Why I won't be going to see 50 Shades of Grey

In even embarking on this post I am heading into a Catch 22. I have not read the Novel by E.L James and neither have I any intention of seeing the film which is based on it. So I am caught between two accusations: on the one hand, "how can you comment on something you have never read?" and on the other, "Oh I see you have read it - so good enough for you but not for others, eh, you hypocrite." In my defence I think I'd have to have been living under a rock for the last couple of years not to have heard of the book, and to have a pretty fair idea of what it's about. And I have read a couple of the many reviews whose estimation of its literary value runs the whole gamut from mediocre to abysmal.

The main reason I won't be going to this film, if I'm being honest, is that I expect it would be mind numbingly, backside achingly, eye glazingly tedious. But there's more to it than that. To put it bluntly this is a dirty book, in the way that term was used in the old days before the Internet turned sexual practises I had never heard of until I was 30 into spectator sports for teenagers. This is a work which sells by titillation, and therefore stands in the same line of evolution as Frank Harris' My Life and Loves, a dog eared copy of which was passed surreptitiously and enthusiastically  amongst my schoolmates and me when we were in the fourth form. Frank Harris broadened my sexual horizons well beyond those set by the grainy black and white educational films shown in a sort of embarrassed hush by our PE teacher, and even beyond the Playboy magazines which were my other main source of  erotic information. So, I suppose I owe My Life and Loves a kind of debt, except that for every ounce of knowledge imparted came a ton of ignorance in that the book had a sub text which was absorbed along with its various lurid tales of erotic derring-do. I was taught that women were objects; they were prey to be hunted down and captured and used; they were a resource that I was free to plunder for the joys that they could give to me, me, me. If I gave pleasure in return, so Frank Harris taught,  it was only in an attempt to render women more cooperative. I was tricked, in other words, sold a shoddy little bill of goods that I later learned fell far short of the beauty and joy of the  relationship of body mind and spirit that was possible between loving, absolutely equal and mutually respectful partners. The presence in my life of real women of spirit and intelligence soon showed Frank Harris' Victorian romps for the nonsense they were but I'm not sure the sub text of 50 Shades of Grey will be so easily dealt with. E. L. James' grubby little book is about sado masochism, bondage and discipline in a relationship between an immensely rich and powerful man and one of his employees. It is a relationship in other words in which there is a vast imbalance of power and in which the controlling power of the man is used for his, and eventually, her sexual gratification.

It's easy enough to find books about sex if that's what you are looking for. It's easy enough to find books about BDSM if that's what takes your fancy. But none of them have become the media sensation that 50 Shades of Grey has, because for all it's literary failures this is a slick book and it dresses its unsavoury message up in the gloss which passes for success for so many of us. The characters live aspirational lifestyles, and the sexual behaviours, which are popularly imagined between fat, sweating, pathetic, middle aged men and cartoonish caricatures of women in leather boots and chains, suddenly take on a whole new aura of sophistication and desirability. Like all pornography 50 Shades of Grey reduces human beings to objects, so a complex and intelligent woman becomes a couple of breasts and a number of orifices, all conveniently provided for the pleasure of men, but of course it's not alone there.  The added dimension of this grubby little tome is its emphasis on pain and humiliation as avenues for sexual gratification. I see on tonight's news that the sale of handcuffs and restraints and whips and so forth is a bit of a boom industry at the moment as people read the book and see the film and think they might like to give all this stuff a whirl. I guess for most of the purchasers this is all a bit of harmless, private fun, but I can't help but feel a little alarmed. A relationship in which one partner seeks to have power over the other; in which the powerless partner is regarded as an object for obtaining sexual gratification; in which causing pain and humiliation are avenues for pleasure. This is an invitation to catastrophe for many people and by people I mean women.

Glorifying and popularising sexual violence is something that I don't think can be tolerated in a healthy society. And that's why I for one won't be going to see 50 Shades of Grey. Today I figured out how much a night at the movies would cost for Clemency and me and I gave that amount to Women's Refuge. Their website makes donations pretty easy. I know you probably weren't going anyway, but how about joining me in this? Maybe our disgust at this tawdry little excrescence might turn to some good after all.


Lisa Barlow said…
Well you just expressed everything I have been thinking and feeling about this trash and gave it a voice in a way I never could. Thank you Kelvin. Lisa Barlow

Kate said…
Ok. Good idea.
Thank you, Bishop. So very well and truthfully said. I also have not/will not read the book or see the film but I've read reviews and had conversations with a number of people who have read all three books, many of whom feel the same as I do. Having worked with victims and perpetrators of sexual assault and domestic violence over many years, I am horrified that the film, at the very least, will suggest a "normalization" of such practices that will more than encourage people to "try". The escalation of physical and emotional damage is my fear especially among those who, across all demographics, will find an almost addictive relationship with either a power or submission role. Or worse, feel frighteningly trapped, particularly in the latter. Your post is more than just well written, it is an important perspective from a necessary and influential voice. Again, thank you.
Anonymous said…
Shock, horror. I am an Anglican who has read all three of the books and (strangely) didn't form a negative opinion of them.
Yes it's true, the language they are written in is scarcely Jane Austen..
The sado-masochismic romps are all there - but they are not the message I took from the book. Strangely I found that the books were all about the healing power of love. That a man who had been the victim of horrendous abuse in his childhood was won over - healed even - by the love and tenderness he found within an unexpeceted relationship.Intimacy: terrifying for him.
Book three even goes on to marriage and children...
Read the book. I dare you.
Kelvin Wright said…
I'm glad you enjoyed the books, Anonymous, and I will break my rule for these things just this once and publish your comment even though you haven't owned up to your views.

I'm afraid that you have done nothing to allay my first and greatest reason for not reading/viewing this. ie: Good grief it sounds tiresome!The critics are unanimous in their assessment of the leaden text, badly handled plot, and one dimensional characters. To have all this cludge attempting to treat complex and subtle aspects of human relationships sounds as much fun as a wet afternoon in Burnham with only a pile of Mills and Boons for company.

But be honest. The romantic plot isn't why anyone reads these books. Like.... I read Playboy for the interviews. And the selling point for the books is sexual behaviour which is demeaning and for at least some of those emulating it, dangerous.

So I won't be taking up your dare, sorry. But you might like to consider the cost of the novels, pretend there's a fourth one and donate that amount to the Women's Refuge. Go on.... I dare you.
Elaine Dent said…
Thank you, Kelvin.
Janet Crawford said…
Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I too have not read the book and do not intend to see the movie but feel I've read enough about it to have an opinion. What strikes me is the hypocrisy of our society where on the one hand we promote white ribbon week and support various programmes and actions against violence against women and on the other hand not only show this movie but give it a good deal of media time and space - and then there are various spin offs in the form of advertising. There seem to a lot of mixed messages in all this.

Janet Crawford