I went into my assignment to review Fifty Shades Darker hyper conscious of the fact that, whatever else you might say about it, the Fifty Shades series is one of the few mainstream works catering specifically to female sexuality — erotica by and for ladies. Thus, I didn’t want to just dismiss it out of hand (surely I’ve gotten my own rocks off to much dumber narratives). You know… difficult as that may be. This is, after all, a literary franchise (a literary phenomenon, really, at one point owning all four of the top four spots on USA Today‘s bestseller list) that began as Twilight fan-fiction posted under the name “Snowqueens Icedragon.”
Which meant, I couldn’t just declare it trashy schlock and move on. It’s supposed to be trashy and schlocky, right? It’s a guilty pleasure. And so rather than watch it like a normal movie, I treated it like a journey to a foreign land, trying to keep an open mind and understand the locals’ customs, rather than judge them. Treating my screening like foreign travel turned out to be easier than I thought when a well-to-do forty-something couple sat down next to me, him with a loud voice that says “I want to be overheard” and two massive bejeweled rings on each index finger like a medieval count, she with a meticulous blonde coif and a baggy-eyed air of long suffering. Were these Fifty Shades superfans? Are giant rings a sex thing? How did they find out about this screening?
Right, the movie. To my mind, the most fascinating thing about Fifty Shades Darker is the way it combines honest id with aspirational lifestyle fantasies and overwrought chivalric romance. For instance, the main character is named “Anastasia Steele.” Which, like “Bella Swan” before it, sounds like the most glamorous name the author could dream up, just a shade less melodramatic than Hercules J. Billionaire, combining as it does the names of the much romanticized Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov and wealthy writer of bodice rippers Danielle Steele.
In Fifty Shades, Ana Steele isn’t a fabulous heiress to a Russian empire, but rather a shy bookworm who works at the Seattle Independent Press (a fictional book place where the smart writers work). Her speech occasionally tends towards cutesy slang like “laters” and “kinky f*ckery,” and my research tells me that she was a virgin before she met the mysterious Christian Grey (a literal billionaire, played by small-toothed glower kiln Jamie Dornan). When he asks his 24-year-old sub why she waited so long for sex, she says “I was reading a lot of Austen and Brontë, and before I met you, I just felt like real men could never measure up.”
The cheeky slang feels like straightforward semi-autobiographical detail from EL James (neé Snowqueens Icedragon), while the rest is this grandiloquent fantasy. Was the lady who was writing fan-fiction based on Twilight (one of the most poorly written bestsellers of our times, with all due disrespect to Dan Brown) herself obsessed with the heroes of Austen and Brontë? Or did she just think those sounded like smart things for Ana Steele to be into? I’m guessing the latter — surely we want our fantasy selves to be smarter and better read than us — but it’s the interplay between these two apparent impulses that’s most interesting about Fifty Shades.