Even if you were oblivious to the global marketing efforts to make the film palatable for a variety of audiences, memes of 50 Shades of Grey’s Christian Grey having a conversation with his unsophisticated, wide-eyed paramour began circulating long before its release, preparing us for an avalanche of speculation around the movie. Were the sex scenes going to stay true to the book? Was it going to take on the burdensome task of depicting a potentially abusive relationship in the most glamorous way possible? Would criticism of the film end up ruining the two lead actors’ careers?
As a concept, 50 Shades of Grey must have seeped into our collective pop-cultural consciousness about two years ago, sometime between American publishers frantically trying to monetise the trilogy and snide teenagers taking covert pictures of pedestrian-seeming fellow travellers reading the e-book on public transport. Haha, they sniggered, I know what you’re reading! It’s that book that passes itself off as a romance novel but is actually you know…pretty kinky. BDSM and all that.
And it is here that gaps in knowledge about the actual substance of the book were filled with a sort of coy, blushing adolescent type shame. The kind of shame that, with enough wit and flirtatious salesmanship, one can package and strategically place at the centre of a most unimaginative piece of fiction – one resembles an elaborately written alpha male consumer profile in the presentation room of a cosmopolitan market research agency.
Having spoken to a variety of friends and acquaintances before and after seeing the film, the sense of inescapability surrounding the cultural phenomenon that is 50 Shades of Grey is what struck me the most. Whether watching it as a fun social experiment or out of genuine interest about how a record-breaking novel is going to be adapted for the big screen by a pretty competent director, young people from a variety of backgrounds collectively dismiss the notion that the movie might be aimed at them.
At the same time however, there is a pervasive desire to see the film in order to be subsequently able to offer one’s own nuanced take on it, almost as a routine the millennial generation has grown accustomed to. First there was the Dark Knight, then there was Avatar, then there was the Twilight saga, and so on. Young professionals with a fulfilling social life and a dizzying array of leisure and interest choices know that, every couple of years, a new cultural phenomenon will come along and that the success with which that cultural phenomenon is sold has nothing to do with its actual quality of substance.
There is a pervasive desire to see the film in order to be subsequently able to offer one’s own nuanced take on it
First we absorbed it, took it in, genuinely reacted to it, were disappointed by its robotic special effects, then we “bashed” it (if we must stay within the realm of internet speak!), now we critique it. The care with which the film was rendered loyal to the book, recreating the same sellable package almost flatters the audience by begging it for criticism – its informed, smartphone-owning, app-developing, self-sufficient, content connoisseur brand of criticism.
Expectation management and first impressions
So how enjoyable was the adaptation of a pulp novel that has made its author tens of millions of dollars while mainstreaming S&M to such an extent, that even devout Christian mothers read it between community potluck dinners? Well, not having read the book, I am not exactly sure what it means that the author was given an unusual amount of authority over the script and production. However, my cursory research shows that the film portrayed the relationship between Ana and Christian as more consensual than the book’s original take on the somewhat one-sided relationship between a hapless, unambitious journalism student and a CEO with a penchant for bondage.
Whether or not the film omitted to include details like a full visual shot of Christian Grey’s penis or Anastasia performing fellatio on him in order to make the production more palatable to a wider range of audience is unknown. Clearly, the ratio of scenes in which “something actually happens” to the scenes full of eager and desperate anticipation on Anastasia’s part is somewhat disproportionate. Like a free guidebook offered by questionable pick-up artists on the internet, the titillation of the film relies on the concept of desire that thrives on never being fulfilled. Or, as members of the audience mused on their way to the toilet after the screening that I went to – “That was pretty mild…!”
While no one I know had expectations of the film being particularly transgressive, we walked away feeling that we had looked at little more than a very long, aspirational advert plucked right out of a middle class housewife’s fantasy, although a relatively enjoyable one at that. The helicopter and plane bits in particular seemed to belong in a Discover Scotland! type campaign, perhaps an attempt at making a lazy visual correlation between the early stages of budding romance and having large swaths of mossy fields and cliffs at one’s feet.
Laziness aside, for those of us who have not read the book and have some kind of notion as to how we expect human beings to treat one another in an era hailed as relatively egalitarian compared to what came before it, finding out that Anastasia was a virgin mid-film came as a bit of a shock. Not because we find it difficult to fathom that a conventionally attractive girl could reach the grand old age of 21 without having had sex, but because the immediate desire to pop her cherry, delicately as it may be done, is frankly beyond creepy. On finding out that Anastasia is a virgin, Christian exclaims “Where have you been all my life?” before proceeding to initiate a session of cinematic, long-winded foreplay that ultimately results in a few rushed thrusts while Anastasia’s face indicates nothing but total and utter ecstasy. This comes alongside other adorable demonstrations of affection, such as Anastasia being prevented from initiating a break-up by Mr. Grey’s skilful, flower adorned break-in into her house, where he resorts to macho platitudes and white wine laden foreplay before once again sensually penetrating Anastasia like the emotionally-damaged, self-made international CEO that he is.
How indifferent is Europe?
Some reviews have enthused about the way in which the film might ultimately be a rewarding experience for female viewers who inevitable place themselves into the main character Ana’s role – at last, a relationship where she doesn’t have to ask for anything! A relationship where she somehow relinquishes control as a sort of perverse form of liberty of choice, being rewarded with nothing but the finest consumer goods available in return. I find this a facile explanation that relies, once again, on the lazy binary of easy-going, carefree and delightfully forgetful men vs. overly analytical and neurotic, perpetually brooding women.
Looking at the film’s reception across European cinemas, I found myself reading about the outrage surrounding differences in age ratings in different countries. While in the US the film was clearly going to be rated R from the beginning, film critics in France concluded there was very little they needed to censor, giving the film a 12A rating. Cue transnational outrage and angry finger-wagging. None of this comes as a surprise, of course, but what does surprise me is the ignorance about the wealth of earlier erotically-charged European art house films like Sex and Lucia or Y Tu Mamá También that were far more risqué albeit without the systematised hype around them.
Attitudes across Europe were peculiar, yet predictable and expected: different demographics distanced themselves from the film for different reasons – as a film buff, you wouldn’t approve of the film on principle, as a feminist, you would find the one-sidedness of the so-called romance appalling, as an intellectual you would barely even find anything worthy of dissection, and as someone who only knows about the phenomenon from memes and via word-of-mouth, you’d find yourself compelled to verbally recycle the opinions that most resonated with you. I believe all the positions above are valid perspectives, but it’s crucial to keep in mind that commercially, the film was a success and has filled cinemas to the brim.
At the end of my private sessions with myself, overthinking and overanalysing socio-cultural aspects of the film, I was left with the realisation that I really had no strong feelings about it, which for me was most telling about the millennial (for lack of a better word…) phenomenon that is unsubstantiated buzz. The spectacle of the film had a layer of banality all around it that was reminiscent of the routine with which one watches government-subsidised fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Ultimately to those of us who remain un-enthralled by the discovery of parallel sexual universes via the book, 50 Shades is just one of those curious yearly and primarily web-based phenomena like the infamous blue and black dress or #Kony2012. And anyway, the internet already seems to have moved on.