Fifty Shades of Masochism

Why are we obsessed with witnessing acts of self-destruction? A course on masochism explores this question—and why doing so may be a good thing.

What does Fifty Shades of Grey have in common with a sadistic romance? The ability to induce viewers in a masochistic fantasy.

“It’s interesting because it’s a piece of fan fiction based on Twilight that became really popular and [like the typical romance fiction], it just so happens that the hero [Christian] is really rich and the college woman [Ana] tends to be a little bit naïve,” says Associate Professor of English Vidhu Aggarwal. “[Christian] is into S&M and brings [Ana] into it, which reveals this masochism inherent in the romance narrative because he wants this submissive/dominant relationship with her. She’s initiated into it, and she goes on to like it.”

So why is that that we constantly desire to re-watch films like this? Is it simply engaging in a masochistic act or is it a form of escaping from our own reality? Why do we take pleasure in engaging in certain acts that consume us with negative emotions?

A course titled Masochisms explores why.

“I think of masochism as a place of agency where we have the potential to transform the coercive mechanisms that oppress us into pleasure and play,” says Aggarwal, who teaches the course at Rollins College. From examining negative narrative structures of film to examining our societal fascination with misfortunes, Aggarwal takes great pleasure in educating students about a subject she’s fascinated by.

Georyana Santos: Why masochism? What sparked your interest in this particular topic?

Vidhu Aggarwal: When I was a graduate student, I took this course based on romance fiction with Tania Modleski and towards the end of the class, we ended up talking a lot about masochistic desires in readings. We discussed certain narrative structures such as producing these moments of masochism in romance novels. For instance, there always has to be the moment in a romance novel where there’s this breakup or this part where [the couple] is not really getting along and we need that. We need this moment of despair that the relationship might not actually work out.

So what is our pleasure as readers in these moments of disrepair, disengagement, and emotional agony? If the book doesn’t have it, we don’t want to read it.

In a way, masochism describes ordinary desires as much as extreme desires. When we think about masochism, we think somebody is really self-loathing and they hate themselves, but in actuality, I like to think of it as a way of agency in terms of our pleasure in experiences that might be more agonizing or torturous. I feel like it’s much more ordinary than it is extraordinary.

GS: In the class, you examine films like Black Swan and Melancholia that display a certain form of masochism. Why these specific choices?

VA: Well, we read a lot of theory and so it’s very useful to have some sort of popular culture form in there as well that display these “tortured” sort of moments.

In Black Swan, there are certain ways in which that film [incorporates] this ideal of whiteness through the ballerina who’s basically destroyed by her ideals of perfection. I think that there’s ways in which those ideals are put upon everyone even though they [tend to be mostly] feminine ideals. One of the things you can see with that film is the way we encounter, in this horrifying way, the destructiveness of those ideals. There’s this pleasure that people get from seeing poor little Natalie Portman being destroyed. I don’t even think of it as a masochistic pleasure as much as it a sadistic pleasure, but there’s a pleasure that you can take in watching that film.

So I would say, what is it about that film? Now, I don’t have the answer to that but there are ways in which we like to see that destruction and pain of that ideal being played out in culture. And we reward that as well by giving someone who enacts that an Oscar.

Melancholia is more of an art-film. The film really deals with this sense of narcissism and this woman, [the main protagonist], who is depressive.

So there have many times where the melancholic, throughout history, has been male. They take on this sorrow that creates art and destruction. What I think is interesting in this movie is that the woman’s depression is linked to the apocalypse. It’s really operatic. We examine that in terms of the ideals of white womanhood as being apocalyptic. She is this character who is an ideal because she’s getting married to this really handsome man and has a great job, but yet none of these things about the good life can make her happy. So instead of [going through with her marriage], she revolts against that and goes into this sort of pathology that syncs up with this planet that’s coming to crash into the earth.

[In essence], I wanted a few things that people would not ordinarily see. There are a lot of films that we end up watching repetitively that don’t necessarily have happy endings or deal with emotions that are ugly or negative. But somehow, we go back to them over and over again.

GS: As you say, it does become a natural tendency for us as individuals to go back to these types of performances and narratives, in times, just for the displays of certain negative emotions. But what is it about a romantic tragedy film such as the film Titanic which displays distress and heartache that makes it so gripping and difficult to ignore?

VA: Well, we all deal with loss at some basic level. There’s always a certain type of precariousness and there’s always potential loss in all types of situations. So fiction and movies become a way for us to deal with [those emotions] within an [on-screen] ritualized setting. Watching it repetitively becomes a part of this sense that we have control over specific things that are extreme and which we don’t really have any control over, such as this idea of passionate love occurring on a sinking ship. We want to see that and yet when that moment comes, we are completely agonized and that emotion is like a drug.

