I’ve been thinking about the forthcoming movie adaptation of E.L. James’ hit erotic novel Fifty Shades Of Grey a great deal lately, not because I think the books are particularly strong, but because I think the enthusiasm for them, and the terms in which that enthusiasm are expressed, get at a lot of important fault lines in our popular culture. The news that Jamie Dornan, an Irish actor best known that for his work on the family-friendly fairy tale Once Upon A Time and the decidedly less-family friendly serial killer drama The Fall, will play lead Christian Grey after the departure of Charlie Hunnam, opens up a new one: the conflation of sexuality and death.
Dornan’s two previous roles, on the surface, couldn’t have less in common. On Once, he’s the Sheriff of Storybrooke, while in The Fall, he’s a grief counselor, married with two children, who kills for sexual gratification. But the the parts shade sex and death into each other in ways that put them on the same spectrum.
As Sheriff Graham on Once Upon A Time, Dornan played a darkly romantic figure who, unbeknownst to him, was an unexpectedly sexy twist on the walking dead. His alter ego, the Huntsman, sacrificed his own heart to the Evil Queen so she wouldn’t take Snow White’s. His willingness to accept an action that, in the real world rather than a magical one would have killed him, is an admirable act that only heightens the Huntsman’s appeal, his particular combination of strength and the tenderness that leads him to cry for the animals he kills to survive. And the fact that he doesn’t die leaves the Huntsman/Graham available as a sex object, particularly to Emma (Jennifer Morrison), the newcomer to town who becomes his deputy, and his love interest. Her kisses with Graham help him remember his alternate identity as the Huntsman. And one of those overly-revealing kisses ultimately contributes to his death by a fatal heart attack. Sexual contact, in their story, both contributes to Graham’s death, and prevents the further consummation of Emma and Graham’s relationship.
And in The Fall, Dornan’s character, Paul Spector, kills for sexual gratification. That in and of itself isn’t terribly unusual, but the show goes further than many of its counterparts to show Paul’s victims from Paul’s perspective. The killings themselves are terrifying and unpleasant, but The Fall doesn’t stop there. Instead, it lingers with Paul as he washes his victims, paints their fingernails, and arranges their dead bodies in bed as specters of aesthetic perfection. Even though the art he creates in preparation for and in the aftermath of his kills depicts terrible things, The Fall has us recognize Paul’s talents. If you got rid of that pesky urge to murder young ladies who tend to run younger, thinner, and more brunette than Paul’s wife Olivia (Sarah Beattie), he’d almost be an acceptable figure of tortured-artist-with-unrealized-potential lust. Gillian Anderson’s detective Stella Gibson provides a consistent reminder that Paul is a killer, a man driven by lusts and compulsions, and her steely confidence make it seem plausible that she will be his reckoning. But the competition between Stella and Paul isn’t just a matter of the show’s narrative drive, but between its aesthetic attraction to both characters.
Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that’s come under criticism for conflating BDSM practices and physical and emotional abuse, is the perfect third entry in Dornan’s trilogy, and a continuation of the themes that have animated Dornan’s work in Once Upon A Time and The Fall. In E.L. James’ novel, Christian Grey’s sexual practices are a response to his horribly abusive childhood. And because Anastasia Steele (who will be played by Dakota Johnson), the young woman who Christian propositions, doesn’t have the same experience or orientation, she determines in the first novel that what might be sexual play to him constitutes abuse to her. It’s a shame that Fifty Shades doesn’t draw a firm line between BDSM and and abuse, though perhaps Christian’s background provides a gateway excuse for readers who might be hesitant to head straight for the Red Room of Pain without the excuse that it’s part of healing a wounded soul. But it’s interesting to see the novel and now the movie as a culmination of pop culture’s braiding of sexuality and death, moving from the idea that sexuality can have lethal power, to the acknowledgement that death can be sexually stimulating, to a conflation of abuse and pleasure.
The idea that sexuality and death are linked doesn’t lead to simply conclusions, whether about sexuality, or gender roles, or previously unexpressed sexual appetites. Sex can be a way of seeking temporary oblivion, in contrast to the permanent lights-out of death, and sexualizing death can be a means of making it less frightening. In that sense, given his experience, maybe Dornan should have been the first choice for Christian Grey all along, the gorgeous face seducing us into the big death, as well as the little one.