When Fifty Shades of Grey hit theaters on February 13, 2015, it began a silly-sexy Valentine’s Day tradition of depositing adaptations of E L James’ bestselling books into multiplexes on that most romantic of fake holidays, enthralling date-night audiences with the airbrushed adventures of impressionable Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and her billionaire, bondage-enthusiast boyfriend Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan).
Because the James’ novels — which started out as Twilight fan fiction — were critically savaged, there wasn’t much expectation for the first film. But when I discovered I could review the movie out of a “fan screening” at the huge main theater at Regal L.A. LIVE, I jumped at the chance. Most of my colleagues chose the critics screenings — no “ordinary” people allowed — but I figured if I really wanted to understand the appeal of the franchise, I needed to experience it with those who loved Anastasia’s sensual odyssey the most.
Needless to say, the screening didn’t disappoint.
Sure, a fair amount of the female-heavy audience roared at Fifty Shades of Grey’s cheesy dialogue and glossy sex scenes, but there also was real pleasure as the crowd quickly took Anastasia’s side against the domineering Christian, savoring how she turned his need for control against him and gained the upper hand. And while the sex may have been shot like a perfume ad, it was legitimately sexy — and more overt and matter-of-fact than you tend to see in mainstream movies. Plus, the sex scenes were about turning Anastasia on. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, the movie on the whole was far more interested in leering at Christian’s body than Anastasia’s. With every cheer and delighted giggle around me, I realized that this was a whole different way of seeing sex on screen — and the women in the audience loved it.
I was one of the few people who gave Fifty Shades of Grey a positive review, and I’m convinced it was in part because I saw it with fans, who rewired my thinking about whether or not the movie was just cheap titillation, or worse, just a “chick flick.” In fact, it was a correction to both cutesy-pie, PG-rated rom-coms and male-gaze-y erotic thrillers that usually reduce the female character to a pliable sex doll.
The franchise ends with this weekend’s Fifty Shades Freed, which is just as silly as the first two installments, except its pleasures aren’t as pronounced. That doesn’t mean, however, that straight guys ought to be smug about it. As Time film critic Stephanie Zacharek points out persuasively, there’s a tendency for men to dismiss movies like this — or, if they’re trying to protect their reputation, patronizingly call them “guilty pleasures,” a term that Zacharek and I hate. “Nothing that brings pleasure ought to be reflexively entwined with guilt,” she writes. “Besides, movies that critics — or even our friends — loftily decree ‘bad’ are actually often ‘good’ in ways that have little to do with aesthetics or even taste. Maybe there’s clunky dialogue or thin characters or sex that would be silly if you tried to re-enact it in real life. But occasionally a movie just has the juice, some indefinable energy that even a perfectly crafted film can lack.”
Zacharek goes on to explain what’s so valuable about the Fifty Shades films — seriously, you should read the whole thing — but the gist is that these movies celebrate and emphasize the importance of women enjoying pleasure, whether it’s in the bedroom or in the theater watching supposed junk like Fifty Shades Freed. Guys are free to laugh off these movies — and, yeah, the new film isn’t good — but being snide about what they communicate (or why so many women respond to it) would be a mistake. If anything, they’re instructive. The Fifty Shades movies create a world in which the rich, successful, handsome guy ends up having a lot to learn about the complexities of a smart, beautiful, horny woman he thinks he can dominate, intimidate and impress.
Mansplaining to a female audience why they shouldn’t like these movies seems to be exactly the instinct that turns Christian into this trilogy’s comedic punching bag.
Before I close the book on these two lovebirds, however, here are a few other takeaways after watching Fifty Shades Freed…
#1. These movies have the best/worst character names.
Outside of J.R.R. Tolkien or a Star Wars film, the Fifty Shades trilogy contains the most ludicrous character names.
Start with Anastasia Steele, which is a prude’s idea of what a “sexy” woman’s name would be. Christian Grey is a perfectly believable name, but he’s the exception. Otherwise, the franchise is populated with human beings named Katherine Kavanagh, Elena Lincoln, Dr. Grace Trevelyan Grey, Carla May Wilks, Jack Hyde and Gia Matteo. Their names are as ludicrously extravagant as all of Christian’s fancy homes and sleek sports cars.
But the best of the bunch is Boyce Fox, an author who writes for Anastasia’s publishing house. When Anastasia introduces him to Christian, I was convinced I’d misheard her. Wait, Boyce is his last name, right? Or at least a pen name? That has to be a pen name, yes? Before these films, I’d never considered what a Boyce Fox would look like. Apparently, it’s Latin for “exquisite stubble.”
#2. Christian Grey is Batman. A really, really boring Batman.
Because he’s a brooding, rich white guy with a dark past, plenty of gadgets and an inability to be close to people, Christian Grey has often been compared to that other iconic, troubled fictional playboy: Bruce Wayne. In fact, when the first Fifty Shades of Grey film came out, animator and special effects artist Josh Meeter decided to drive home the connection by crafting a very clever Fifty Shades/Batman mashup video.
But at least Batman grew and changed. In Fifty Shades Freed, Christian remains a block of wood. Over three films, Dornan has consistently played him as the least interesting billionaire ever. He’s not particularly smart. He’s not funny. Outside of his kinkiness — and his incredible pommel-horse prowess — the guy’s a total zero.
Which begs the question: Is Christian Grey what Bruce Wayne would be like as a real person? Sure, Donald Trump has done a lot to demystify the aura of being super-rich — dispelling that naïve notion of “Well, he must have done something right if he’s so wealthy” — but still, Christian sure makes luxury look dull.
Or, and this is even more intriguing, consider: Is Christian how a lot of women (who probably get tired of being told by their boyfriends how awesome and brooding Batman is) secretly view their guys’ superhero crush? If so, Christian Grey is suddenly the funniest satire of dark comic-book movies ever. Finally, we have The Dark Knight reimagined with a buff, handsome idiot with a lot of money and zero charisma.
#3. Sex with a full bladder — is that a thing?
Like with a lot of successful movie adaptations of popular books, the Fifty Shades films inspire journalists to write “What did they change for the movie?” pieces. I was skimming a few for Fifty Shades Freed, and I came upon this tidbit: In the James novel, Christian demands at one point that Anastasia have sex with him before she pees. This is not mentioned in the film at all.
I check that we’re alone and ask, “What’s with the no going to the bathroom thing?”
“You really want to know?” He half smiles, his eyes alight with a salacious gleam.
“Do I?” I gaze at him through my lashes as I take a sip of my wine.
“The fuller your bladder, the more intense your orgasm, Ana.”
I blush. “Oh. I see.” Holy cow, that explains a lot.
Wait, does that explain a lot?
I decided to do some research, and in fact, it looks like it’s true. According to a 2016 piece in Shape, “Although there isn’t specific research on the subject, feeling randy when your bladder’s full is more common than you might think, says Sherry Ross, M.D., ob-gyn and women’s health expert in Santa Monica, California. In fact, vaginal penetration (with a penis or sex toy), increased blood flow to the clitoris and surrounding tissue, and a full bladder can be the ultimate trifecta for the perfect orgasm.”
Still, you gotta be careful: Shape recommends that any would-be Anastasias “practice Kegel exercises to help prevent any unwanted surprises mid-nookie.” There could be some long-term health effects, however: “Over time, ignoring your body’s signals could lead to an inability to fully empty your bladder or increase your risk of developing a urinary tract infection — but done every so often, holding it for the sake of a better orgasm is a-okay.”
See, gents: I told you this franchise was more instructive than you might have thought.