It’s that time of year (which we thankfully only have to endure once more after this): Fifty Shades Darker is out.
I swore off Fifty Shades of Grey coverage on this blog, but since the reviews have begun appearing online, I feel like I need to address the people who are going to cover it. Namely, the men who will report on the movie with such astounding misogyny that one wonders if any women were involved in the editorial process at all. Here are some things I learned as a Fifty Shades of Grey blogger. Hopefully, someone will find them and actually use them.
Even though the movie appeals to women, it doesn’t appeal to “all” women or even a specific type of woman. Fifty Shades readers are usually described as bored housewives who are sexually unfulfilled and engaging in immature daydreaming. They’re middle or upper-middle class women who do nothing of substance with their time aside from a daily twenty-minute power walk with the other ladies in the neighborhood, followed by two-hour gossip session at Starbucks. They speak the book’s name in code since they’re so sexually repressed, and think everything in it is super naughty.
Or maybe they aren’t. Since over 150 million copies of the books have sold, it would perhaps be fair to assume that some of those readers aren’t hopelessly dull suburban clichés, but professionals in all fields, students in high school and college, people in nursing homes, and, shockingly, men. While it’s easy to stereotype Fifty Shades of Grey‘s audience, it’s misogynistic to suggest that only women would ever take an interest in such silly, problematic content, or that only women who are sexually repressed would ever want to read about sex.
The intended audience doesn’t make it a bad film. There are plenty of things to be critical of when it comes to the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. The writing is terrible. The story is ludicrous and meandering. The book is a rip-off of a far superior novel. The leads lack chemistry. The movies are silly, overwrought, and boring. The relationship depicted is abuse portrayed as romance. The BDSM is misrepresented, and the sex scenes aren’t as shocking as purported. See? I could just keep going. And I did, for like, four years. But you know what I didn’t do in all that time? I didn’t suggest that the books or movie were bad simply because it’s there for women to consume.
All of the reviews I’ve read so far have taken pains to remind us that women are the intended audience of Fifty Shades Darker. While they’ve also pointed out the clunky dialogue and lack of chemistry, the more pressing concern seems to be putting the movie in its place. One video review continually referred to it as “porn for women” or “entry-level softcore porn for women,” until I had to turn it off. While the reviewer mentioned may of the complaints I listed above, he seemed most concerned with the fact that this movie was for women, and did not appeal to him as a man. But the Fifty Shades of Grey books and movies aren’t bad because they’re for women and not for men. What makes them bad is the fact that they’re, well, objectively awful. And if the biggest criticism you can come up with is, “it’s for women,” then you’re ignoring the very real and damaging reinforcement of rape and abuse culture in the story.
In other words, you’re fine with movies that romanticize intimate partner and sexual abuse. It’s the fact that women like it that bothers you.
The movie was written by Niall Leonard. Not “Mr. E.L. James.” At least two (male) professional reviewers have referred to Niall Leonard as “Mr. E.L. James.” Apparently, adapting your wife’s novel into a screenplay is an emasculating task, and means she’s really calling the shots. In reality, E.L. James probably did call the shots on Fifty Shades Darker, because that’s what she did for Fifty Shades of Grey. The screenwriter of the first movie was so traumatized by the experience that she said it would be “too painful” to watch the finished product. Why is it such a big deal for James’s husband to work under the same conditions? Because he’s a man, and the original screenwriter, Kelly Marcel, is a woman? Is the not-so-subtle implication here that it’s one thing for a woman to boss another woman around, but another entirely for a woman to boss a man around?
And on that note, while I don’t believe that authors should have too much creative control over the movie adaptations of their work, why is it such a big deal that E.L. James does? Again, is it because she’s a woman? If a male writer wanted near-total control over what makes the jump from page to screen, we’d probably be reading about his dedication to his vision and how admirable it is that he won’t allow his work to be compromised.
If Nicholas Sparks demanded complete creative control over his movies, I doubt anyone would even be interested in writing a story about it.
