A Few Tips For Critics And Journalists Covering 50 Shades Darker

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.

44 thoughts on “A Few Tips For Critics And Journalists Covering 50 Shades Darker

  1. OMG! I’ve seen previews for that Lego movie and I’m dying to see it. It looks hilarious!

    Other than that, I’m trying to pretend this other thing doesn’t exist.

  2. I don’t believe the issue with EL James “calling the shots” is that she’s female: it’s that she doesn’t know what she is doing and doesn’t have the humility to admit it. I would say the same if Nicholas Sparks tried it. Lauren Weisberger had the sense to listen when “The Devil Wears Prada” filmmakers wanted to make Miranda Priestly a multi-dimensional character instead of the completely negative monster in her thinly-disguised memoir. Film is a different medium, and the fact that James now has nobody to edit her deathless prose has apparently made this entry even worse than the last. Even trash should have some respect for its audience.

    1. “I don’t believe the issue with EL James “calling the shots” is that she’s female: it’s that she doesn’t know what she is doing and doesn’t have the humility to admit it.”
      I respectfully disagree. The issue with Erika Leonard is that, being a newbie writer who refuses to do any research or come up with an original story idea, is that she only writes what she knows. It’s clear from her interactions on the “Grey” set that she is a control freak. Her main character is a control freak. But the control-freak nature of the character was real to millions of readers because it came from a real-live control freak of an author.

      Why the readers romanticized that abuse is beyond me. I have no clue.

      But I love the CNN review that said if sex with a feather is ‘kinky,’ and sex with a chicken is ‘perverted,’ then this movie is a ‘turkey.’ Oh, and I’m never going to see it, but that reviewer also noted that there was more bruising in the Red Room of Pain than after the helicopter ‘crash’ that rendered all the avionics inoperative yet allowed the characters to walk out of the woods for 6 hours (one in high heels?)

      Ooh, Jenny, if you do one turkey of a movie review this year, let it be “Life.” Are those astronauts stupid, or what?

      1. Sorry, I misquoted the CNN piece. It actually read:

        “But reminiscent of the old joke that “kinky” means using a feather and “perverted” involves the whole chicken, “Fifty Shades” basically plays like an overstuffed turkey.”

      2. Gillian Flynn adapted Gone Girl for the screen. Regardless whether you like the movie or the original book, she clearly knew what she was doing.

        JK Rowling worked closely with the Harry Potter series people. Among other things, she insisted on keeping the major characters, settings, and slang British. Again: she knew what she was doing: I knew people in grad school who bribed those of us attending conferences in the UK to bring back Harry Potter books with the original slang intact (“jumper” instead of “sweater”; Hermione “revising” instead of “reviewing” her notes for a test, etc.).

        So, I respectfully disagree with your respectful disagreement. EL James may have hooked a particular market with her books, but she can’t acknowledge how stupid her dialogue sounds read aloud, and that without the original production people to whip it into shape (sorry!), the conversations in this one are even more palpably silly than those in the first. I haven’t published anything but academic papers and some back matter in comic books, but I’ve done a lot of theatre, and I know unworkable dialogue when I see it.

        1. Agreed. It’s true that women are criticized for being “bossy” much more than us guys are, but it’s still pretty problematic to make assumptions like that about one specific and unusual situation like this.

          Comparing it to an imagined Nicholas Sparks equivalent doesn’t really work, since we can’t know for sure if it would actually work in real life the way it did in Jenny’s imagined scenario.

          So I, too, respectfully disagree with that particular part.

        2. Agreed. And to add, I think the reason everyone rushes to point out that her husband is the credited screenwriter is because she found the one person who most likely wouldn’t fight to make things better for screen or put their own stamp on it. It isn’t because she’s a woman that’s she’s getting flack. Everyone is pointing out the problematic sexual politics of having a screenwriter be the spouse of a control freak author with no basic knowledge of how to construct believable sounding human dialogue. It would be the same issue if the roles were reversed.

    2. “It’s that she doesn’t know what she is doing and doesn’t have the humility to admit it”

      This basically sounds like America’s new president. However, I do think if this was a male writer carrying on like this it wouldn’t be an issue. When she was abusing the previous screen writer there wasn’t this much comment on it either.

