In 365 Days, Laura is kidnapped and held for a year by Italian mobster Massimo, in the hope that she will fall in love with himTWITTER/KAMILAC10082386

Content Note: This article contains discussion of kidnapping and sexual violence.

The separation of reality from fantasy, of real life from fiction, can become difficult to discern with some works. This can be because of their wild popularity, or because they address problems at once endemic and emotive. With Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), both of these were true. At its peak in the US, two copies were sold every second, in spite of the outpour of criticism emerging from every corner – from BDSM enthusiasts to the sex-negatives among us. Yet, almost five years later, we find ourselves in a remarkably similar position with the release of 365 Days (2020), one of Netflix’s biggest hits this year. It is tempting to conclude that the popularity of such films is proof of a rampant internalised misogyny – however, a deeper look at these works is needed in order to avoid the easy, ineffective resort to censorship that many have called for.

Are we more likely to ignore the abusive, problematic overtones of 365 Days because of Massimo's sex appeal?TWITTER/KKURA_GEM

Coercion and manipulation characterise the ‘relationship’ in Fifty Shades, where a young, innocent, hyper-feminine woman is given the choice between accepting violent sexual acts that make her feel uncomfortable, or losing the man she loves. The terror she feels at the thought of communicating her discomfort to her controller – the aforementioned ‘man she loves’ – is enough to destroy any premise of meaningful consent. 365 Days has similarly murky notions of consent. At various instances, the attractive male lead forces an employee to perform oral sex on him, tells his captive that he won’t touch her without her permission while fondling her, and eventually seduces his victim despite (or perhaps because of) continuous physical and emotional coercion. The film’s romanticisation of kidnapping as a means of seduction is glaringly problematic, and critics did not hesitate to point this out.

“Keeping a healthy mental separation between fiction and reality has always been a prerequisite for appreciating art.”

One common response to troubling content is to call for censorship – indeed, a petition circulated calling for 365 Days to be removed from Netflix. Ignoring those afflicted by such things as kidnapping, trafficking, or sexual violence is wrong in every instance. However, ignoring and stifling all discussion on these topics would be similarly wrong, as it leads only to more ignorance and distress. It is worth thinking about why narratives that depict women being forced into submission as fuel for erotic fantasies do so well. One thing is certain: however much internalised misogyny we still need to tackle as a society, these films were not allowed an escape from all-round criticism. From shallow dialogue and stereotypical characterisation, to troubling themes and the lack of explicit consent, these films sparked crucial conversations about our strange tendency to eroticise abuse in art.

In 50 Shades of Grey, Anastasia is involved in potentially dangerous depictions of BDSM by the enigmatic Christian GreyTWITTER/BUZZERGRAMNEWS

Our reaction should therefore be to analyse these criticisms – our willingness to do so renders these topics less taboo, and goes further to protect vulnerable audiences than an outright ban. A broader problem arises when we consider our definition of vulnerability, though: some audiences are vulnerable because of their own past trauma; whereas others are more subtly vulnerable, impressionable to the extent that the effects may not surface for years. The truly frightening scenario emerges when one considers these audiences, whose own sexual expectations and tastes will moulded by the glamourisation of abuse in both of these films (and many others). This danger once again feeds into the desire to censor, following the same logic which underpins porn bans.


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Nevertheless, censorship is not the correct response to troubling content. Keeping a healthy mental separation between fiction and reality has always been a prerequisite for appreciating art. It might seem a stretch to call films like Fifty Shades and 365 Days ‘art’, but there are many more examples of film and texts from time immemorial, with arguably more artistic merit, that also romanticise problematic relationships. These can be fascinating, yielding complex dynamics between characters which can be used to trigger discussion among modern audiences. My A-Level English coursework on The Bloody Chamber and Lolita focused on how the writers of these texts turned sexual exploitation into an abstract, aesthetic ideal, in turn serving to highlight and fuel discussion on the objectification of women and the reification of innocence. In order for art to keep stimulating these discussions, it is necessary to separate a glamourised, aesthetically-driven, fictional depiction from the boundaries of acceptable relationships in reality, where such aesthetic concerns do not figure.

Films like 365 Days and Fifty Shades have stimulated constructive discussions. They have also been enjoyable viewing for many people, tapping into what appears to be a popular taste. Criticising these films and protecting impressionable or vulnerable audiences from them is important – but the majority of audiences should be capable of separating art from reality. We, as a society, need to get better at keeping fiction apart from our daily lives. Enjoying movies as works of art, while maintaining a critical gaze and staying mindful of social context, is always preferable to censorship.

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