50 Shades of Grey: Titillating, or Trash?

Art & Lit Literature

This week sees the book that nearly outsold the Bible with such iconic phrases as ‘my very own Christian Grey flavoured popsicle’ and ‘kinky fuckery’ brought to our cinema screens, and I’m sure none of us are surprised to see its arrival. For 50 Shades of Grey wasn’t just a book, it was a phenomenon. In fact, it can be tempting to think of a pre-E. L. James West as a kind of philistine, monastic Waste Land where no one really knew what bondage was, let alone contemplated using a nipple grip. So what exactly was it about it that meant even my grandmother read it (yes, really.)? Well, this is porn for women, by women, that women actually want to read, and inextricably entwined with that is the fact that it’s literature.

Though more and more women are watching hardcore pornography (in some cases because of this book, no doubt), the fact remains that online porn is a dominantly male pastime, with many women finding titillation constructed by and directed at men too abrasive, forced and (ahem) in your face. Literature, on the other hand, allows us to project our own fantasies, exploring the dark recesses of the imagination via some not-so-carefully constructed prose. Christian Grey can be whoever you want and do whatever you want. There is, ironically, something incredibly liberating in reading about being tied up.

Besides which there’s a whiff of acceptability about books, as though it’s not real porn if it takes the form of the written word. You can distance yourself from them because it’s all in the mind, claim you’re reading for ‘broadening your contemporary literary education’ and skip the bits you don’t like. No wonder my adolescence was peppered with bonkbusters (hello again, Gilly Cooper) that formed a kind of raunchier sex ed lesson. Throw kindles into the equation, and suddenly you’ve got a technological invisibility cloak that means you could be reading Chaucer for all your fellow commuters know (cue crafty wink and chuckle from the knowing woman opposite you on the tube). Erotica is popular because we feel it’s acceptable. And whilst of course it is desperately sad that women still feel the need to mask their sexuality or think in terms of socially constructed norms, it’s got to be good that having a chat about how to use a riding crop is more accepted than it was.

And that is why I’m not sure how relevant this film will be. Like it or lump it, 50 Shades of Grey is powerful, but it’s powerful because it’s a book. Transitioning into film could mark the beginning of more female-focused visual pornography, or it could more probably just give us a series of mawkish, soft-focus sex scenes with the odd bit of baby oil strung along a really weird and horribly written ‘love’ story. The liberation it created for women who could suddenly privately read about things that titillate us just doesn’t come across when you put that into a visual format. So it’ll be flowers and chocolate and no Odeon ticket for me for Valentines Day, thanks.