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What Exactly is ’50 Shades of Grey’ (and What Can You Expect From the Movie)?

50 Shades of Grey
Rob Kim, Getty Images

So what’s this ’50 Shades of Grey’ thing you keep seeing everywhere? Women all around you are reading it — ladies on the bus, that khaki-pantsed woman clutching her pearls in the coffee shop, your mom. And now they’re making it into a movie.

Lucky for you, I read this thing so you don’t have to.

’50 Shades of Grey,’ for the blissfully uninitiated, is a book trilogy written by E.L. James (no relation to Fudge), a woman who loved ‘Twilight‘ but was annoyed that there wasn’t enough sex in it. (Seriously.) So she wrote some fan-fiction and it became “internet popular.”

Fan-fiction is the written word equivalent of taking two naked dolls and mashing them together to make what you think sex looks like when you’re 10 years old. And it’s written at that level.

’50 Shades of Grey’ tells the story of Anastasia Steele (get it?) and Christian Grey (DO YOU GET IT?). His name is Christian because Edward was an obvious ‘Twilight’ reference, and E.L. James obviously watched ‘Secretary’ while doing her “research.” Anastasia is just like Bella Swan — a clumsy lip-biter (modern day pearl-clutcher) whose catchphrase is “Jeez” because she’s really Woody Allen. And she’s just as neurotic, if not worse. She’s a senior in college with plans to work for a publishing house, but she doesn’t own a computer or a smart phone and doesn’t know how to use them because this is fiction.

She falls in love with Christian, a guy who’s really into BDSM because he has mommy issues and anyone with kinks we don’t understand clearly has a dark history filled with abuse. To write this book, E.L. James Googled the following:

  • Sigmund Freud
  • Wikipedia: BDSM
  • Woody Allen phrases YouTube
  • Download ‘Secretary’ movie free online
  • What does a whip look like?
  • Thesaurus.com
  • Pizza delivery
  • What’s an orgasm?
  • Synonyms for vagina

Christian is so mysterious and emotionally distant. He doesn’t like to be touched, and he’s never had a real relationship. Obviously Anastasia is special and the only person on earth who can get him to change. The book takes place over the course of a month, and by week two she’s in love with him because she was a virgin before they had sex, and it’s fun to perpetuate negative stereotypes about people who wait to lose their virginity.

The book has been called “mommy porn,” a label that denotes that grown women can’t enjoy pornography unless it’s poorly written garbage re-purposed as more poorly written garbage. But also it makes us think our mom likes fan-fic, and I respect my mom too much to believe this.

Throughout the book, Anastasia is slowly exposed to Christian’s “dark” world and his “Red Room of Pain,” which is just a room with a bunch of sex toys in it, but apparently we have to get all silly about it. I mean, we don’t call the kitchen the “White Room of Yummy” or the living room the “TV Room of Couching.” Anastasia is a cipher for purity, though, which means she’s a 14 year old girl in a 21 year old woman’s body and for a good hour after I started reading it I wondered when she’d get her first period, and then I worried that we’d get 20 pages on how much it freaked her out.

And everything freaks Anastasia out. The idea that when Christian was a teenager one of his adopted mother’s friends introduced him to the BDSM lifestyle makes her jealous, a concern she hides under the guise of being morally invested in the well-being of the teenage version of her suitor that she can’t protect because she can’t use computers, which means she’ll never figure out time travel. Christian’s money and his desire to buy her things freaks her out. Her hair being weird freaks her out. Technology. Cars. Her roommate. Her friend Jose.

Speaking of Jose, he’s named that because Jacob in ‘Twilight’ is very tan, and in whatever land E.L. James lives in (Google says she lives in West London and is half-Chilean, half-Scottish, and Google is totally reliable because it’s what James used to do her “research,” so it’s good enough for me) people with tan skin are obviously Hispanic. She couldn’t even watch ‘Twilight’ correctly. I’ve only hate-watched those movies and even I know Jacob is Native American because he cries every time someone litters, and that whole movie series is trash.

