Thursday, February 26, 2015

Happiness in Slavery

Fifty Shades of Grey has generated think pieces and article comments that are all united by their utter cluelesness. Twilight Fanfic du Jour is not some bold new take on sex, it's not some triumph of erotica, and it sure ain't the downfall of cinema. It's just another spank fantasy with nothing of substance to say.

So today we're going to examine a spank fantasy that has very much to say - Story of O!

Original title Histoire d'O, it focuses on the willing sexual slavery of a woman known simply as O to one powerful man after another. Beginning in Roissy - a little bit finishing school, a little bit Hellfire Club - the titular O is conditioned to be ever ready for oral, vaginal, and anal intercourse by a succession of nameless gentlemen who frequent the club, including the lover, René, who presents her in the first place.

Tellingly, O is not pursuing this on her own but is in fact following the wishes of René. Her subjugation to other men is presented as his will, to which she willingly complies. After she graduates from Roissy, she returns to René as a child returns to her father and continues to obey him in their ensuing adventures through the underground BDSM scene of mid-20th Century Paris. In the course of this, René eventually presents O as a "gift" to his elder brother, Sir Stefan. O, being a good girl, does this for René but ultimately grows to love Sir Stefan instead and attends the advanced slavery course at Samois, culminating in a literal padlock on her vagina.

Like all the best French writing, sex is front and center through all this but serves more to illuminate human nature. O's devotion to René at first makes things appear as just a kinky romance but her switch to Sir Stefan demonstrates that this is just as much about power. Anyone familiar with BDSM is going "Well duh!" right now but Story of O does not leave this at merely the fantasy level, where modern BDSM fearfully clings. Rather, the novel is a critique of power dynamics from the sexual to the economic. O's subservience to the men in her life is nothing but the logical extreme of actually existing patriarchy, where a woman's highest desire is pleasing men.

The insidiousness of this system is highlighted by O presenting her ravaged body and pad-locked pussy as her own choice to a horrified fashion model - not just demonstrating how people can internalize the culture that oppresses them but also the murkiness of trying to reconcile the personal with the political. Though O is degraded further and further into an object over the course of the narrative - not once is she even given the dignity of a full and proper name - but she willingly allows this out of her declared love. Who can say she doesn't honestly feel for René and Sir Stefan? Is this still slavery if it's not only accepted but actively sought by the slave?

While the personal and sexual dimension of power in Story of O is explored in every direction, the economic dimension is critiqued more subtly and through strategic omission. At the very start, René does not himself drive O to Roissy but hires a cab. All the other gentlemen at Roissy carry themselves with the stiff confidence of the upper classes, indulging in and abusing the women who are made to dress as eroticized servants and obey. Not once does O encounter a man from the laboring classes - indeed, Sir Stefan is blatantly of a high patrician class and even exerts power over other men, particularly his younger brother René. Yet many of the other women O encounters, from her horrified model friend to the other girls at Samois, could easily be from less privileged backgrounds. The Samois girls in particular reflect the suggestibility and dependence of teenage runaways picked up and turned out by pimps, seeking some purpose in life and finding it in complete submission to those society deems their betters.

The novel ends with O reduced to such an object, so lacking in agency, that she requires Sir Stefan's permission to die. She never once protests this condition as to do so would be asserting herself as an independent being in her own right, with desires independent of serving those in a position of privilege over her. That she nominally chose this course only raises the question of if the world ever really gave her a choice from the start.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


The ridiculousness of 1980s American cinema is well documented. Rugged beefcakes with guns as big as their biceps mowing down commies, darkies, and other assorted scum while indulging in homoerotic subtext. The action films of the Reagan years all follow this sordid pattern, all reflective of the triumphant and sexually confused Republican epoch.

Yet there's very little on the action films of the waning 1970s, despite the seeds being very visible. Chuck Norris did his best work in this era, right about the time karate peaked in popularity and the vast Sullen Majority craved some alternative to the moral complexity of the New Hollywood productions. They got that with Chuck and his roundhouse kicks of justice, just as much as they did with Clint Eastwood's .44 and Charles Bronson's celebration of vigilantism.

Good Guys Wear Black is a prototype of the loudly fascist 80s Action Films to come. The title itself is a reference to Norris and his entirely black-clad black ops team, whose final mission in Vietnam goes awry because of meddlesome DC bureaucrats. It's a staple of American reactionary cinema that the failure in Vietnam was the fault of inadequate will on the part of the politicians and media - the Dog Ate My Bazooka defense - rather than the clear military superiority of the NVA and Viet Cong. Because the outside world is never real to provincial idiots, beyond its utility in presenting neat little moral lessons about Honor and Duty and whatever. This narcissistic fantasy has persisted right up to the present day, with both The Hurt Locker and American Sniper turning the black comedy of the Iraq War into just another sump for bathos over Our Poor Hometown Boys.

While it certainly follows this modern script, Good Guys Wear Black deviates somewhat in two important factors. First, it is much more a thriller than a balls-out action flick with Norris getting wind that his old team is being bumped off, necessitating a cross-country investigation to determine not just the who but the why. Though this does allow for thrilling ski chases and one-on-one roundhouse duels.

Second, and most striking, is the film's blatant anti-establishment sentiment. Following the failed Vietnam mission, the story jumps ahead several years to find Chuck working on his PhD in political science, teaching classes on how the Vietnam War was a horrible mistake. After Reagan took office, you'd only ever hear that statement in an action movie either uttered by a peacenik strawman or followed by "because we didn't nuke the shit out of 'em!" The villain, the very same bureaucrat who sold out the Black Clad Heroes, is not some sniveling weasel anomaly but so much the norm of America that he's about to be appointed secretary of state! Rather than the triumphal tone of Commando or Top Gun, Good Guys Wear Black feels both weary and frightened of the very nation and people Chuck Norris would later celebrate in his films.

However, these symptoms of the Bad Old 70s are still overshadowed by the visceral power fantasy on which 80s Action would very soon be based. Chuck, realizing he'll never get The System to punish his nemesis, resorts to straight up murder. Gleefully and without consequence. The assassin is revealed to be another of the titular Good Guys, the lone Asian one, and Norris kicks his head off before his motivations can be revealed as anything other than The Untrustworthy Yellow Race. And while Norris romances a woman who survives all the way to the end of the film, he reserves all his true affections for his male former comrades and the One Good Bureaucrat who serves as his accomplice at the end.

Good Guys Wear Black is a fascinating look at just how the typical action films from the Reagan years to today developed. And it's not half bad as far as 1970s thrillers go.