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ReThink Review: Fifty Shades of Grey -- Why Now?

02/13/2015 08:36 am ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

The record-breaking international phenomenon that is Fifty Shades of Grey, the book about an inexperienced young woman's journey into bondage and submission at the hands of a troubled young billionaire, continues to roll on with the release of the long-awaited film version of the best-selling novel. Critics largely panned the book as being terribly written, and I'm guessing movie critics will be equally scathing since it's hard to make a good movie from weak source material. But as with the book, I doubt that will stop women of all ages -- many of them in slightly tipsy groups of friends -- from showing up in droves to see if the movie lives up to the book, or to simply see what all the fuss is about. But with America's largely puritanical views on sex, and especially sex that ventures outside traditionally accepted definitions, what I'm most curious about is: Why this story? And why now? Watch the trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey below.

Fifty Shades of Grey stars Dakota Johnson as Anastasia "Ana" Steele, a soft-spoken college senior and virgin who is sent to interview 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for her school's newspaper. Despite Ana flubbing the interview while being intimidated by Christian's intensity and good looks, Christian develops an obsession with her while also urging her to keep her distance. This starts what ends up being a pattern of mixed messages with Christian unexpectedly showing up in her life and sending her expensive gifts. But when things get more serious, Christian asks Ana to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which is a preamble to what he really wants with Ana: a tightly regimented dominant/submissive relationship (with Christian as the dominant) with all of the terms of Christian's control over Ana formally laid out in a lengthy, detailed contract of do's and don'ts, including what sexual acts she'll endure, safe words, and foods Ana is allowed to eat. As Ana goes deeper into Christian's world, she begins to wonder what is at the root of his sadism, his desire for control and emotional distance, and why the two of them can't have a "normal", affectionate, non-whipping relationship like everyone else.

Fifty Shades of Grey is nicely shot, and Johnson is convincing as a soft-spoken, naïve girl trying hard to understand the world of wealth, power, and sex she's been invited into while attempting fruitlessly to keep her emotions in check as she knows she should and as Christian has instructed. Dornan does what he can with a character who, in most ways, is a cold, arrogant, entitled jerk with emotional problems who's used to treating women as disposable sex toys -- think Richard Gere in Pretty Woman with none of the charm, humor, or charisma. Grey's positive traits are that he's handsome, rich, exercises, and fucks well. As for personality and conversation, he's pretty much a zero.

A lot of the film's dialogue is laughable or cringeworthy, the kind of stuff that might pass when read on the page but sounds ridiculous when said out loud by supposedly serious people. The same could be said of the sex scenes, which I'm sure fill countless pages with steamy details and Ana's inner thoughts. But onscreen, those details flash by in a second and Ana's inner monologue can't be heard, leaving you watching one of several drawn out sex scenes where, from a filmmaking standpoint, you're learning nothing and the story isn't advancing. From the description I read on Wikipedia, the movie seems to stick pretty closely with the book's plot but with fewer sex scenes. But I honestly don't know if fans of the book will enjoy seeing it brought to life, and people who haven't read the book will probably be left wondering what the big deal is, especially after the film's abrupt ending.

But I'm not as much interested in the quality of the book or film, which seem to be essentially immune to criticism, as I am about why Fifty Shades of Grey has become such a phenomenon at this moment, especially in puritanical countries like the US -- where advanced ticket sales have been higher in the more conservative Midwest and South -- and the UK -- where Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James has become Amazon.co.uk's best-selling author of all time, with her trilogy selling more books than all of the Harry Potter books combined.

I think there are a few factors at play. First, you have to look at the roots of the book, which started as fan fiction of the ultra-successful Twilight teen vampire series. And Twilight's DNA is definitely there -- a virginal, naïve young woman in the Pacific Northwest who falls for a beautiful, powerful, and dangerous young man whom she knows could hurt her, yet their emotions overpower the physical and emotional risks both know she faces. But the Twilight books -- whose author Stephanie Meyer is a Mormon -- are relatively chaste and abstinent, more appropriate for the teenage following it won before migrating upstream to adults curious to find out what all the kids were talking about. On the flipside, Fifty Shades of Grey is swimming in explicit sex more appealing to an adult audience -- infamously, married women over thirty, which coined the term "mommy porn" -- before migrating downstream to younger women and teenagers. It's not surprising that Fifty Shades of Grey would share some of Twilight's huge following since it's essentially a more adult, less supernatural version of the same book -- terrible writing and all.