Where the book goes from being harmless garbage that even hobos wouldn’t burn to ward off pneumonia to being outright offensive is on page 286. After Edward spanks Anastasia for the first time (and her inner thought process makes us aware that she enjoys it), she tells him that she’d prefer he not hit her again because she did not like it. And still, she allows him to convince her to participate in similar activities, and she goes along with it because she wants to make him happy. This book treads some clearly defined non-consensual territory that presents an unhealthy view of a sexual relationship: If you don’t like it, ladies, suck it up. If you want to keep your man, you better do what he wants. Do they get the Lifetime Movie Network in West London?

Never mind that the book treats the BDSM lifestyle as if it’s some seedy, scary behavior that only crazy people engage in, which is flat-out disrespectful, but I guess they don’t teach understanding at Wikipedia University. You might question my harsh judgment of Anastasia and her sensibility, so I’ve come prepared with more evidence. If the court would be so kind, Exhibit A:

He’s in my bed… I don’t quite understand why. Maybe I should weep more often in front of him.

This is a girl who is learning some terrible lessons about relationships. She cries and he shows up at her apartment to comfort her, so she decides she should cry more often to get what she wants. The book doesn’t tell us that Ana has ever watched a movie, but if she did, I bet she’d be really into Katherine Heigl. I know it’s fiction, but we live in a culture with women’s magazines that cultivate these neurotic women who over-analyze every non-incident in a relationship –and subsequently provide articles on taking relationships too seriously and how many times it’s okay to text/e-mail a guy before you look insane. Anastasia is Cosmopolitan’s target reader.

It’s a culture that, again, both nurtures this behavior in women to sell more magazines and self-help books and make-up, and then demonizes us for the same in an effort to box us into these little claustrophobic crates of propriety. And then when we feel justifiably crazy, everyone offers us Midol. Hold onto your cats, ladies, it’s going to be a lonely spiral down to your deathbed. But don’t worry, if you turn the page, here’s an ad for ice cream just across from 10 tips on how to firm your abs. Lady magazines are like choose your own adventure books for people who can’t learn from experience and treat ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ like it’s the friggin’ ‘Da Vinci Code.’

And so it’s no surprise that ’50 Shades of Grey’ has become so wildly popular with women of all ages because we’ve been made to feel repressed and believe that porn is just this primitive, icky thing guys watch. If porn is a cave-drawing and ’50 Shades’ is Monet, I think we need to invent fire already so we can burn this thing down. Who do you think has more dignity? A woman in a porn film or Anastasia in ’50 Shades of Grey’? Trick question. The answer is Aunt Jemima. A bottle of vaguely racist maple syrup has more dignity than you if you took more than a second to realize that pornography is more thoughtful and respectful of women than this “novel.”

’50 Shades’ also has the possibility of creating a frightening level of expectation within a relationship. A woman reads this and she thinks she can recreate it with her partner, and when it doesn’t give her the same tingling sensation as reading the book, she’s disappointed. Why didn’t her boyfriend/husband do things the same way as Christian? Why doesn’t his butt look as amazing in sweatpants? Why doesn’t he give her whatever she wants when she cries? When he wouldn’t let her hold the TV remote, why wasn’t he responsive when she accused him of having an abusive childhood? Why doesn’t he buy her an Audi and a MacBook and hire a maid to wash her underwear while she sleeps? Life is so unfair in the first world.

So what can you expect from the movie version? All of that, and: Helicopters, conversations about Darfur, lots of arguments over when and how much Ana should eat (more like Ana-rexia, am I right?! Up top!), emoticons, and wine. Anastasia is a wino. I discovered it’s easier to read the book if you read Ana’s parts as an alcoholic Woody Allen. Perfecting that impression in my brain is my biggest accomplishment in life.

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