Fifty Shades Darker was never published by Harlequin (and even if it was, that still wouldn’t be the reason the movie sucks). Again, at least two reviews (and again, written by men) have invoked the name of Harlequin as shorthand for “this movie sucks because it’s for women.” Yes, the Fifty Shades of Grey books are romance novels. But being romance novels isn’t the thing that makes them bad. They’re just bad books all around. And just because they’re romance novels doesn’t mean they were published by Harlequin. They were actually published by Vintage Press, a Knopf Doubleday imprint that specializes in “influential works of world literature to cutting edge contemporary fiction and distinguished non-fiction.” So they’re more like really, really terrible literary fiction.
Books with two-dimensional characters, overblown drama, and awful writing can be found in every fiction genre. If Fifty Shades Darker had been slightly tweaked into a psychological thriller, it would still be a terrible movie. Not because it was originally based on a romance novel, but because there just isn’t any interesting plot other than two characters constantly making drama where there is none to be found. Meanwhile, there are thousands of other romance novels that are great reads. Fifty Shades Darker is only exceptional in that it somehow managed to become a successful book despite its numerous irreconcilable flaws. Don’t blame Harlequin or all romance novels everywhere for Fifty‘s mediocrity.
The Fifty Shades of Grey series was Twilight fanfiction. But that’s not why it sucks. I’ve said on a few occasions that I wanted to write a comparison essay on why Twilight isn’t as bad as critics make it out to be, and why Fifty Shades of Grey is ten times worse. I won’t do that here, but it’s a position I maintain; I was one of the people lurking in the Twilight fandom who actually enjoyed the books and movies, so I feel like I know what I’m talking about.
It seems like every article that mentions Fifty Shades Darker reminds the reader that it was once Twilight fanfiction. That’s fine by me; the more people who are aware that it’s so blatantly ripped-off from Stephenie Meyer’s far superior series the better. It breaks my heart to know that Meyer feels her original creation has been tarnished by the existence of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. But to add insult to injury, people are focusing on the wrong aspect of the fanfiction angle: what makes Fifty Shades of Grey and its movie adaptations suck isn’t Twilight. Twilight is fine. Fifty Shades of Grey sucks on its own.And it’s not the fact that it was once fanfiction that makes it terrible. There are, without exaggeration, hundreds of thousands of fanfics on the internet that are much, much better reading than Fifty Shades of Grey. In Fifty Shades Darker, one reviewer notes, a line has been added in which Anastasia Rose Steele tells her new boss he should publish more books by young women who write on the internet. It would be a shame if that line sends anyone away from the theater thinking that they’ve just seen the very best fandoms have to offer.
Call out the fact that it’s a rip-off, but don’t use the fact that it was ripped off from Twilight be the cornerstone for your argument about why it sucks.
Women don’t really give a shit what men have to say about the things we consume. I hate Fifty Shades of Grey. I loathe seeing people say, “It’s just a book! Get over it!” or imploring those who hate it to not be publically critical of it because it ruins their enjoyment. I think the writing is terrible, the characters are static, and the drama uninteresting and contrived. It romanticizes abuse, is touted to be what women really want from men and has set us all back twenty to thirty years in terms of how we view romantic relationships. For God’s sake, we have pundits blaming politicians’ scandals from decades ago on women who read these books, which weren’t even out at the time of those transgressions. There has never been a pop culture fad so utterly demoralizing and damaging on so many levels.
All that said? Women will consume whatever media they damn well please. If you’re a male journalist or critic covering Fifty Shades Darker your input on the tastes or preferences of women isn’t just unnecessary, it’s unwelcome. No one cares what you think about the women whose butts will be in movie theater seats this weekend (although from box office estimates, most of those seats will be located in theaters showing The Lego Batman Movie), and no one asked for your analysis of their wants or desires.And your witty comments about men being cruelly dragged to this movie by their Dornan-hungry girlfriends or wives (or happily attending it with their Dornan-hungry girlfriends or wives in the hopes of reaping the hur hur “benefits”) aren’t as funny as you think they are.
If we wanted to hear about how confusing, demanding, and unpleasant women are to their long-suffering partners, we’d watch an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.
No, watching this movie is not like BDSM. BDSM is interesting and sexy, and nothing in the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise is either.
I hope these handy tips can help you out in the next few weeks. When it comes in second to the movie about Lego, don’t blame that on the housewives, either.