At its best, Dakota Johnson’s acting reveals the restrictiveness of labels like “girlhood” and “womanhood”. Dave Crewe examines how she subverts conventional female stereotypes. This is the second essay in our special A Bigger Splash week.
As Penelope in A Bigger Splash (2015), Dakota Johnson is enigmatic yet authentic, knowing yet naïve; a daughter, a lover, a seductress, and a child all at once. The role allows Johnson to undercut the cliches of Hollywood femininity: innocent child, sexualised nymph, or idealised mother. In projects like A Bigger Splash, television sitcom Ben and Kate and, yes, Fifty Shades of Grey, she pushes against these familiar shapes, revealing nuances in characterisation often absent from the writing she’s given. At its best, Johnson’s acting reveals the restrictiveness of labels like “girlhood” and “womanhood”.
It wasn’t until recently that Johnson’s work started challenging conventional gender stereotypes. In her earlier work, she was relegated to undercooked supporting characters: young, sexy, often ditzy. She hooked up with Justin Timberlake in The Social Network (2010), was derided as a “Justin Bieber-Miley Cyrus-looking” undercover cop in 21 Jump Street (2012), and was dismissed as “some 23 year-old airhead who doesn’t even know what the fucking Beatles are” in The Five-Year Engagement (2012).
Johnson didn’t even get to her thirties before finding her way into the ‘mother’ pigeonhole. This is the dichotomous landscape for most actresses: you’re either over thirty and relegated to children and cleaning, or in your twenties and defined by your energy, sexuality and – critically – your intellectual insignificance.
Johnson, however, refused to fit into that niche. In 2012, Johnson assumed her first real leading role in the sitcom Ben and Kate as Kate Fox, sister to manchild Ben (Nat Faxon) and single mother to five year-old cherub, Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Kate is stern and sexual, responsible and frazzled – equal parts childish, sexy, and determined. She’s cast from the same mold as Lucille Ball’s early roles: a façade of goofball charm cloaking the responsibilities required of motherhood. She brings the jokey youthfulness she exhibited in The Five-Year Engagement to bear on a role that requires her to tamp down those instincts – with varying success. Her talents lie not in inhabiting the role of “hot girl” or “frazzled mum”, but in the intersection between youth and maturity. In a role that could’ve easily been forgettable, Johnson’s potential is unmistakable.
Johnson could have easily descended down a homogenous path of girlfriend and mother roles (as in Date and Switch and Black Mass, respectively), with the occasional oddball outlier. But along came Fifty Shades of Grey.
The novel Fifty Shades of Grey was fanfiction turned, essentially, into rape fantasy. As the protagonist Anastasia Steele, Johnson played a child in an adult fantasy, and the most troubling elements of the book involve Anastasia’s infantilisation by her self-serious paramour. The billionaire whisks Anastasia away from a bar when she has too much to drink, treating her like a disobedient daughter. In the film, he also undresses her from her white cotton underwear as though she were a newborn. Both the director Sam Taylor-Johnson and Johnson chafe against this source material, teasing out the original book’s contradictions: a jumble of sexuality, inexperience, and immaturity with queasy undertones of sexual violence.
It’s very difficult to take lines like “I don’t make love. I fuck…hard,” or “I’m fifty shades of fucked up,” seriously, so Johnson doesn’t, colouring her character’s virginal innocence with barely-concealed amusement. I can’t be sure whether her director pushed this interpretation or merely nurtured it, but Johnson does her best to emphasis the inherent daftness of E L James’ source novel. When she seems to be suppressing a giggle after some of the clunkier lines, it’s an acknowledgement of the fragility – and immaturity – of the fantasy she’s enacting.
In A Bigger Splash, Johnson gets to work with the script rather than against it, as it offers an inversion of Anastasia’s character arc. Where Fifty Shades introduced Johnson’s character as clumsy and virginal, A Bigger Splash foregrounds her sexuality, as Johnson is often clad in a revealing bikini. Introduced as Fiennes’ character’s long-lost college-age daughter, Penelope’s role resembles that of the snakes slithering through the island idyll. She has an unnerving, borderline-incestuous rapport with Fiennes, while acting as a pseudo-seductress around Schoenaerts, her father’s romantic rival for Tilda Swinton. Her sexuality defines her, but it’s not until the third act that the extent to which this is a performance is revealed.
(Minor spoilers for A Bigger Splash in the next paragraph.)
Late in the film, it’s revealed that Penelope isn’t 22 as she’s claimed: she’s 17 and still in high school. Her calculated, sexualized persona degrades under pressure. Her overt attempts at seduction are an attempt to prove herself as an adult. Sexuality is, after all, typically regarded as the bridge between youth and maturity, a coming-of-age ritual that shifts childhood into one’s past.
For once, the script is on Johnson’s wavelength, its subtleties supporting her in refusing to make this boundary so distinct. While attempting to gain Schoenaerts’ attention, Penelope (seemingly inadvertently) emphasises an infantile sense of play (“Do you wanna see me do a handstand?”). Once her ruse is uncovered, she plays up her unflappability, as though performing as a femme fatale from a ‘40s noir, but breaks into private tears shortly afterwards.
Read more: Director Luca Guadagnino talks A Bigger Splash >>
A Bigger Splash is an anomaly in Johnson’s filmography in that she need not work at cross purposes from the screenwriter’s or director’s intentions. The film recognizes that female characters may shift seamlessly between archetypes: they can be children and mothers and seductresses and naïfs all at once. It is a testament to Johnson’s talents that she was able to find similar complexities in Ben and Kate and Fifty Shades of Grey, where such nuance wasn’t necessarily present in the text. Hopefully, the future offers her more opportunities like A Bigger Splash where she can apply her abilities in alignment with the film – rather than in opposition to it.