by Kleitia Vaso

I was not curious at all about reading the 50 Shades of Grey book or watching the movie. The title seems uninteresting enough and others’ recounting of fragments of the story only reinforced the idea of a commercial and popular work dressed as something subversive. But, right before the general premiere, a good friend offered me a free ticket for a special cocktail-premiere combination and I couldn’t resist the offer. And, despite the outcome which certainly matched my low expectations, I don’t at all regret watching it.

Ultimately, such a massively popular work expresses a portion of the Zeitgeist and, even when the particular representation of the times is one which I rather did not exist, I feel it is better to know the enemy. Also, whereas previously – a few years earlier – I would have felt a certain degree of shame in reading or watching something of a dubious intellectual or artistic quality for fear that it would reflect poorly on me and/or damage my taste, now I am fairly certain of two things: that even if I like something questionable I can accept it as a part of me without a bothersome amount of shame, and, that with equal doses of effort and desire, I have developed a definite taste of my own which would not be so easily influenced by low-quality works, even in cases when their presentation far surpasses their value.

I must admit that I inherently distrust things which are immediately and massively popular, especially books or movies which clearly address and exploit a specific target group which, in turn, readily gobbles up the bait and everything attached to it. While watching the movie, equally engaged by the reaction of the predominantly female audience as by the onscreen images, I very quickly realized that we were all being served – for lack of another expression which can accurately describe what I mean – a tired-ass tale through what is the most dominant medium currently disseminating opium to the masses. This time, the fairy tale was not simply a version of Cinderella; it was Cinderella with a whip, or rather, an even less interesting fairy princess being[lightly] whipped by the prince.

Indeed, rather than specifically Cinderella, the fairy tale could have been any one in which a one-dimensional girl ends up with a similarly generic, ambiguously princely prince. The only added twist in this current reworking is the fact that the prince is even more of a control freak than usual and only feels sexual pleasure when he causes pain to the future princess. “Why does she endure this pain?” asked a few empty robotic girls behind me. “Why, because of love, of course,” is the obvious answer. Actually, even this twist is fairly old but I will touch on this later. My dislike of the film started from the very first few scenes. Indeed, the very premise works against the gradual seduction and involvement of the audience into a fictional world by failing to create the necessary “suspension of disbelief,” which implies the convenient forgetting of the fundamental artificial nature of any fictional work. We all know everything presented onscreen or in a book’s pages is invented, yet the success of a narrative book or film depends on the ability to make one forget that.

I could not become invested in a story which starts with the unlikely premise that an apparently –everything about this film is apparent and about appearances – extraordinary successful and good-looking young man immediately and irrationally becomes entranced by an average-looking girl who displays no wit or personality when she meets him but, instead, stares and stutters. At this very moment – their first meeting –I could feel the slow release of opium through the air vents and the gradual intoxication of the female masses; the mind-numbing drug here is the spread of the silly and facile idea that a woman, a person, does not need to be interesting and well-rounded in order to get the complete undivided attention and eventual love of someone who, at least apparently, has invested much more in the development of the self. The movie makes it seem so easy –without trying to become better, richer (not just in a financial sense), and more interesting, one can just wait for a life-changing fateful meeting which will certainly happen and breathe life into us.

The fairy tale continues with the sadistic prince, who, despite his “singular” tastes, atones for the pain he causes by spontaneously buying laptops and cars for generic girl; a seemingly perfect treatment accompanied by the requisite internal suffering of the girl who feels used and maltreated at times, a concern which is the only dramatic conflict in the story and which tries to add a second dimension to the girl, a hint of”strong” character. This hint helps…minimally. It sounds familiar: a lesser version of Pretty Woman and, perhaps, more outdated. At least in that particular film, the female protagonist displayed ambition, cunning, emotion, and personality while here the drama must be supplied by the spectator, who hopefully has a modicum of depth and personality.

The terrible element in this simplistic and one-dimensional story is that the audience receptive to it thinks in similar terms to those of our female protagonist: the element that draws these masses of women to the book/movie is its seemingly risky link of love and sadomasochism, the liking of which will reflect on them as “interesting” and complex women. Just as the protagonist is brought to life by the successful guy, these women expect the film to shake its magic wand and confer mystery and intrigue on them. In both cases, any in-depth self-analysis is bypassed in favor of the simultaneously most convenient and unrealistic choices. “Although I usually obey and act according to what society requires of me, I have a few dark desires too,” the audience seems to think or want to say. But, becoming a more complete human and, consequently, an interesting one, requires hard work which includes pain, disillusionment, change. It requires true rebellion through the transgression of some fundamental boundaries, not easy and false one like those sparingly used –almost unwillingly– whips in the movie.

What I am trying to say through this somewhat harsh analysis is that we all must fight mental and emotional apathy or, at the very least, admit that we prefer it in some cases. By readily accepting and enjoying superficial works which can only grant temporary and empty pleasure while also offering the illusion of being worthwhile and enriching activities – like reading or watching films – we encourage the production and popularization of this worthless material. Worthless in both form and content.

Reading a book like Grey fails to enrich both thought and language. In addition, the delusion that one is doing something worthwhile when reading this kind of a book, causes regress not progress. One can undoubtedly indulge in whatever brings pleasure – even Grey – but only by being fully aware of what it represents.

To be continued…

by Kleitia Vaso