AT CINEWORLD in Glasgow, a giant poster of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele (Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson) in a steamy clinch dominates the foyer.
It’s the same one you can see on almost every bus shelter in almost every city of the UK at the moment, but this one is much, much bigger. If you look closely, you can see Anastasia’s arms are above her head, as if they’ve been tied. LOSE CONTROL, the tag-line says, and you immediately understand it’s an order not an exhortation.
Behind the counter, a bemused-looking ticket-seller rhymes off figures that suggest the principal organ the nation has lost control of is its collective mind. In this – the film’s opening day – Fifty Shades Of Grey is being shown 27 times across 14 screens. It’s not yet 11am and already every showing after 6pm is sold out. Four thousand tickets have been pre-booked for Friday and another 4,000 for Valentine’s Day. Is this unusual? “When you think the entire cinema is only capable of holding 4,000 at a time, it’s pretty amazing,” the ticket man says.
This pattern is being replicated across the country; 250 million people have watched the trailer and the movie was expected to gross $60m over four days in the US as fans of the bonk-fest that makes The Story of O look like a Ladybird classic finally see it transferred to the big screen.
The hype surrounding the release has been so fierce the London fire service is gearing up for a spike in call-outs to people stuck in household objects. There has been much Twitter hilarity – with the #Scottishsexpositions hashtag producing such gems as The Skelped Erse and The Rest and Be Thankful – and an abundance of branded products from romper suits bearing the legend “9 months ago, my parents saw 50 Shades” to an unsettling Christian Grey bear, wearing a suit where there should be a Duffel coat and clutching a mask where there should be a marmalade sandwich.
The book’s title has proved a marketing man’s dream; it has been turned into 50 Plaids of Wa-Hay to sell S&M-lite packages at Edinburgh’s Nira Caledonia Hotel (handcuffs and feather duster provided), Fifty Shades of Earl Grey to sell tea, and Flirty Shades of Surf to sell washing powder, because nothing says “sexy submission” like offering to do the laundry.
You might assume that all this foreplay would be rewarded with at least a degree of satisfaction. But when the first groups of women come down the escalators from Glasgow’s first showing, they appear less than flustered. Indeed, the only thing they’re hot and bothered about is the money they’ve spent on the ticket.
“Och, that was rubbish,” says one 28-year-old woman who went with her mother and a female friend. “It just wasn’t – I’m a wee bit embarrassed to say this – raunchy enough. And Christian Grey is nothing like I thought he’d be. I was going to see it again, but I’ll not be bothering now.”
Her sense of anti-climax is understandable. Most reviewers agree there is zilch chemistry between the two lead actors, Christian keeps his manhood under wraps and there is little emotional or sexual gratification. In the book, Anastasia orgasms so often you begin to fear she’s suffering from a medical condition and to hope she won’t feel the urge to sneeze; in the film, she doesn’t appear to orgasm at all. Not even one of those fake ones like in When Harry Met Sally. “It was much better in my imagination,” laments the Glasgow cinema-goer and you can only sympathise.
Whatever its literary demerits – and they are legion – Fifty Shades Of Grey by EL James has proved the ultimate fantasy for women of a certain age (mostly thirty-somethings). Sneeringly dubbed “mummy porn” – and presented as if it were fodder for latter-day Madame Bovarys – it has nevertheless sold 100 million copies and generated a boom in women’s lingerie and erotic literature. Sales of branded and hitherto exotic sex toys, such as nipple clamps, spanking paddles and pleasure balls, have caused the profits of UK-based company Lovehoney to more than triple. With its preoccupation with monogamy and established gender roles, the book’s kinkiness is actually quite staid, but it seems to have awakened something dormant in women who would once have been embarrassed to have been caught reading Jilly Cooper’s Riders never mind sneaking off to the Torture Garden. Whether it’s down to changing social mores or the fact the original cover, with its discreet silk tie, could have passed for a business manual, Fifty Shades has made the unconventional acceptable and the conventional dull.
“I think it’s a gentle way to feel naughty,” says Jenny Colgan, who writes romantic comedy fiction. Colgan believes much of the criticism is “patronising bollocks, which completely misses the point”.
“Every single sneering article starts with the figures of how many people have bought in to it before proceeding to take it apart, as if readers/viewers can’t tell the difference between something they enjoy and something that’s art,” she says.
The problem is Fifty Shades Of Grey and its sequels Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, are so very easy to mock. And it would take a stronger character than mine to resist the temptation. As you will know by now – unless you are from Mars or a High Court judge – the trilogy started life as fan fiction for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series in which the innocent Bella falls in love with the handsome Edward only to discover he’s a vampire, making any sexual encounter potentially fatal. EL James – then known as Erika Leonard, but writing as Snowqueens Icedragon – turned Edward into a dominant with Bella his submissive and allowed the couple to have dangerous liaisons ad nauseam. Master Of The Universe proved popular, but there were complaints about its raciness, so she moved it to her own website, changed the lead characters’ names and hers, and Fifty Shades was born. Later a plagiarism tool showed Fifty Shades was 89 per cent Master Of The Universe, but by then it was generating so much pleasure (and cash) no-one much cared.
