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Sex Negative

by John Rodat on January 26, 2012 · 1 comment

Directed by Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen’s Shame might be as good as its hype—if, that is, you’re willing to accept certain prejudices about promiscuity or sexual behavior, generally.

There are explicit indications that the lead character, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), and his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), have suffered some childhood trauma (“We’re not bad people,” she says. “We just come from a bad place.”). But the aspect of Brandon’s life that is presented as most problematic is his habit of having frequent orgasms outside the context of a conventional relationship.

That Brandon is an angry and unfulfilled person is suggested (and evoked with subtle deftness by Fassbender); but what is not made clear is that he is more so than anyone else in his world: His boss, for example, is shown to be, if anything, more predatory, selfish and, in a word, gross. But, by the movie’s apparent ethos, a lecherous, adulterous bro—by dint of his placement within a traditional family structure—is, if not better, safer.

Though Fassbender’s performance is good, it’s robbed of some of its power and complexity by this seeming judgment. The fact that Brandon’s “descent” has as its penultimate step a bizarrely well-received sexual assault, then a homosexual encounter is unsettling in its implied conservatism. As if the worst thing that Brandon could be was bisexual. Perhaps this hierarchy was unintended, but to me it was impossible not to notice.

And really, why shouldn’t Brandon fuck whom he wants when he wants? Why shouldn’t he masturbate a lot? As relates to the first, Brandon is shown to be honest in his dealings with women. He does not lie or cheat (admittedly, with his longest relationship clocking in at four months, he didn’t have a lot of time to get to cheating). And, as relates to the second, I recently read a statistic that a third of men polled admitted to masturbating at work. Think about that: a third of men admit to it.

Director and co-writer Steve McQueen may not have meant to slander the sex drive, but there is a confusion of causality in Shame: Brandon has been traumatized and is unhappy. Brandon has a high—maybe even compulsive—sexual appetite. Brandon has same-sex encounters. Brandon employs prostitutes. Brandon finds traditional notions of romantic union outdated or, even, terrifying. These are discrete facts, but I found the connect-the-dots morality strained.

Why, after all, should we be more shocked that he can perform sexually with an anonymous man while he cannot with a woman interested in more conventional coupling? Shame, at times, seemed not only the movie’s title but it’s purpose.

Oh, and by the way, if I could successfully execute just one of Brandon’s across-the-crowded subway/barroom/workplace hook-ups without getting pepper sprayed, I’d be more likely found in an infomercial than in therapy.