  3. I’ve been cracking up every time I hear a radio spot for Fifty Shades Darker – Dakota Johnson’s delivery sounds so flat and disengaged. I heard praise for her after the first movie as one of the few bright spots in an otherwise not great film; I wonder how it will shake out in this sequel. But I won’t be going to see this to find out.

        1. Depends which version of LOTR you’re talking about. If it’s Peter Jackson’s trilogy, there were three movies. The Hobbit was also broken up into three, although I’m buggered if I know why, since it was a far shorter book. I remember seeing an animated version of LOTR but I can’t remember how old it is or who directed it. I thought the final book in the Twilight saga was broken up into part one and part two?

  4. “The book is a rip-off of a far superior novel. ”

    ….

    Okay, I know you don’t hate Twilight as much as I do Jenny, but my first thought to that was, “woah. Setting low standards today, aren’t we?”

    Overall, I agree with your post. But “far superior” is not how I’d describe the also misogynistic and badly written/plotted Twilight. Although I guess it wins in the low tier contest just because Stephanie Meyer isn’t as terrible a writer.

    1. (And yes, I know you address this point a little more further down the same post, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with pointing out how the two series overlap in terms of problematic content. But yes, it’s not really something that should be discussed quite as much at length. Calling it a rip-off is important, but shifting the focus to make it the primary criticism is overdoing it, as you said).

    2. Yeah i kind of baulked at Jenny’s comment (Twilight being a ‘far superior’ novel) myself, but when i thought it over, it’s not that far from the truth, considering that FSoG and its sequels are among the worst tripe ever written. It’s pretty easy to be superior to utter shit. In comparison, the Twilight saga actually does have a plot (the cataclysmic battle between the vampire families and the Volturi, for instance) and Meyer is a better writer than E.L James (although not THAT much better). She still uses words that make me cringe (what teenage girl uses the word ‘chagrin’, for example?) and some of her dialogue is just as clunky, but overall, I’d prefer Twilight over its pale imitation. Even if some of Edweird’s controlling behavior makes me want to barf and then hit him repeatedly.

  5. I totally agree with everything you wrote! I also don’t believe for a second that the men criticizing women for masturbating to a book with problematic content only consume some sort of fair trade porn where they know everyone is happy, that doesn’t cater to only the male gaze or reproduce misogynist ideas. Problematic content in hardcore pornography has been normalized because its target audience is male, while women’s choices of masturbation material are always scrutinized.

    I’m sorry if I made a lot of grammatical mistakes! English is not my first language.

  6. Amen

    There’s a particular annoyance that comes from someone agreeing with you that something is terrible – but their reasons are, themselves, so terrible that you feel almost obliged to defend or even LIKE the terrible thing they’re criticising

  7. I loved the New York Times review. My boss (who has a teenage daughter dying to see the movie) read it out loud at lunch, sending the whole office into hysterics. It then was good for scaring my BF last night when, wearing lingerie, I implored him to “flip me like a pancake, baby!” and promptly fell off the bed laughing so hard I got the hiccups.
    They even reference the “chemistry” between the two mains!

    1. OMG, thank you for referring to that! Turns out I have prophetic powers!
      The reviewer said ‘it turned into a live edition of the TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”’ A few days previously I had posted a comment on an article that I refused to watch any of the series without the support of Joel/Mike and the ‘bots. Warped minds think alike….

    2. If you think that’s hilarious, try watching the video of comedian Brock Baker reading the original book in 50 different voices, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pee Wee Herman, Nicolas Cage and Patrick Warburton, among others. Always cracks me up. And reminds me of how bad the writing is.

          1. The said something about having different characters reading, so they may have done those later and I missed them. Which makes me sad.

  8. I watched the same video review you did! I also got super pissed about the “softcore porn for women” comments. I was like, “That is NOT what makes it bad, you asshole!” Then I ranted at my husband about the problem with calling the books “mommy porn” for a good five minutes.

