A few years ago, the book series, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ caused quite a global stir for its racy content; and now, the film adaptation is following suit. Fans of the books – on which the film is based – have been lining up in their droves to see the film adaptation which was released worldwide on Valentine’s Day. As of this writing, it had grossed over $400 million worldwide with Hollywood already gearing up for its sequels.
So what makes this film so special?
Well, it explores sexuality from an unusual perspective, venturing cautiously into S & M – sadism and masochism – which is roughly defined as restraining a sexual partner and subjecting them to varying degrees of sensation, including pain. S & M, or bondage, is territory not often illustrated onscreen and certainly not in such lingering detail.
As such, the film has given women around the world much to talk about, with two distinct camps developing; one in favour of the film, and the other against its explicit exploration of S & M. Some interpret S & M literally, stating that the control exerted on the protagonist, Anastasia Steele, is against her will. Others argue that S&M is a complex genre that relies on men and women willingly placing themselves in an extraordinary fantasy where what takes places is agreed upon beforehand.
As a result of the former interpretation, and general conservativeness around sexuality, the movie has been banned in several countries around the world including Malaysia, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia and here in Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. Additionally, the film got the red light from Zimbabwe’s own censorship board, which as per Censorship and Entertainment Control Act is allowed to:
…not approve any film or film advertisement which in its opinion depicts any matter that is indecent or obscene or is offensive or harmful to public morals
As a result, the board ordered several scenes cut from the film before it could be screened. Of Harare’s movie houses, Ster-Kinekor at Sam Levy’s Village announced outrightly that it would not screen the film as the edits would compromise the film’s integrity, while Ster-Kinekor at Eastgate and Westgate malls screened the edited version for some days before scrapping it altogether.
But why so shy Zimbabwe?
So what could be behind this extreme reserve?
Perhaps it is because the film’s premise is based almost entirely on the sexual relationship between two consenting adults? Perhaps it is because it shows, onscreen, body parts which most adults have never seen before? Perhaps, according to our culturally agreed upon morals, sex is made to be had behind closed doors, not be talked about and certainly not to be shown, larger than life on the big screen?
With an age restriction placed on the movie, we surely aren’t saying that adults cannot make their own decisions about what they wish to see?
Whatever the answer to these questions might be, what stands is those who have been selected to guard us from what might ‘taint’ our ‘cultural vision’ have deemed this film inappropriate. As it stands, if you want to see ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ in Zimbabwe, you will have to purchase your copy from the guy selling pirate DVDs at a street corner near you.
A friend and avid fan of the book series purchased a pirated copy and eagerly invited me to watch it with her. Imagine my surprise when I noticed that the pirated copy appeared to be edited! Perhaps the peddler had set up his video camera to film the movie for pirate distribution at Eastgate or Westgate because the film was a full 20 minutes shorter than advertised online, leaving me frustrated and wondering what was really so bad that they didn’t want us to see?
Movies ‘for men’ and ‘movies for women’ and the in-between
To really understand what all the rumpus is about, it might serve us well to look at the history of film and the ways in which relationships between men and women are portrayed. In general, and with a lot of stereotyping, movies can be divided into those that appeal to men and those that appeal to women. ‘Movies for men’ are generally packaged as action movies, featuring the lone gunmen who achieves ‘heroic’ feats such as killing without batting an eyelid, leaving a trail of blood and destruction in his wake. On the other hand, women’s viewing is oriented towards romantic comedies; movies about unlikely couples who over the hour-and-a-half period of movie time manage to overcome superficial obstacles and get married with a little mild drama thrown in the middle to make it interesting.
But ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ wreaks havoc with the plot of your average romantic comedy. Sure there is the usual hijinks at the film’s beginning when our protagonist meets Mr Grey for the first time in his office and trips into his office. But after that, the film largely focuses on the intensity of the physical attraction between an adult man and adult woman. Even when the film navigates the mundane realities of a man and a woman getting to know each other, its underlying tension is simply sex. Perhaps it is too much to expect, or to allow, us as Zimbabwean audiences to spend an hour and 50 minutes thinking about sex. And not just any kind of sex, but the kind that deviates from our perceived norms.
It is just far too titillating.
The Kenyan Censorship board states that it shows “prolonged and explicit sexual scenes depicting women as sexual slaves.” But what stood out for me is that the film showed, scene after scene and shot after shot, a woman experiencing explicit sexual pleasure.
We are taught as women that pleasure is for men, and that we must give it and not expect it for ourselves. This can be seen, for example, in the chinamwari ritual that teaches girls how to give sexual pleasure to their husbands. Sure, it is acceptable to receive pleasure but to be so blatant in its pursuit or enjoyment as women is against our cultural and public ‘morals’.
Yes, the sex shown here may not be everyone’s cup of tea; not everyone would imagine themselves giving up control simply to heighten an erotic experience. But in no way is this film about something that happens against someone’s will. No, what has ruffled feathers here is the idea that sexual activity can be explicitly about prolonged female pleasure, with the protagonist revelling in her unfamiliar circumstances.
In a society that generally refuses to speak about sex but then condemns young people when they get pregnant, this is to expected.
But still, it begs the question.
When are we going to change this?
Main photograph is taken from www.pagetopremiere.com