Civil Liberties

Fifty Shades of WTF

Everybody hates E.L. James' bondage fantasy except for hundreds of millions of readers and moviegoers. Maybe, just maybe, the fans are onto something.


It turns out that the primary function of the slap-and-tickle book trilogy and smash-hit movie Fifty Shades of Grey is not to make people horny or author E.L. James filthy rich (though it's definitely done the latter, having sold 100 million copies worldwide and $300 million worth of tickets since its release tied to Valentine's Day).

Nope, the main function of the Fifty Shades phenomenon is to let lazy elitists showcase their superior taste and sexual worrywarts—harder to get rid of than venereal warts, as it happens—count all the ways in which BDSM will ruin fucking for everybody.

Members of either negative camp can't be bothered to wonder for more than a minute about why so many people might want to inhabit a fantasy world in which the virginal recent college graduate Anastasia "Ana" Steele becomes the ambivalent submissive to wunderkind businessman Christian Grey's contract-pushing dominant (he literally spends much of his time trying to get her to sign a sexual contract on the dotted line). Perhaps more important, neither the aesthetes nor the moralists want to admit that the Fifty Shades fantasy world is, well, fantasy. As in: not real, folks. Novels and movies are play spaces where we can go to experience things without actually leaving the safety or confines of our own lives. "There is no Frigate like a Book/To take us Lands Away," and all that, especially when the Frigate is about frigging.

Yet reading the books or watching the movie is not going to turn your teenage daughter into Catherine Robbe-Grillet, the wilfully suffering wife of nouveau roman proponent Alain Robbe-Grillet. And even E.L. James' biggest fans don't assume that her work is passing for whatever counts as high art these days. Like other popular work that becomes a cultural touchstone, Fifty Shades lets people escape their lives for a bit while also creating space for them to think about new ways of approaching their day-to-day existence.

Mocking the prose and freaking out that Walmart and Vermont Teddy Bear are hawking tie-ins featuring handcuffs is really missing that larger point. Fifty Shades allows people to think and, more important, talk about sex and what may or may not be a turn-on.  Who cares if the masses come to that conversation via "bad writing"?

Folks in the smart set do, that's for sure. Then again, they may be too busy cracking itself up to tell the rest of us anything interesting. "By dint of its simple competence," the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey "has to be better than the novel," sniffs The New Yorker's Anthony Lane in a characteristic dismissal. "It could hardly be worse. No new reader, however charitable, could open Fifty Shades of Grey, browse a few paragraphs, and reasonably conclude that the author was writing in her first language, or even her fourth." Oh, how droll!

Mocking the literary merits of work that generates intense audience engagement is, quite frankly, the cheapest sort of criticism. It's also a go-to move of critics who can't be bothered to think about why audiences might respond to a given text or the issues that it raises. Mark Twain famously convicted James Fenimore Cooper of repeated "literary offenses" and Virginia Woolf slagged James Joyce for his "illiterate, underbred" verbiage in Ulysses. Lionel Trilling dispatched both Theodore Dreiser and Vernon Parrington for their grammatically challenged sentences and what he took to be their de classe emphasis on politics while Truman Capote dissed Jack Keroauc for "typing" as opposed to "writing." Just about everyone (but especially those who don't want to confront her ideas and enthusiastic admirers) has larfed good and hard at Ayn Rand's prose stylings.

When the Harry Potter series managed to get an illiterate ADHD generation reading 800-page novels and attending midnight day-of-release parties in bookstores across the country, the august critic Harold Bloom harumphed that the series was no Tom Brown's School Days and that on "an arbitrarily chosen single page—page 4—of the first Harry Potter book, I count seven cliches." There is something sad about a critic such as Bloom insisting on the grounds of good taste that the Harry Potter books just shouldn't be so damn popular. One can almost hear him stand athwart 50 million Elvis fans shouting Stop!

And there is something similarly deeply depressing when reading Lane's review in The New Yorker, which is essentially a compendium of one-liners such as "You get dirtier talk in most action movies, and more genitalia in a TED talk on Renaissance sculpture." Thanks, bub. We've already heard the movie is no I Am Curious (Yellow) or Last Tango in Paris and we know that the novel isn't classy porn in the tradition of The Story of O. And, yes, Professor Lane, already know that you are so much smarter than the rest of us.

