Article and Illustration by Haley Houseman
Despite the pearl-clutching that occurred when Fifty Shades of Grey appeared on our cultural radar, erotica has been mainstream for a while. From Victorian erotica, full of incest and explicit descriptions, to Playboy and the power of its pinup girls, the public has always enjoyed reading about sex. Romance novels make up more than 10 percent of the market and it’s not just housewives reading the genre. BDSM, the byword of Fifty Shades’ licentiousness, has been reported on in major publications as a stress reducer. Sexy rewritings of classic literature have even become a trend. Fifty Shades of Grey has come at a time when we’re more ready to be seen reading something NSFW on the subway. The movie, set to release on Valentine’s Day, has everyone wondering just what all those steamy scenes will look like on screen.
Fifty Shades of Grey is also problematic, as it straddles literature and low brow. The story has its roots in fanfiction and self-published erotica; it was not passed through a publishing house. The plot revolves around a fictional relationship that identifies itself, at least initially, as BDSM, despite outcries from Christian groups, feminists and members of the BDSM community. This has incurred the wrath of those who see this relationship as domestic abuse. To get up in arms is maybe to miss the point, or rather to become tangled up in it. Fifty Shades of Grey is erotica, and like all erotica before it does not seek to represent reality in sex or in plot. The point is to titillate, and like its subject matter, it often does so despite resistance and best intentions. If you hope to undermine it by decrying it as poor writing, or bad taste, you are expressing an opinion that helped the book gain its notoriety, and its sales. Sex sells, and so does scandal. Both helped the author EL James defy the gloomy forecasts for self-published work.
The series will continue to sell, not just as a set of novels but also as a big budget movie and merchandise (including a line of adult goods at Target). You can venture to your local movie theater or read Fifty Shades of Grey on the privacy of your e-reader. It is neither as monstrous nor as titillating as critics deride it to be. It is the story of a naive and rather unremarkable college girl who embarks in a relationship as unconventional and unlikely as any you find in commercial romance novel.
It doesn’t attempt to be classic literature. It began as a Twilight fanfiction, and was self-published, not passed through the grooming required of manuscripts passed from agent to editor. The depictions of relationships and sex are fundamentally and unapologetically fictional. While problematic in its depictions of the activities within its pages, it cannot be held up as moral standards any more than literary classics like Delta of Venus. It’s meant as an aid, something that can be projected onto, as all good erotica functions.
When looking for hints of what the film Fifty Shades of Grey might hold, we can look at the many erotica film adaptations that came before. Fanny Hill, which began the fine tradition of writing pornography in English, was made into at least five adaptations. The lascivious The History of Tom Jones was made into four films and an opera. Roughly 300 year later, they fail to titillate in quite the same way as the books (probably because no one give NC-17 ratings to literature, however smutty).
A comparable piece is the novel and subsequent film adaptation of Belle du Jour, adapted and directed in French by Luis Buñuel. Starring a classic cinema ingenue Catherine Deneuve, it features fabulous style, a hefty dose of surrealism, and a fair amount of whipping and prostitution, both of which are pursued by Severine, the protagonist. Beautiful, happily married except for an unhappy marriage bed, placid Severine has elaborate BDSM fantasies that have very little in common with the contracts and legalities of Christian Grey. Severine’s idea of pleasure involves volunteering to become a daytime prostitute at a small and homey brothel, and running home to her medical student husband at night.
Both books, written to arose, deal with similar subjects: sexuality, unconventional consent and possible BDSM. The heroines are similarly devoid of experience; both Ana of Fifty Shades and Severine of Belle du Jour come from a place of virginal naïveté; when they stumble upon an erotic and dangerous opportunity, they tip toe into it before jumping in. While Ana struggles with her new lover’s preferences and her feelings of being used, Severine struggles with the idea of prostitution. And at the end of their respective stories, each woman opts out of their new lifestyle, uncomfortable with the compromises they have made to explore their sexuality. There’s a lack of internal complication in their characterization; it’s not simply out of weak characterization. Both women come across as empty vacuum onto which the readers or viewers can protect themselves and their own latent fantasies. The characters act as guides to a world that readers (and viewers) would not tread by themselves. It would be far more revolutionary for either woman to wholeheartedly enjoy their new paths.
The 1968 New York Times review of Belle du Jour describes the movie as “a kind of fantasy cryptogram, with countless clues…as to when we are in a fantasy, and whose.” It is hard to imagine that critics will wax poetic about surrealist imagery in Fifty Shades of Grey, but they will also find it hard to imagine any fantasy but the one sustained between Ana and Christina Grey, both who throw rules and respect for boundaries aside, and who create a small world of their own dysfunction.
Belle du Jour was certainly more modest, less graphic than the original novel. It appears the adaptation of 50 Shades will be purportedly will be much tamer than the book as well. However in Fifty Shades of Grey, such scenes might be considered vanilla in comparison to what appears in Belle du Jour, with its whippings and faux-necrophilia. Both movies aim to be shocking, but eroticism is a timely thing. It’s no surprise that in 2015, it involves a fair amount of money and power. And despite Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s best attempts at interjecting a little surrealism, commercial viability is for Fifty Shades is paramount. The artistic touches will come in a soundtrack, which Belle du Jour lacks, as well as in the flair that Grey’s unimaginable wealth.
What keeps Belle du Jour interesting is that it has an unexpected and excellent sense of humor about itself, with a neat balance of the surrealism, commercial production, and shocking erotica. Though the two books chase the same dichotomies, love vs. sex, repression vs. liberation, Fifty Shades of Grey has been taken so seriously by those who would take offense that a light touch may be out of place. Certainly the crowds expected on Valentine’s Day are not going to be attending for laughs.
Read all of our Fifty Shades of Grey coverage here.