Wednesday, February 25, 2015

American Sniper and Fifty Shades of Grey: Sadomasochism and the American Unconscious

In the psychodynamic tradition, we hold that culture--that is, the artifacts that are created by those whom we call artists--is the manifestation of the unconscious struggles of the individual with society. We hold that there is not only a personal unconscious which moves individuals, but also a social unconscious that moves society. By examining the themes and issues that recur in a society's cultural artifacts, we can sketch-out the underlying, unconscious cultural conflicts that give rise to the work of art. In this way, as Erich Fromm described it, we put culture on the couch to discover the unconscious motivations of our society.

Two current films point to an interesting phenomenon in the American unconscious. American Sniper and Fifty Shades of Grey both deal with relationships of authority, power, dominance, and submission. These films also illustrate the two unique forms of sadomasochism that psychodynamic psychologists describe: moral sadomasochism and Sexual sadomasochism.

Let's begin with a distinction between the two types of sadomasochism. Moral sadomasochism refers to a certain attitude that governs the personality of some individuals. These individuals are strikingly aware of and sensitive to their own and others' position in society. They are in a constant state of evaluating how another "measures up" to themselves. They are interested in identifying who is a potential threat and whom they can dominate and control. At the core of this moral sadomasochistic character is an extreme awareness and sensitivity to controlling and being controlled.

Sexual sadomasochism is far less prevalent than moral sadomasochism, and is marked by sexual excitation through dominance, submission, humiliation, and pain. In sexual sadomasochism the arrangement is voluntary, consensual, and typically independent of an individual's personality outside of the bedroom. The significant difference for us here is that sexual sadomasochism is a consensual activity for mutual sexual satisfaction, whereas moral sadomasochism is a non-consensual, social expression of exploitation that necessarily involves a persecutor a and a victim. David Shapiro, in his classic text, Autonomy and Rigid Character, describes the moral sadomasochistic character:
" individual who respects power and the powerful above all and despises weakness and helplessness, who tyrannizes those beneath him and is submissive to, wishes to "fuse" with, the powerful ones above."
The moral sadomasochistic character (also called the authoritarian character) has a marked interest in who is superior and who is inferior. They are often interested in positions of both legal enforcement of the law (such as the police and military) and moral enforcement of the law (as in rigid religious chiding). They simultaneously submit to others that they admire, and persecute those whom they find contemptuously inferior. As Shapiro describes them, they take particular interest in being a part of some elite or special group to which they, themselves submit:
“These individuals continuously take their own measure, and many rigid persons live with a self-important consciousness of their superior achievements, rank, and authority, their membership in some prestigious group or category.”
American Sniper and Fifty Shades of Grey are both films about power, dominance, submission, and authority. The themes that exist in the film come to life when we place them in the context of the social reaction to the films. Through examining the comments, reactions, and critical responses, we can flesh-out the currents that run beneath the surface of American society.

The comments made by viewers who find satisfaction with the ideology of American Sniper are remarkably consistent with Shapiro's insights into the moral sadomasochistic character. These comments are marked by interests in "settling the score," and "putting them in their place". They often go far beyond the sometimes necessary military action, and instead incite a sense of sadistic satisfaction in exercising dominance and power over others. The very essence of a sniper is one who is at an advantage over another, it is a fight in which a person who is already in a position of vulnerability is attacked. Shapiro describes this:
"To put the matter another way, to inflict suffering on a relatively powerless individual, an 'inferior,' or to inflict further suffering  on one who is already suffering, is the intrinsic nature of sadism."
Possibly the most damaging assault to the sadomasochistic character is when they are challenged or injured by someone whom they consider inferior. We can see this reaction evident in the fact that such a powerful military could suffer injuries from those they consider "inferior" groups. Shapiro says:
“When his already exaggerated and uncertain sense of personal authority is chafed further by feelings of inferiority, shame, and humiliation, the rigid individual may become defensive, his attitudes harder and angrier."
In Fifty Shades of Grey we find the identical theme. Far from being a movie about sexual sadomasochism this is a film that resonates with the moral sadomasochistic dilemma that many women experience in American society. We note two things from the reception of Fifty Shades. Firstly, the revenue for the book and the film have been overwhelming. There is something in this story that is resonating with viewers and it is not merely sex. Anyone can view much more exciting sex from the comfort of their own homes. Secondly, the demographic for the book sales is reported to be mostly college-age girls and women over thirty, married with children. The movie demographic is mostly the latter.

On a conscious level the motivation might be mere sexual taboo of sadomasochism, but the fact remains that much more compelling depictions of sadomasochistic sex are available to all of these viewers at home.

What is attracting these demographics to the theaters and the bookstores is something that is on the minds of both college women and those married with children. For the former it is a question of whether or not to continue the traditional cultural roles that society is expecting them to play, and for the latter it is coming to terms with having chosen to enter into those traditional, phallocentric, social structures. This is the dilemma that Anastasia Steele is confronting through her encounter with Christian Grey.

It seems that both of these films are resonating with the unconscious of men (in American Sniper) and women (in Fifty Shades of Grey). Perhaps through these films, the unspoken struggle will become spoken and individuals will come to terms with the choices they have in continuing the moral sadomasochistic narrative.

Shapiro, David. Autonomy and Rigid Character. New York: Basic Books, 1981.