Rather than trying to wrangle an invitation to a press screening of Fifty Shades of Grey, I decided to see it on Valentine’s Day, amongst my people: suburban couples. My boyfriend politely obliged my request to start our day at 11 a.m. in the comfy IMAX seats at Monmouth Mall in Eatontown, New Jersey. The theater was not, as I’d been half expecting, full, or even half full. I doubt that even 25% of the seats were filled. Maybe it was just too early for most of Monmouth County to get their kink on.
So what did I think about the most anticipated, overhyped movie in recent history, one that broke numerous box office records in its opening week? Well, I’ve been puzzling over what to say all week. Partly, that’s because so many people have already weighed in on every nuance of the movie, it’s seemed sortof redundant to add on. But even more, I think I’ve hit a stage of Fifty Shades fatigue. By the end of the movie, I cared even less about the future of Ana and Christian’s relationship than I did when I read the first book in 2012.
Mostly, though, I was left with the same frustration I had with EL James’s story, which is I still have no idea what, exactly, Christian saw in Ana. Would he have pounced on her roommate Kate in the same voracious, all-consuming way if she hadn’t been sick and had shown up at the interview? In the movie, Christian repeatedly tells and shows Ana how much he wants her. Mainly, he does this with money, sometimes with power, on a few occasions with his body. He seems shocked that she’s a virgin, but the central issue of why he lets her into his life when he clearly has a very rigid system of calculations and specifications that go into choosing a submissive is never answered.
He doesn’t seem to have a virgin fetish, or a true interest in showing her the potential pleasure she could get out of being his submissive. I don’t recall him ever hinting to her that some people enjoy being spanked, bound and ordered around. Instead, it’s all about him, literally. When he first ushers her into The Red Room of Pain and she looks at him like he’s crazy and asks, “What would I get out of this?” He answers, “Me.” That’s it—him.
One joint review I especially appreciated was between Bastard Keith and Betty Mars at The Urban Dater, in which Mars writes, “There’s something else that distresses me in the way this story is told: The conflation of kinky desire with conversion–the idea that his kinky desires are inseparable from his desire to ‘convert’ her, and that his sexual desire is inextricable from his kinky interests.” Exactly. He seems curious about her as a person at first, but that natural curiosity when two people start to flirt or date seems to quickly give way to not just his desire to show off his sadism, but a desire to put Ana in her place, in the bedroom with the caged bird painted on the wall, the one he will never sleep in.
He never seems to truly see her as a person, rather than a woman he’s slotting in to fulfill these particular kinks he has because he’s just that way. The truth is, even though I found reading the book a very long, challenging experience, I wanted to like the movie. I wanted to get swept away, even though I found Christian cold on the page and his whole backstory beyond over-the-top. I wanted to see some sexy, glamorous kink onscreen, and barring that, I wanted to see what could legitimately be called a love story. But even though I think overall, Fifty Shades of Grey has been a positive force in the world of sex, by introducing countless women to the idea that they too can read sexy books and indulge their fantasies, whatever they may be, the movie fell utterly flat for me. It was all gloss and no emotional substance. I never truly felt like Ana was falling in love with Christian, and I really didn’t care what he was feeling.
Unlike many other BDSM practitioners, I was willing to suspend disbelief about Christian’s stalking of Ana, even when it came off as more ludicrous than menacing to me, for the sake of a happily ever after. But even that, the hallmark of the definition of romance, is nowhere to be found here.
Amanda Hess wrote of the film at Slate, “The end product does not abdicate its responsibility to titillate, but it fills its sex scenes with exaggerated winks to the hate-reader.” Judging from the number of people I know who helped add to its opening box office numbers simply to hate-watch, I believe she’s exactly right, whether that element of self-mockery was intentional or not.
I’m far more interested in the impact of Fifty Shades of Grey on discussions of sexuality than the impact of Christian’s whip on Ana in the movie. As an erotica writer and teacher of erotic writing, I’m concerned that we are now asking far too much of our fiction—namely, that rather than it being a space to explore fantasies, we are demanding it be a perfect representation of “real life.” Witness sentences like these. From The Root: “…the relationship depicted in the book isn’t quite representative of people living BDSM lifestyles.” From Divine Caroline: “…because of how BDSM is portrayed in 50 Shades, I’m concerned that those less familiar with this type of sexual play aren’t really getting an accurate picture of what BDSM is all about.” From Salon: “…the kink contract that Christian gives to Anastasia features not just stipulations about butt plugs and floggers but requirements about what she can eat, how much she can drink and how she behaves at all times. Now, such contracts are not unheard of in the BDSM community — but nor are they standard, and certainly not with someone as inexperienced as Anastasia.”
These can all be valid criticisms of the work of EL James, screenwriter Kelly Marcel or director Sam Taylor-Johnson, but I fear that we are mixing up fact and fantasy when we expect a work of fiction to hold to the standard of nonfiction. If that’s the case, I need to quit writing erotica ASAP, because I do not want to rein in my imagination in that way. I do not always want to write characters who act in perfect ways, who engage in sex or BDSM for “good” reasons, or who are being held up as role models. Yet I do think the discussions about where one should go for accurate BDSM information are important ones to have, I just don’t think entertainment vehicles should be the focus of these discussions.
Yes, I know I got off the topic of the actual movie, but while I’m glad I saw it, because it’s somewhat of a job requirement if you write and talk about erotica as much as I do, and I’m glad Ana stood up for herself a hell of a lot more than she did in the book, I wish Christian had been more of a character, than a caricature. Then maybe I could get into the idea of seeing the inevitable sequels.
One upside for Fifty Shades mania, though? More sexy books being made into movies and TV shows, including my #1 recommendation, S.E.C.R.E.T. by L. Marie Adeline, which the latest Entertainment Weekly reports is “currently being developed for the small screen.” I think I can safely say that if that happens, we’ll know exactly what the characters are thinking.