have a position on feminism when women have identified completely opposite positions as feminist positions? Increasingly over the years, I have learned to listen without objecting and without taking offence (who am I to take offence?? I’m glad that phase has passed some time ago) and tried to understand each person speaking or writing. But how can I speak of these things? For the most part, I concluded that I cannot, and this is my first time in a long time publicly breaking my silence in this way.
I’m not sure why I’m breaking my silence now… I think perhaps I finally feel as though I may have something thoughtful to say, and I think discussing representations feels more permissible than discussing desire itself as it is experienced by this or that person. I also view this writing as a part of my ongoing efforts to better understand these things, so I am not opposed to criticisms or reprimands of any kind – especially coming from those who are not also cis, hetero, bourgeois, white, male setters like me. Everything written here is tentative and provisional and open to change or correction, and I hope people will weigh in accordingly.
That said, bearing all of this in mind, when thinking about FSG in light of BDJ, I am reminded of the passage from Marx (familiar to a good many of us thanks to Žižek), where Marx comments on Hegel’s idea that history necessarily repeats itself: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” I would not classify either text as a great event, relevant on the stage of world history but the first does strike me as tragic and the second, the repetition, as farcical.
Intermezzo: What’s Wrong with Theory?
Before I move on to exploring Under the Skin, I want to reflect on a troubling observation that arose as I thought about this post for the last week or two. It is this: it seems that a good many of the films adored by theory folks – winners of Golden Palms and Golden Lions – tend to portray sexual violence in troubling ways and tend to act out some kind of real violence upon their female leads (and I got through to this point without even mentioning Polanski). What’s up with this? Is there something about high culture, about theory itself, which attracts this kind of representation? Is there a deeply engrained class-based sexual violence embedded in all of this? Is this some contemporary mutation of jus primae noctis? Or what?
Part of the reason why this question came to mind is because I have been recently reflecting upon the prevalence of attention paid to the writings and person of the Marquis de Sade in social theory. Due to the number of times he is discussed I sometimes think to myself that I should really read some Sade.” I then go and read a few reviews and synopses of his stories and I remember that there is no way in the world I want or need to read these texts. Yet theorists, especially Leftist theorists (the kind who also love to discuss films by the likes of Buñuel and Noé), seem to be enamoured with Sade. This makes me wonder if there is some deep inherent or overarching flaw in theory that I have been unable to recognize. I don’t know. If anybody could enlighten me here, I would be very happy.
Sade, after all, isn’t too different than Ben Levin, a tenured professor from the University of Toronto who was also once Ontario’s Deputy Education Minister. Levin was recently charged with frequenting online incest chat rooms and counseling single mothers on how to sexually assault their daughters for his pleasure and theirs. In these recorded conversations (in these texts), he also claimed to have sexually assaulted his own daughters, and on one occasion, wrote a story about the sexual assault of a ten year old (the article I read about this refereed to Levin’s story as being about a “violent sexual assault” but this is a misnomer that assumes that there is such a thing as a nonviolent sexual assault). Levin’s lawyer has argued that his client was simply fulfilling a fantasy, and role playing, and never had any sexual contact with children. Regardless of the veracity of this claim, it is likely that the content of what Levin wrote is tame in comparison to what Sade wrote.
From this, I wish to make two further observations. First, digressing from the subject of this Intermezzo back to the main subject of this post, I mentioned Levin’s fantasies, another kind of text, to a thoughtful, sensitive friend of mine who wished to defend BDJ, and asked if he thought they were comparable. He was appalled that I would even make the comparison. Watching a story written and directed by men for men about a woman who desires to be raped is taken to be a fundamentally different thing than referencing a story written by men for an undercover cop posing as a single mother about adults desiring to rape children (and if the children themselves desired to be raped in the story would this fundamental difference remain?). From this I learn that people are okay with men writing stories and making movies and watching movies about women who fantasize about being raped, but are not okay with men writing stories about men fantasizing about raping children. I find it troubling that we are okay with the former but not with the latter (to be clear: I find the former equally as troubling as the latter and am disturbed that others do not feel the same way).
