“A real-life Christian Grey, the man set free from all restraint, would probably be a pure satyr like the sex-partying Dominique Strauss-Kahn or the billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, with his private-jet harems and the conviction for soliciting a 14-year-old. But in the fantasy, the synthesis, he’s a guy who will first dominate you but ultimately love you — providing that, like Anastasia Steele, you’re careful to sign a rigorously detailed contract detailing just how much domination you’ll accept.”— Ross Douthat, “The Caligulan Thrill,” The New York Times, Feb. 15, 2015
Last year, I asked a longtime friend what she had been reading lately. The friend, a former schoolteacher and college English major, answered, “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
I was a bit startled but curious about the experience: “So, how was the book?”
“Book?” she responded, giggling. “I finished all three books!”
A good thing we were on a long-distance call, or my friend would have been stunned by how quickly my jaw hit the floor.
My guess is that she was one of the theatergoers who propelled the film adaptation to blockbuster status in just its opening weekend. Its combined U.S. and international revenue already puts it within striking distance of $200 million at the box office. Fifty Shades of Grey has now turned into Millions of Shades of Green--greenbacks, if you will.
The ground for this cinematic experience had, in fact, been carefully prepared for a while, with more than 139.7 million viewers of the trailer for the film by February 2015. Since its first showing, it had become the most viewed trailer of 2014, according to an article in WSJ.com.
Across the pond, the British have called E.L. James’ trilogy "mummy porn." The French termed it porn de menagere (housewife porn)—or, in that dismissive manner used by waiters, merde.
I might as well make clear where I stand immediately. I have not seen the film, so I can’t comment on the plot, dialogue, acting, cinematography, and all the other things that film critics hold so dear. (Though, from what I have heard, none of the above has the slightest role in the movie’s roaring success.)
I can say, though, that I have a real aversion to pain—and, conversely, that I wouldn’t want to inflict it on others. Nor do I have any interest in seeing or reading anything that treats this as something other than sexual violence.
Ross Douthat’s column in The New York Times identifies as intrinsic to the relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele the uneasy balance of money and power that has so dominated American political debate since the stock market crash of 2008. But it also hints at the nature of the fantasy that has made this trilogy and movie so intoxicating to so many women. It’s that male authority figure who will “first dominate you but ultimately love you.”
The introduction of sadomasochism into a mainstream Hollywood movie might be a new (and, I would argue, disturbing) element, but nearly all commentators have completely missed the link to an earlier element of popular culture. Douthat calls this figure a “synthesis,” but it would be more nearly correct to refer to this type as “the reformed rake.”
You don’t have to look far for an example of this in the movies. A quarter century ago, another film featured a young woman in a dubious relationship. Pretty Woman vaulted Julia Roberts onto Hollywood’s A list, in a Cinderella tale if there ever was one: a fundamentally good-hearted prostitute who wins the heart of a wealthy client—and, in the process, makes this corporate raider rethink his own outlook.
The title of the original script hints at the darkness below this 1990 rom-com: $3,000, Vivian’s fee for servicing Edward—enough, this drug-addicted call girl hopes, to fund a trip to Disneyland. That script ended not with her in his arms, but thrown out of his car—a rather more realistic vision of the life of a working girl, but surely not one that would earn the film $463 million in worldwide gross revenues.
The notion of the reformed rake is, in fact, as old as the English novel. Anglican minister Samuel Richardson, dismayed over the ha bit of young city females of reading romances, came up with a work that, in all its simple-minded morality and lack of skill, has tortured English majors ever since: the 1740 epistolary novel, Pamela. (The subtitle, Virtue Rewarded, indicates that, were the minister alive today, he would pay no attention whatsoever to spoiler alerts.)
I’ll spare you the drudgery of reading through this godawful book. A beautiful, innocent woman, just coming into adulthood, finds herself the prey of a filthy-rich guy—except that, instead of a Master of the Universe, it’s a British landed aristocrat. But she finds that he really is good at heart, and the book ends with the two united.
Hmmmm…where have I heard something like this recently?
Fifty Shades of Grey, even without, as its detractors note, a thought in its head, is also blessedly free of the pretension that has permeated other Hollywood fare on decadence. Exhibit A: Quills, the 2000 Philip Kaufman movie starring Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslet, which views the Marquis de Sade (here locked up in an insane asylum) as an indomitable (if randy) defender of artistic freedom, a kind of forerunner of Hustler publisher Larry Flynt saving America from the Republicans impeaching Bill Clinton.
Like Hollywood, France seems to be increasingly leaning toward touching up the skeleton of the old duke of decadence. An article in the February 2015 issue of Smithsonian Magazine indicates that he is now “hailed by some as a literary genius and martyr for freedom.”
But the trouble, when you begin to see the past as a distant mirror of the present, is how much you distort perceptions of both. To view the marquis as simply a highly prolific scribbler of erotica means to ignore crimes against women that Susan Brownmiller aptly termed Against Our Will. Rape, incest and pedophilia against the weakest in society continue to be rightly frowned on, two centuries after his death. It’s the shortest of steps from a 21st-century young businessman with a penchant for using a whip with his woman to someone with the darkest, most aggressively violent impulses.