In 2012, British author E. L. James’ erotic romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey first took the Western world by storm, in North America and Europe, garnering much attention due to its explicit content. As the first installment of the Fifty Shades Trilogy, the book portrays a deepening relationship between a college student, Anastasia Steele, and a young business magnate, Christian Gray, in Seattle, Washington. It gained notability for its erotic scenes featuring elements of sexual practices involving bondage/discipline, dominance/submission and sadism/masochism (BDSM).
Since then the book and the trilogy, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, has sold millions of copies worldwide, long ago entering into best-seller status, and been translated into dozens of other languages. Not bad for a book that was originally self-published as an e-book and on a print-on-demand basis. Tides turned in 2012 when Vintage Books acquired the publishing rights. And the rest is history. Though readers couldn’t get enough of the book, critical reception of the book leaned on the negative. Critics thought the quality of the prose was generally poor; that despite the racy scenes, it wasn’t written very well.
Nonetheless, just before Valentine’s Day 2015, Universal Pictures produced a film based on Fifty Shades of Grey, the first book in the Trilogy, which also received generally unfavorable reviews. It premiered at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival in early February 2015. But it still went on to be an immediate box office success, making more than $400 million in the box office. It cast film stars Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele and Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey. A sequel to the film is planned for a 2016 release.
At its core, Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie and the book (and even Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed) is all a story of transformation done out of love. Christian Grey, though successful and extremely wealthy, has a dark past – a physically abusive childhood that leaves him angry and distanced from other people and into perverted sexual practices. Anastasia then interviews him for a college paper, and over time they have an attraction that turns into a sexual relationship. At first, Christian engages in his kinky sexual games with the innocent, naïve and inexperienced Anastasia. The BDSM becomes too much for her: she begins to have feelings for him and desires for a normal relationship with romantic lovemaking. She gives him an ultimatum; she is done with the BDSM and tells Christian she will stop their relationship and leave him unless he can demonstrate a capacity to love her and show appropriate, sensitive feelings for her.
It works, too. He changes for her. Throughout Fifty Shades of Grey, the book and film, Christian is also falling in love with Anastasia. The reader, or film viewer, knows this but speculates that he masks his emotional vulnerabilities with dominating, exploitative sexual practices in which he involves her repeatedly. It appears, at first, he is taking advantage of the young inexperienced girl. Using her for sex, for her body. But in the end of the first story, we learn that he transforms and embraces his more sensitive, selfless and romantic side in order to keep her. The two subsequent stories of the Trilogy focus on their relationship after they decide to date and try a serious relationship.
All in all, Fifty Shades of Grey is not your classic romance story. But it may be the romance story of today’s world and society. In many regards, the story sets precedents on what can be included in and considered art and literature and film. Twenty years ago or longer, this story would have been considered risqué and pornographic in nature. The story is a testament to the ever-changing views on sex, and is a nod to sex, even kinky sexy, becoming part of the mainstream media and world of entertainment – and not just something done behind closed doors but part of many people’s everyday life.
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