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Fifty Shades of Grey

[This is a review of the 2015 movie starring Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, followed by some general discussion of the Fifty Shades book series on which the movie was based. There are no significant plot spoilers.]

Yeah, yeah, I know – not my usual thing. This was all Jamie Dornan's fault. I was so captivated and freaked by his exceptionally well acted turn as a serial killer in The Fall that when I was alone one evening and noticed that the movie Fifty Shades of Grey was available free on demand, I succumbed to curiosity. Honestly, I had no clue what it was actually about, other than that it was erotica, the books were monster bestsellers, and a lot of people seemed to actively hate it. I had tried the first book a couple of years ago, and didn't get very far.

Fifty Shades of Grey is about a brilliant, wealthy businessman, Christian Grey, who can only express himself sexually within BDSM relationships, and his affair with his complete opposite, a vanilla virgin college student named Anastasia Steele. They meet when she interviews him for the college newspaper, and he pursues her relentlessly while trying to transform her into yet another of his rigidly controlled sexual submissives. As one might expect, Anastasia, or Ana, is strongly attracted, but as she resists Christian's efforts to turn her into his latest sex toy, their relationship becomes an emotional tug of war.

I kept thinking "female gaze" while I was watching this movie. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson, a woman, focuses a great deal on the physical beauty of Jamie Dornan, who quite understandably looks much hotter and more accessible as Christian Grey than he did as Paul Spector in The Fall. (There's a fun little reference to The Fall in an early scene, by the way.) Dakota Johnson, daughter of incredibly gorgeous actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, is very appealing and surprisingly fun as Ana, definitely a break-out part for her. Johnson and Dornan are both talented actors, and they do indeed have chemistry.

Some scenes actually made me laugh, and yes, they were intended to be funny – especially the "business meeting" where Christian and Ana were negotiating the clauses of the sex contract he wanted her to sign. But while the movie was definitely romantic, what with the helicopters and gliders and kissing passionately in elevators, I thought it should have been a lot hotter. The sex scenes in the "playroom" were borderline embarrassing and at times, it felt as if the actors, especially Dornan, were a little embarrassed, too.

When I decided to check out this movie, I had no idea I would write a positive review. If I wrote one at all, I was certain it would be a snarkfest. But when I got to the rather abrupt and surprising end of the movie, I realized that I had to know what happened next, and I wasn't willing to wait a year until the second movie came out. So I went on a mini-Kindle spree and read the book series in the space of about a week.

About the book series

Although my favorite genre is the so-called "hard" science fiction, it is not all that I read. Along with general fiction and non-fiction and a good mystery now and then, I have always liked the occasional romance because the happily-ever-after escapism appeals to me. Some romance authors are very good, and I buy by author.

The thing of it is, romance is a genre written almost entirely by women, for women, and when the romance genre is treated as trash in the mainstream, it often feels to me like the disdain is misogynistic. Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels are romance novels with a twist, and that is all that they are, but they are constantly criticized as if they were mainstream literature. After I finished the novels, I spent some time reading reviews of the books and the movie, trying to figure out why I liked them when the reviews were so universally bad.

Okay, "universally bad" is not completely true. The books were such huge bestsellers and have such die-hard fans that some reviews were inevitably positive. I even found some positive reviews of the movie (this one at Vanity Fair was my favorite). But for the most part, the contempt directed at Fifty Shades of Grey, books and movie, is voluminous and surprisingly vicious.

Why do so many people despise Fifty Shades of Grey? Is it just the same old dislike of the romance genre taken to the extreme because the novels were such huge bestsellers? Is it discomfort that it features BDSM? Is it because of the implication that BDSM is unhealthy because it's an expression of Christian's emotional illness? Is it James' writing style, which I will readily admit is flawed?

And I mean, I sort of get it. I had a negative opinion of the books before I actually read them. The dislike of Fifty Shades of Grey is in fact quite similar to what is directed at its parent series, Twilight. (Fifty Shades of Grey started life as Twilight fan fiction. The author, E.L. James, decided to rewrite it as original fiction, which was clearly a smart financial decision. If you know the Twilight books at all, the character and story similarities tend to jump out at you.)

Although it sounds a lot like "I read Playboy for the articles, not the photos," it was the emotional connection between the leads that kept me reading the Fifty Shades books. There is no question that the books are too long, the sex scenes repetitive, the third novel in particular is short on plot, and I kept wishing someone had taught the author how to exercise better control over her adjectives. And while I enjoyed a lot of the email flirting (which became texting in the movie), it got old.

