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Shame: Steve McQueen – victimhood and the medicalisation of lust


Fassbender as Brandon


Shame – Steve McQueen

In a secular world is there such a thing as sin? That is: behaviour which most people, most of the time will agree is wrong, bad; not just by reference to its consequences social and personal, but in itself. As implied religious narratives weaken and lose their historical force in our social lives we are left struggling to find a new consensus upon which to base agreed judgements of morality and value.

Our cultural paradigm of contemporary knowledge, science, does not help us here. In extreme contexts it leads to what French Philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy on the BBC recently, called the “medicalisation of crime.” The principle however also holds more widely when unacceptable, anti-social behaviour is attributed to physical or social causal forces over which the individual has no control and of which he/she is therefore the helpless victim. We might say that the first is the response of a secular society to the problem that used to be called ‘evil’; and the second to that of ‘sin’.

Alcoholics Anonymous is perhaps the most empirically successful protective response to addiction ever devised. It sees addiction as a challenge to the will not simply as a disease of the body. It rigorously rejects the delusion ofcure with the clear implacable demand of total abstinence as the only sure way to free the addicted from the multiplicity of harms alcohol inflicts: physical, social, personal and spiritual. It challenges the person, the will, to accept and understand he/she will always be an alcoholic and thus must accept responsibility for avoiding alcohol for the rest of his/her life. AA’s irreducibly social structure of support is equally dependent upon personal choice, intention, and resolve – not physical, bio-chemical remedies. This is an impressive achievement especially as at its most severe, alcohol addiction transmutes from aberrant emotional, psychological behaviour into a diagnosable physical disease.

Strategies to protect against drug addiction are more diverse, some emulating AA, others treating it as a physical disease with physical solutions. There are people whose dependency upon alcohol or drugs is profound but remains psychological or social, falling short of bodily disease. To date I am not aware that anyone has argued that Sex addiction is a physically diagnosable disease. It is, in terms of comparison therefore, a psychological, social, even spiritual dependency which should be distinguished from physical disease if understanding it aright is the first step to ameliorating its effects on people’s lives.

The profound empirical truth of the success of AA remains: that it can and does succeed, even against diagnosable disease, by motivating and supporting the non-scientific qualities of the will, intention, resolve – collectively what we call character.

A film cannot, nor should it be, a philosophical treatise or a scientific experiment. But if you are going to use art to reveal and explore a serious issue like the apparent phenomena of addiction to sexual gratification, then it seems to me one should take it seriously enough – not to explain it; but to represent its complexity as truthfully as possible. On this basis, for me Shame is a shallow film perpetuating by default rather than by artistic intention, the victimhood account of destructive obsession with sex.

I watched Shame at the gala preview shown in 60 cinemas across the country and followed by a discussion with Steve McQueen and fellow script-writer Abi Morgan. They were united and adamant that their artistic purpose was purely descriptive; to strenuously avoid linking current behaviour to previous experience; to avoid judgmental attitudes as to how and why Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) the two principle protagonists in Shame, behave as they do.

This strategy is heroic but self-defeating. What we have are just two sets of symptoms displayed by characters we don’t even begin to know let alone understand, and therefore feel nothing towards: no empathy, sympathy or even anger or comtempt. Of course engaging actors like Fassbender and especially the entrancingly strong yet vulnerable Mulligan, do generate some emotional response from us but it derives from their acting personas not remotely from our engagement with their cryptic, unrealised characters.

McQueen and Morgan’s Brandon is defined by his obsession: apart from f*cking, masturbating and ogling porn; his only other activity is supposed to be work. But as a supposed account executive of some kind, I have no idea what, he is utterly unconvincing as the script gives him nothing to do that would convince us. As a result his masturbating in the office toilets and cramming his work PC with porn just seems pathetically adolescent and immature. Indeed even his serial conquests seem more like hands-free masturbation than anything as demanding as physical intercourse with another human being.

McQueen may argue that this is exactly the point. If so it seems to me any half-way intelligent person who enjoys sex gets that point within about 5 minutes of watching the meaningless moaning of even routine commercial porn.

Tantalisingly we get little hints about Brandon: his meticulous prissy tidiness in a totally characterless flat; his precious territoriality in response to Sissie’s invasion of his space; even his homosexual blow job at one point. Shamefully, pun intended, with all the full-on graphic gyrating nudity and grunting and groaning going on, the interesting possibility of an incestuous sexual bond between Brandon and Sissie is merely coyly hinted at. I am happy to take up McQueen’s challenge to form my own opinion about Brandon; but he gives us no character to form a judgment about.

Mulligan nearly scuttles McQueen and Morgan’s rigorously contrived detachment. With virtually no screen time in which to do it, she almost makes Sissy a real flesh and blood character. Her passion and strength in scenes with Fassbender make Brandon look even more insipid and blank. She brings the only sense of colour and well, balls, to the action.

I’m sure that an unremittingly aroused obsession with sex every waking moment must be a curse and a burden not lightened by the mocking dismissal of popular sentiment, especially male, that a chance would be a fine thing. But it is people who have pain, not bodies; thinking, feeling, willing persons who love, suffer, and indeed obsess.

We may be aroused by a body but we make love to a person. That may be what McQueen wants to show, not tell us, is part of Brandon’s emotional void – I can’t bring myself to say tragedy – but the invitation to see Brandon as a helpless victim with no choices, no possibility of fighting his own self-destructive impulses; seems to me to be a deeply objectionable form of sentimentality. And dangerously false.

Downbeat, drab and depressing. Interesting more for the serious questions it hints at rather than the ideas it develops.


There is a pattern here. I have been banging on about Lisbeth Salander in the Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. By every objective standard Lisbeth is in (her fictional) reality the ultimate victim: subjected to systematic, prolonged abuse physical, psychological, sexual; personal social and institutional. Yet as Larssen writes her she utterly rejects the excuses of victimhood. Against all the odds she assembles her personal qualities to fight those who would harm her, control her. And importantly, against all her experience she gradually accepts help from others to succeed in this. As different from Brandon or even Sissy as it is possible to be – though Sissy at least seeks help from Brandon.

Again: compare Paddy Consadine’s Joseph in the brilliant Tyrannosaur with Andrea Arnold’s Mia in Fish Tank: the one utterly free of the self-indulgence of excuse the brutal context of his life invites; the other portrayed as a helpless victim we are asked to feel sorry for.

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