In response to my post yesterday about why Charlie Hunnam might have dropped out of playing kinky billionaire Christian Grey in the adaptation of the best-selling erotic thriller Fifty Shades Of Grey, I got a range of fairly predictable responses from some male readers. First, there were the guys who jokingly volunteered that they’d be more than willing to accept the admiration of millions of women, suggesting that such adoration isn’t a burden at all. Then, there were the folks who suggested that there have always been male sex symbols, from Clark Gable until now, and that the Grey role is no different. And finally, there was the oft-repeated assertion that Hunnam had done intensely sexualized work before in Queer As Folk, and should have been good to go now.
These things are true! But they also show very little understanding of how objectification works, why it might function differently from the collective gasp when Clark Gable tanked the undershirt industry with a single creative decision, and why being objectified might be roundly unpleasant. So let’s walk through three key elements of objectification that apply in the case of Fifty Shades, but in many, many other instances as well:
1. It involves having attributes other than your looks devalued: Charlie Hunnam apparently had a lot of notes on the Fifty Shades script, which makes sense, because the writing in the original is almost hilariously thin and stilted. But guess what: no one in the movie’s core audience cares. The only thing that matters about the dialogue is how convincingly sexy the actor playing Grey is when he utters his catchphrase, “Laters, Baby,” in sending off our heroine, Anastasia Steele. What really matters to many Fifty Shades fans isn’t whether their Christian projects the facade of being a brilliant self-made businessman, but how well he fits into the jeans he wears in the Red Room of Pain, whether his eyes are the right stormy shade of gray, and his waist as waspish as they’d prefer. Being objectified isn’t about being admired as a whole person. It’s about people deciding that your appearance is valuable and marginalizing or dismissing anything else you might bring to the bondage table. And it sets up a frustrating, and often profoundly disconcerting gap between who you think you know yourself to be and what other people say you are and what is valuable about you. Over the long term, it can start to make you think that the parts of yourself that have been deemed unnecessary are worthless or even inconvenient.
Sure, Clark Gable was a sex symbol, and there have been many, many sex symbols who followed him. But what most of them have in common is that they were sex symbols on their own terms, and their sexiness was only one element of their characters. Gable played lots of competent, conflicted men, whether he’s chasing down a runaway bride for a newspaper story in It Happened One Night, trying to figure out business ventures in The Misfits, or foreshadowing the rise of the New South in Gone With The Wind. One of the things that’s remarkable about George Clooney’s rise as a sex symbol is the extent to which he’s been able to do it while becoming more known for his ability to wear a suit than what his chest looks like under it. It’s impossible to imagine either many playing Christian Grey in part because there’s nothing to Grey other than his embodiment of a fantasy.
Want a primer on how this dynamic of stripping away a person’s usefulness or intelligence, leaving only their body behind, can function for men? Watch Magic Mike, in which the relationship between Channing Tatum’s stripper and Olivia Munn’s graduate student is governed by her desire for him to be just a sexy bimbo she can sleep with in between using him as a research subject, even as Mike dreams of getting out of stripping and starting a custom furniture business. For a while, the dynamic works for them, but ultimately, it gets into Mike’s head in insidious ways. The climax of the movie involves Mike reclaiming the parts of himself that can’t be disguised or revealed by the application or removal of a thong. And it’s surprisingly cathartic.
2. It’s about entitlement: When you objectify someone, you suggest that they have an obligation to appear sexy to you–and when objectification jumps off the screen and into the real world, you demand that they be sexual for you or sexually available to you. Megan Fox is a primary female example of this kind of entitlement–fans turned on her rather than siding with her when she described her audition process for the Transformers movies and described how director Michael Bay had treated her in part because Bay was the person responsible for providing Fox to audiences on the terms that some of them desired: scantily dressed, dependent on a nerd-turned-hero, breasts heaving across the desert as she was pursued by giant machines. The controversy has more nuance than that–Fox is reportedly somewhat difficult to work with–but the overarching dynamic is clear. Megan Fox isn’t supposed to be a person. She’s supposed to be a pliant object, a blow-up doll with the advantage of warmth and responsiveness.
