Livia Arndal Woods

The film adaptation of E.L. James Fifty Shades Freed was released this week.

In a longer project on “The Victorian Ethics of Reading Pregnancy in Contemporary Bestselling Fiction,” I consider this film in relationship to James’ 2012 novel of the same name, the third book in her mega-bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey series. That longer project also looks at Stephanie Meyer’s 2008 Breaking Dawn, the fourth and final book in her Twilight series, and the film adaption of that novel. These books and films are connected by the Fifty Shades origin story: James famously drafted her novels as Twilight fan-fiction, retellings in which the very rich stand in for the undead, the danger of BDSM for the danger of bloodlust. But I think these books and films are also connected by the Victorian texture of their depictions of pregnancy.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, Victorian novels tend to avoid representing pregnancy as an embodied condition (a condition that has specific physical markers and experiences) when characters conform to normative mores of gender, race, class, and sexuality. When pregnant women are represented as having expanding bodies with sensations and needs particular to pregnancy, such representation generally serves as a kind of narrative punishment, an exposure of women who have erred, fallen, or thrown their lot in carelessly with someone else who has. Unsurprisingly, pregnancy in the Victorian novel is a marker of moral (mis)development often figured as physical death, maternal failure, or miscarriage. Think of Cathy Linton’s death in childbirth delivering a pre-term daughter in Wuthering Heights, the failure of Hetty Sorrel to develop a meaningful maternal instinct in Adam Bede, or the miscarriage of Rosamond Lydgate’s pregnancy in Middlemarch, for example. Direct articulations and depictions of pregnant bodies in Victorian novels are accompanied by a necessary narrative wringing-of-hands.

There has been less wringing of hands surrounding the Fifty Shades of Grey film franchise than was elicited by the wild success of the novels, fewer cries of “This Is A Step Backwards For Feminism,” “Nono, This IS Feminism,” or “But It Isn’t Even GOOD!” We seem more likely to accept the Fifty Shades films as the fantastical, money-making-machines they are, without wondering whether or not they signal The Decline of Culture. In any event, I’m not concerned here with whether or not Fifty Shades Freed is any good, as literature, film, or porn. I’m not arbitrating or moralizing about this. I’m not even writing about the book or the entire film. All I’m doing here and now is considering the final trailer released in the Fifty Shades Freed hype to sketch out a little thread of Victorian legacy that primes us to arbitrate and moralize about what women see, say, and do, particularly when those women are pregnant.

This trailer reveals Fifty Shades heroine Anastasia (Ana) Steele’s pregnancy as a kind of narrative “twist” in its final seconds. It starts with a montage of clips spanning the first meeting of Christian Grey and Ana two movies ago to their engagement, wedding, scenes of Ana’s newfound empowerment as Mrs. Grey, the mansion Christian buys, more of Ana’s newfound empowerment as Mrs. Grey, and a dream vacation reached via private plane. This is all interspersed with sex scenes, mostly vanilla. At the 1:10 mark, though, conflict emerges: Ana’s abusive former boss, Jack, seems to have gone from bad to murderous worse, we get a glimpse of Christian’s own abusive past, of Christian and Ana’s BDSM sex-life, of Ana getting herself a gun, and Ana meeting Jack face-to-face as the thumping rhythm of Bishop Briggs’ remix of “Never Tear Us Apart” crescendos and dovetails with a breathy sigh from Ana and the instruction that the viewer shouldn’t “miss the climax.” Cue title. And then, in the final five seconds, a close up on Ana’s shocked face and a voice on the other side of camera: “It’s seems you’re pregnant, Mrs. Grey.” BLACK OUT.

This revelation rewrites the scenes of sexualized danger, simulated and real, that precede it. It posits a specific reproductive future and, in so doing, positions the murderous ex-boss, the gun, the getting tied-up and whipped as threats to that future, threats to the lineage-bearing “Mrs. Grey” as much as to Ana.

I want to be clear: pregnancy and childbirth are actually fraught and they always have been. To associate danger with reproduction is, especially in the broad arc of human history, good sense. The degree to which these dangers are figured as markers of maternal morality, however, of obedience and disobedience to goodness and decency rather than accident, mistake, or tragedy varies. Of course, moralizing associations between pregnancy and danger are hardly exclusively Victorian. Rather these are associations that figure unusually markedly in Victorian fiction and Victorian fiction is something that figures unusually markedly in the Fifty Shades books, which are full of references to, for example, Jane Eyre and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. We may not now be Foucault’s “Other Victorians,” if ever we were – if the Victorians themselves ever were – but so many of the stories we tell and sell about women’s reproductive lives rely on the specters of Victorian threats for narrative traction.

Above: Fifty Shades Freed promotional poster, Universal Pictures.

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