But I think the more important factor in the success of Fifty Shades of Grey is the Internet. With the ubiquity and easy, free access to porn the Internet has brought to everyone's homes and phones, our sexual vocabulary has been widened broadly -- and studies have shown that the more sexually repressed your country/state is, the more porn its citizens will consume. But porn still carries a stigma -- it's something that most people do in secret and won't talk honestly about, especially if their preferred porn genres are considered strange or deviant. Still, all that porn (and an Internet on which people can do additional research) has expanded people's sexual vocabulary to at least some of the endless range of sexual preferences and subcultures that are out there, even if people won't talk about them in polite company.

Erotica created by women for women is a genre with enough demand that it is sporadically teased as being The Next Big Thing. But it has rarely (if ever) had the kind of breakout hit with name recognition that would cause the kind of escape velocity needed to take a work from being a hit in a small genre to being a mainstream sensation, hopefully taking the genre with it. Perhaps one reason is that in the pre-Internet days, if you wanted an erotic book, you were still required to find the book in a store and buy it, which many people may be too embarrassed to do. And even if you were able to obtain the book, you'd still have to read it, risking the judgment of a passerby or a family member who may spot the cover and know that you were reading a sexy book.

But with the advent of ebooks, online stores to sell them, and devices to read them on, the possibility of shame in reading an erotic book was finally conquered. Now, no one need know what kinds of books you're buying or reading, even if you're buying and reading them right in front of someone. From the back, every Kindle, iPad, or other ereader looks the same, and even if someone looks at your screen over your shoulder, every screen of text without pictures looks about the same as well. Fifty Shades of Grey was only released in physical form after it had already become a sensation as an ebook.

Fifty Shades of Grey arrived in the midst of a perfect storm of technology that widened people's knowledge and interest in different sexual preferences and allowed people to consume more sexual content in a discreet, shame-free way. Add a sexed-up version of an already-popular book series and you have the makings of a literary phenomenon which, with the existence of an enthusiastic fanbase borne out by sales figures, would inevitably lead to a mainstream film adaptation.

And in many ways, it's hard to see that as a bad thing. There are a lot of ways to get sexual pleasure, and if people who are into BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism) or any other type of non-harmful sex play (or toys) will be less judged and stigmatized because of Fifty Shades of Grey, that's a good thing. If BDSM helps couples invigorate their sex lives or helps a person find a truly compatible partner that shares their sexual preferences, that's awesome. As long as everything is consensual and among adults, I think people learning that there's a big world of ways to get off and that none of them will bring down society can only lead to more acceptance and bigger smiles.

The success of Fifty Shades of Grey also caused a huge spike in the sale of sex toys, and in anticipation of the movie, sex toy manufacturers are giving their products a Fifty Shades of Grey makeover while stores are stocking their inventories, with one company even making a deal to sell their toys at Target. If selling sex toys at Target isn't a sign of more liberal views on sex in America, I'm not sure what is. And if people are more comfortable buying and using sex toys because of Fifty Shades of Grey, I'm all for it. While it's not a perfect analogy, homosexuality was seen as a deviant sin that should be eradicated or buried deep in the closet, but with gay public figures coming out as well as gay characters appearing in mainstream popular entertainment, we've traveled an enormous distance towards understanding and acceptance (Republicans and religious conservatives not withstanding). And I think we are a better nation for it.

But when it comes to Fifty Shades of Grey, there's one huge caveat.

Ever since the book became popular, there has been criticism both from the BDSM community and domestic abuse organizations that Christian and Ana's relationship more resembles an abusive relationship -- complete with stalking, isolation, and attempting to obsessively control every aspect of the victim's life -- than the types of relationships the BDSM community practices. There's a real danger that women in a relationship as manipulative, lopsided, controlling, and physically imperiling as the one between Ana and Grey may not see it as a sign to run, but as something romantic that could eventually lead to an abuse-free relationship as long as the woman can be accommodating and stick it out long enough. Hoping that enough love, forgiveness and perseverance will make an abusive lover change their ways -- especially one bearing deep emotional and sexual damage from childhood as Christian does -- is how victims of domestic violence become victims of murder.

Earlier, I mentioned Pretty Woman, a film that made it seem like prostitution could be a viable way for a woman to meet the man of her dreams. While the film was a huge hit and is still much beloved, the film has also been criticized for dangerously misrepresenting "the life," with some prostitutes even saying that the movie inspired them to try prostitution in the first place, only to realize that the reality of selling their bodies was exponentially more brutal and soul-crushing than what happens in Pretty Woman, and that there would be no millionaire riding in on a white limo to save them. Timing and technology may have conspired to make a story like Fifty Shades of Grey a runaway success, but its poor grasp of bondage and dominant/submissive power dynamics may send a dangerous message farther and faster than we would ever want.

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