Yet we can’t live like that every day, so we replicate that in ritualized forms such as films. That certain form of ritualization allows us to enter into these emotional states that our daily lives don’t allow [as frequently] since we have to finish reading, go to the dentist, and do habitual acts in order to survive what we typically view as uninteresting.

GS: According to Sigmund Freud, masochism is a part of the biological endowment of a woman. Are you a believer of Freud’s theory or do you believe masochism is applicable for both genders?

VA: This is a topic that the course certainly explores. There’s a sense that masochism as a perversion is only a perversion for men [who take on a submissive position] because men already have an authoritative position and masochism is a position of default for women. [The theory] says women can’t actually be masochistic since they do not possess assertive qualities. We are already naturally masochistic simply by being women. I disagree with that.

I believe it’s this framework of patriarchy that puts that [constraint] on women and that’s basically saying that we automatically take pleasure in our submission as women. What I would say is that we’re all, as human beings, under submission of patriarchy through gender and norms. We could say that equally of men. I don’t think I’d say that women automatically take pleasure in a passive stance. Also, the position of the masochist is one of a lot of power because if you take it within a sexual realm, they’re the ones controlling the situation. It’s not really a passive situation. It’s an occupation of agency. 

GS: Can you elaborate on your perception of how masochism can be a form of agency?

VA: [When I speak of masochism as a sense of agency], I’m not trying to say that having people do bad things to you and liking it is a good thing. I’m saying that masochism is a mode or a way that we can deal artistically—through performance or through viewership—with the fact that there are so many ways violence is done to us.

I feel like you can think of that as a fantasy space in which we get to enjoy certain things that are supposed to be just perceived as punishment or that are limitations. That’s how it can be empowering. I’m not trying to say that feelings of self-loathing are great or that [for example] at work, someone’s being abusive to you, and you should like that abuse. I’m talking about, how do we function in a world in which there are times where we have these levels of abuse [done to] us, and how do we create something else out of it, in terms of our fantasy lives?

GS: Can there be female feminists who are masochists?

VA: Certainly. If you think about it, our bodies are occupied as soon as we’re born. We have certain things that we have no choice over. We don’t have a lot of agency to determine [our gender] or how we’re read. So regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, you still have to deal with the problem of having this sort of violence done to you. Eventually, you have to say, “Alright, I have to understand that I’m okay with these things. I have to take pleasure in these positions that are imposed upon me because I don’t really have that much control over it.”

GS: How are masochistic emotions privileged in our art and media?

VA: If you examine a number of genres like horror, there’s just a sadistic pleasure in the suffering of others. You can think of True Crime and 48 Hours or any number of shows where we witness or see some sort of destruction of the very ideals that we have. For instance, [in 48 Hours] you have the breakdown of the typical American family over and over where the father somehow inexplicably murders his family and you’re just like, “they were this perfect family and they were so happy, so why did this happen?”

We’re just kind of fascinated by instances where someone murders their spouse. In fact, we’re more fascinated by that than the actual expected types of violence that exist in our society. It’s almost a bad thing, if you think about it. If you look at those shows, what is highlighted? It’s never the sort of violence on the streets that deal with poverty or anything that we can’t see ourselves in. We’re interested in the destructive elements of the very ideals that we hold in our society so those things are replayed over and over again.

GS: You also study Kara Walker’s artwork. How do you use her work to display forms of pessimism and negativity?

VA: Well, one of the things we are examining is race and how race, class, and gender have to do with our masochistic projections. You could say that race has been a place of othering, and one of the things that Kara Walker does is that she takes this sort of civil war antebellum romanticism and shows this very deep psychic device in it that’s still here. Part of the pleasure that one would take in her work is the violence of the racist past that’s displayed.

One of the things that she does is that she reveals this type of pleasure that is there and makes people uncomfortable. She confronts you with the discomfort of the way that we consume the narrative of slavery that still persists and that we all want to say, “Okay it’s done. We’re all equal!” But there’s still this haunting of this great racial division that our culture continues to promote.

GS: Is it possible to be a masochist for a good reason? Does masochism violate morals and ethics?

VA: I think that’s complicated. Since we’re dealing with desire, so much about desire isn’t ethical. The things we desire aren’t always good. I’d say your ethics have to do with examining desire more so than the experience of it. I believe that there’s an ethic in saying “Okay, let’s look at desire and let’s look at the way we fetishize certain things about our culture that might be negative. Are there certain ways we can change that?” To do so isn’t necessarily engaging in a masochistic practice. It’s engaging in critical analysis. From my position, you could talk about any number of desires being masochistic, but I would categorize the topic as desire rather than something that’s ethical.