Grapeshot’s resident sexpert, Eleanor Taylor, discusses Fifty Shades of Grey and its impact on society.
Grossing over $1.3 billion, the Fifty Shades film franchise is one of the most successful ever. The first film, Fifty Shades of Grey, was released in 2015. I was fourteen years old at the time. I vividly remember seeing advertisements on billboards which showed a hot-AF Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) caging Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) against a wall with his arms. I saw another poster in which Christian Grey, in a suit, stared out at the New York City Skyline, with the caption: “Mr Grey will see you now.” That line perseveres in meme form today. I recently saw a SpongeBob parody meme which said, “Mr SquarePants will see you now”. This was how I was introduced to the idea of BDSM and kink. I had never noticed an erotic film before. This was the first time for a lot of people where a romance film that sexually explicit went mainstream and entered our cultural awareness.
The joke at the time was that this franchise, an adaptation of E.L. James’s book series, was created for middle-aged women with boring lives. My friends and I used to say that if you saw someone reading an eBook on the train, they were probably reading Fifty Shades. In 2018 I went past a bus stop which had a poster for a Sydney Anglican girl’s school on it, and right next to it was a poster that said “Don’t Miss the Climax”. It was an ad for the final movie of the franchise, Fifty Shades Freed.
Throughout this period (2015-2018) I saw countless articles titled things like What Fifty Shades of Grey Gets Wrong About BDSM, and What is BDSM? People often criticised the dynamic between Christian and Ana as being abusive; a toxic relationship which camouflaged itself behind progressive BDSM language and powerplay.
I think what was missing from these criticisms was the fact that Fifty Shades novels were written by a woman for a female audience who want to experience a level of excitement. Erotic literature often focuses on the control freak dominant CEO vs submissive and meek less powerful lady dynamic because it is a genre which thrives on “forbidden” love. We all know that a relationship like that is inherently unbalanced, just like we all know that it is abusive to stalk your partner’s phone without them knowing, to exercise coercive control over them. Erotic literature occupies a space where we can safely indulge in our fantasies and imagination without having to experience their horrifying reality.
You can find way worse stuff than Fifty Shades out there. Bodice Rippers are a well-established genre with books such as Johanna Lindsey’s Captive Bride (1977).
“Bodice Ripper” is a self-explanatory term. These books generally feature heroes who will at some point rip the clothes off their heroines, probably without their consent. They feature women being “ravished” against their will. Erotic literature has a tradition of taking experiences none of us want to live through — like being an actual sex slave — and using them in fiction to fuel our imaginations and lust.
365 Days (2020), also based on a book franchise, has ridden the Fifty Shades popularity wave. It follows a young woman who is kidnapped by a member of the Italian Mafia and held captive for 365 days until she falls in love with him. Although not as successful, the film exemplifies a new common topic in erotic fiction: mafia romance. The mafia romance trope relies on the same power dynamics as Bodice Rippers, but instead of a knight or lord kidnapping a lady, it’s a mafia don from an incredibly powerful family kidnapping a regular girl. It’s a way of taking a dated concept — in 2022, do any of us still fantasise about knights in shining armour? — and reviving it.
Are these ideas problematic? Ninety-three per cent of women have fantasized about being dominated and having rough sex. About fifty-seven per cent have fantasised about being raped, with a common fantasy being forced into sexual intercourse to survive.
Clinical Psychologist Michael Yates has this to say: “Forced-sex fantasy may in fact be a product of a more open and exploratory approach to sexual ideas more generally and reflect a willingness to tolerate a whole range of sexual desires as part of a varied sexual life. One recent study has shown that the women who reported the most rape fantasies were also the most sexually open and self-accepting. These women also had the most consensual sex fantasies.”
There is nothing wrong with you if you have BDSM fantasies and indulge in some erotic media. In a world where women’s sexual desires are consistently ridiculed and dismissed, I think we have earned the right to indulge in some smut from time to time.