Sex Fantasies and Political Leadership
For a moment let’s go back to 2011 ― the year before "Fifty Shades" went viral with its depiction of male dominance and female erotic submission.
Barack Obama was in The White House then ― a former law professor, so instinctively mild-mannered that he famously needed an anger-translator. A committed feminist and former community organizer, Obama had little taste for the saber-rattling and other displays of male power that traditionally go with the office. His first impulse seemed less to dominate than to question the need for dominance ― a fact that cheered his supporters but drove his detractors crazy.
The Obamas were the ultimate modern egalitarian couple. If there were a conflict between Barack and Michelle, it would be hard to imagine that even as president he’d ever pull rank on her.
Barack and Michelle seemed to express an ideal that forward-thinking people had envisioned for decades: the collapse of the old patriarchal marriage, and its replacement by a relationship where men and women could contend with each other as equals.
Then along came "Fifty Shades," which by year seven of the Obama administration in 2015 had sold 125 million copies to women eager to fantasize about Anastasia Steele’s uber-dominant, whip-wielding billionaire boyfriend Christian Grey.
The couple in the White House may have been a model of mutual respect. But mutual respect no longer seemed so erotic – assuming it ever was.
A Sign of the Times
Many people thought the sudden popularity of "Fifty Shades" might have be due to women’s greater social independence and economic empowerment in the early 21st Century. It’s likely the book wouldn’t have sold so well in the 1950’s, when female submissiveness was the norm in a marriage.
Submissiveness apparently had to go out of fashion before it could gain potency as an erotic theme.
In 2014, The New York Times Magazine had published L.A. therapist and writer Lori Gottlieb’s cover story, “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?” about how men and women in egalitarian relationships often felt erotically neutered. Equality was nice, but apparently it wasn’t very hot.
Gottlieb quoted a very interesting study from 2012 entitled “Egalitarianism, Housework, and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,” which found sexual frequency tended to correlate with so-called “gender display” – men and women sticking to their traditional realms of mastery.
If male gender display was really what drove women to lust, there certainly was a lot of it in "Fifty Shades." The hero was a genius at the traditional male art of making money, had the body of a Greek god, and could control a glider, a sailboat, or a helicopter with equal finesse.
He also happened to be an infantile narcissist with a raging need for control in all things. But that strangely seemed part of his appeal to female readers.
To quote Esther Perel from Gottlieb’s New York Times article, “most of us get turned on at night by the very things that we’ll demonstrate against during the day.”
What Makes a Male Character Irresistible?
Fifty Shades Darker, based on Part Two of E. L. James’ trilogy, premiered at the movies last week. I’d found 2015’s original Fifty Shades film somewhat off-putting. But nothing could have prepared me for how boring the whole “billionaire dominant” theme had become in the 2017 sequel.
The most compelling male sex symbols have always embodied contradictions. That’s what makes them interesting. The tension or balance between contradictory qualities is what makes a male character irresistible.
Twilight’s Edward was a sweet, adoring boyfriend. But you never forgot that he could slaughter you with very little effort, if his thirst for your blood ever became too intense.
Christian Grey (originally based on Twilight’s Edward) is a freak for control. But he’s also a wounded child with a heart of gold. He loves Ana’s intelligence and ambition, at the same time as he wants to control it.
Christian Grey’s dominant, retro-male style may have been the perfect balance to Obama’s preternatural self-containment and restraint. But I’m predicting that in the new political era, male dominance may not work so well as erotic fantasy. We already see so much of that every day on TV.
Domination in Fantasy vs Real Life
In the movie "Fifty Shades Darker," Christian Grey has committed to an egalitarian relationship with Ana where he will no longer expect her to follow his orders. Instead he agrees to work with her as an equal partner.
But this is hard for him. He still tends to slip back into giving orders.
The movie doesn’t know what to do with this, and neither does Ana. Sometimes she corrects him. Other times she seems to get off on it. It’s confusing.
Personally, I found myself wincing every time Christian gives Ana an order onscreen.
In one especially painful scene, Christian and Ana are having dinner at a fancy restaurant, when suddenly he orders her to take off her panties ― which she smilingly agrees to do. Later on, in the elevator, he reaches behind her and pulls up her dress, then grabs and strokes her vulva.
In another era, this might have looked like innocent fun. But after the inauguration of a president who once bragged about grabbing women with impunity, it no longer feels so innocuous.
Grey’s dominant tendencies worked for awhile as erotica during the Obama years. They may have served to balance the neutering effects of modern gender equality.
But now that male dominance is back in The White House, I think some women may find egalitarianism and restraint looking better and better.
© Stephen Snyder MD 2017
An earlier version of this article was published on Psychology Today Feb 20, 2017.