It's much more difficult—and yet much more interesting—for critics to do what Leslie Fiedler did in works such as What Was Literature?, which was to understand why works that had long been dismissed on aesthetic grounds such as Gone With the Wind  and Uncle Tom's Cabin managed to move readers (including Fiedler himself) to tears or joy whenever they read them. Too often, aesthetic snark is simply a means of dodging thought and engagement.

At least the moralistic critics acknowledge the power of popular culture to move audiences even as they seek to quarantine Fifty Shades like a hot outbreak of ebola. "Even if you don't see the film," worries the author of  "A Psychiatrist's Letter to Young People About 50 Shades of Grey," "its toxic message is seeping into our culture, and could plant dangerous ideas in your head." That urgent missive appears at a Catholic website, so the author's emphasis on restraining sexual experimentation makes a certain amount of sense. Not so with the longwinded yet breathless piece about Fifty Shades of Grey by Emma Green at The Atlantic. "The problem," announces Green, "is that Fifty Shades casually associates hot sex with violence," without the context that "experienced BDSM practitioners" might provide. It turns out that when it comes to sexual explorartion, the DIY crowd should consult with licensed contractors. The upshot, as the article's subheadline trumpets is, "The blockbuster fantasy has become a big movie—and a bigger problem."

Yeah, not so much. It's far from clear that the Fifty Shades trilogy has ushered in a new age of rampant BDSM as a sexual practice. There have been times when movies, TV shows, and novels have created a vogue in this or that, but it's typically something superficial, along the lines of college toga parties in the wake of Animal House. While some couples have surely engaged in some sort of Fifty Shades-inspired play, nobody is mistaking the books or the film for a sex manual, much less a directive to start spanking.

Like many discomfited by popular culture, Green's chief anxiety is that material like Fifty Shades will somehow turn people into either aggressors or victims. "Sometimes, Ana says yes to sex she's uncomfortable with because she's too shy to speak her mind, or because she's afraid of losing Christian; she gives consent when he wants to inflict pain, yet that doesn't prevent her from being harmed," she writes. "This is a troubling fantasy in American culture, where one in five women will be raped within their lifetime, according to the CDC."

But fantasies aren't troubling, by and large. They create a forum in which individuals can explore and question their understanding of the world in which they live, view things from different vantage points, and explore things from different vantage points. All without, you know, real-world consequences. That's the essential work that we all do when producing and consuming creative expression. Literature, movies, art, and other forms are holodecks for us. As Is Art Good for Us? author Joli Jensen says, "culture [is] a way that all of us, even those of us who are not in a special guardian class, understand and symbolically engage the world."

There is no question that any level of sexual violence is unacceptable. Yet there is also no question that rates of sexual violence have been declining substantially over the past 20 years (as have rates for violent crime more generally). That decline is taking place in a world filled with increasingly lurid and graphic representations of fantasy violence and sex.

No one can seriously contend that music, movies, novels, video games, you name it, are not more risque or over-the-top than they were even a decade or two ago. And yet not only is crime down but so is all sorts of ostensibly negative behaviors among teenagers, whom we presume are the most impressionable among us. Yet kids are not only having sex less than they used to, they're using fewer (illegal) drugs, and committing less crimes.

How can a world filled with fantasy depictions of sex and violence be experiencing less of both? What gives?

Simply this: "The audience has a mind of its own." They—we!—like things we're not supposed to, even terrible writing or bad acting, if it allows for a conversation in which we want to participate. The moralists have culture's effect on us all wrong. We're not Emma Bovary, hopelessly inspired by novels to make poor life choices based on what we read. No, we're kinda-sorta-thinking people who like to consume materials that might make us hot or creep us out or just get us wondering about our possibilities.

Spoiler alert: Ana survives Christian and, regardless of what the aesthetes and the moralists think, we'll survive the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, too. And we might just be better off for having inhabited its world for a few hours.