[28 July 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Let’s talk about sex, shall we? Frankly. Honestly. Without adolescent snickers or contemporary Puritanical embarrassment. Let’s talk about the biological act, the physical intimacy between two people. Let’s not throw gender or orientation into the mix. Instead, let’s focus on the real issue at hand: the recently released teaser trailer for the upcoming big screen adaptation of British author E.L. James’ bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey.
Born out of that most incendiary of literary laughing stocks, fan fiction, it is the oft-criticized scribe who is now giggling, all the way to the bank. And it’s a book about sex. Sort of.
With millions of copies sold worldwide and a trilogy ripe for cinematic exploitation, James has become the latest in a long line of female writers—J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Stephenie Meyer—who’ve tapped into various underserved market niches in today’s readership and come up a winner. These lucky ladies have found a way to make a killing in an arena thought dead and buried by the digital technology of the Aughts.
While few, save for Rowling, are recognized as legitimate, all are beneficiaries of a group think book club mentality. Granted, a few of these ladies can find their groundwork laid by the original Queen of the Damned, Anne Rice, but for the most part, theirs is a post-modern prominence. They’ve defied the odds, and by doing so, have reset said probabilities in their likeness.
This means that Hollywood has to come calling. As they did post-Potter, any and all young adults books became the fodder for flawed (and mostly failed) future franchises. When Twilight hit, a second round of property purchasing ensued. The Hunger Games delivered. Meyer’s Bella follow-up, The Host, did not.
Seeking more mature waters, the growing Fifty Shades of Grey brand became the next big celluloid thing. Money was thrown at James, various combinations of filmmakers and famous faces were tossed about, and in the end, Sons of Anarchy‘s Charlie Hunnam was picked to play the rich eccentric Christian Grey, while relative newcomer Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) signed on for the important leading role, Ana Steele.
Then Hunnam dropped out and Irish actor Jamie Dornan was in. Sam Taylor-Johnson, the director of just one previous film, the indie effort Nowhere Boy (about John Lennon) was brought on and soon tongues were wagging over the book’s notorious sex scenes. How would Universal handle the inevitable battle over the MPAA rating? Most readers wanted R or NC-17. Others recognized that, outside the ‘80s with its 9 & 1/2 Weeks and Two Moon Junctions, cinematic erotica remains as DOA as the RomCom. The more commercial friendly the final verdict, the better for the box office.
Still, the fanbase and the faithful are more or less guaranteeing a good return on the investment. Even with a less than successful weekend, a $40 million Fifty Shades of Grey is going to make that much, plus much, much more, after all the frontloading is over.
For someone far outside The Fifty Shades of Grey demo, the teaser makes it all look so… terrible. The characters are clichés, the set-up straight out of a bad direct-to-video title. The sex is hinted at, though only via the symbols of such a seduction (the riding crop, the paddles and whips). The whole man vs. girl ideal seems less seedy since, both Johnson and Dornan look about the same age (though, in reality, he’s eight years older than her) and, at least for now, there’s none of the uncomfortable sadism that surfaced in films like Steven Shainberg’s Secretary (short-story writer Mary Gaitskill should consider suing over that one).
Instead, Fifty Shades of Grey is all Lifetime movie-lite, though this is just a teaser… a teaser which has still managed to inspire mass web hysteria.
Now, it’s not hard to see why the whole Fifty Shade of Grey phenomenon exists. America, by and large, is a relatively uptight society, among many, it has a communal consciousness that thinks human physicality is “dirty”. All of our advocacy voices have been looked at as laughable loonies, from the Dr. Ruth’s of the past to the various Internet huggermugger that attempts to address libido. Mention words like “penis” or “vagina” and we are back to the days when a song like “Sodomy” from the musical Hair had some mouth’s gaping and Conservative Establishment jaws clenched. Even the proliferation of porn went from ‘70s adult hipster to secretive laptop hobby in the blink of a bitmap.
In other words, Americans want to keep their carnal desires under wraps and undercover (with the lights on, and mostly Missionary). As a result, instead of a realistic concept of sex, we hide behind fantasy and the forbidden. This leads to all manner of problems—body image issues, performance anxiety—almost all the result of an over emphasis on looks and libido. However, in the world of our imaginations, we are all XXX hardcore hunks and honeys. We can envision ourselves doing whatever, whenever we please, without condemnation from the community or the complexities of current politics.
Even the most Bible-thumping Tea Party crazy or equally disconnected bleeding-heart liberal can be an amorous Amazon or pillaging conqueror in their private imagination. No matter the real world consequences should they try and recreate their hidden desires, there are no such repercussions in the privacy of one’s own mind.
Thus, the notion of fantasy, thus a book like Fifty Shades of Grey. It plays upon these personal proclivities, a litmus test for those who are curious and don’t want to be condemned. The subject matter—bondage, discipline, domination—are still considered somewhat taboo, and when placed alongside the other wish fulfillment elements of the narrative (rich man, naïve girl) becomes the basis for a whole new level of internalized lust.
It’s pleasure in defiance of the norm, naughtiness that can be shared like a perverse private joke. As the sect snowballs, as more and more people become privy to the experience, it no longer suffers from being sordid. Instead, it’s a kind of empowerment, a way for the readership to stand proudly in their “perversion” without really being judged.
But all that will change come February 2015. Once Taylor-Johnson externalizes the previously internal, the barrier will have been lifted. Already, fans of the books are beleaguered by tags such as “soccer mom sluts” and “mommy porn”, while the erudite declare the reader regressed for finding such poorly written fiction fascinating.
Of course, to the skilled micromanagers in Tinseltown, none of this matters. Meyer didn’t win a Pulitzer, and yet the film translations of her books have earned billions, with a “B”. The Hunger Games has also earned a boatload of cash. For James, the path is not so certain. Twilight is basically a horror romance, while Collins’ dystopia taps into our current craze for action heroes and heroines.
Fifty Shades of Grey, however, relies on reviving a specious subgenre that was abandoned two decades ago, left to wallow in the wanton excesses of late night cable programming. Who knows? Maybe there is a mainstream audience for a serious movie about sex. On the other hand, given our history and current cultural clime, one images more enthusiasm for secretly turning pages than participating in public.