The new movie Fifty Shades Darker hit theaters this weekend to reviews that would make Anastasia Steele herself say, “Oh jeez.” An “unintentional comedic masterpiece,”said Vox. “Almost bad enough to recommend,” according to The New York Times. Glamour’s own Lizzie Logan called it, “Plotless”—and she was kind of a fan!
So maybe the second big-screen adaptation in author E.L. James’s BDSM romance trilogy won’t be up for any Oscars—but the movie is far from a punishing session in the Red Room of Pain. In fact, Fifty Shades Darker is both titillating and progressive for a mainstream blockbuster, thanks to not one, but two occasions in which Christian Grey performs oral sex on Ana.
Rest assured, the film delivers on the kinky sex: There are hot spankings, blindfolds, restraints, and Anastasia’s first time wearing ben wa balls. Similar sex acts earned the first 50 Shades of Grey film an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) back in 2015. But films that show women receiving oral sex from men have, in the past, almost universally received the dreaded NC-17 rating. Yet somehow, Fifty Shades Darker received an R rating as well.
The distinction between an R rating and an NC-17 is significant. As mpaa.org explains, an R rating means children age 17 and under can attend the film with an “accompanying parent or adult guardian.” An NC-17 rating means “no one 17 and under” can be admitted into the film—period. That creates less of an incentive for theaters to distribute the movie, and can be the difference of millions of dollars in profits for studios. MTV’s Kat Rosenfeld called the NC-17 rating “the box office kiss of death”—so much so that production companies have been known to edit out the questionable sex scenes in order to achieve an R rating rather than an NC-17. If cunnilingus is unfairly stigmatized, as some argue it is, that means the MPAA’s rating can have a direct effect on how audiences around the world are seeing women’s sexual pleasure portrayed onscreen.
The MPAA has been accused of rating films that depict male-on-female and female-on-female oral sex more strictly than it rates scenes in which a woman goes down on a man and even scenes that depict sexual violence. An infamous example is Blue Valentine, the 2010 film starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as a husband and wife whose marriage is unraveling. In the movie, the couple spends the night together in a seedy hotel and Gosling’s character goes down on his wife. The film’s producer, Harvey Weinstein, told Entertainment Weekly that Blue Valentine initially got saddled with an NC-17 based on that scene alone. (The MPAA did not comment to EW on the matter.)
Weinstein clapped back at what he perceived as a cunnilingus-related contradiction. “How did Piranha 3D get an R and Blue Valentine gets an NC-17?” he asked EW, referring to a horror film from the same year. “It’s ridiculous—a penis got coughed up in the movie by a piranha!” Gosling spoke out about the injustice, too. “I was very confused…” the actor told NPR. “I was told it’s because my character performs oral sex on his wife, and I thought, ‘There’s plenty of movies with men receiving oral sex from women with R ratings.’ It seemed like a double standard. On top of that, it seemed like there are horror movies that are, like, torture-porn that are R-rated.”
Weinstein was successful in having Blue Valentine’s NC-17 rating changed to an R, after making a case to the Classification and Ratings Appeals Board. But it wasn’t the first, or the last, time a film with a woman receiving oral sex received a stricter rating.
In fact, what’s confusing about the MPAA ratings is how inconsistently they’ve been applied over the years. The 1993 movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? earned a PG-13 rating, despite a scene in which Johnny Depp’s character receives oral sex from a woman. The 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, in which Hilary Swank’s character goes down on Chloe Sevigny (off-screen), earned an R rating. The 2010 film Black Swan got an R rating, even though it contains a scene in which Mila Kunis’s character goes down on Natalie Portman. The 2013 film Lovelace—about adult film actress Linda Lovelace, star of the first mainstream porno Deep Throat—earned just an R rating. (In Lovelace, Amanda Seyfried’s title character performs feats of oral sex on one man and is repeatedly physically and sexually abused by her husband and other men.) The director of Charlie Countryman edited out a scene of a man performing oral sex on a woman in order to have its initial NC-17 rating reduced to an R—but that same year, the 2013 film Blue is the Warmest Color earned an NC-17 rating, apparently due to its depiction of lesbian sex.
Now, four years later, Fifty Shades Darker has not one but two scenes depicting male-on-female oral sex (and ben wa balls! and all that spanking!) and still earns a reasonably temperate R rating. Does this mean the MPAA is loosening up on going down? Have the repeated call-outs at their inconsistency and hypocrisy worked? Hard to say, but those of us who want to see a woman’s sexual pleasure depicted as freely on screen as a man’s aren’t complaining about the MPAA’s mysterious ways—at least in this instance.
For now, let’s make like Anastasia Steele: Just lay back and enjoy it.