No matter how you spin it, the outrageously popular 50 Shades of Grey should have been titled “50 Shades of Green.” The story of a billionaire tying up some hot interning coed has much more to do with money than sex. But sex sells. People love sex—maybe even more than money. Actually. Definitely. People definitely like sex more than money. But, if they can be paired together nicely, we’ll take that too.
You know if solar and wind ever let us down, I have little doubt that we could power an entire economy on sexual energy alone. Sex gets people motivated and moving in ways that make the Ice Bucket Challenge look like an invitation to watch grass grow. Sexual fantasy is one of the oldest of renewable fuels: people falling all over themselves to get all the things they need to lure that special someone into the bedroom. But let’s get real. The bedroom of our fantasies exist—for the most part—inside of our minds. Sure we’d all love to don a human saddle and have our partner ride us around the house in a one-piece tutu, but its just too much damn work—not to mention expensive. I once knew someone who was dating a guy that required her to wear a latex skirt whenever it was time to do the deed. She said it took up to 45 minutes just for her to get into it. Kind of a mood killer if you ask me.
What I really mean is: people rarely act out the entirety of their sexual fantasies in reality. While there are many reasons that can account for this lack of adventure, one of those is because luring partners for sex is somewhat intimately wrapped up with economy. To quote the infinite wisdom of Britney Spears: “You want a Maserati? You better work b*tch.” Let’s forget that Britney Spears is grossly out of touch with the average wage’s ability to ever afford you a Maserati in your lifetime, let alone in time to reap the sexual benefits of owning one. Instead, let’s focus on the power economy has on sex, on our perception about how to get what we want, and the messages communicated to us about status in our culture.
If you didn’t already know, there’s a movie out now called “50 Shades of Grey.” Converted from the worldwide best-selling book, the major motion picture attempts to deliver the same rich pornographic fantasy as the minds of millions of female readers—whips, chains, and classy champagnes (I just wanted to make it rhyme). But I say this because from the moment the book came on the scene, women made up the majority (if not all) of its readers. If you didn’t know a woman who was reading 50 Shades of Grey, you certainly knew one who wanted to.
Naturally, the social response to millions of women indulging in traditionally taboo sexual fantasies was as you might expect from a national culture grown from Christian fundamentalism: outrage, disgust, and the condemnation of female sexuality to hell. And this was all backlash from the book, so you can imagine the outcry from the archaic cultural minority when Christian Grey and his sexual escapades were to make their big debut on the big screen.
Curious to understand the grounds behind the outrage, I scoured the Internet for articles and comment forums where people were vehemently protesting against the release of the film. I came across one instance where a petition was going around for protesters to sign. The rationale behind the petition revolved around the sympathetic—and some might even say “positive”—tone in which the sadomasochistic sexual relationship between the young student, Anastasia, and the older Christina Grey, is portrayed. Additionally, from that camp there were other factions of feminist concerns surrounding the objectification, exploitation, and overall misogynistic air of the film.
At its heart, the core concern of protesters was that 50 Shades of Grey would encourage, and even promote, the taboo sexual content of its plot as something to be desired, something glamorous, something to be imitated and sought-after by young women. On these particular grounds of protest, I have to say that I don’t agree. People like what they like, and I don’t know about you, but no amount of marketing is going to convince me that anal sex feels good—it’s just not my cup of tea and I’ll pass every time. So, there are limits to the power of marketing and one of those limits is how we derive our sexual pleasure. For the majority of people, the origins of what sexual pleasure we desire is not something to be convinced of, it’s not a commodity to be bought and sold per se; it’s derived from a complicated amalgamation of experiences from our past relationships with parents and lovers, and how we sublimate our emotions like guilt.