Part of the problem for my friend was that he saw the potential for more “real” harm to be caused by Levin’s actions. Buñuel’s story was played out in the cinema, Levin’s on the internet. Buñuel’s story played out at the Venice film festival where it was awarded the Golden Lion and the Pasinetti Award for Best Film. Levin’s story is playing out in court, where he will be punished (he has pled guilty to charges around manufacturing child pornography, although he insists that he never hurt any child – and, at this point, the court appears to believe his claim that he did not touch his children but was only speaking about a fantasy). However, I’m not sure if these contexts and surrounding events allow us to so easily distinguish between the possible harm caused by BDJ or Levin. Contra the claims of Levin’s lawyer, it seems likely to me that what Levin wrote contributed to the rape of children. Contra the claims of my friend, it seems likely to me that BDJ contributes to the perpetuation and defense of rape culture (even amongst sensitive, kind-hearted folks like my friend, who identifies as an ally to women in the struggle for emancipation from patriarchy and male violence, and who was prepped by a University professor in order to ensure he is the “right” kind of viewer). How can one gauge which is more harmful? I don’t think that kind of gauge is necessary here. What is important to recognize, however, is the way in which a piece of art can cause harm in the so-called “real world.”
The second observation I want to make regarding the comparison between Levin and Sade, one that takes us back to the subject of this Intermezzo, is how many of the aforementioned French theorists, philosophers and psychoanalysts, and large number of doctors, actors, film makers, pediatricians, and child psychologists (and others), petitioned the French government in 1979 to get rid of age of consent laws and decriminalize all consensual sexual relations between adults and minors. Those involved in this petition include such notable figures as Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Jean-Francois Lyotard. Around the same time, many of these prominent intellectuals wrote public letters to the newspapers asking that all charges be dropped against three men charged with having sex with thirteen and fourteen year old boys and girls and, in a separate case, calling for charges to be dropped against a man accused of having sex with girls aged six to twelve. So the love affair that these folks have with Sade is not something without concrete ramifications in the juridico-political domain (here I am speaking critically of Foucault, while deploying Foucauldian language…). This leaves me again with the question I asked above: is there something about this sort of theory itself that makes it gravitate to this kind of thought and action? I don’t know, but if somebody could enlighten me, that would be marvelous.
Part Three: “The more slowly a woman dies, the more erotic it is” – over and on and under the skin
The title of this section refers to two texts. This first reference is to Jean Baudrillard’s essay, “The Body, or the Mass Grave of Signs” which contains a section on the strip-tease and quotes Bernardin, the manager of the Crazy Horse Saloon, as saying the above statement about the erotic slow death of women. The second reference is to Jonathan Glazer’s film, Under the Skin. I want to read these two texts together as they both explore sexuality in relation to stripping – clothing in the former, skin in the latter – and I want to see if this leads us to a different kind of presentation of female sexual desire.
Beginning with Baudrillard’s essay, brings us back to what makes BDJ permissible – that the fantasies involving violence are said to be the fantasies of Séverine and are seen through her eyes. In this regard, the film functions in the same way as a strip-tease (further strengthening the argument that this is really all about the male gaze and male sexual desire). According to Baudrillard, the secret to a strip-tease is “a woman’s auto-erotic celebration of her own body, which becomes desirable in exact proportion to the intensity of this celebration.” In contrast to this the “bad strip” is simply a “pure undressing” resulting simply in nudity and a naked or “obscene” body. Stripping works, Baudrillard says, when it is able to transform the naked body into a “phallus” (by which he means a “fetish object”) and “a sign of desire” (elsewhere, in his essay “The Finest Consumer Object: The Body,” a similar transformation process leads Baudrillard to conclude that the body of the fashion model is not longer a body but a shape). This is why the strip-tease is slow. It is not about stripping signs away to reveal the true sexual depth of the female body. Rather, it is about “an ascending play of the construction of signs” which transforms the woman’s naked body into a sign. Here, then, the words of Bernardin are apropos: “I am a hoaxer: you [the person hosting the strip-tease] give the impression of giving the naked truth, there could not be a greater hoax.” This is the same hoax Buñuel tries to sell us in his movie. The strip-tease works because it presents men with a convincing fiction about a woman’s celebration of her own body as an erotic fetish object – but this, of course, is a hoax. The same applies to BDJ. It presents an (apparently convincing to most) fiction about female sexual desire but, like the strip-tease, this is really just a pretense masking and permitting the violent sexual fantasies of men. Stripping takes us skin deep – but this skin is composed not just of flesh but of a sign of desire and it is this that becomes the largest organ, wrapped around and covering the surface of the naked woman.
