How did filmmakers talk about sex before they could talk about sex? 50 Shades of Grey is arguably the first mainstream American film to thoroughly tackle ideas and practices of sadomasochism, despite centuries of literature on the subject. Since the early years of the medium, it became apparent that the cinema had the power to titillate—to excite—so it was held to a special set of concerns regarding decency that would inform and regulate what we could see in the cinemas. Yet, this did little to change the fact that sex is not only a fundamental aspect of the human condition but that it is something people wanted to see. And though, judging by some of the reception and discussion surrounding 50 Shades of Grey people are still uncomfortable with the ideas surrounding sadomasochism, there is actually a very rich history of utilizing its ideas and themes in the American cinema.
Hollywood has always kept its most daring subject matter cloaked heavily in subtext. This has led many filmmakers to embrace the frameworks of sadomasochism, in particular in regard to power-dynamics, to add some punch to their storytelling. Sadism in particular became a particularly salient way of communicating to audiences that a villain was really evil, as he or she literally took sexual pleasure from harming others. Masochists are less prevalent in Hollywood —though they are easily confused with characters trapped in a cycle of abuse—as those who find pleasure through pain.
In the early ages of sound cinema, before the production code (a time period roughly spanning from 1933-1967 in which a strict list of regulations was enforced as to what could be said or shown onscreen), sadomasochism and so-called “sexual deviancy” was rampant. Gangster films in particular were rich with acts of sadism: characters like Tom Powers (James Cagney) in The Public Enemy (1931) indulged in their impulse to cause pain, often reserving their most heinous acts for the women they desired. At the breakfast table after a night of presumed passion, Cagney maniacally stuffs a grapefruit into the face of his lover. We may not approve of his action, but we enjoy the audacity of his impulse to do it. These films had disclaimers that the actions on screen were not being endorsed, and the villains would be punished—but audiences were not flocking to see these films for moral lessons; they were going to be excited.
This period in American cinema, however, was short lived and by 1933 sexual audacity on the screen was muzzled by the production code. In the era of the American production code, lighting a cigarette on screen became a radical act. For those in the know, this was a wink from the filmmaker, as if to say to the audience, “Yes, these characters are beautiful and sexy. Yes, they’re fucking, and yes they like it.” Codes like these became integrated into the fabric of the American film style, and still have holdovers today.
Starting in the post-war period, film noir heralded a new period of rebellion in cinema. While its exact parameters are still debated, the movement is most often seen as spanning from 1945-1958. Noir, so familiar to modern audiences from its countless iterations in film and literature, featured anti-heroes and stories of crime. Emblematic of a world that existed between right and wrong, film noirs were most remarkable for their black-and-white cinematography and femme fatales: of all movements in American film, perhaps none reveled more in the insinuations of S&M culture so fully. Sex played a huge part in these narratives, even though they could rarely be discussed on the screen. Films like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) or Double Indemnity (1944) were clearly about obsessive and passionate sexual affairs that eventually lead to murder. Filmmakers had to skirt around directness, but there was no mistaking the topic at hand, nor was there any way around the fact that the sex was intense, self-destructive and culturally unacceptable. Perhaps these affairs were not directly about S&M culture, but they nonetheless were perceived as deviant and connected intimately to pain and violence. Film noir also featured masochists rather prominently, a reflection on the damaged sense of masculinity following the return of disillusioned veterans. Characters like Johnny (Glenn Ford) in Gilda (1946) thrusts himself directly into the arms of the femme fatale, hoping to be destroyed. As the film similarly deals with some not-so-subtle homoerotic elements, the “deviancy” of his desire is only amplified. In a great tragedy, in the pursuit of his lust, Ford’s character destroys himself, his fantasy and his object of affection.
The great waves made by film noir are felt well into the early 1980s. The American New Wave, where young filmmakers fresh out of film school sought to reinvent the cinematic landscape, drew as much from the films they watched as they did from their own lives. This, tied with the sexual liberation movement, led to more overt depictions of sex. Yet, when American filmmakers were finally able to discuss and portray sexuality frankly, what exactly did they have to say?
Before the ’70s, the characters who flitted around a sadomasochistic orbit (however veiled), had one thing in common: they were considered ineligible for real love, affection or respect. From the 1970s onward, though S&M becomes more predominant onscreen, it is often seen as a gag. This is apparent in films like Tomcats (2001), in which the dominatrix is treated as a humiliation to be overcome or escaped. At the end of the day, when we’re telling a story of boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love … where does S&M fit in, exactly? There are certainly exceptions, Secretary (2002) being the most obvious one, but such films are rare and exist within the realm of the independent cinema.
With 50 Shades of Grey itself we already see this sort of recurring narrative taking place, at least in the public discussion. Consistently in interviews we see both stars attempting to distance themselves already from the themes and topics of the novel. For Glamour magazine, Jamie Dornan says, “Some of the Red Room stuff was uncomfortable. There were times when Dakota was not wearing much, and I had to do stuff to her that I’d never choose to do to a woman.” While the visual language and permissiveness may have changed, the negative insinuations remain the same. It will be interesting to see if 50 Shades of Grey leads to an influx of films depicting sadomasochism, and whether we will see a healthy depiction of an S&M relationship anytime soon.