    1. Agreed. I hate the ‘soft porn for women’ comments because they imply that this is what all women like. A man who wants to control a woman’s every waking movement, which has absolutely nothing to do with BDSM. Not that I’m an expert on the subject but since when does a little domination in the bedroom translate to controlling every aspect of a person’s life when they’re not in bed? Christian Grey is anathema to me. He’s not sexy at all. Give me SVU’s hot ADA, Rafael Barba, any day over FSOG’s fucked up control freak!

      1. I hate the porn for women argument because it’s not comparing the same thing. A book that (attempts to at least) has an emotional arc and some minor sex scenes is the book equivalent of an erotic thriller. Not porn.
        Also there’s already porn for women, it’s called porn.

  9. I have unfortunately seen the movie.

    The best thing I can say about it is that I think E.L. James’ husband’s script does for the audience, compared to the first movie, pretty much what “Grey” does for the reader, compared to the original trilogy.

    He has pared away any wisps of bewilderment as to whether this relationship is truly as awful as it seems, and has the characters say it straight out, over and over and over again. Nothing is left to subtext. C/A just repeat that he owns her. Seriously.

    The weirdest thing for me about the direction, given the garbage Foley had to work with, is that he seems determined to make as workmanlike job as possible of a softcore PWP without much to offer the alleged target audience. Dakota spends so much time topless that it loses all effect, aesthetic or erotic, while I have now seen more of Dennis Franz’s nether regions than Jamie Dornan’s. The single het female-gaziest moment, involving Jamie solo on a pommel horse, barely qualifies as foreplay to a) any given episode of Arrow or b) Saturday afternoon US men’s gymnastics.

  10. I’ve seen it as well. I consider it even worse than the first film. Poor Kim Basinger. I think even she knows what a crappy movie this is.

    1. I’m not sure we can reasonably blame Meyer for emo vampires. I mean…Angel and Spike were around first. And let’s not even approach the angst fest that is The Vampire Chronicles.

      1. Emo vampires in love with their victims go a long way back. Frank Langella’s ’70s version was pretty hot, Gary Oldman cried tears of blood, Dark Shadows’ Barnabas Collins was always trying to replace his lost Josette. One of my issues with Stephanie Meyers is she wasn’t really doing anything all that original.

        That said, I like Spike best when he was PUNK.

      2. I can forgive Meyer for the angsty vampire, though it’s been done to death (pardon the pun). I prefer my vampires tall, buff and happy to make the occasional joke about their lot in life (or unlife). Eric Northman springs to mind – and Mitchell from Being Human. The sparkly thing however … don’t even get me started. What was Meyer on when she thought that up? Fairy dust?

  11. So, I totally went. I was looking for the laughs and boy howdy did I get them! It all started with the previews 1 utterly forgettable one, Wonder Woman, Baywatch, A FUCKING HOLOCAUST MOVIE, Girls Trip, and the Goldie Hawn/Amy Shumar movie. A fucking Holocaust movie. And then it went down from there. The line delivery of her going with him because she is hungry is literally how it plays in the movie. I thought surly that was a weird edit from the preview, nope. Just terrible acting. It was like a 2 hour movie wherein very, very little happened then suddenly there was a confli- oh, nope it’s resolved already. I’ve seen worse movies for sure but it wasn’t great. It was however WAY, WAY, WAY better than the books. It cut all kinds of bullshit that was unnecessary and made Ana more of a person with some sense of agency.

    1. What? No “Inner Goddess” denoted by female internal organs in the lower right corner of the screen adding snarky comments throughout the entire movie like Joel and the bots in MST3K ? (Does no one know how to do a dancing animated talking vagina/uterus/ovaries anymore?) Jenny can be the voice and we can make a silhouette model like they did on MST3K. Too bad Jenny retired from snarky comment-dom. (I understand why, but I will miss it)

      Speaking of ‘goddess,’ every time this book mentions it, I’m reminded of Livia Drusilla as portrayed by Sian Phillips in “I Claudius” who, as depicted in that series, murdered everyone who got in the way of Tiberius’ ascension to the throne via mostly poison, and who begged young Claudius to promise to make her a ‘goddess’ just before she died. (He does so after he becomes emperor)

  12. “The leads lack chemistry” How that can missed by the studio heads, writers, marketing is beyond me. That would have made a big difference.

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