Jonathan Glazer, in his Kubrickian movie about female sexual desire takes stripping to the next level – he strips Scarlett Johansson’s character not only of her clothing but also of her skin (significantly, Johansson’s character is unnamed and is listed in the credits only as “The Female”). It is hard to know what to make of this story. It is based upon a novel with the same name by male author, Michel Faber, but in the nine years it took to make the film, the narrative was altered a great deal. I am not even sure if it is about female sexual desire given that The Female is actually an alien and given that any of the desire she may or may not have for the men she meets and entraps, does not seem to be sexual desire. She seems to want, or at least need, to trap them in the black water that consumes them – but “want” and “need” are two very different things. Even if there is an unexpressed element of “want” to this, there is no indication that she does not seem to desire them sexually. She shows increasing interest in the habits of the men, what they do, where they are going, who else is involved in their lives (initially, these questions provide important information for a serial killer thinking of selecting a target but as the film progresses, the interest shown seems to become increasingly genuine), but she never exhibits anything close to this kind of interest when the men are actually stripped naked and walking towards her as she, in various states of undress, slowly walks ahead of them.
So what is Glazer doing? Is he reversing stereotypical gender roles and portraying women as powerful agents who think nothing of the men they use and use up? Or, as one critic wonders, is he merely engaging in a “pretentious gloss on a very old story about men’s fear of women, and women’s discomfort with their own allure?” Given the open-endedness of the story (Glazer stated the he wanted the movie to be more about experiencing certain questions than communicating the knowledge of certain answers), I believe that both of these readings are possible. However, I think that something much more interesting is taking place, and it is this that I think sets Under the Skin apart from the texts previously discussed. Here is what I think is happening: unlike BDJ and FSG which both claim to offer us stories about female sexual desire but actually offer us justifications of male sexual desire, Under the Skin pretends to offer us a story about female sexual desire but is actually a sustained criticism of male sexual desire.
This may not be immediately obvious to the viewer because the film is so narrowly focused upon The Female and because The Female spends so much of the film trying to find men to pick up in order to invite them to have sex with her. However, as I stated above, the first clue to this reading is the absence of any signs of desire exhibited by The Female. In marked contrast to this, the men in the film, very clearly exhibit signs of sexual desire. The men The Female picks up, explicitly express their desire to have sex with The Female and, after she takes them back to whatever place she is using at that moment, each (now naked) man approaches her with a visibly erect penis . These scenes are striking in how they diverge from standard performances of sex scenes. First, there is no sex. Second, white the female is often wearing some kind of clothing (say jeans and a bra), it is the men who are entirely nude and who have their genitals exposed to the gaze of the audience. We, the audience, are not viewing the fetish-object (the auto-erotic transformation of the female’s body into a sign of desire) but are, instead, gazing upon men who are gazing upon The Female’s body as a fetish-object (and what we see is much more literally phallic than what Baudrillard refers to as the phallus!). Here it is interesting to note that many of the men appearing in the film are not trained actors but were, quite literally, random men that Johannson picked up on the streets of Glasgow.
