Seattle is home to some of the biggest and most profitable corporations in America: Alaska Airlines, Amazon.com, Boeing, Costco, Expedia, Microsoft, Weyerhauser, satellite offices of Facebook, Google, and Yahoo, and, of course, Starbucks that is now making inroads in countries like India peddling lattes and muffins in place of chai and pakoras. To top it off, a recent study named Seattle as the fastest growing city in the U.S.
Through these rose tinted glasses, it would be hard for someone to recognize that Seattle is a third-tier city at best. It has the third largest homeless population (2013 HUD report courtesy of Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness). Half the city’s population is “housing cost burdened”—people whose income is so low they cannot afford the exorbitant rents (Seattle City Government statistics, 2014). Heroin and methamphetamine use is among the highest in the nation (National Institute on Drug Abuse, February 2014).
For the past decade, the city has been prey to property developers marauding through entire neighborhoods with their ethnic cleansing agenda. The public transportation system is in shambles while a major roadway project is now the joke of the city with a tunneling machine indefinitely stuck underground. Most recently, the so-called progressive city showed its decidedly centrist face by launching into a polarizing fight against a voter-approved $15/hr. minimum wage law. Seattle can talk a big talk about egalitarianism when broken power dynamics is what it really prefers.
Seattle is always pretending to be something it is not; taking cues on how to excel at wealth disparity from its west coast neighbors like San Francisco and Vancouver, BC. Whatever unique Northwest charm and cultural vibrancy Seattle once might have had now belongs to Portland, OR.
So, in one of the opening scenes of the smutty sensation Fifty Shades of Grey, when a mousy college student from Portland drives into Seattle and exclaims “Wow!” one can’t help but laugh out loud. But that, in essence, is what Fifty Shades is about—the false allure of Seattle—as represented by the cold, impenetrable corporation named Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), and how Miss Portland, Anastasia “Anna” Steele (Dakota Johnson), learns to see right through it.
Christian, just like Seattle, seems all sexy and enigmatic in all his poutiness. But once you uncover the neuroses, insecurity, and—most disturbingly—all that pent-up rage beneath the polite exterior, you realize that no amount of coffee—or kinky sex play—are going to get you through the day.
Even in queer culture, BDSM and kink remain on the fringes—a matter of identity for some but nothing more than an occasional hobby for most others. It doesn’t help that a movie like Fifty Shades ends up draining all the joy and eroticism out of kink by depicting it as some shameful secret to be performed in a humorless, clinical fashion.
The lead actors do give it their all. Johnson, in particular, turns out to be the lifeblood of a movie that should set our pulse racing but instead leaves us cold, like Seattle rain in January. As Anna reaches her moment of reckoning in the end, we all have to wonder why anyone would choose Seattle, a mere mask covering up a lot of shameful secrets. Or choose kink for that matter when it can turn out to be this awful.