Universal Pictures/Focus Features
Sam Taylor-Johnson’s big screen interpretation of E.L. James’ bestselling book series, this week’s opener Fifty Shades of Grey, may not present a narrative that’s necessarily good for women (or relationships, or romance, or sex, or consent, or BDSM, or…), and yet there is one thing that may be worth celebrating about the film’s existence: it’s still good for some women. Mainly, the women who actually made it, of which there are many.
Recently, we’ve been inundated with updated numbers that illuminate the gap between female filmmakers and male filmmakers in Hollywood – in short, it’s big! and it doesn’t seem to be changing nearly fast enough! – but Fifty Shades of Grey is the rare sure-to-be-blockbuster that was made by a largely female creative team. This is a film directed by a woman, written by a woman, adapted from a book by a woman, that features more women in speaking parts then men. Call it a silver (grey?) lining.
This year’s wide release slate so far only includes only seven features directed by women – Ava DuVernay’s Selma (in wide release since January), Lana Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending (out now and co-directed with her brother), Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey, Niki Caro’s McFarland, USA (due out later this month), Anne Fletcher’s Hot Pursuit (out in May), Elizabeth Banks’ Pitch Perfect 2 (also due in May), and Nancy Meyers’ The Intern (out in September). That’s not a lot, and although these are names to get excited about – a new Meyers! a new Fletcher! – and themes that we don’t get to see on screen too often with a woman behind the camera (a sports-centric film from a woman? what an idea), it’s still not nearly enough.
Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t just boast a female director, but a female screenwriter (Kelly Marcel, best known for writing Saving Mr. Banks, a resume that at least shows tremendous range on her part, although Patrick Marber did an uncredited polish on the script) and a female author of the source material. The rest of the film’s crew is noticeably filled out with other women, from editor Lisa Gunning to set directing duo Sandy Reynolds-Wasco and Sandy Walker, art director Laurel Bergman to third assistant directors Karin Behrenz and Paula Antil. Moreover, the film features more speaking parts of women then men. Even though the film is very much the Ana (Dakota Johnson) and Christian (Jamie Dornan) show, the majority of the film’s supporting character are women, including Eloise Mumford, Jennifer Ehle, Rita Ora, and Marcia Gay Harden.
The material at hand in Fifty Shades of Grey may be – watchword alert – problematic, to say the very least of its messaging, but expanding out the great Hollywood landscape to include more female talents doesn’t always guarantee that they’ll churn out quality, and giving them a pass because of their gender is actually counterintuitive to equality. Basically, if we want more female-created content, we have to be ready for some of it to be bad (even offensively bad!). Fifty Shades of Grey is not even remotely my cup of tea, but that it exists as a female-led creation in a mostly male landscape well, is.
Still, this is just one step towards a more equal Hollywood playing field, and the reception of the film has already proven that. It’s extremely unfortunate that one of the major narratives behind the creation of the film has been that James and and Taylor-Johnson mostly argued about the feature as they were making it (you can find some juicy details about all that in this, admittedly, very engrossing THR feature, amusingly titled “Fifty Shades of Cray”), painting James as a bit of an egomaniac who won’t stand to have her material changed, even for the better. If James was man, her portrayal as some wild, iron-fisted maker would likely be a fair bit different, and that’s deeply unfair.
Her aim might not be true, but the path laid out by Fifty Shades of Grey actually is.