So, in the first place, Glazer makes it clear that it is men who are the ones acting on the basis of sexual desire and it is onto the bodies of these men that Glazer turns the gaze of the viewer. In the second place, we do need to note that The Female does exhibit some desire. Specifically, as the film progresses, she seems to exhibit a desire to be human – she tries to eat human food, she shows compassion to a fellow who has been ostracized by other members of the community because of the way he looks, and as she becomes increasingly enamored with the beauty of the earth and the forests and the sky and the ocean she seems to desire to make earth more truly her home. What The Female desires in Under the Skin is to be human – she desires to be more than she simply appears to be on the surface, she desires to be something other than a fetish-object (again, let me emphasize I am speaking about how things are represented in a film, and I’m not speaking approvingly or disapprovingly of women who desire to be fetish-objects or not). Sex then appears as a part of her movement into being human (after she has sex – with a man she does not kill – she takes a lamp from off of a dresser and uses it to examine her vagina, as if she is, for the first time, discovering what can take place there).
However, being human is precisely what The Female is not permitted to be. In a context dominated by male sexual desire, it is the body, the surface appearance, the skin, of The Female that matters. Consequently, when she finally decides to stop picking up men and goes off into the woods on her own, she discovers that, although she wants to leave men alone, male sexual desire will not leave her alone and there is no place where she is safe from it. In the woods, The Female encounters a forestry worker and he attempts to rape her. This, significantly, is the only scene in the film where one person engages in an act of physical violence against another person. In all the scenes were the men were disappeared, The Female never touched them and they walked slowly down into the black water that engulfed them with their eyes wide open and their senses all intact. But this rape scene is one that portrays extreme acts of violence initiated by one person (the man) against another (The Female).
As I was thinking about this scene, I recalled how some critics who thought Irréversible accomplished the goal it set out to accomplish, emphasized the importance that the rape in that movie takes place at the very beginning. Rather than slowly building towards the rape scene (like a Baudrillardian strip-tease where the slow build to the rape allows it to be overcoded with enough signs to permit the viewer to watch it), Noé’s representation of rape does not come at or with a climax (apart from that of the rapist and those who watch the scene on porn sites). Instead, the viewer is hit with it immediately and then has to spend the next ninety minutes sitting with it and the thoughts and feelings it entails (NB: Buñuel does the same with the placement of the enactment of the rape fantasy at the very beginning of BDJ although that seems to be primarily the case for shock value and as a narrative device, since the scene appears again at the end of the film, in order to problematize how the film is interpreted and to create a sense of ambiguity about everything that happens in between – so Buñuel’s representation cannot be defended in the same way as Noé’s but, from the perspective of the critics, it needs no defense anyway).
Thinking about this comment regarding Irréversible made me wonder about Glazer’s placement of the rape scene at the very end of the movie. However, I don’t think Glazer structures the movie to build, like a strip-tease, to this sexual climax. There are a few reasons why I think this. To begin with, there is no sexual climax in this scene. There is also no nudity. Just at the point when nudity would appear, when the man overpowers The Female (the scene is terrifying and nauseating to watch) and rips her clothing, her skin also rips. What the man sees under the skin appears to him as monstrous – as something alien – and he runs away. The rape is aborted.
This is Baudrillard’s “bad strip” taken all the way – not only the clothing but the skin itself is stripped away – and it is stripped away not by The Female as an auto-erotic act but by a man who is trying to force the female to be a fetish object. But with the ripping of the skin, the hoax is torn away. The truly “obscene” female body is revealed and The Female herself is taken to be an obscenity. Why is this the case? Because The Female is no longer a fetish-object. Her substance is no longer covered by a skin made of signs signifying desire. Her body actually contains a being under the skin – a being that ruptures the norms and expectations and permissions of the male gaze. This kind female is both vile and terrifying in a world dominated by male sexual desire. Therefore, after his initial flight, the man returns, douses The Female in gasoline, and sets her on fire. She burns to death.
