It’s never a good sign when a movie makes you think about statistics.
That’s especially true when the movie is “Fifty Shades Darker,” the follow-up to 2015’s adaptation of E.L. James’s hit novel “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The movies are supposed to be steamy, sexy romantic thrillers with a splash of kink. But when “Darker” screened earlier this week, I found my mind wandering, not only because of the plodding pacing and cumbersomely long running time. In the film, Dakota Johnson reprises her breakout role from the first film, playing Anastasia Steele, a virginal young woman who just happens to have fallen in love with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) — sadistic, super-wealthy and Seattle’s most eligible bachelor.
Like its predecessor, “Fifty Shades Darker” hews to the house aesthetic James set up, replete with picturesque Pacific Northwest backdrops, expensive homes, nice dresses and the kind of titillating, soft-core sexuality that is staged with coy “good” taste, luxuriating in the protagonists’ perfectly proportioned bodies and gothic accoutrements but cutting away before things get too graphic.
There’s not much to defend in either movie, frankly. But there are some crucial differences that come into sharp relief upon comparing the two. In “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which was adapted by screenwriter Kelly Marcel and directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, Anastasia was still a college student — dreamily innocent, but bright and alert to the contradictions of her attraction to a dominating, creepily possessive man; the film was animated by an at least somewhat interesting subtext having to do with consent, female desire and self-discovery.
Those undercurrents go almost completely missing in the far drearier sequel, which amounts to an interminable slog of soapy love-talk and fetishy sex scenes. “Darker” is markedly less self-aware, and Anastasia — now a budding book editor — is a far more passive, insipid figure than in the first film. Think Cinderella, with ankle cuffs.
While James herself exerted almost unprecedented control over the first movie, she was joined in the effort by two women: the screenwriter and the director. Both Marcel and Taylor-Johnson having vowed never to work with James again (insert dominant-submissive joke here), “Fifty Shades Darker” was written by James’s husband Niall Leonard and directed by James Foley. Did those gender dynamics play into the tiresomely conventional story at “Darker’s” core? It’s impossible to prove one way or another, but arguably Marcel and Taylor-Johnson brought added psychological insight to a female protagonist who is far less compelling and layered this time out.
Here’s where the statistics became more interesting than the spankings and sex toys: As she does most years, Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, recently found that women are dramatically underrepresented in the ranks of high-powered directors. In her annual “Celluloid Ceiling” report, released in January, she found that women comprised just 7 percent of directors working on the 250 top-grossing films in 2016; it was 9 percent the year before.
Lauzen’s findings were backed up a few weeks later by the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. The researchers there looked at the top 100 movies released every year between 2007 and 2016, accounting not just for gender but for ethnicity and age. Out of a total of 1,146 directors, they found that only 4 percent were women, only six of whom were African American or Asian.
The Annenberg team’s conclusion: “There has been no meaningful change in the prevalence of female directors across the top films from 2007 to 2016” and, when studio executives deign to consider a woman to helm a movie, “Hollywood’s perception of women directors is that of a white female.” It came as no surprise, then, when the Washington-based Women’s Media Center crunched the Oscar numbers to reveal that only 20 percent of this year’s non-acting nominees were female. (That figure pretty much lines up with Lauzen’s findings that women accounted for 17 percent of the directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers of top films in 2016.)
Depressing statistics, no doubt, especially arriving at a time when the movie industry has been under scrutiny by the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. government for discriminatory hiring and employment practices. And they have all manner of knock-on effects, from economic — how much does Hollywood lose when it ignores the perspective of half its audience? — to basic fairness.
Perhaps most powerfully, though, women’s absence as storytellers severely limits the narrative warp and woof of the movies themselves, and we need only travel to the local multiplex to see the evidence. There’s no question that “Fifty Shades Darker’s” point of view is far more conventionally male, keeping Dornan’s character relatively covered up while lingering over Johnson’s creamy skin and curves. But it’s not nearly as unsettling — and downright cynical — as M. Night Shyamalan’s imagery in his hit horror film “Split,” in which James McAvoy takes on multiple personae as a kidnapper and murderer suffering from dissociative identity disorder. The film co-stars Anya Taylor-Joy as one of three teenage girls held in captivity by the villain, with Shyamalan displaying the kind of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too attitude toward his subjects that Hollywood specializes in, both abhorring the suffering of the young victims, but also framing it in a way that is undeniably sexualized.
Lest anyone think that these issues are academic, a documentary arrives in theaters Friday proving that they are anything but. In “I Am Jane Doe,” filmmaker Mary Mazzio reveals the sordid world of underage sex trafficking, specifically as it pertains to young women who were forced into prostitution, their “services” made available on the online classified site Backpage.com. In a series of sickening montages, viewers can see how the film’s subjects were presented by their pimps, playing into myths as old as Lolita and as new as Anastasia Steele. (In one sequence, Mazzio shows how movies like “Pretty Woman” have helped to sanitize and even romanticize the seamy underbelly of coerced sex work.)
This is the moment when I’m obligated to remind readers that I’m not suggesting a simplistic cause-and-effect correlation between movies and real-world behavior. Nor am I arguing that women aren’t equally as capable as men of objectifying female figures in troubling ways, although only with genuine parity will we know that for sure.
But I am observing the self-evident fact that film has exceptional — maybe even unique — power to shape and inform our norms, expectations and desires. That might be the chief reason it matters so much who makes them. And that’s why a movie culture defined by the white male gaze isn’t just unfair and dreary, but toxic.