If that last part is a little difficult understand, consider this: I once counseled a female friend who had an intense desire to be dominated completely by man, and she had actually entered this kind of sexual relationship. I’m talking, “Yes Master. No Master. Please let me crawl on hand and knee for you.” Serious stuff. After some exploration it became clear that this intense feeling of needing to be “punished” stemmed from a deep seeded guilt within herself. Her entire life, she had always been the happy and helpful young woman that put the needs of others first. To everyone who knew her, she was an infallible light of selfless compassion and giving. Over time, unconsciously, she had come to resent this role as it provided little room for her own needs and the ability to express her own anger, disgust, and frustration with others who seemed to always need her. It was not okay for her to disappoint others’ perception of her, and so she would scold herself internally for wanting to be left alone and to abandon the needs of others in place of her own. In this way, because she was unable to reconcile her perfect image with her own feelings of wanting to be selfish, she then appointed someone else to punish those “bad” thoughts and feelings for her. So for her, this was the source of sexual pleasure for her: a dominant male who could punish her for selfish thoughts of wanting to ignore the needs of others, which went against her perfect image of unending selfless compassion for others. In her sexual fantasy of domination she required punishment in order to be allowed to enjoy herself.
And so, the point I’m trying to make is that the origin of how people derive sexual pleasure has nothing to do with the suggestive nature of marketing. Meaning that, young women around the globe don’t wake up suddenly and decide that chains and whips are going to help them orgasm because a film told them so. Those elements of sexual fantasy where already present. They’ve always been interested in those kinds of things, and so, as a result, have gravitated toward this story which puts their own fantasies on display.
But what’s interesting to me is that for all the protesting going on about the tainting of young women’s sexuality, I find the more subtle message being conveyed to movie watchers to be the more the objectionable offense. The majority of people talk about 50 Shades of Grey as if the sadomasochistic sexual relationship were the most important part of the movie. Amidst the discussion of controversy surrounding the film, many women have told me:
“It’s just sex and fun.”
Some would even go as far as to acknowledge their understanding of how sex helps the bottom line.
“Sex sells.” They’d tell me. And that’s undoubtably true—but so does money and power.
For all of the infatuation people have for the intense “romance” between Christian Grey and Anastasia, or the intense outrage over the packaging of objectification and exploitation as romance, what 50 Shades of Grey really sells is the fairytale of money and power. Think about it. If Christian Grey were a waiter at TGI Friday’s, no one would give a crap and neither would Anastasia. The lesson is: “If you’re rich and powerful, you too could act out all of your desires.” You heard right folks. Your dreams of winning the lotto go far beyond paying off those student loans and having enough financial security to start a family before hitting 35; with money comes the ability to safely satisfy even the darkest parts of your desires. In essence, the only goal of this plot is to remind us of that timeless American truth that if you’re rich, you can do whatever you want and take advantage of people.
All the more telling is how the status dynamic of Christian Grey reveals the gauge by which we measure the “creepiness” of someone and their actions. If Mr. Grey the waiter had asked you to come back to his shack for a late night spanking in latex, you’d probably dial 911 and have him arrested. But if Mr. Grey the billionaire asked if you wouldn’t mind being tied up on a bed of satin in his private jet to the Bahamas for the weekend, suddenly, creepy becomes little more romantic.
This article doesn’t aim to discuss whether or not the display of sexually explicit taboos in entertainment is good or bad. As long as they’re entertained, people will watch anything for the most part. That’s the point of it. The value of entertainment is not meant to be denied here. What’s meant to be discussed in this article is the more significant hidden messages that come with this particular film’s display of explicit sexual content. When we watch a car commercial, we’re being sold more then the luxury of leather seating and cabin climate control. We’re being sold a life of excitement, status, and the freedom to go where we want, when we want. In the same way that BMW and Mercedes sell us new lives and desirable new versions of ourselves, movies like 50 Shades of Grey sell us messages of culture regarding status and perception. As audience members we are coaxed into compliance with the understanding that those of status get to do what they want and that there are little, if any, consequences for them.
This is precisely the point: to make something that might otherwise be terrifying, seem exciting simply because the person who executes the deviant act is of a high status. It’s another reminder to us “little people” of how grateful we should be; the gods have come down from their ivory towers again and chosen you to fulfill their will and their desires, and aren’t you so lucky? Because the fact of the matter is that whips and chains and tying up young girls is somehow less creepy if the person doing it has money and power. The covert lesson being taught is one of tacit complicity:
Let the elite do as they please. It’s not that bad and you might even like it.