But the man is not only confronted with The Female who is no longer a fetish-object, he is also confronted with the true violence of his sexual desire. Perhaps he is aroused by the struggle and the ripping of clothing – this, for the man, is a part of the strip-tease that transforms the body of The Female into a sign of desire – but when the skin rips, the violence of his sexual desire is also exposed. We already know how the man responds to this exposure – by setting The Female on fire and burning her to death. This act both erases The Female who is no longer a fetish object and destroys the evidence of his violence, which restores the status quo of rape culture. Indeed, recalling the opening quotation of Bernardin that Baudrillard mentions, it is by means of this slow death that the man restores eroticism to the body of The Female.
If all of this is not enough to convince the reader of my thesis about Glazer’s film, then I want to recall one final scene. The ending reveals to us that there is something substantial under the skin of the female, something that exists outside the bounds of male sexual desire. Precisely at this point we need to remember that we have already seen what is under the skin of the men. When one of the men walks down into the black water we actually follow him under. This man discovers another man in the water with him – presumably one of the men we saw descend into the water earlier in the film. This other man is bloated from all the water he has absorbed. However, he is not dead… apparently you don’t drown in this liquid but remain suspended in it, even as you absorb it. As the newly descended man stares at this other man, the other man suddenly bursts. He pops, like a balloon… only nothing comes out. There was nothing under his skin and the skin is left floating in the liquid. What is under the skin of these men who live in a world dominated by their sexual desire? Nothing substantial. Emptiness. A void.
The critical question after all of this is if Glazer succeeds where Buñuel and Noé failed. Does he (another cis-gendered heterosexual male) successfully talk about rape via the medium of film? At the end of the day, I don’t think that he does. In order to understand why, we should distinguish between the different ways in which Buñuel’s and Noé’s films fail. BDJ fails because it is emblematic of and further perpetuates rape culture. Irréversible fails because it thinks as hyper-realistic and violent a presentation of rape as can be communicated via film is what is needed to teach people about the horror of rape, the fragility of life and what we hold dear, and the irreversibility of some kinds of trauma – when really all this presentation does is show how far the Director and viewers are from being able to understand rape or empathize with those who have survived or not survived it. What Noé misses is that his movie is a symptom of those immersed in rape culture and is not a solution to or way out of that culture.
When compared to these two films, Under the Skin is closer in impact to Irréversible in than it is to BDJ (even if Glazer’s aesthetic and brilliance seem closer to Buñuel ‘s than Noé’s). Glazer seems to try very hard to deconstruct male desire, to turn the gaze back onto men, onto their bodies, onto their violence, and onto their culture. However, he makes some of the same mistakes as his predecessors. Notably, he also selects an actor, Johansson, who is renowned for her beauty. Furthermore, Johannson had never appeared nude in a movie prior to this one, and in this one, every part of her body is exposed to the gaze of the audience. Folks online seemed to go a bit wild for this and they created their own videos of some of the scenes. For example, in one scene where Johannson’s character is walking completely naked in front of a man who is also completely naked, the naked man is cropped out of the shot (the websites that post videos like this or of videos where they have compiled all of Johannson’s nude scenes into one clip, tend to describe Under the Skin itself as “bizarre” or just plain old “crappy,” and commentators seem wont to express their disappointment that Johannson’s breasts aren’t bigger and accuse her of engaging in years of false advertising).
Why do male criticisms of male sexual desire have to contain images of culturally constructed strikingly beautiful women? Is it because Glazer wants us to remember that the sexiness of Scarlett Johannson (who was voted the “Sexiest Woman Alive” by Esquire Magazine in the same year that Under the Skin was released) is something we have projected onto her body and is calling us to task for using the word “strikingly beautiful” in relation to one woman’s body but not in relation to another? Or is it because Glazer wants to see Johannson naked, because he knows that a good many other men want to see her naked, and because he knows it will sell (not just to a market audience but also to critics who can really dig it when mainstream actors jump onto creative films and take on roles far outside the normal range of options presented to them)? Perhaps it is a mix of both of these things but the latter reason does seem to predominate in the film. For example, the scene where Johannson’s character is exploring her body in front of a mirror certainly seemed quite gratuitous. I understand the plot point about how Glazer is showing The Female’s curiosity about the form she has assumed and all that. I’m just not convinced I need to see her vagina and her breasts and her ass from various angles in order to understand this. After all, the point is most fundamentally communicated by the way that The Female wiggles her toes and bends her knees and her wrists – the vagina, breasts and ass all just happen to be in the shot as well (a shot with remarkable lighting coming from a space heater by her feet, which casts just the right mix of glow and shadow and the sign of desire onto the skin of The Female).
