Well have been through a few life things that shook me up, perhaps more on that later, but gonna start with a certain famous/infamous franchise. No, I’m gonna start with a boast: won some money for an erotic story competition. It was paid in Amazon vouchers but is my first real payment for any kind of writing unless you count some free subscriptions. I am of course too shy to show it to anyone I know, or to put it on any future résumé as verification would mean they could read it. But it’s there.
But on to Fifty Shades: I saw the film. I didn’t really feel the need to read the book, just wanted to get the idea.
First off, good for the author! Dashing off a novel and making a tonne of cash without artistic pretension, EL James is living the dream and I don’t want to join in any literary snobbery about how well the book may or may not be written.
The film itself… I’m not reviewing it as such. My main take is that it is a woman’s fantasy film. The protagonist meets an extremely rich and handsome ethical businessman who is an expert pilot and piano-player. He falls in love with her because she asks a couple of perceptive and challenging questions in an interview. He then pursues her in a way that might be creepy and scary in real life. He turns out to be a dominant sado-masochist, fulfilling the common fantasy (for all sexes) of surrendering control and abdicating decision-making. I understand the latter part, but I wasn’t able to relate to the rest as it was too gender-specific. In one of my common tropes, I wondered how it would work if the genders of the protagonists were reversed: could you have a young, beautiful business lady deciding to pluck an inexperienced male graduate student into her world, then shower him with treats and sex? I came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t, or at least be difficult to write (a challenge?) Gender roles and expectations are too entrenched, maybe even rooted into biology…
Then comes the clever part: the introduction of genuine conflict. The man is emotionally closed off; can Anastasia save him and enable him to love and be close to her at least some of the time? The film hints at childhood traumas that had made him this way but never spells them out. I expect some in the community objected to this equating of kink with pathology, but it might not be that simple. For example, a friend who does cosplay says that many of the people who do it were bullied, or have problems with shyness; they find adopting a mask and another persona to be liberating. So there may be a pathology behind the behaviour, but the behaviour itself is not pathological; in fact it may be helpful, almost a kind of drama therapy.
I’ve heard Fifty Shades criticised for not being an accurate portrayal of BDSM relationships. Not that I know a great deal there, but it seemed pretty hot on issues of informed and withdrawable consent, use of safe words and so on. As for the rest… is it being edgy in some ways? Christian Grey was seduced at fifteen by an older woman who used him as a sub for six years, and he initially offers this as an explanation of him being the way he is. As Anastasia says at one point, this is child abuse. Then, there is no getting away from the fact that Anastasia is young and inexperienced in comparison to Christian. She may be an adult, but we cannot pretend that her head isn’t turned and her judgment clouded. As mentioned, his pursuit of her and later desire to control her (even with consent) could be creepy and dangerous if it happened for real.
However this is all, to some extent, the point of the film. In a BDSM scenario, the fantasy of coercion and lack of responsibility in someone’s head may be very different to the scrupulously planned and safe reality. Fifty Shades is a blend of that fantasy with elements of realism. You suspend some disbelief going in and shouldn’t imagine it’s real any more than a Bond film.
In any case, the book and film have done enormous business and appealed to an awful lot of people. So worth looking at for that reason, even if you interrogate it a bit afterwards. Not that I would ever do a thing like that….