Why Fifty Shades of Grey is important

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

Fifty Shades of Grey premiered over the weekend, and I went to see it. Until that moment, I boycotted everything having to do with Christian and Anna for three reasons. 1.) The relationship between the two of them seemed to be abusive, and did not accurately depict BDSM play, relationships, or sex. 2.) It originated as Twilight fanfiction, and as someone who used to write (non-Twilight) fanfiction, I was infuriated by the rash of reporting and purging of good stories from fanfiction.net due to advertisers being upset about the presence of erotica on the website. 3.) Everyone was reading it, and I’m just not a bandwagon kid.

On Friday, however, I took the plunge, spending Valentine’s Day Eve in the movie theater, accompanied by my boo, and watching 50 Shades. The theater was a little less than half full, a disappointment from the viewpoint of the concessions worker. As a gender non-conforming person of color living in rural Ohio, I rarely expect to see people who look and/or express the way I do. North Face jackets, Bean boots, and monogrammed jewelry dominated my vision as I took my seat, reminding me that 50 Shades is definitely not a fringe movie.

And that’s what makes it interesting.

gif of Christian licking Anna's  upper leg

Most of the conversation surrounding 50 Shades discusses the ill-described BDSM, dissects the abusive relationship between Christian and Anna, and/or rips apart the writing. And while all of these critiques are certainly valid, they don’t capture the essence of what is captivating about 50 Shades. The Daily Beast describes 7 movies that did BDSM better than 50 Shades, but none of them made 95 million dollars at the box office during an opening weekend in February. Over a four-day opening weekend, 50 Shades made 94.4 million domestically, and nearly 250 million globally. That’s in addition to the sale of 100 million copies of the book.

While I maintain that the material in both the books and the movie (though less so) is dangerously problematic, the fact that 50 Shades even exists at all is worth a discussion about the power of women and women’s sexuality. Zoe Williams from the Guardian described it best when she discussed the popularity of the books: “James’s sex scenes are not incidental, they are the meat of the plot, the crux of the conflict, the key to at least one of and possibly both the central characters. It is a sex book. It is not a book with sex in it.” 50 Shades is a piece of erotica that sold 100 million copies and was consumed publicly by women. In 2011 and 2012, mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, teachers, professors, colleagues, and friends read these books…and talked about it. A few years later, women poured into theaters around the globe to see the film adaptation, which also contained some of the most graphic sex scenes I have ever personally seen in an R-rated movie, thus cementing the phenomenon created by the sexuality of women. That’s pretty revolutionary.

Existing alongside this truth, of course, is the fact that 50 Shades, both book and film, contains giant swaths of content that are horrible when it comes to the messages sent to women (e.g. stalking is sexy). And while we should use our collective internet power to problematize that, we should also focus our energy on talking about what 50 Shades represents from a consumer perspective. Year after year, we lament the dearth of media and entertainment that stars and caters to women. 50 Shades of Grey demonstrated the consumption power of women in such a strong way that to ignore it would simply be stupid. I’m hopeful that the powers that be pay attention, so that the next phenomenon driven by women isn’t rife with problematic depictions of sex and relationships.

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Katie Barnes (they/them/their) is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer. While at St. Olaf College studying History and (oddly) Russian (among other things), Katie fell in love with politics, and doing the hard work in the hard places. A retired fanfiction writer, Katie now actually enjoys writing with their name attached. Katie actually loves cornfields, and thinks there is nothing better than a summer night's drive through the Indiana countryside. They love basketball and are a huge fan of the UConn women's team. When not fighting the good fight, you can usually find Katie watching sports, writing, or reading a good book.

Katie Barnes is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer.

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