There was a delicious energy in the theater at my preview screening of Fifty Shades of Grey, and when the film began and an appropriately absurd grey landscape emerged on our screen, I felt a collective shift around me: people were settling in to enjoy themselves, even if the enjoyment came from hating the thing. The only events that were going to happen in the next two hours on our screen were flirting, sex, some helicopter flights, and other kinds of sex.
What was it, I asked myself, beyond the anticipation of bondage scenes, that made this experience different from other screenings? Immediately, as the pseudo-romantic tropes — female clumsiness, lingering glances, tension — began to play out, laughter echoed through the theater. But it wasn’t just derisive laughter. It was a particular mix of mockery and appreciation that I recognized from the other times I’ve attended female-centric films on opening week, an experience I can sadly count on two hands.
Let’s put it this way. Not everyone who attends Fifty Shades of Grey, and gets pleasure out of it, is getting the precise form of pleasure that the film’s kinky plot intends. A lot of women are guffawing their way through it. I showed up at several of the Twilight and Sex and the City films on their opening nights, along with large, friendly, and boisterous groups of teenage and female viewers. In addition to the vampire pouting and materialistic pandering of the film’s screenplays, I heard shouting, cheering, jeering, and loud mirth directed at parts of the films that weren’t designed to be funny. At these screenings, women and friendly viewers of all gender orientations and identities were creating a collective experience, the kind that men have the ability create at action, comic book, revenge thriller, buddy film, or war films every single weekend of the year.
As they did with Sex and the City and Twilight, female audiences have turned these films into their own events (sometimes dragging male guests), a chance to simultaneously revel in and mock the tropes of heteronormative romance that are all too ingrained in our cultural consciousness.
And when this kind of event happens, viewers who are not dudes make a killing for studios. In the case of Fifty Shades, they’ve made so much dough that there’s talk of reviving a once-dead film genre. Take a look at the charming writeup of the film’s weekend success from Variety:
Fifty Shades of Grey will do more than $90 million over the four-day holiday, in addition to triggering a massive increase in heart palpitations across the moviegoing public. Among the many high-water marks the saucy tale has hit, the film’s debut is the second-biggest in February history behind The Passion of the Christ… It’s been more than a decade since Basic Instinct and Disclosure heated up the box office with sexually charged bigscreen fantasies and visions. The Internet and explicit cable TV shows had made kinky cinematic adventures seem positively anachronistic, but by mixing romance with bondage, author E.L. James was able to put a fresh spin on a limp genre, selling 100 million copies of her book and inspiring the smash hit movie. It’s an approach that could usher in a new period of sexual candor in cinema — at the very least it seems likely to last through Fifty Shades parts two and three.
This made me think: What if kinky cinematic adventures came back in style, but were less anachronistic because they became even more female friendly?
As soon as the film got going and Dakota Johnson said, “Holy cow!” outside the door of Grey House, I began to conjure up a variation on the film. Imagine: instead of seeing a sexy movie that started out fun but ended up dull and moralistic, we sat down to a sexy film that simply stayed fun all the way through? I would love so much to see a sultry romance on the big screen that took the attitude Dakota Johnson seemed to be adopting throughout Fifty Shades’ energetic early scenes: a little flirty, a little dangerous, a little wry and self-aware. Bonus points if this imaginary film did not assume that all romance was straight and requiring of traditional gender roles, and said film were willing to include sex scenes that cater to everyone’s gaze, not just (ahem!) the male one.
Like many ’90s nostalgists, I confess to missing that era’s somewhat sappy romantic comedies and romance epics, which have reverse-evolved in the last decade into exercises in female humiliation and the triumph of male friendships. Yes, I love silly bromances starring Paul Rudd more than the next moviegoer (I saw Role Models and I Love You, Man in theaters, readers) but the female characters and experiences in these films are reduced to mere slivers, cardboard stand-ins for common tropes.
One of the reasons I’m comfortable being a feminist defender of franchises like Twilight and Fifty Shades is that I’m convinced that many of the female fans of these films maintain a healthy distance from the retrograde fantasies on display, and are in fact using the series to bond with their pals, feel excited or mushy about the love plot, and flex their cultural power at the box office. They’re not coming home and demanding to be dominated and stalked by the next brooding man who walks in the door.
Fifty Shades smashed box office records. Instead of mediocre imitators, wouldn’t it be amazing if this success opened the doors for films that actually cater to a sophisticated female-leaning audience?