What Fifty Shades of Grey will say about our culture

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures

By most accounts, Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t a good book. It was born of a housewife in her mid-40s with a hardon for Edward Cullen typing a requiem for a sex life that was never this exciting, and that’s what it feels like you’re reading. It’s unlike anything people who know less of the world have read before, but the truth is this kind of writing — sexually explicit fan fiction — is everywhere and not worth the paper it’s printed on much of the time.

What sets Fifty Shades apart is that it takes the sex just a little further. Controversy became fame, and four years and 60 million copies later, it’s one of the most anticipated movies of 2015, be it with baited breath or dread.

Ironically, a major part of the criticism leveled at the book is that its interpretation of BDSM is sanitized for a broad audience, making it not as risque as advertised. That and piss-poor writing — mostly the piss-poor writing — make it an unsatisfying read for anyone drawn to it because they’d heard it pushed the boundaries on dominance/submission in mainstream writing. It almost certainly won’t push those boundaries in mainstream movie making, but it is still fascinating from a cinematic adaptation perspective because of what it says about female pleasure and rape culture. Unfortunately, most of these messages will be just as sanitized as the book’s version of BDSM.


While there isn’t really anything about dominance and submission — just a dissatisfied housewife’s understanding of it — the sex in Fifty Shades of Grey is much kinkier than is usually allowed in Hollywood. Even the first trailer featuring switches and blindfolds was a little out there. But the expectation is that and a bare-bones explanation of the concept is as kinky as it’s going to get. The Netflix-funded documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, which everyone should watch, goes into greater detail on why.

When a movie is worse than R, it gets a NC-17 rating. R movies require anyone under 17 to be accompanied by a grown-up. NC-17 films simply don’t let them in. There are only a couple hundred theaters in the nation that will house such films, and it’s basically a death sentence to their potential to turn a profit. When the MPAA threatens and NC-17 over a particular scene, that scene gets cut.

And though the lead character can murder a small army and get off with a PG-13 as long as there’s no blood, the folks pulling those particular strings are very up tight about sex. They have a guy that actually counts the strokes. They’ll allow it to be pretty graphic as long as no genitals are shown and all sex is heterosexual-missionary position-plain-Jane-boring. Gay stuff, mouth stuff, butt stuff and use of toys or other equipment can only be alluded to. And it would be pretty tough to film some of these scenes as allusions.

They want it to be so kinky, and it just isn’t. Even the book in all its detail is supposed to be quite tame.

Fans of the book, or anyone who read it, will walk out telling everyone in earshot how much more graphic the book is. Some may even be surprised. But the fact is, that content was never going to hit the silver screen.

Female Pleasure 

The MPAA isn’t just afraid of non-heteronormative sex. It’s also afraid of the female being an equal partner. The best recent example is Blue Valentine, which was threatened with an NC-17 over a cunnilingus scene, leading star Ryan Gosling to take on the whole system before the film got through with an R. 2004’s Jersey Girl was threatened with an R over Maya’s (Liv Tyler) mere mention of her frequent masturbation habit.

There’s a clear pattern with these guys. Women cannot be self-actualized sexually. They exist only as an outlet for male characters, who can have any kind of desires. Ana Steele is far from actualized — she experiences her first orgasm in the story, despite being near college graduation — but she does, at least, feel pleasure. Steele isn’t just an object for Christian Grey to hit on and have sex with, she’s the main character and narrator, and though she doesn’t seek out pleasure, because it would be out of character almost as much as anything else, she does know how she likes to be touched. In the book, she describes Grey inside her, at one point experiencing several orgasms in sequence, which many people still don’t know is a thing.

Almost accidentally, Fifty Shades of Grey gives Steele a solid character arc toward sexual self-actualization. She’s not going to go down this road in the movie. She’ll scream a few times, but that’ll be it.

Despite the story’s entire fame being due to its breaking taboos, the movie will stay within safe boundaries. It’ll have to to turn a profit. That’s the whole reason it’s being made in the first place. So, this encouragingly progressive aspect of a mostly regressive work will be squelched, because that’s the kind of progress the MPAA really puts its foot down on.

Rape Culture

The most recent outrage was over announcing the tampon scene, in which Grey walks into the bathroom, pulls said stopper out of Steele and immediately has sex with her, was cut.

Like every other announcement about this film, this elicited a strong negative reaction from two diametrically opposed perspectives, neither of which have anything to do with the reasoning behind the announced decision. Loyal readers claim this to be a central sequence and one that empowers women everywhere to be horny on their periods. Critics were already upset about the scene because Steele laughs awkwardly instead of consenting. The scene was actually cut because tampons have cooties and the MPAA wouldn’t like them.