I wonder if these male-based criticisms are doing more than simply criticizing male sexual desire. I wonder if they are creating a distinction between two kinds of male sexual desire: a “right” kind and a “wrong” kind, with the “right” kind being the kind of desire experienced by the men who criticize the “wrong” kind of desire and the men who experience it. That is to say, perhaps some men criticize male sexual desire in order to justify their own sexual desires to themselves and to others. “Look at these horrible men,” Glazer might say. “Look at the way they want to transform The Female into a fetish object. I am not like them. I am critical of all their efforts and the violence they direct against women. I care about what is under the skin. Consequently, I can also look at the skin itself.”
Perhaps an analogy from my own life would help to make sense of the insidious nature of this kind of narrative. When I was very young (Junior High or perhaps the beginning years of high school?), I used to fantasize about naked women. However, I was uncomfortable with male aggression towards women, and I was uncomfortable with anything that made people feel uncomfortable (like, say, fantasizing about someone naked). Consequently, I would structure my fantasies in such a way as to justify myself in the having of these fantasies. Specifically, I would imagine a scenario where I was saving or protecting a woman from the violent actions of another man. Perhaps a fellow had tried to mug a gal, perhaps a man had tried to sexually assault a gal, but in all these scenarios I would imagine myself saving the day. Because I saved the day in the fantasy, the gal would then fall in love with me and would then willingly share her naked body with me. Looking back on this years later, I was deeply disturbed by it – there are men who fantasize about raping women (the “bad guys”) and there are men who fantasize about saving women from rape (the “good guys”) but, either way, both the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are having fantasies about women being raped. That’s a lot more than fifty shades of fucked up. However, looking at the fundamental structure of my fantasy, I want to emphasize that a critical component of the fantasy itself was the fantasy that I was not the kind of guy to fantasize about naked women and so that made it okay for me to fantasize about naked women. I wonder if Glazer and Buñuel are doing the same thing with their films (wait… is writing this essay another way of doing that??).
Finally, there is also a somewhat played-out horror movie truism that Glazer (accidentally?) deploys in Under the Skin and this actually connects it in some ways with Fifty Shades of Grey. This is the virginal status of the female leads in these stories. Both characters, the Female and Anastasia, are virginal characters. They do have sexual encounters with other men, but these do not appear to involve penetration (and, as anyone with a Conservative Christian upbringing knows, only penetration really counts as sex!). When Ana does have sex as penetration, it ends up taking place in the context of a monogamous relationship that eventually results in the healing of Christian Grey’s brokenness, and a traditional heteronormative home (with a lot of money and toys included — a Disney Princess ending). This is the case in FSG because James is writing an erotic romance novel (technically a comedy). Glazer, however, is creating something more horrific (technically a tragedy) and we know what happens to virgins who have sex in horror movies: they die. It doesn’t take long for The Female to die after she has sex – less than twenty-four hours, I think. I’m not sure the extent to which this trope is only familiar within the context of North American horror films from the eighties and nineties, so I don’t know if Glazer knows about it or not (although I thought Scream  made sure that everyone knew about it?), but by presenting things in this way, Glazer certainly appears to be reinforcing patriarchal values regarding virginity and slut-shaming or –punishing, even in the midst of his criticisms of male sexual desire (or, again, is this a matter that is more specifically problematical for a North American audience?).
