Toxic masculinity in movies like 365 DNI and Fifty Shades of Grey: It's all about fantasy
You do you, girl
This article contains spoilers about Netflix's movie 365 Dni.
If you're claiming you've yet to stumble onto Netflix's intrusively sensual trailer for its latest Polish adaption find — 365 Dni, I call your bluff — the film is still trending after a whole month. Setting the streaming platform and the loins of those watching alight, the 50 Shades of Grey style entertainer is about 49 shades darker, sexier, and wilder than anything quivering little Anastasia could have managed, even after a few tipples. Adapted from books and the Polish-language version, the film follows the story of the life-defyingly handsome Italian Mafioso, Massimo Toricelli (portayed by Michele Morrone) who kidnaps the woman he's in love with and gives her a deadline of 365 days to feel the same way for him. Plot checks out, so far.
What ensues is one hour and 56 minutes of gaping plot lines, shocking dialogue, terrible scripting, all kinds of crimes against ice cream but with some seriously, seriously hot sexy time. From planes to baths to beds to clubs, this is the kind to make you want to wash your hands afterwards because you were holding the remote. Or your own hand. One four minute and 30 second boat scene later (will leave you quakin' sis), an engagement, and of course a makeover montage because #eroticromcomalert, the film leaves you sitting in a pool of your own drool, confused about both the strength of your motor functions and morality.
Needless to say much like its baby-faced market entrant, 365 Dni has become a cult phenomenon hit, catapulting to the most-watched list on Netflix worldwide. From grandmas to teenagers to grown men and women, the film has captivated audiences and in particular, has shot 29 year old Morrone to the kind of fame Patrick Dempsey worked three seasons for. And of course, alongside those celebrating each ab on Massimo's body, there are hundreds of thousands of objectors coming out as they did for 50 Shades, wagging their fingers at yet another celluloid glamorisation of the murky lines of consent, toxic masculinity, Stockholm Syndrome (when you fall in love with a captor or kidnapper) and possible rape fantasy culture. They continue to ask: how can women be respected if we keep putting these nasty ass movies about creepy men forcing their way on us on a pedestal and why isn't there more outrage?
So let me be clear. No woman or man (or anyone else) within their right and sane mind is an advocate for rape, kidnapping, assault, stalking, or holding someone hostage. These are horrific acts, arguably of the deepest pits of human nature and should never be condoned, glamorised or celebrated. Consent is not an option, it's a must. And no must mean no. But by the same accord, many are missing the point when it comes to the modern day erotica-romance genre, in particular the nuance of consent and fantasy.
It seems in each case, from Edward of Twilight to Christian of 50 Shades to Massimo, the female lead character is somehow always painted as the victim of the story. She's just a damsel in distress who unbeknownst to her own conscience finds herself manipulated and captured within the physical and emotional wires of these toxic, plotting men and she must be saved. She's got low self-esteem so she falls for it, she craved acceptance so she falls for it, he's rich and he's handsome so she forgives it. But each time somehow, she's just the little lost girl in the woods and the male protagonist is the big, bad whip-clad wolf. He's got mummy-issues and tortured childhoods and he's driven her to the point of a crossroads and now she can't walk away. After all, what other choice did she have?
Well? Her own to be frank. This is where my issue begins. The truth is all these female protagonists from Bella Swan to Anastasia Steele to even Laura who takes a little longer to warm up but certainly doesn't hesitate when she does, knowingly and willingly assent and enter the relationship with their partners, albeit the shady contractual circumstances. Bella moves to Forks and becomes equivalently obsessed with Edward and his sparkles, Anastasia the same with Christian's very familiar hot-cold-hot-cold routine. And Laura who seems like she's taken against her will, but then full on falls in love with the guy and is ready to marry him and have his baby? In each case, all three women seek and crave the attention of a 'special' man because they too are 'special' and see themselves as catching a 'rare one' that no other woman could have had before them. They self-describe as single by choice and waiting for the right man who can truly understand them and make them feel like no one else can, so why the heck are they suddenly victims? It feels like what we fail to identify is that if the male protagonist has his demons, these girls too have their own, more and then some. Much like in reality where like attracts like, perhaps the reason they gravitate towards each other is because they both have got issues than the audience would like to admit? No one forced Bella to marry a hundred-something-year old vampire and give up being human. In fact, she was obsessed with him turning her so she could be with him forever and ever. And yes he watches her sleep, but did we ever think about the fact that she allows him to? Thank you.
Similarly I've heard endless critique about the blurry lines of consent when it comes to 50 Shades of Grey. Anastasia is young and impressionable, he coerces her into signing the contract, manipulating her emotionally and physically with withdrawal and ghosting. And while Christian is in fact, an oddball on his own with all kinds of paperwork issues, he didn't force Anastasia into that red room. In every case, each man lays his cray cray cards on the table and each time, the woman chooses to play. That's why at end of the day, no matter how many tricks he pulled, Anastasia put them pasties on herself and signed that paper with her own two hands. She had every opportunity to walk away, including several opportunities Christian presents himself and chooses not to. It's consent. And that's why I call BS on these films being a negative portrayal of masculinity and sexual culture.