Though Fifty Shades sees itself as out there, its plot is straight from Mills & Boon. A 22-year-old virgin is swept off her feet by a handsome millionaire who turns out to be a bit of a cad. The only difference is that Christian’s caddishness extends beyond a love of the roulette table and a way with the ladies to a red room of pain filled with instruments dating back to the Spanish Inquisition. Ana’s interest in Christian, on the other hand, seems to have less to do with his sexual predilections than his cars, the models of which are mentioned so often, and so conspicuously, you begin to suspect the whole thing might be sponsored by Autotrader.
The prose style veers from merely clunky –“If this guy is over 30, then I’m a monkey’s uncle” – to the impenetrable: “My heartbeat has picked up, and my medulla oblongata has neglected to fire any synapses to make me breathe,” Ana says with all the eroticism of Charlie Fairhead calling for a defibrillator in Casualty.
The only genuinely funny moments are unintentional. The scene in the hardware shop – where Christian is buying cable ties and rope from our innocent and unsuspecting heroine – is like a Two Ronnies sketch without the clever wordplay. And then there’s Ana’s “inner Goddess” which – like a sexually-voracious Tigger – constantly bounces into the narrative to point our how super amazing it is that a klutz like her could be desired by a man so handsome, so rich, so debonair… you get the gist.
In addition to the stylistic objections are more serious social ones: some domestic abuse campaigners believe it glamorises violence against women and feeds the notion that women can “fix” broken men, while the BDSM (Bondage, Discipline and Sadomasochism) community sees it as misrepresenting its erotic practices as the preserve of the dysfunctional and abused. Certainly, for all the argy-bargy over securing Ana’s agreement – and there are many tedious pages in the book devoted to the contract which sets out what she is and isn’t expected to do – the relationship is not consensual in any meaningful way. Unlike, say, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in The Secretary, there is no hint Ana is submissive before she meets Christian, nor that she sees BDSM as anything other than a means to keep him.
She likes the “vanilla” sex – or the “chocolate hot fudge brownie sex with a cherry on top” – he gives her when he discovers she is a virgin, and, though sometimes the violence in the red room of pain turns her on, sometimes it doesn’t. Grey may legitimise his abuse by presenting it as a sexual code, but as he tracks Ana’s movements by mobile phone, controls her diet and hits her until she cries, it’s difficult to see how he differs from any other sexual predator.
This view on Fifty Shades has led to calls for boycotts, and protests outside cinemas. “The majority of women I have spoken to see Fifty Shades as the glamorisation of an abusive relationship and even those who view feminism as being on the side of sexual liberation see [in the book] something that is a very constrained view of sexual liberty,” says feminist campaigner Talat Yaqoob.
“We are not talking about sexual liberty through the eyes of the female protagonist; the sexual liberty comes from the male protagonist’s expectations of what that should be, so even if we look at it as being sexually liberated it is only liberated through the male gaze.”
The BDSM community has other bones to pick. BDSM, it says, is all about communication, mutual pleasure and safe words, but there’s precious little of this in evidence in Fifty Shades. And BDSM is for those who enjoy experimenting with power roles, not those who are in flight from their own pasts (in Christian’s case teenage abuse at the hands of a friend of his mother’s).
On the other hand, perhaps all this analysis attaches too much significance to a meaningless piece of entertainment. Fifty Shades Of Grey has never claimed to be anything but soft-porn escapism. We already know some women fantasise about rape, while in no way wanting to experience it, and the book merely reflects a wider fascination with violence. Nor is Fifty Shades the first or most controversial work to explore this territory: The Story Of O, Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty novels and Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac all played on a fantasy of subjection, though none of them made the same impact on the public imagination.
“[Fifty Shades Of Grey] is a fantasy, for goodness’ sake. Not one women on Earth actually believes there’s a conflicted billionaire flying about in a helicopter searching out virgins to discuss legal contracts with,” says Colgan. “Women do know the difference, and are being treated as if they don’t, and that’s what’s winding me up.
“Nobody, particularly plumbers, thinks that plumbers get all the sex in real life that they get in porn, so why are women being treated differently with Fifty Shades?”
I guess when a book means so much to so many, it is churlish to harp on about its flaws. Fifty Shades is a cultural phenomenon and its legacy should not be underestimated. It may have spawned a generation of girls who believe chewing their bottom lip is the ultimate come-on. And it has done wonders for Dan Brown, with long, tedious passages about Ana’s hair prompting a new admiration for the dynamism of the Da Vinci Code.
Those couples who opted to spend Valentine’s Day in the company of Christian and Anastasia – as opposed to crammed into the corner of their local Italian – may have found themselves untitillated by the film. But with Fifty Shades fuelling a new era of experimentation – and providing the tools to make it possible – they at least had the option of going home and recreating it for themselves. «