I think that this reference to horror movies from the eighties is also enlightening more generally. Horror movies saved virgins and killed the folks who had sex in order to engage in little morality lessons. Specifically, they wanted to show that behaviour that was considered risky or wrong (drinking, doing drugs, having sex outside of the context of marriage) could have devastating consequences. Don’t drink, don’t get high, don’t have sex outside of marriage and you’ll be okay. However, I think there was a lot of winking and nudging going on here — I don’t think that anybody really believed that these movies were concerned about moral issues. Instead, the moral gloss was used in order to make movies showing culturally constructed beautiful people getting drunk, getting naked, and getting killed. And, gosh, was this ever thrilling to watch. I’m not convinced that Buñuel, Noé, or even Glazer have come much farther than this, despite all of their intentions, skill, thoughtfulness, artistry, and pretentiousness.
Conclusion: “I wanna (ha), I wanna (ha), I wanna (ha), I wanna (ha), I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ah” – what do we really want when we talk about what people want?
As I was discussing Belle de Jour with my intelligent, kind-hearted (I’m not being facetious) friend who was defending it to me, he asking if I viewed BDJ as immoral. I have been so little interested in discourses that deploy discussions of im/morality, that his use of that language in our conversation really surprised me.
“Who talks about morality anymore?” I asked.
“Everyone,” he responded.
Still, this made me think harder about what I am doing. I did not immediately conceive of my argument as a moral one – granted, I conclude that BDJ is emblematic of rape culture and contributes to its perpetuation, but I fell short of saying that BDJ is “bad.” Whether or not you think BDJ is “good” or “bad” or somewhere in between (if those are categories to which you are drawn) depends a great deal of what you think about rape culture. What I first thought I was doing, when my friend asked me about morality, was making an observation – the moral implications are up to the reader to determine. But, of course, this is an obfuscation. There are no neutral observations. Every observation is biased. It observes certain things and does not observe other things – of what is observed some is recorded and some is not. All of this takes place from a certain perspective rooted within a particular power dynamic and a particular classed, gendered, racialized, and languaged context.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot analyses this lack of neutrality when it comes to power and the production of history in his book, Silencing the Past (which contains two essays about Haiti and a third about Columbus). Drawing on the work of Anthony J. Cascardi, Trouillot argues that what is needed in explorations of history is a recovery of authenticity (another concept like morality, which I thought had died amongst theorists in the wake of folks like Adorno and Foucault and what I take to be a general turning away from the existentialism of philosophers like Heidegger, Sartre and Kierkegaard [although Charles Taylor is an exception to this point]). Here, Trouillot quotes Cascardi’s definition of authenticity as: “not a type or degree of knowledge, but a relationship to what is known” and he emphasises that “historical authenticity resides not in the fidelity to an alleged past but in an honesty vis-à-vis the present as it re-presents the past.”
Trouillot uses Disney’s aborted effort to create a slavery-based Theme Park in Virginia to illustrate his point. Even if Disney managed to truly re-create the trauma and horror that slavery would inspire, the fact that it would largely be middle-class white folks attending this spectacle (scarfing hotdogs and sipping on Coke) serves to reveal the problem of simply presenting an accurate or hyper-real re-enactment of the past. Even if these white folks feel guilty about what they witness, Trouillot argues that their guilt will be misplaced in two ways: first, it is misplaced because they themselves are not slave owners; and, second, they guilt the experience would function as a shield or blinder against confronting the racism of the present. Hence, Trouillot argues:
Empirical exactitude as defined and verified in specific context is necessary to historical production. But empirical exactitude alone is not enough. Historical representations—be they books, commercial exhibits or public commemorations—cannot be conceived only as vehicles for the transmission of knowledge. Further, not any relation will do. Authenticity is required, lest the representation becomes a fake, a morally repugnant spectacle…
Authenticity implies a relation with what is known that duplicates the two sides of historicity: it engages us both as actors and narrators. Thus, authenticity cannot reside in in attitudes toward a discrete past kept alive through narratives. Whether it invokes, claims, or rejects The Past, authenticity obtains only in regard to current practices that engage us as witnesses, actors, and commentators—including practices of historical narration.
