Tying up loose ends of ‘50 Shades’ phenomenon

Jenny Barrett, reader in film studies and popular culture at Edge Hill University
Jenny Barrett, reader in film studies and popular culture at Edge Hill University
Have your say

As one of the most hyped films for years Fifty Shades of Grey has finally been released at cinemas to record breaking ticket sales, Aasma Day looks at the reasons why it has become such a phenomenon and talks to a real life ‘Christian Grey’ who claims the book or film are nothing like the BDSM lifestyle.

Just as Frozen became a smash after capturing the imagination of youngsters, Fifty Shades of Grey seems to have become the adult version of the Disney animation.

Similar to the way how the shops are full of Elsa, Anna and Olaf merchandise, businesses are cashing in on the Fifty Shades craze.

Love or loathe the raunchy books, Fifty Shades fever has gripped the nation and the film has reignited the passion seen when the books first became international bestsellers.

Jenny Barrett, reader in film studies and popular culture at Lancashire’s Edge Hill University, says: “Fifty Shades of Grey is a bit like the Frozen phenomenon – but for grown-ups.

“Everywhere you go, there is Frozen merchandise and Fifty Shades has become like the adult version of this.”

The Fifty Shades trilogy of books began as fan fiction devoted to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. when the stories became popular, the author Erika Leonard wrote the books under the pen name E L James not realising how huge they would become.

Jenny, who looks at popular culture and the reasons why people enjoy it, explains: “Fifty Shades is basically vampire erotica without the vampires and the erotica side of things has been boosted.

“It has fallen into a category called ‘Mummy Porn’ and the idea is that it is a more respectable story for women to read.

“It is a fairytale, but it is a grown-up fairy tale. It is escapist and has a wealthy and dark Prince Charming.

“It is formulaic, but deliberately so and there is a market for it.

“It is not a book that is going to appeal to the literary community and it is not likely to appeal to the BDSM community either because it does not portray what their lives are really like.

“Fifty Shades is lurid, vivid and a page turner.

“I think one of the reasons the books are so successful is because they are about a sexual awakening and readers can have a vicarious enjoyment of a fantasy they do not actually fulfil. That is the fun of any literature. A lot of what we read involves the vicarious enjoyment of sex or violence.

“But that does not mean we are necessarily going to behave in that way.”

The first book Fifty Shades of Grey sold 27m copies in the UK alone and more than 100m worldwide.

Jenny believes much of the success of the book is down to the power of social media and the e-book success story.

She says: “People could read Fifty Shades on an e-reader without anyone knowing what they were reading.

“Maybe the book just had its finger on the pulse of women’s fantasies. Maybe it was to do with imagining going through a sexual awakening again or about women wanting to be dominated by a welathy man.”

The release of the filmhas revived interest in the phenomenon – but there are also those who are campaigning against it saying it could inadvertently normalise abusive relationships.

Jenny says: “Fifty Shades is about women being controlled.

“There is a lifestyle where women can be submissive in their sexual life, but that is about sexual consent.

“With this story, some people are saying mutual consent is not there.

“There are a lot of people who have resisted reading Fifty Shades and don’t want to watch the film because they say it is about abuse.

“The film has raised the issue all over again. This sort of erotic cinema does not go as far as pornography.

“Nine and A Half Weeks starring Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger is a good comparison.

“Thirty years later, Fifty Shades is the new Nine And A Half Weeks. There is a lot of cinema with sexually dominant women such as Body of Evidence with Madonna and Secret Diary of a Call Girl.

“It is almost politically acceptable to have a sexually dominant female. However, there aren’t many films with sexually dominant men, apart from in a negative context such as rape.

“ With Fifty Shades, like Nine And A Half Weeks before it, we have a very sexualised Prince Charming who wants to control.

“In Fifty Shades, he has paired up with a woman he wants to control. Whether that is right or wrong, people tend to be uncomfortable with it.

“There are a few things we see on screen that are very risque and the woman is controlled sexually. There are many people who are actively campaigning against the Fifty Shades film who argue that when there have been so many gains in the women’s movement, this film is a backwards step for women.

“However, there are plenty of other people saying it is just a bit of fun.”

Controversial or not, the huge iwnterest in Fifty Shades has sparked businesses cashing in on it.

A leaked memo revealed B&Q had instructed its staff to prepare for an influx of customers wanting to buy rope, cable ties and duct tape.

The memo also stated copies of the erotic novel would be delivered to each store and lent to staff on a one week basis.

Staff were urged to familiarise themselves with the book and deal with any related queries in a “polite, helpful and respectful manner”.

B&Q has since admitted the memo was simply a PR ruse.

A spokesman allegedly said: “We can confirm that the leaked memo was indeed a bit of fun. Both B&Q, the public and the media have been entertained over the past few days and we are looking forward to a big weekend.

“We would have confessed to this sooner, but our hands were tied.” Surf has even gotten in on the act by launching a limited edition washing detergent called “Flirty Shades of Surf” with a set of handcuffs around the “S”. Jenny says: “Erika Leonard, the author of Fifty Shades, has set up a limited company called Fifty Shades Ltd which is selling Fifty Shades merchandise including marital aids. But this is definitely not the only company cashing in on Fifty Shades. Whatever the reasons, Fifty Shades is a phenomenon and is does seem to have tapped into something with regard to women’s fantasies.

“It also demonstrates the e-book success story and the power of social media.”