If people know what you do for a living, sometimes they ask for your professional opinion on a topic that’s related to your job. This can be a perk or a pitfall, depending on the question. Sometimes I get library-related questions that I enjoy answering, like, “What do you think about the Harry Potter books?” or “Can you recommend something for my kid / teen / reluctant reader who enjoys mysteries / dystopias / graphic novels?” And sometimes I get questions that I dread, and at the top of that list for a long time was, “What do you think about Fifty Shades of Grey?” This would usually come with follow-up questions about just how explicit it was, how bad the writing was, etc. And so, I finally forced myself to read the damned book just so that I could come up with something better than “I have no idea” the next time I got that question.
It was definitely a doozy of a book. It was mostly comprised of weird sexiness interrupted by periods of boredom, wrapped up in a bow of bad writing. I included my thoughts on that book in a blog post I wrote back in 2012 called A Few Thoughts on Sexy Books, and Books About Sex. I didn’t really think about Fifty Shades of Grey again until I saw that the movie version of the book was on this year’s Razzie list, and I thought Uh-oh. Here we go again …
Okay, let me start by saying that the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey was not as awful as I expected. Don’t get me wrong — it is by no means a GOOD movie. But I had the book, with all of its atrocious dialogue and nonsensical thoughts rattling around inside Anastasia’s empty head, in the back of my memory. And when the movie didn’t use as much of that dialogue and we weren’t subjected to so many of Anastasia’s stupid thoughts … well, it was an improvement, you see?
My background before watching this movie was that I had read that ridiculous book, I had read other sexy books that were much better written (see that 2012 blog post for some of the highlights), and I had watched the first two seasons of the crime drama The Fall on Netflix. That was specifically by Betsy’s request, since she loved that series and since it starred Jamie Dornan. She said that I should watch that series first so that I would know that he could actually act, and so that watching Fifty Shades of Grey wouldn’t automatically ruin him for me. And while I did think that the series was unnerving but awesome and that he and Gillian Anderson were great in it, I had to admit that I kept thinking … You know, this guy spends a lot of time taking his clothes off and a lot of time tying people up. Are we quite sure I’m NOT watching Fifty Shades of Grey???
Anyway, so, the basic jist of the story is that a young pretty college student named Anastasia Steele goes to interview a young handsome businessman named Christian Grey. They are attracted to each other even though they both think it’s probably not a good idea to get involved … but then they let their hormones do the talking and rationality goes out the window. What makes this story more unique is that he’s into this dominant / submissive thing, which goes into way more bondage and sex toys that you would normally see in an R-rated movie. And he has a dominant / submissive contract that he wants her to sign. He keeps asking her to sign it and keeps telling her what his boundaries are, and she keeps putting off signing it and bending or breaking his boundaries.
Then there are the character touches sprinkled throughout the story that I suppose could pass for character development. Like, for example, how Anastasia falls down a lot and how she bites her lip a lot. I’m guessing that’s because falling down makes her more of a vulnerable “damsel in distress” and … because Bella Swan bit her lip at some point in Twilight? Did I mention that this story started out as Twilight fan fiction? I’m guessing that explains a lot!
Anyway, my #1 biggest problem with the book was the atrocious (and unintentionally hilarious) writing, but like I said, the movie cut a lot of that out. So let’s move past that and talk about the OTHER major problem with this story. It’s the whole issue of that godforsaken contract and all that it implied. OMG, was that frigging annoying! Let’s discuss how I want you to agree to this, and this, and THIS. Let’s discuss what’s in this clause, and if you agree to it or if you want to make some modifications. ARGHHHHHHHHH.
I guess … how do I say this? There’s a lot about this story that is sexy, or that could be sexy, especially to a female audience. A hot guy says that you’re too tempting, and he should really stay away from you, but then he can’t help himself and starts making out with you anyway? That’s sexy. Your lover wants to tie you up before having sex with you? That’s sexy. I mean … unless he actually hurts you or he leaves you there afterwards, but then he’s probably a mental patient. Sometimes there can be a fine line between “this guy is sexy” and “this guy should probably be spending most of his time in a therapist’s office.”
Oh, and I’ve got another example — your lover says he “doesn’t sleep over” but then the next morning you find him curled up in bed next to you? That’s sexy, and also romantic. Because whenever a part of our brain is thinking, “wow, I’m really attracted to this bad boy” another part is usually thinking, “it would be nice to tame him, or nurture him, or comfort him, or change him.” This is, in essence, the dichotomy of being attracted to bad and dangerous boys. And it’s part of the reason that bad and dangerous boys are fun for the short term, but they’re not usually the ones you end up marrying.
Speaking of bad boys who you don’t end up marrying, I’m going to recommend another movie that is remarkably similar to Fifty Shades of Grey but much better. That movie is 9 1/2 Weeks. I’d read the book years ago, but I just saw the movie when it was on cable a few months ago. Here are the similarities:
- Rich guy — a young and handsome (!!!!!) Mickey Rourke meets a pretty but comparatively poor Kim Basinger. She’s pretty, but she has low self-esteem (Okay, you have to suspend your disbelief in both movies that these women don’t know how beautiful they really are).
- Their relationship is mostly about sexual attraction and less about talking and getting to know each other
- When it comes to sex, he’s the boss, and he’s the one with the power. He gets her to try more sexually adventurous things, and she likes it.
- He keeps testing her boundaries and bossing her around. She likes it for a while, but then he does something that is so extreme that she snaps out of it and leaves with what’s left of her self-esteem.
Now I’ll tell you what’s different about these stories:
- Mickey Rourke doesn’t tell Kim Basinger that he’s into a dominant / submissive thing, he doesn’t spend time analyzing WHY he’s the way that he is, and HE DOESN’T SPEND HIS TIME BUGGING HER ABOUT SIGNING A GODDAMNED CONTRACT!!!
So, in conclusion, I have a couple of suggestions. If you’re up for a sexy movie with an undercurrent of ridiculousness and an annoying subplot involving a dominant / submissive contract, then by all means watch Fifty Shades of Grey. If you’d like to watch Jamie Dornan in various stages of undress in a role that shows less of his body but more of his acting chops, then check out The Fall TV series. And if you’d like to see a better version of the Fifty Shades story, then track down a copy of 9 1/2 Weeks!