This is the way in which I have tried to read and write about the various texts explored above, as I have tried to engage us both as actors and as witnesses caught up in various contemporary contextual practices of power.
I wonder if the texts themselves fail to pass the test of authenticity Trouillot establishes here. BDJ is inauthentic in its presentation of female desire, as Blue is the Warmest Color is inauthentic in its representation of another variation of female sexual desire. I suspect that FSG is inauthentic in this sense, too, although this argument relies upon viewing James as writing to express a subjected or colonized form of desire, so I realize I may be wrong about this or, at the very least, may not be able to comment on this. However, moving on to the next film, I think Irréversible is inauthentic in its presentation of rape. And, despite the hope it initially inspired in me, I think Under the Skin is inauthentic in its criticisms of male sexual desire.
Is this a sufficient ground for making the moral choices I do? After all, speaking about a representation as “inappropriate” is moral language, as my friend reminded me. I’m not sure. Authenticity – but not the sincere striving for it – went out the window for me when everything became ideology and “the Real” became an unspeakable and inconceivable trauma. Still, it is fun to think anew about this concept and, really, at the end of the day, I wrote what I wrote because I wanted to write it.
This text, itself, is a product of desire – and desire is a difficult thing to understand, even in our own selves, let alone in others, let alone in large socially constructed groups of others. Part of the challenge of speaking about something like “representations of female sexual desire” is that it generalizes or universalizes to a fantastical degree. Female sexual desire is, itself, a fantasy (as is male sexual desire). In this regard, we need to recall that the particular is not an example of a more concrete (Platonic) universal. Rather, the universal is always an abstraction and, as such, is not actually a thing that exists at all. Abstractions take us farther from our lived experiences and what we encounter there, even though we use them to enframe and make sense of those same experiences and encounters.
However, this kind of conversation seems to inevitable when a private fantasy becomes public domain. When one person’s fantasy – Kessel’s or Buñuel’s or James’ or Noé’s or Kachiche’s or Glazer’s – is presented before a large number of people, it seems as though we are driven to relate the particular to the general. In part, this may be caused by the medium because representation itself, regardless of its form, is a way of generalizing a particular. In part, I think it is also caused by the fact that we pretend that general things like “men” and “women” exist. What I am trying to argue is that it is important to think about these generalities, what power dynamics they re/produce, what violence they enable or complicate, and what they teach us about ourselves and others.
Here, however, my kind-hearted friend will interject one last time and accuse me of arbitrarily picking and choosing representations of violence that I think merit this attention and neglecting or giving a free pass to other representations of violence that different people would find just as horrible as the horror I want us to feel about the sexual violence I talked about above (my friend knows I have read all of Cormac McCarthy’s novels and screenplays). What can one say to this kind of objection? (I have no desire to defend myself but to note another person’s complicity in some kind of violence does not justify one’s own participation in rape culture.)
Finally, there is one last representation of female sexual desire I want to end by mentioning very briefly. This is the desire communicated by The Spice Girls in their song, “Wannabe.” The Spice Girls were a band composed entirely of women who performed almost entirely for a female audience, but who were certainly well aware of the male gaze directed at them (one of them posed for Playboy, something I remember being excited about in high school).
“Wannabe” begins with the explicit and repeated statement that they will tell us what they want (what they really, really want). Then, one of them sings the line I used as the title of this section: “I wanna (ha), I wanna (ha), I wanna (ha), I wanna (ha), I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ah”.
What is a “zizazig ah”? Is it even an “zigazig ah” that is wanted or is it a “zigazig ha” (the scribes recording lyrics on websites online seem to be equally split on this important hermeneutical point — perhaps as critical a difference as where one puts the spaces in godisnowhere). Is there a difference between a “zigazig ah” and a “zigazig ha”? Does anybody know? I think there is a lot about desire (ha), about our representations of it (ha), our responses to it (ha), and our responses to those representations (ha), contained in that one line.
(Oh but, nota bene, “Wannabe” was co-written by the band members with two men, Matt Rowe and Richard Stannard, who also are the producers of the song.)