Flashback to February, featuring my friends and I trying to make plans for Valentine’s Day.
WPA? Nope. Bad music.
Bowling? Never. Physical activity on a holiday.
Movies? Great idea! Except for the throngs of couples, but we can forgive that. So, which movie?
“Fifty Shades of Grey?”
It pops out of my mouth, and suddenly seven pairs of vaguely concerned eyes turn to me. A decidedly laughless silence hangs above. Mustering what little dignity I still have, I rush to clarify, “It was a joke!”
But for more than a few members of our student body, it was too tempting. And it wasn’t just students. “Fifty Shades of Grey” and its timely release on Valentine’s Day attracted all sorts to the theater: enough that an AMC Theaters spokesperson found it necessary to give a public reminder that weapons and distracting props are discouraged — a jab aimed at certain hardcore “Fifty Shades” moviegoers.
It’s not every day that a movie manages to gather so much attention, especially when the hype is less about its quality or its all-star cast than about its sexual content, which “Fifty Shades” has plenty of. With around 20 minutes of sex scenes, the movie is unprecedented in the world of mainstream western film. But neither the movie nor its original book series are part of your normal franchise.
The book “Fifty Shades of Grey” traces its origins to fanfiction. Of “Twilight.” It’s not surprising when you look at the pitiful writing. Really, it’s not even bad, just pitiful: from “I feel the color in my cheeks rising again; I must be the color of the Communist Manifesto” to “from a very tiny, underused part of my brain — probably located at the base of my medulla oblongata near where my subconscious dwells — comes the thought.” And just look at the sad replicas of the un-endearingly clumsy female lead and her new romantic interest: rich, mysterious, smoldery, very sketchy. Very cliche.
Yes, I can see exactly how the “Fifty Shades” franchise came from “Twilight.” But “Twilight” is decidedly better-written and more enjoyable, if only for its comedic content. I’ve seen better fanfiction than “Fifty Shades.” I could write better fanfiction than “Fifty Shades.”
But in the end, similarly gag-worthy prose has made it into the publishing industry, though I doubt they’ve soared to such popularity for whatever reason. The film adaption, with its script and actors, actually manages to salvage what minimal comedic potential that was ever in the book. But nothing is truly capable of redeeming the aimless plot and atrocious dialogue.
And yet, its inexplicable popularity is undeniable. The book is still floating at the top of three New York Times Best Sellers lists. Its film is cruising happily after hitting first place in the box office during opening week, more than double of “Kingsman: The Secret Service”, which incidentally had double “Fifty Shades”’s budget— go figure.
“Fifty Shades” is famous for its BDSM: in essence, an often misinterpreted subculture, as subcultures tend to be. With acknowledgement like that, “Fifty Shades” had so much potential for erasing those misconceptions and raising awareness. The thing is, partially because of “Fifty Shades,” the public is very aware of BDSM now— but the kind of image being given is questionable.
Reading “Fifty Shades” would lead me to conclude, if I wasn’t aware otherwise, that BDSM is, first, a product of abuse that male lead Christian Grey experiences in childhood and second, a purely sexual and painful activity. In fact, the female lead’s take on her suitor’s ‘interest’ initially goes something like, “wow, he likes to hurt women and it depresses me.” “Fifty Shades” is not the Beginner’s Guide to BDSM, and yet people treat it as one.
Not only is BDSM misrepresented, it’s dangerously warped. BDSM itself is a sexual interest in relationships that involve bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism. Christian Grey, however, displays abuse and obsession with control that goes beyond what BDSM condones. Female lead Anastasia Steele does not initially give real consent for anything Grey does, despite the real BDSM community’s emphasis on consensus and set limits. Even as the plot moves along, much of Steele’s consent seems to be given in fear of Grey’s opinion of her, or of him leaving.
Now that is where lines get blurred and the debate rises on how acceptable “Fifty Shades” is. But there’s no point in resolving an argument, when the point is that there is an argument. There are differing opinions from critics and readers alike about what the “Fifty Shades” franchise is selling to its consumers, but this is a society where rape culture is very real. We should at least follow the age-old rule when blurred lines are concerned: better safe than sorry. Consider the recent rape crime committed by a Chicago college student who afterwards claimed it was a reenactment of “Fifty Shades.” It doesn’t matter what “Fifty Shades” is really about when that’s how people respond.
However, there are people who call the book “empowering” for its portrayal of the BDSM subculture, and whether that’s accurate or not, that opens up possibilities for the public. And, if that’s what the public really gets out of that book or that ticket they were too embarrassed to buy in person, I rest my case.
Or wait, I can’t. If you still need a reason to convince you not to pick up that book or buy that ticket, just take a look at the severe lack of diversity in the characters.
There’s a blatant lack of racial representation, something mainstream films these days tend to avoid. The one character of non-white race who makes it into even a supporting role is Steele’s best friend José, who ends up being a bit of a sexual predator and pulls some unwanted moves on her. But of course, Christian Grey comes in to save the day, and our friend José apologizes, so it’s all good.
I can’t make up my mind whether to pass this off as purposeful on the author’s part or just another element of the poor writing. Really, we’ve come full circle. I have read enough generic Young Adult novels to endure bad plots and bad advocacy and unbearable relationships. But “Fifty Shades” and its abhorrent writing just serves as backdrop to bigger problems. Maybe it’s even me and my comrades’ incessant hate that has helped to bring the franchise to international popularity. But as long as I have given every person reading fair warning, my goal is accomplished.