Christian Grey: Uncomfortable Object of Female Gaze

The erotic-fiction-with-a-clearly-abusive-relationship-dynamic universe was recently rocked when Charlie Hunnam dropped out of Fifty Shades of Grey, citing a busy schedule. It's fairly clear that he had an ulterior motive beyond time constraints — and, while it stands to reason that vitriolic and batshit 50 Shades fans threatening to MURDER HIM for not matching their mental image of Christian Grey might have contributed significantly, several outlets are reporting that the actor was worried that "it would be his version of Showgirls and he didn’t want to be remembered for that."

Regardless of whether or not that's true, it makes a lot of sense — and it reveals a lot about the disconnect in conceptualizing Christian Grey on film. In writing, Grey becomes a fetishized object of desire for the consumer while retaining his erotic magnetism. In film, though, it's a bit different. As Alyssa Rosenberg argues at ThinkProgress, "Taking on the mantle of Christian Grey requires the actor who plays the role to accept that he’ll become, to an unusual degree, a sex object whose primary role is to be consumed by female fans." The actor playing Christian Grey is not there for anyone to relate to or empathize with: he's there to be an object of lust. It's something you rarely — if ever — see happening to a straight man in a major studio film.

Even though the ultimate message of Fifty Shades of Grey is depressingly disempowering, the fact remains that it's a book written by a woman, consumed primarily by other women. Like Twilight, its plain female protagonist allows women to project themselves into a specific fantasy centered around an idealized male love interest. Unlike Twilight, however, that fantasy is blatantly and inescapably sexual — which makes it very different from the case of Edward in the Twilight franchise, who never loses his sexual agency despite being constantly emphasized as The Hottest Thing Ever. As Rosenberg states:

Fifty Shades Of Grey reverses the normal sexual equation, putting a man in a position normally reserved for women: required to be intensely sexual and but open to potential ridicule for it.

(I know from firsthand experience that Robert Pattinson was not open to ridicule in his role in Twilight. How do I know? Because after I attempted to ridicule him in a movie theater, a middle-aged woman who was sitting behind me kicked me in the head. It was not an accident.)

Our current conception of idealized masculinity (active! strong! manly!) is diametrically opposed to being sexually objectified — which is, somewhat paradoxically, a necessary part of turning this soft-core "mommy porn," which is ostensibly a pornographic ode to active manliness, into a viable movie. Because no one in the world reads Fifty Shades for the writing, it's extremely logical to infer that the script won't be very compelling, nor will it be filled with three-dimensional, complex characters. Christian Grey is just there, as Rosenberg notes, "to fulfill the sexual fantasies of heterosexual women." That can be handled sans anxiety — in Magic Mike, for instance, when it was pre-empted with very self-conscious camp and a splash of irony — but it's hugely risky for a male actor.

This is not to say that taking a role in Fifty Shades isn't risky for the lead actress as well — it's hugely likely that the film will play out like lurid, poorly written softcore porn (THE WHOLE PLOT IS TWO PEOPLE HAVING A SEX CONTRACT AND TALKING ABOUT THEIR PLANS FOR THEIR BUTT HOLES). It's not the most promising starting prospect for a fledgling thespian.

However, because the expectation that an actress be okay with being turned into a Sex Object is pretty much ubiquitous, seeing a woman agree to take on the role of Anastasia is far less shocking. As a culture, we're fine with expecting women on film to behave as sexy props, sometimes to humiliating effect. Are we ready for a shamefully objectified male Sex Object? It seems like very few actors are willing to put themselves in that position — but, hey, you never know. Patriarchy is dead; equal opportunity shameful-onscreen-sexualization should follow, right?

"What The 'Fifty Shades of Grey' Casting Shakeup Says About Sex And Masculinity" [ThinkProgress]
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