What really irks me is that through painting these and many other consenting woman in such stories (no matter how messed up the circumstances that led them there) in the role of a victim, are we not festering and pushing forward ideals of toxic femininity? Are we not perpetuating the notion that a woman has such little agency and control over her own emotions and thoughts that she would be so openly naive as to get manipulated by the first handsome and rich man who came across her in her life and lose all sense of cognitive function? Are we not taking away a woman's right to make a right or wrong decision in love or lust about who she wishes to choose to be with, knowing full well how he may or may not treat her or what his conditions of engagement are? And lastly, why are we putting all women in a corner when it comes to BDSM and ideals of feminine sexuality? There are millions of women worldwide who consensually and knowingly partake in S&M and role play, choosing rougher sex and owning their roles as dominatrixes or subservients. Isn't that their prerogative? How can we sit here and pass judgement on the toxicity of men when we fail to acknowledge and afford a woman her very basic right to choose her own partner (be it rightly or wrongly) and explore whatever type of legal and consenting sexual journey she wants to go on, no matter how different it is from our self-defined values of sex and love?
And no, that's not a free pass for men treating women badly or guilting them into choosing something they don't want. Are there toxic men in the world? Yes. Are there men who think rough sex and coercion are cool without consent? Yes. Are there guys who resort to stalking, kidnapping, raping, harming and hurting women for sexual gratification? Yes. Is it the fault of 50 Shades of Grey or 365 Dni? Very rarely and even so, no. Because the matter of the fact is that whilst many may be exposed to films such as these and some may be inspired by their actions, no one can force these individuals to act as they have. Much like the same argument often used during school shootings to justify and reason why violent young killers are bred from video games, you cannot take the responsibility and focus off things such as mental illness, poverty, upbringing, racism, socio-economic status and cognitive distinction and lightly toss it on pop culture because it's easier than facing the deeply rooted social issues we have as a human race. That's just scapegoating at its finest to put a bandaid on a much wider and deeper wound and guess what? All the chastising in the world hasn't stopped these shootings and it certainly won't stop the assaults. Because the cinema is not the core problem.
When it comes to these movies including 365 Dni, it boils down to one word as to why people engage: fantasy. From the likes of the arrogant Mr. Darcy to the sparkling sucker Edward to the brooding Christian and now the almighty Massimo, these men are all commonly bound by one thing and that is fiction. They aren't real. It's escapism, perhaps at its lowest point some may argue, but escapism much the same. For the countless women (and everyone else basically) taking their tops off and getting hot and bothered under the collar as they watch Massimo pin down Laura, scene after scene until she compellingly consents — it's not about the morality of it all, it's about the fantasy. Because we already know that eventually, she'll fall in love with him. We also already know the movie doesn't have a plot if she doesn't (or in this case it didn't matter because Lord there was no plot). We can foresee the outcome and reconcile it against our own morality because we know it's not painful, harmful or dangerous to us. It's also not derogatory, degrading, or crossing a personal line if we choose to watch and enjoy it. Especially since if we don't like it, we can switch it off. It doesn't mean we expect real life to pan out the same way.
Many people would rebuke: "Oh these movies only work because the guy is loaded and drop-dead gorgeous so that's why women think it's okay". Indeed, that's the whole point. When we watch television and film or read books, we want our imagination and deepest, darkest desires to come alive. It's a projection of everything we may not possibly be able to ever have in reality. And that's all these media outlets do — they feed our fantasy. Sadly and rightly or wrongly, those fantasies often don't involve broke men who are unattractive and don't have the skills to charm us off our feet. You know why? Because that's pretty much what real life Tinder is. So sue us if we need a minute in Sicily.
The average woman or man watching Michele Morrone knows they're never going within ten feet of him and that's why we don't mind when he asks us if "we're lost, baby girl". Most of us will never meet a rich, successful, isolated, tortured Mafioso or billionaire with eyes that sparkle and a body that glimmers under the Italian sun so all we see when we look at the screen, is a dream of a hot man we may not ever be able to have. Add to that a cocktail of rich, dangerous and intense desire to be wanted and needed and you're feeding in to all the elements most women crave in a relationship on a daily basis, just under different and more legal circumstances.
We also don't watch these movies and expect men in real life to behave as the films portray them. Most of us also understand it's not reality. But what enamours us for those few moments is knowing we can't get hurt and the danger isn't real, not that we wish for it to happen in real life. The same way a man can watch a Victoria's Secret Model walk down a runway and fantasise about a night of passionate coitus with her but still go to bed with his gorgeous size 10 wife and be head over heels for her. See my point?
We must remember that whilst art may imitate life, we have choice and consent over what we consume and how we choose to absorb it. Not every thing is about doing the 'right' thing and not every 'wrong' thing is considered incorrect. It's a matter of personal experience, perspective, agency, and preferences. Through imposing our ideals of sex, love and relationships on the world of celluloid or fiction, we also lose the ability to see them for what they truly can be: entertainment. And I don't know about you, but a world without entertainment is one I'd rather not strive for.
Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go check my texts to see if my ride from Sicily has arrived. Massimo, I'm coming.