Last week, Universal and Focus Features released the first trailer for director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel’s adaptation of E.L. James’ bestselling erotic novel Fifty Shades Of Grey, which generated a lot of comment from readers, mostly having to do with the crumminess of James’ book, whether it qualifies as a positive portrayal of female sexuality or as a cautionary tale (and whether that’s something that matters to its millions of readers), and if the movie version has a shot at being a success. Here’s a sampling of some of the comments:
Roswulf: “I was surprised by how dour the whole thing looks. No fun allowed in this sex tale.”
Lauralee: “Which actually may explain why it’s so popular. Which is actually a really depressing thought.”
Hob: “I wouldn’t describe the book as ‘dour.’ It’s written to give the impression that fun is being had—but the kind of fun that’s somewhat distanced by the focus on how outrageous and crazy it is and you can’t believe you’re doing it, et cetera (or as the narrator frequently puts it, ‘Holy crap!’). To me it comes across like the nervous laughter and occasional Rifftrax-ish commentary that tends to fill the air if you’re watching porn in a group of people who, though they may watch tons of porn privately, haven’t done so in company and aren’t sure if it is OK to give any indication of actually being into it. The narrator’s POV is a cross between someone who’s thrilled to be exploring a kinky relationship, and someone who’s thrilled to be daring to read about one, and there’s something kind of friendly and inviting about that. The clunky writing is perfectly suited to that effect; if it were better written in the sense of using well-crafted and surprising words, or treating the characters as human beings, that would make it a less safe experience.”
Aran: “I copy edit books for independent authors and, inevitably, I end up doing a lot of sexy-times stuff. (Some of which is actually very well written.) Here are some common words and phrases: Arch/arched (‘She arched her back’); Pebbled (‘Pebbled nipple’); Length (‘His impressive length’); Shattered (Orgasms often ‘shatter’ women); Lave/laved (I mean, you can’t use ‘licked’ every time).”
MistaTMason: “I find it pretty infantilizing and hypocritical when entertainment like this, aimed at adult women, is attacked as regressive. Whatever blogger is saying we need to stamp out Fifty Shades Of Gray because it romanticizes misogyny and denies women agency is saying that grown women can’t read a book or watch a movie without their impressionable little minds being warped. … The truth is the soccer moms, cat ladies, and other middle aged women who get all weak in the knees over this movie know what they’re getting into. It would be a shame if we all ended up slowly socially pressuring this kind of entertainment for grown women out of the market, based on the fact it has an anti-feminist message. Cat ladies need their erotic fix too. Who is anyone else to judge?”
Hooded Justice: “A damaged character whose erratic behavior is explained away (usually in a late-arriving flashback) by a seminal traumatic event in his or her past is a staple of the giallo. It’s weird to see it applied to what should have been a sex-positive story.”
la_donna_pietra: “It’s porn for people who are afraid of sex.”
jboehle: “I dunno, I thought this wasn’t that terrible? I mean, the dialogue is clunky, but how many erotic films are known for their dialogue? Also, the film is definitely visually striking, and it’s an erotic drama written, directed and 2/3 produced by women. I'm fascinated to see what that looks like.”
suckersapien: “This is an interesting case, because I can’t think of a single blockbuster American movie centering around sex. The closest I can get is American Pie and Basic Instinct, and those are more about fear of sex than sex. People like their porn private: I suspect the success of Fifty Shades is partly due to the rise of ebooks, which keep bystanders from reading the covers of their book.”
jboehle: “How many genuinely sex-positive works have caught on in the U.S. mainstream in recent memory? Like, sex-positive and sex-drenched? Considering how puritan-based we've always been, it kind of makes sense that the most mainstream erotic piece in recent memory would also be drenched in shame.”
Mr. Logical: “The film itself will probably get a C+ cinema score because everyone’s moms with think it either had ‘not enough sex’ or ‘too much sex,’ but by then it’ll be too late because the studio will already have taken their money.”
I haven’t read Fifty Shades Of Grey, but last summer I made a joke on Twitter about a middle-aged mom at the public pool “making it weird” by reading the novel openly, and a friend of mine chastised me a little bit, saying that the general perception of Fifty Shades Of Grey as pornography was misguided, and perhaps even misogynistic. So I tend to be a cautious person when it comes to this subject. Clearly, something about Fifty Shades Of Grey resonates with its millions of readers; and human sexual desire is too complex to get too huffy about whether a person “should” or “shouldn’t” be turned on by a poorly written, possibly socially regressive book.
That’s not to say that the novel and the movie are critic-proof. But there are multiple reasons why a person might enjoy Fifty Shades Of Grey; and just as action/adventure/fantasy fans have a way of excusing cruddy dialogue and fascist overtones if the thrills are strong enough, so bad erotica can be excused if it’s sufficiently arousing.
I’ll be more curious to see whether the movie is any kind of a hit. The old saying is “sex sells,” but I agree with suckersapien that one of the big reasons that Fifty Shades Of Grey has sold so well is because people can read it in private. Sexy movies tend to have a rougher go of it at the box office these days, because attendance is a public act, and after the wave of blockbuster erotica in the 1980s—the era of 9½ Weeks and Porky’s—American moviegoers seem to have gotten a lot shyer.
There’s been one major exception lately: Magic Mike, which was a surprise hit in large part because it brought women out in droves, with the promise of beefcake. I was honestly a little surprised when I went to see Magic Mike in my conservative Southern city and found the theater packed with women, whooping at every stripper’s routine. But I’m not sure that Fifty Shades Of Grey is going to offer that many chances to whoop. It seems more like the kind of movie that people would rather watch alone than one that demands a crowd.
Then again, there was that one mom at the pool….
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