The new movie Fifty Shades Darker hit theaters this weekend to reviews that would make Anastasia Steele herself say, â€œOh jeez.â€ An â€œunintentional comedic masterpiece,â€ said Vox. â€œAlmost bad enough to recommend,â€ wrote The New York Times. Glamour’s own Lizzie Logan called it “plotless”â€”and she was kind of a fan!
So maybe the second big-screen adaptation in author E.L. Jamesâ€™s BDSM romance trilogy wonâ€™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 kinky sex: There are hot spankings, blindfolds, restraints, and Anastasiaâ€™s first time using ben wa balls. Similar sex acts earned the first Fifty Shades film an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) 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 that children age 17 and under can attend the film with an â€œaccompanying parent or adult guardian.â€ An NC-17 rating means â€œno one 17 and underâ€ can be admitted into the filmâ€”period. That creates less of an incentive for theaters to distribute the movie, and can be the difference in millions of dollars in profit for studios. MTVâ€™s Kat Rosenfeld called the NC-17 rating â€œthe box office kiss of deathâ€â€”so much so that production companies have been known to edit out 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 MPAAâ€™s rating can have a direct effect on how audiences around the world are seeing womenâ€™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 in a seedy hotel, and Goslingâ€™s character goes down on his wife. The filmâ€™s producer, Harvey Weinstein, told Entertainment Weeklythat 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. â€œHow did Piranha 3D get an R and Blue Valentine gets an NC-17?â€ he asked EW, referring to a horror film from the same year. â€œItâ€™s ridiculousâ€”a penis got coughed up in the movie by a piranha!â€ Gosling spoke out about the injustice, too. â€œI was very confused,â€ the actor told NPR. â€œI 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.â€
Weinstein was successful in having Blue Valentineâ€™s NC-17 rating changed to an R, after making a case to the Classification and Ratings Appeals Board. But it wasnâ€™t the first, or the last, time a film with a woman receiving oral sex received a stricter rating.
In fact, whatâ€™s confusing about the MPAA ratings is how inconsistently theyâ€™ve been applied over the years. The 1993 movie Whatâ€™s Eating Gilbert Grape?earned a PG-13 rating, despite a scene in which Johnny Deppâ€™s character receives oral sex from a woman. The 1999 film Boys Donâ€™t Cry, in which Hilary Swankâ€™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 Kunisâ€™s character goes down on Natalie Portman. The 2013 movie Lovelaceâ€”about adult film actress Linda Lovelace, star of the first mainstream porno, Deep Throatâ€”earned just an R rating. (In Lovelace,Amanda Seyfriedâ€™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 2013’s 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 Râ€”but that same year, the film Blue is the Warmest Color earned an NC-17 rating, apparently because of 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 earned 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 womanâ€™s sexual pleasure depicted as freely on screen as a manâ€™s arenâ€™t complaining about the MPAAâ€™s mysterious ways, at least in this instance.