It’s the franchise that launched a thousand think pieces: but is Fifty Shades really as bad as they say?
Pretty much every single conversation that could possibly be had about Fifty Shades of Grey has been had: Is it misogynistic? Is it feminist? Is it sexy? Is it not sexy? Is it bad for literature? Is it bad for sadomasochists? Is it bad for Rita Ora?
And now, with the release of the second cinematic installment of the franchise Fifty Shades Darker, it is finally time to have all those fun conversations again.
It seems so long ago now, and such was the phenomenon that it barely needs recounting. Born as weird erotic Twilight fan-fiction, the story follows young, mousy virgin Anastasia Steele as she is enlisted by controlling one-percenter Christian Grey to be the submissive to his dominant. Across three novels they fall in love, she’s not sure, he’s not sure, haters try to kill them yada yada.
Well love em’ or hate em’ those crazy kids are back. With Grey’s director Sam Taylor-Johnson replaced by James Foley, author EL James still causing trouble and with original cast members Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan reprising their roles, Fifty Shades Darker picks up where 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation left off.
Having decided hardcore S&M was not for her, Anastasia has dumped Christian’s ass and is now heartbrokenly preparing to start her first job and ignoring his repeated attempts at reconciliation.
As you can imagine this goes super well and before you know it they’re back at it, banging all over the bloody place. But alas Christian is still a weirdo, Anastasia is still vanilla, and they’re back in the same old pickle over what to do about it.
When Fifty Shades was still a hot topic, the naysayers made some pretty strong points. That the particulars of Anastasia and Christian’s union could resemble an abusive relationship should not be taken lightly. For many, this alone is all they need to know about the franchise.
But to shut out Fifty Shades completely is also to ignore that women, or at least quite a lot of women, loved it. Fifty Shades was not cooked up by men in a boardroom; it bloomed in the mind of a woman and millions more around the world responded to it.
Why? Just think about it.
Imagine if things were so simple that, in the space of literally two weeks, you meet, entrance and fall in love with a billionaire and experience the nuttiest sexual awakening imaginable. In this time you also land your dream job, are gifted a car, a laptop, an iPhone, and $24,000.
Life may present obstacles - your new boyfriend may be troubled by a horrific past, his ex-girlfriend may be stalking you, your new boss may be a pervert - but these too are fantastical in their unambiguity. Extreme lows compliment extreme highs, with none of the intolerable grey (heh heh) areas that render life genuinely agonising.
Who wouldn’t want to immerse themselves in that world?
Pop culture often uses fantasy as a way to comment on real world biz, à la Game of Thrones. Fifty Shades of Grey uses fantasy to suppress it.
Your boss sexually harasses you? Your powerful BF makes a call and the next morning he’s gone and you have his job and you never have to think about it again. This may seem like a problem and in many ways it is. But, in the vacuum that is the film, it is also a relief, a respite and an absolute necessity to make the film a success.
The aspects of this that are objectionable - Christian’s childhood abuse, the super-not-cool domineering way he treats women, the celebration of gross wealth and consumption, the idea of love being able to survive, let alone thrive, out of such serious untreated trauma - along with the romanticisation of all of the above, are not surplus, but central to Fifty Shade’s fantasy.
Sex, trauma, subjugation, money, power: The things that crowd our lives, women’s lives, are not interrogated here but cherry-picked, stripped of context and re-assembled into a narrative that is nourishing, cathartic, pleasurable.
And boy is it ever.
With so much to fit in it plays like a very packed episode of the most entertaining TV show ever. No time is wasted and the fast pace keeps the soppiness in check.
Everything looks great: The fancy apartments; the hideously garish masked ball; Dornan and Johnson’s super-hot bods which Foley, somehow, manages to objectify almost equally, much to the delight of the mostly female audience with which I saw it. In fact, while Dornan provides eye candy, it is Johnson’s performance which almost singlehandedly drives the film. She’s wry, witty and a bloody godsend.
Obviously, don’t go see it if any of this makes you mad. And if you consider it truly dangerous then by all means boycott it and protest it and keep the conversation going because that stuff is important.
But to my mind, women should not worry if they enjoy Fifty Shades Darker. Nor should they have to feel guilty for wanting to re-narrativise the screwed up parts of a screwed up world or constantly excuse the often problematic ways our desires manifest themselves.
As a modern melodrama, Fifty Shades is not here to challenge the status quo. It’s here to reframe it as something tolerable and pleasurable and quite literally fantastic.