50 Shades of Grey is not a sexy book. It’s a depressing book written by a depressed English TV executive mom who does not know sex.
The book series that started as Twilight fan fiction…pause….is about a 22-year old virgin who’s told to sign a non-disclosure agreement so she can properly fuck. The guy she’s banging is a narcissistic crybaby sociopath. He’s inexplicably rich, rich and also rich, though he has no personality, empathy, compassion or any other feature that might lift him above a kind of debased masturbation fantasy for girls (or boys) who grew up under certain kinds of religious oppression. (He’s even named “Christian,” if that helps tell you what the book is really about.)
Pity the poor, rich author, E.L James, (whose fake name steals homophony from E.M. Forster and Henry James) but these novels are painful to read. The writing feels like it belongs to a high schooler who’s spilling out fantasies about what she imagines the world of sex might be about. Under the thin writing, you can almost hear her crossing her fingers and hoping “Someday! Someday! I’ll have an exciting life like this!”
The characterizations are the wispiest of projected, unrealistic, unrealized psychological fantasy, without a whiff of political identity or psychological grounding.
The novels are all written in the present progressive (“He says, She goes, They do”). There is no regular use of past tense. Present progressive wears thin quickly. It can be used to drive an intense passage into the reader’s mind, but hundreds of pages of dialog and description written this way is unengaging, and frankly repellant. You’d think the editor would’ve said: “That’s nice, dear. But let’s write it as a book now.”
These are not novels, they’re conversations over too many drinks. They’re talked out warm-ups. But they’re not ready for the field. But no matter, they’re already in play, and we’re supposed to think that this is “sexy.”
Spoiler: here’s the denouement of three novels of whips and chains and exciting, unconventional bondage-prone sex. By the end of three under-plotted books of spanky-wanky and 9 1/2 weeks set-ups, the “couple” marries, happily, and has children. Yes, America. Yes, mother London. All is well.
• The sociopathic control freak who needed a young virgin to whip? He’s dad of the year!
• The ridiculous girl who needed a sociopathic control freak to manage and limit her movements, and cause her pain? She’s super-mom!
If you’re an adult, and you’ve had complex, grown-up relationships, you can reach for your puke bucket now.
Sex it Up
Look. I’m all in favor of you watching pornography – ie – people having sex and enjoying it. I’m all in favor of people having three and four-somes. I’m all in favor of homosexuality and bisexuality. Consenting adults? Have the fuck at it.
I’m in favor of honest and communication. Because communication makes sex “sexy.”
Being managed, beaten and lied to, or lying to yourself? This is the opposite of sex. It’s the opposite of sexy. It’s depressing, and the only people who find it sexy are extremely depressed people. (Welcome to America. Welcome to England.)
All niceties to “E.L. James.,” the terrible author of 50 Shades – it’s not her fault that the world has no taste and that Twilight Fan Fiction is now the source of major film productions.
But there is a world of genuine work about sexual awakening, understanding and experience. And this soft-core tale of fake Christian redemption – 50 Shades of Tripe – is not part of it.
Better Fictional Sex
If you want good sex movies, you almost always have to get out of America. You certainly have to get out of the mainstream.
Denmark, France and South Korea come to mind as countries that have a habit of making movies that don’t lie constantly about the sex lives of humans.
Rita (Denmark, TV series)
Rita is a smoking, trash-talking, intense, sexually carnivorous…school teacher. No, this isn’t a Lifetime special. She leaves the kids alone. She fucks the adults. Welcome to the real world. This Danish TV series is, I promise you, more interesting, nuanced, provocative, sexual and honest – about the lives of many people than this boiled-English-stew Hollywood tripe-fest called “50 Shades of Grey.”
Disclaimer! I’m Writing One, Too.
I’ll be releasing my first novel, about coming to playful terms with non-monogamy, in March of this year. So, I’ll expect some negative reviews if I pull any of the stunts I’m accusing these books of. I can tell you though, that my characters don’t sign non-disclosure agreements in order to have love, sex, or any of the colors in between.
More on that soon. In the meantime, please consider these notable films about coming to terms with sex, coming of age, sexual trauma, and intense passion.
“Festen” – Denmark. Brutal. Sobering. Honest and painful. Then, finally, healing. A man goes to a toxic family reunion to face the aftermath of his beloved sister’s suicide, and the family demons that drove her to it. Subject: Remembered abuse, family dynamic, suicide, healing.
“The Year My Voice Broke” and “Flirting” – Australia. A duo. The second is so sweetly beautiful and honest. The first is so honest and breaks your heart. A most awkward boy, bright and deeply observant, suffers the idiocy of the adult western world in outback Australia while he tries to seduce his best friend, a pretty local girl, and accepts failure philosophically. In the second, he goes to boarding school and falls in love with Thandie Newton, (who wouldn’t?). Noah Taylor is our story’s underdog hero, and he’s unforgettable. Subject: Coming of age, first crushes, first love, first sex, and the world of hypocritical asshole adults.
“4 Lovers” – France. Tough, edgy, more fucking and more truly sexual fucking than you’ll see in porn, because it’s about the people, not the penis and vagina. Subject: Two couples meet, like each other, flirt, consider swapping, then do it, and it’s emotionally explosive, confusing, and intoxicating.
“Threesome” – United States. Overlooked, a little silly, but gentle and generous exploration of a college-student coming to terms with his homosexuality; his crush on his friend, his friend’s crush on their mutual girlfriend, and what they all do about it. One of the only remotely honest mainstream movies about sex ever made in America.
South Korea apparently has not ever heard of the required happy ending (no, not that kind) for romantic movies, even comedies. Movies like “Sad Movie” (yes, that’s a terrible English title) is so unflinching a weepy about how impossible these two-person relationships are, that you won’t believe how much suffering can be stuffed into what would’ve been a Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks greasy pole to happy-ville if made over here.
Or “Now and Forever,” a Hallmark movie about two people finding each other – then dying. No shit. These Koreans don’t fuck around. Life is hard, and you’re going to feel every bit of it.
Or, “The Old Garden,” another unhappy ending, as activists can’t catch a break, and love remains haunting and haunted.
Or, “Second Half,” one of the strangest quiet movies you’ll ever see, about a man returning to a town, meeting an appealing girl, going to dinner and on errands with her, and fearing she is his daughter. NO, really. That’s the story.
If you’ve seen the original “Oldboy,” I don’t have to tell you about truly shocking crossing of mental, psychological and sexual threads that appear in some South Korean films. It’s hard to watch, and you have to wonder what set of cultural tortures brought these realized Oedipal fantasies so clearly to the public mind. But at least they’re dealing with it – through art.
50 Shades of Grey feels like warmed-over Christian catechisms from a church-going girl who fantasized about what was under the robes, and felt bad, then good, then bad, then good, then bad about it.
If you want sexy, you’ll find more in your personal masturbation fantasies then in 50 Shades.
PS. The critics, aren’t loving it. Rottentomatoes.com/m/fifty_shades_of_grey/
Liam Scheff is author of “Official Stories,” and a new novel about true romance – Coming Soon – the kind that doesn’t need exotic locations, non-disclosure agreements, or fake monogamy to burn bright and hot.