In one instance, Grey takes a passed-out-drunk Steele back to his place, undresses her and sleeps next to her. Steele wakes up in the morning and both gives him points for not raping her and bemoans the fact that he didn’t because she thinks this means he isn’t attracted to her. There are so many red flags with this scenario it’s impossible to know where to start.

This scene is part of a larger pattern where Steele’s consent is questionable. The main overt conflict in the book is that Steele loves Grey and wants to be with him, but is uncomfortable with his sexual preferences. She decides to indulge him in order to keep him interested, and that’s at the heart of the book’s rape culture debate — is consent for the wrong reasons to sex acts you won’t enjoy still consent?

It’s an unhappy question that goes to some very dark places. If that wrong reason is, “he/she will kill me if I don’t,” obviously there’s some coercion going on there. There’s a step down between a situation where the partner threatens harm and where the threat is inferred. I haven’t read it, but I believe Steele falls somewhere in the middle. Either way, this is not a healthy reason to perform and engage in sex acts.

It’s a related issue, as well as one that informs the consent question, that Grey emphatically ticks every box on the domestic violence checklist.

The problem this creates that’s bigger than Steele’s abusive relationship is the romanticism of this setup. This quid-pro-quo sexuality is not something anyone should aspire to, but Fifty Shades holds it up as the romantic standard. Idealization of this relationship, like Twilight before it, is the true, insidious cultural danger the Fifty Shades series presents.

Much of the abuse and sketchy consent will be gone from the movie because Steele won’t be narrating and telling the audience to have her own innocent, unhealthy reaction to her situation. Consent is rarely explicit in movies because talking to your partner about it as though he/she is someone you trust and care for is a turn-off for most people.

Also not helping: Author E.L. James’ willful, absolute ignorance and/or denial of how abusive her character is and what her books could do to a generation’s perception of romantic relationships.

How it could surprise us

If the filmmakers want to prove the pessimists wrong, they’ve got one way — make a movie as graphic as its source material. Match the book step for step, lash for lash. Let’s make one thing abundantly clear — the plot isn’t what makes the book so intolerable. Without constant uses of “laters” and “jeez” and references to Steele’s “inner goddess,” this film has honest potential, no matter how unlikely it is to be realized. If director Sam Taylor-Johnson has the balls to match the book, and maybe even top it with an accurate portrayal of bondage, it may reach that potential. It’s rated R, so we already know that won’t happen.

In regard to rape culture, they also have a fantastic opportunity to shoot the relationship as disturbing and unhealthy as it is. There’s precedent for this — Twilight: Breaking Dawn shot the climactic battle payoff the book left out, a clever and welcome “fuck you” to the source material. Fifty Shades has the same room to critique and improve upon its source material. However, it will probably be a pulpy regurgitation of the book to satisfy fans as much as it can.

Why it matters

Let’s go back to Twilight for a moment. The book was released in 2005 with a first edition of 75,000 copies and quickly became a New York Times Bestseller. 2008, on the movie’s opening night — not opening weekend, opening night — it grossed $35.7 million. Assuming everyone went to an evening showing and shelled out $10 for it, which is ludicrous, that would mean the number of people who saw this movie on opening night is almost 50 times the number of copies that existed during its initial run.

Movies don’t adapt books. They annihilate them. They obliterate them. The number of people whose only exposure to this story is the movie has to number in the hundreds of millions by now, and that will only grow over time. Movies are simply too easy to access and too much less of a time commitment, and from a studio perspective, their profit margins are simply too big. It eventually gets to a point that the books themselves may as well not exist anymore.

With a storm of controversy and a series of well-done advertisements including some Beyonce remixes that are beautiful and melodic by even her standards, Fifty Shades of Grey looks like it will be follow the same track. Starting tonight, when people want to see for themselves all the contention about the book, they won’t read it. They’ll watch the movie. It will inherit all this baggage that’s been attached to the book, and people will go to it when they want to form opinions about that baggage, and it may not even contain the reasons it generated controversy in the first place.

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4 Responses to What Fifty Shades of Grey will say about our culture

  1. Charlie says:

    I was interested in the article and it was well-written. Sadly, you simply can’t include the words “I haven’t read it, but” in your piece if you want anyone to respect your (possibly completely credible) opinion.

  2. Charlie says:

    And I assume you also haven’t seen the movie, which would make this article 100% based off of inferences, hopes/fears and biases.

  3. Pingback: I liked it. Don’t go see it, though | reelentropy

  4. Pingback: NATO chief declares 2015 “year of women” | reelentropy

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