Embracing the sensuality of diversity? Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in the film adaptation of "Fifty Shades of Grey" (Focus/Universal)
Life is rarely cast in black and white, especially when it comes to sex. True, things were simpler when there was only one brand of sneakers compared to today when we celebrate a diversity of choice that necessitates an entire store dedicated to running shoes. But do we now really need Fifty Shades of Grey? Apparently so, judging from the worldwide sales of E.L. James's Fifty Shades trilogy topping 100 million and the movie version released by Universal Pictures, aptly or cynically, on Valentine's Day.
Many classic movies have signalled and shaped new cultural trends: The Birth of A Nation stimulating racist social activism; A Clockwork Orange depicting senseless violence; Kramer vs. Kramer showing the heartbreak of divorce; Philadelphia reducing the stigma of Aids; Brokeback Mountain normalising homosexuality, to name a few. Fifty Shades of Grey will probably become another watershed cinema event linked to the mainstreaming of pornography that brings sadomasochism into living rooms and bedrooms worldwide. Working as a certified sex therapist in Pittsburgh, I've already detected more than a few signs of this mainstreaming. A recently divorced thirtysomething man concluded that his lack of success dating was because modern women were into sadomasochism, so he replaced his nice guy behaviour with BDSM (that's Bondage, Dominance, Sado-Masochism). A distinguished sex therapist told me that she couldn't lend me her three-volume set of Fifty Shades because she had given them to her daughters. Her kids call it "Mommy Porn".
What Fifty Shades of Grey notoriously lacks in well-written prose, it apparently makes up for with juicy storyline. Ana Steele, 21-year-old student and ingénue, stumbles into interviewing a wealthy 27-year-old entrepreneur for her college newspaper. In a stroke of sardonic irony, this handsome sophisticate is named Christian Grey, a name pregnant with meaning. After the initial interview, Christian serendipitously encounters Ana in the hardware store where she works and he buys rope, masking tape and plastic ties. Later that night Ana "drunk calls" Christian who lets her know he will pick her up because she is intoxicated. On a later date, he flies her to his apartment in his private helicopter where he shows her his playroom of BDSM gear and introduces her to the dominance and submission contract stating that there will only be a sexual relationship with no romance and that she is not allowed to touch or look at him. Tension mounts in the relationship, with Ana asking Christian to "punish" her; he obliges by beating her with a belt. The denouement, overlooked by Fifty Shades fans, is that Ana leaves devastated, realising that she and Christian are not compatible.
This "new Christian" protagonist is both chronologically and culturally very distant from an earlier Christian, the Everyman of The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. The Christian Everyman, burdened with sin, embarks on an allegorical journey through varied temptations from his hometown, the City of Destruction, towards deliverance in the Celestial City of Heaven. Guided along the way by characters such as Piety, Prudence and Discretion, Christian's friend Faithful is able to resist the temptress, Wanton, who tries to dissuade him from continuing the journey. Where Bunyan's Christian passed through a more black and white world of clearly defined good and evil based on revealed truths and absolute values, James's Christian traverses a miasmal world of multiple shades of grey that celebrates rather than condemns "transgressive" sexual behaviour.
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