But I like stories about damaged heroes. It's a popular trope in the romance genre, and Christian Grey is so deeply damaged by his early childhood (he calls himself "fifty shades of fucked up," which is where the title comes from) that it's amazing he can function at all. It is acknowledged fairly early that Christian has been seeing psychiatrists since he was a child, and that emotionally, he is still an adolescent with a deep need to control everyone and everything in his life. Ana sees the deeply damaged child behind the facade, and she copes, poorly at first but better later on, with his need for control while never losing respect for herself and her own boundaries. There is never a moment when the author intimates that Christian and Ana have a normal relationship, that happily-ever-after will be easy, or that Christian isn't going to spend his entire life in therapy.

But on the whole, I enjoyed the books. If you look at them as one long, complicated romance novel, they're pretty good. There's a reason why they're best sellers.

Am I recommending the books and/or the movie? If you like the romance genre and can handle some sexy spice, then yes. If you don't or can't, then no. I'm glad I gave the movie a try, and I plan to watch the sequels. At home, though. Not in the theater.
Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. I understand that the soundtrack does not include Devo's "Whip It," which I think is a major missed opportunity.

  2. I have only read the first book of the series, but my main problem with it is that it's extremely poorly written. I don't mind it being a porn-fest (it's pure escapism, so why not), but as a bookworm I can never get over bad writing. When I want to read escapism literature, at the very least I want the narrative to flow smoothly and nicely (which this one doesn't) and the characters to behave in a somehow believable way (which these two don't). And I certainly don't want to read about some dance moves of inner goddesses in every paragraph! :)

    That said, I'm not joining the general hate on Fifty Shades, I'm just saying why it isn't for me. And I' certainly not against escapism - my favorites are Anita Blake and also Doctor Who and Supernatural fanfiction :)

  3. I think the reason why the books have been criticized so harshly is because of the equally disproportionate amount of praise that was heaped on them. If the 50 Shades books had remained at the level of other "trashy romance" novels, it wouldn't have been a big deal. But people started treating 50 Shades Of Grey like it was The Catcher In The Rye meets the Marquis de Sade. Hardcore book lovers felt compelled to point out that it was crap writing, and hardcore erotica(no pun intended, well...a little intended) lovers felt compelled to point out that as BDSM erotica goes 50 Shades was weak tea.

    Let's face it, when society over-inflates a balloon there's a bunch of people who want to pop it. :)

  4. I get your point, Jenna.

    Patrick, also an interesting point. I wasn't paying attention when the books came out and by now, I think the negative reviews have drowned out the praise, big time.

  5. The film ,and, I'm presuming, the books (I haven't read them but I have it on the authority of my wife) seem to tap into what is fast becoming a sub-genre, that I call "Safe/Danger", that owes a huge amount to the old "Good Girls love Bad Boys" imagery. You see it increasingly in the make-up of boy bands and the music they produce. I did notice a correlation, amongst my friends and family who were reading the books, between their music choices and their reading matter (almost all being very big Twilight fans too) and I think that this idea of a good girl who fixes a broken boy is a rock solid trope at the heart of this type of mass-cultural phenomena.

  6. If you like Fifty Shades, then I would recommend the Crossfire series, which is sometimes called the next Fifty Shades. The first book, Bared to You, came out in 2012. It features a controlling billionaire, but a stronger and more independent protagonist and the writing is better.

  7. Thanks, lisa. I'll put it on my try-a-Kindle-sample list.

  8. Billie, I'd like to venture a guess on why people hate Fifty Shades so much. If a book, movie, tv show or celebrity has a very big fanbase, people expect them to be very, very good. If they aren't very good, people will hate them.
    One example is Justin Bieber. He has a very big fanbase, but people who don't make up his fanbase think his songs aren't good and that he's not a good singer. They feel he is undeserving of his fanbase, so they hate him.
    Similarly, Fifty Shades has a huge fanbase, but many people don't think it is deserving of it's fanbase, so they hate on it. There are other romance novels that are similiar to Fifty Shades when it comes to the quality of writing, but people don't hate on them because they don't have a big fanbase.

  9. lisa, I would say most people are jaded enough to accept the idea of a no-talent(from their perspective, not trying to start a holy war) pop singer being a huge star. The fact that Justin Bieber went on a lengthy run of acting like a complete and utter a-hole probably helped push things over the tipping point as far as he's concerned. :)

  10. True, Patrick, but people didn't like him before he started acting like a jerk.