‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ the Mainstreaming of Fetish, and Why It’s Okay to ‘Like’ Erotica


The past few weeks have been incredibly exciting for anyone following the curious case of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, the sexually adventurous stars of E.L. James’s erotic romance e-book Fifty Shades of Grey. What started off as a Twilight fan fiction has turned out to be at the center of an American literary explosion not seen since James’s own inspiration was up for auction at Little, Brown, and Company in 2007. Now the foreign erotica import has not only been snatched up for seven figures by a literary arm of Random House Publishing known as Vintage (I am shocked, honestly), but as Kate Erbland mentioned Monday it has also been optioned by Focus Features and Universal. This has been a very busy month for the British author, and I don’t even have the heart to hate her for it.

As an unabashed fan of erotic romance novels, I was taken aback by the fervor this bondage novel has caused, but not for the reasons many of my colleagues and friends share. Although I do tend to favor BDSM in cinema, bondage in erotic literature has never been my favorite. I’ve often felt it to be far-fetched, overly clinical, and even a bit stale. I mean, as clinical and stale as sexual power play, leather cuffs, and object insertion can possibly be when story and character development take a back seat. This isn’t to say something like Fifty Shades of Grey couldn’t change my mind, because it instantly intrigued me a few months ago when Good Morning America and The Today Show both discussed the book’s popularity amongst book clubs like it was some dirty little secret. As if women had never before fantasized about being sexual dominated.

The subject matter within its digital pages is nothing new or particularly fresh for anyone who has read Shayla Black, Emma Holly, or if you need me to go modern classic, Anais Nin. The fact that it began as fan fiction also didn’t make me feel the way many non-erotica readers have felt, in a word, duped. Hell, I’ll admit it. I can’t possibly be the only one who has spent late nights surfing fan fiction forums for just a little naughty taste of what some of my favorite characters might get up to when the scenes faded to black. But what is fresh about this book is the mainstream attention it is getting, especially from the film industry.

If Fifty Shades of Grey is actually relinquished from Option Hell, it would be nearly impossible to make it anything but NC-17 without jeopardizing the integrity of the story. I would even venture to say a film version wouldn’t fare as well as an HBO or Showtime series – two networks well known for profiting from the salacious. Sure, the spicier bondage scenes could be filmed from a male gaze perspective of Ana, where we see her reactions to her punishment rather than the actual spanking, binding, and choking exacted by dominant partner in crime. But that sort of visual treatment would not be fitting of a book whose language is so sexually blunt and provocative. No, this film needs to be honest to the book’s genre and show all the dirty bits in a way no film (not even Shame) has done before. Popcorn erotica is the last frontier of mainstream American cinema.

Fifty Shades of Grey will not be the only film in recent decades to focus positively on the world of bondage; obviously Secretary dealt with BDSM and dominant/submissive roles in both a sexy and respectful way, but Fifty Shades of Grey is not a story that demands the same respect between its characters. It is a story juxtaposing sexual politics against naivety with the most stereotypical of erotica characters – the virgin and the sexually damaged. Ana and Christian enter their relationship on uneven playing fields, but when they do fall in love is it because of true respect for each other, or are they just so sexually deviant they cannot imagine finding someone else who could understand their carnal needs?

I cannot deny that I join an intrigued audience already foaming at the mouth to see two people beat the shit out of each other before fucking like crazy, but I don’t want us to forget what’s really groundbreaking about this book and future film – the mainstreaming of fetish. The popularity of this novel has made it okay to talk about erotica as a real literary genre and admit to our own desire to see more than just two types of sex- the vanilla and the grotesque. People wouldn’t want to see this film if bondage and BDSM wasn’t already something they were open to experiencing, and as we all know movies taught us about sex before we were even fumbling around in the dark trying to undo a pair of five-button skinny jeans.

Now please excuse me, my NookColor has finished charging.

Cut loose with more Reel Sex