This sense of entitlement shows up in the fan response to Fifty Shades of Grey casting, too. Almost 90,000 people have signed a petition demanding that Matt Bomer and Alexis Bleidel be recast as the leads of the movie adaptation on the grounds that, as the petition’s creator puts it, “Matt Bomer is the PERFECT DESCRIPTION OF CHRISTIAN GREY AND ALEXIS BLEDEL IS THE PERFECT ACTRESS TO REPRESENT ANASTASIA STEELE and if THEY ARE NOT, NOBODY WILL BE And I read the whole trilogy and I can assure that Matt is the perfect actor for this movie and Alexis too.” Two things to note here. First, observe the focus on “description.” What Matt Bomer can or can’t do as a thespian here is irrelevant. And second, the question of whether actor wants to appear in an intensely sexual movie, and whether they’d be comfortable doing so with each other, or under Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction, or in a movie that will be promoted to the point of media saturation is absolutely nowhere to be found. What the actors care about, or whether they’re comfortable with the parts isn’t under consideration. The desires of the people who will be consuming them is the only thing that matters.
And any demurral can be rewritten to imply interest and consent. When Bomer responded to the petition publicly by praising the actors who had been cast instead, the petition’s creator wrote ” I WILL NOT BELIEVE THESE STATEMENTS UNTIL I SEE A VIDEO BY MATT OR UNTIL WE HAVE AN OFFICIAL STATEMENT BY MATT SAYS ‘OK GUYS, I DON’T WANT TO BE CHRISTIAN GREY, PLEASE THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT, BUT STOP THIS…FOR NOW, I DON’T BELIEVE ANYTHING. THE BOMERETTES GREYSESSEDS OF THE WORLD WE WILL CONTINUE WITH THIS CAUSE UNTIL THE END.'”
3. It’s about sexuality–but not the sexuality of the person being objectified: A very common refrain in response to the idea that Hunnam might not have enjoyed the attention he received after being cast is that his work on Queer As Folk, or his willingness to appear in sex scenes in Sons of Anarchy should have prepared him for the sexual content of Fifty Shades of Grey. I don’t doubt that the latter is true–in fact, it’s one of the reasons I think he might have been a more credible Christian than the other actors. But whether he would have been able to engage with the material, and whether he could handle the fans’ reaction to him, and his body, and his use of that body are entirely separate questions. It’s one thing to be able to bring your own interpretation of a character to a work. It’s another to be told that your interpretation and performance are invalid because you’re failing to satisfy viewers private fantasies, as if there’s only one factually correct way to portray a situation or to interpret a pre-existing work of art. What fans want from Christian Grey is that he conform, that he satisfy their sexual expectations, not that the actor playing him brings something new, and fresh, and potentially surprising to the part. He’s required to be a marionette, even when the strings are being fought over by any number of different people.
This element of objectification goes hand-in-hand with entitlement, and it flattens art. If you go to the movies not to surrender to what someone else is putting on screen, if you want to see the same thing over, and over, and over again, and if you want your preferences to be filled precisely the same way every time, rather than having them expanded or challenges, you don’t really want to go to the movies at all. You want command performances, and to live in one narrow little fictional world, rather than exploring lots of them. The requirements that all women meet a single ideal of physical perfection, or that a story remain rigidly identical to its source material, even if the source material could be improved upon, narrow the possibilities for the visuals we can see, and the stories we can tell. And this is true no matter who’s doing the objectifying, and who their targets are. Objectification isn’t just scary because of its mental health impacts on its objects, or for how it narrows the range of acceptable body types and physical presentations for both men and women. In art, it’s unnerving because it’s a way of shutting down more expansive story-telling.