Defending the indefensible: Why feminists should see 50 Shades of Grey.

I am getting in early before the tsunami of criticism that will undoubtedly be unleashed by the upcoming release of the movie adaptation of Fifty Shades Of Grey. Because it’s not deserved.

The release of the trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey triggered many sneering comments on social media; a good proportion of them from people who had not read the book ( that highest form of literary criticism).

Yet the book and its sequels are popular. In fact they have sold over 100 million copies worldwide and been translated into more than 50 languages.

Does this mean that the purchasers of those 100 million copies – mainly women – are apparently idiots?

Or: is the standard applied to wish-fulfilling entertainment for women different from the standard applied to entertainment for men?

My question is a serious one.

On a per-screen basis, most of the cinema in the western world is now occupied by superhero and action franchises that deliver to young men the wish fulfilling fantasy of physical and moral omnipotence (with the stress on the potent).

These films for men (and the comics and graphic novels on which they are based) do not seem to trigger the derision and ire that a wish fulfilling fantasy for women such as Fifty Shades Of Grey and, before it, Twilight, have unleashed.

What is it about E.L. James’ slap-and-tickle series that is making everyone so touchy?

The Fifty Shades of Grey movie won’t show THAT scene.

The books tell the story of ingénue and virgin, Ana, who inspires the lust, and eventually the love, of handsome sex-god billionaire Christian Grey. He teaches her about sexual passion, she opens up for him the lasting delight of connection and intimacy, and [spoiler alert!] they live happily ever after in their two dream houses and two dream apartments.

It’s a familiarly enjoyable story, and Ana as protagonist has the militant sparkle and sass of the female heroines beloved in the works of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. E.L. James’ books do not aspire to literary greatness, but, like Twilight before them, are extremely effective in evoking the visceral sensations of a crush.

What sets James’ books apart is that instead of merely bruising Ana’s lips in a violent embrace, Christian spanks, whips, licks, and teases her to a series of multiple orgasms, described in vivid detail on about every fifth page. (And if you don’t know what a flogger and a butt plug are before you open the first chapter, you soon will).

Is it this focus on sexuality, in particular enjoyable female sexuality (Christian is the perfect gentleman, nearly always insisting that Ana come first, and she, once she gets the hang of it, is an enthusiastic participant, giving as good as she gets) that has irritated the Twitterati? The heat of the contempt in the comments suggests a greater irritant than mere literary style. Deep down, are we really still uncomfortable with the idea of women deriving lusty pleasure from sex?


Or is the touchy point the fact that the sex in these books involves some mild bondage and discipline? Is the image of woman bound – submissive – uncomfortable for some? If so, this is a misunderstanding of the essence of the tale.

Christian holds the whip hand in the beginning, but Ana as protagonist forces him to transform and eventually holds the emotional power in the story. She’s both on top and on the bottom, but she rules from both positions.

Stars of the most sexually driven film ever made can’t stand each other.

More fascinating to me, is the overwhelming chord this literary phenomenon has struck with female readers. If disempowered men long to be superheroes and fly, what is it that more than fifty million women find so enchanting in the image of being tied to the bedpost with a grey silk tie?

Noting of course that what people like to fantasise about is always different from what they want to actually do – perhaps empowered women now love to dream about being commanded and dominated. With our university degrees, managerial roles, and higher salaries now paying off the lion’s share of the mortgage, is it delightful to dream – just for a moment – of being commanded, dominated, and taken?

Are we so tired of having to tell everyone what to do that we thrill at the idea of a bit of direction? Are we so used to paying for dinner that the thought of having two sports cars, an entire couture wardrobe and a company bought for us is…novel?

And, if this is the fantasy of modern women, does it deserve any less a place in our media culture than the shy nerd who dreams of being Spiderman?

Whether the film manages to successfully realize this fantasy once we have to look at it rather than imagine it remains to be seen.  The fact that tickets are already on sale suggests Universal’s audience tracking is strong.

Audience digital engagement with the film has been enormous since the trailer debuted in November, to the pulsating beat of the Beyoncé track, Crazy in Love. More than 40 million views and rising. It looks…mmm… promising.

Fifty Shades Of Grey opens on February 12.

I’ll be there opening weekend, with my posse of gals and my popcorn.

Must read: Mia Freedman has a reminder to anyone who is outraged over Fifty Shades of Grey

Get in the mood by watching the trailer here.

Megan Simpson Huberman is a senior executive, writer and director in the Australian film industry, and the director of the upcoming feature for Paramount of the best seller Salvation Creek