The hullabaloo – and eventual ban – that had everyone talking about the hot scenes and ‘nasty’ things done between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele have had me, and many other Kenyan women, zealously flipping through the pages of the three-book series of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ just to find out more about what we are not supposed to see.
As they say, the sugar tastes sweeter when you are not allowed to have it.
News that the series of books would be turned into a film was welcomed by many avid readers, as they thought they would finally get to see the ‘real’ thing. February 14 was D-Day, and Kenyans looked forward to big screen viewings; and to make it all the more titillating, Durex Kenya had planned to broadcast the film to audiences in Nairobi.
Restrictions don’t work
However, on February 10, the Kenya Film Classification Board made a statement restricting the viewing and distribution of the film. The reason for the restriction was “prolonged and explicit sexual scenes depicting women as sexual slaves.”
While many people were distraught at the news of the restriction, a number agreed with the Board’s decision, believing that the film should be completely banned because of its negative portrayal of women and glorification of males’ sexual domination. They thus saw the restriction as necessary in a country where domestic violence and rape are still considered taboo to talk about, though they happen often.
And it did not matter to the Board that the film came with an age restriction; it was just too ‘obscene’ for viewing and would influence minds, especially younger minds, to believe that spanking, whipping and other such acts of sexual subordination were ‘normal’ for sexual relationships. Such fears were somewhat confirmed when, in the US, a student at the University of Chicago was charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year old student and said to be ‘re-enacting scenese from Fifty Shades of Grey”.
In the ensuing weeks, there has been a lot passionately expressed about this. But one thing you should know about Kenyans is that for us, everything is okay until you ban or restrict us from accessing it. Defying illogical rules and regulations is something we do with zero concern, so it has not been surprising, therefore, that the buzz over the film has now resulted in massive piracy of it.
It’s easy to get the film from street vendors while seated in traffic. The vendors are not afraid to show you their pirated wares and will whisper conspiratorially to get you interested. Also, copies are easily available from the regular ‘movie guy’ where you can get DVDs for as cheap as 50 Kenyan Shillings (that’s less than $US 1).
If people are still going to find a way to watch something, is it then not better to make it freely accessible? After all, those proceeds would be most welcome to the arts sector.
Art and Freedom of Expression
For many Kenyans who wished to watch the film, their individual freedoms and rights were their main focus. They questioned the board’s right to police morality and what happens in people’s bedrooms – and fantasies.
This was the same reaction when the Board restricted Stories of Our Lives, a documentary on the lives of gay people in Kenya, citing promotion of “homosexuality, which is contrary to our national norms and values” as well as Wolf of Wall Street over ‘pornographic’ content.
Such moves must also be questioned from the standpoint of artistic expressions and freedoms. If artists have the freedom to create works that seek to provoke, limiting such choices therefore only serves to stifle and censor creativity.
While many agree that the sex in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is not the ‘norm’, they also argue that it is one’s right to be allowed room to fantasise and live vicariously through characters of fiction.
It is a wonder then that the book itself is not banned and remains easily available in bookstores and from vendors on the street.
Perhaps there is something then being said about how the imagination works from stimulants that are audio-visual. Is reading, because of its more personal nature, somehow considered less ‘dangerous’ to the imagination? Or is reading culture thought to be so much on the wane that it is considered an improbable means to gain access to such information?
That would be a bit odd since in the past, Kenya’s government has been quick to ban any book it has considered seditious. These works include Chinua Achebe’s ‘A Man of the People’, which was referred to as ‘pornographic’ by the Catholic church, leading to its being dropped as a high school set book.
The parallels between the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ restrictions in Zimbabwe and Kenya are uncanny, and come after both countries went through similar protests around women’s dress, and continued harassment and dehumanisation of anyone wearing clothing deemed ‘culturally inappropriate’.
If two nations, thousand of kilometres apart, can have the same patriarchal politics then we must take this to represent pertinent social commentary about Africa and its treatment of women, rights and freedom of expression.
For how much longer can we afford to have such similar and monolithic politics guiding our daily lives? And more importantly, at what cost?
Main photograph is reproduced from www.litreactor.com