I walked out of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie certain of one thing: It was better than the book. That doesn’t mean it was a good movie. At the screening I attended, people laughed during the sex scenes, and there was an audible gasp of disapproval when the credits began to roll. Wait—that’s it? That’s the end? But there was something entertaining about this strange, shared experience. “I guess we’ll have to wait for the next one to find out what happens,” a woman said as we exited. I declined to tell her she could also check Wikipedia.
In the lobby, I ran into a male friend. “What did you think?” he asked with fake excitement. “Did you love it?”
It was a joke. Women like me aren’t supposed to like Fifty Shades. We pride ourselves on being above such romantic tripe. In preparing to review the film, I’d asked a friend if she had a copy of the book I could borrow, and she looked at me with horror. “Who do you think I am?” she asked. I attended the screening alone.
I told my friend in the lobby that it wasn't as bad as I had expected. Freed of the novel’s embarrassing prose, the narrative became easier to swallow: Young, bookish Anastasia Steele falls in love with slightly older, sadist Christian Grey, and thus begins a battle of wills over the storybook romance she craves and the violent sex he demands. Actress Dakota Johnson was lovely. I particularly liked her smirk, and one flowy melon dress. “But I still don’t get this whole thing,” I said to my friend. I’d spent weeks reading think pieces, trying to divine the story’s appeal.
“The sex isn’t even hot,” my friend complained. This was true. The sex in the film was pretty, cliched, and boring. Shadowy angles, supple and lingering touches. For a story about dominance, the film is way too timid. The climactic flogging scene is softened into a slow-motion blur. A quick foray into the Red Room of Pain is followed by a scene of the two lovers silly-dancing to Sinatra, as if to assure the audience everyone is still safe. A woman's loss of virginity is a violent act, usually eliciting pain, if not blood, but the film treats Anastasia’s first time like a softcore music video.
All of which is perfectly in line with a long history of phony Hollywood sex scenes, where screwing is seamless and hairless and sterile, where our heroine makes the same melting O-face every time our hero touches her skin. We know the movie can’t be too explicit, or it would get slapped with an NC-17 rating. So it remains in the safe realm of tasteful ass cheek and nipple. There’s nothing remotely transgressive about it in a time when sexual fantasy is the visual currency of advertising, the music industry, even tween clothing lines. What could this movie have possibly shown us that we hadn’t seen before? The Internet has eels shooting out of women's asses. What you got, Sam Taylor-Johnson?
I’m sure some people will find the sex scenes hot. The books—atrocious as they are—can be a little bit sexy too, because even words like “inner goddess” and “double crap” can be arousing when they are sandwiched between words like “hard” and “wet” and “thrusting.” Desire defies intellect; that’s one of desire’s best tricks.
“Does that guy do it for you?” my friend asked.
“Jamie Dornan?” I asked, and shook my head. Not my type. He’s like a boy who hasn’t grown into his shoes yet, and he had this British twitchy thing at the corner of his mouth, like a mini Colin Firth with washboard abs. I felt bad, because you could tell the guy was trying. He would crunch his brow, and lunge across the couch, and say things like: “I want to take you to my play room.” Who could pull that off? Maaaaybe Michael Fassbender. But I suspect Dornan was doomed. Fans had too many preconceived notions. Trying to cast a man described as “the epitome of male beauty” is like begging for the Internet to explode.
But more critical than the physical appearance of Christian Grey is the sexual fantasy he represents. Rich, powerful, and singularly drawn to our plucky heroine. He takes her for a ride in his helicopter. He dines with her alone in a palatial apartment with a sweeping skyline. It’s like an episode of “The Bachelor” in which there’s only one contestant.
Of course, he also knows exactly how to seduce Anastasia, even as she says nothing. In terms of the story’s appeal, this rates high. Anastasia doesn’t know her own body; she has never even masturbated. And yet, Christian Grey is the man who can unlock her. The message that men should just know what you want is a troubling one at a moment when campus sexual assaults dominate headlines and we’re having a much-needed, yet very complicated debate about what constitutes consent. (Emma Green has a great piece about this in the Atlantic.) But just because sexual fantasies are troubling doesn’t make them any less potent. I suspect we all long for someone who can unlock us. A friend once complained a boyfriend was not doing it for her in bed. When I suggested she bring this up with him, she looked stricken. “But that would ruin the mood!”
We have this demented idea that sex should just click. We get it from the movies, sadly. (And romance novels, and the whole happily-ever-after industry.) But sex is far more complex than that—a notion that Fifty Shades, in theory, wants to engage. As I watched Anastasia venture from the feather-stroking vanilla sex of the first half of the movie and into the film’s more adventurous second half, I thought about how sex is like an icy pool we are forever wading into. Am I OK with this? Will this be hot, or horrible? Is it worth the risk to find out? The story is not really for people in the BDSM lifestyle, but rather, BDSM becomes a gimmicky catch-all for erotic pleasure that exists outside our comfort zone. Maybe it’s a threesome, same-sex experimentation, analingus, sex with a prick—listen, I don’t know your bedroom. But most of us find ourselves at that nervous precipice, unprepared and queasy. Then again, maybe it’s for people who never have sex at all. In which case, it probably makes perfect sense.