Fifty Shades of Grey has been the subject of highly entertaining scorn and mockery -- yet this "terrible" film had a record 94.4 million debut. I'm curious about the intense reaction of both critics and fans. What are we so excited by or uncomfortable with? I don't think the adoration and derision is really about S&M. It's about women's lust, the ways eroticism chafes romanticism, the conflict in negotiating sexual tastes and women exploring what they want (albeit, in exaggerated, symbolic means), and these are all topics worth serious discussion.
Just as the film is about a literal negotiation of a contract in a relationship, women express interest in the film because of what they are negotiating in their own relationships. Here are the top five ways the women on my couch can relate to Fifty Shades of Grey.
1. The negotiation of intimacy. One overlooked, yet important, underlying theme in Fifty Shades of Grey is the negotiation of intimacy. Christian doesn't want to be touched or to sleep in bed with Anastasia. He wants complete control of her behaviors and loyalty -- without any romance. This is extreme, but intimacy avoidance is common. The struggle is mostly about being vulnerable or receiving love and it plays out in more subtle ways like low libido, an inability to be present in the bedroom or erectile problems. Should a woman accept his intimacy borders, try to change them with the force of her love, or turn around and run? The answer lies in conversation and negotiation.
2. The negotiation of differences. Any two people can have different perceptions about what good sex is, about what sex should mean, and how often it should be had. Here, it's his erotic taste versus her romanticism. Both styles scrape against each other and produce ambivalence for Anastasia and Christian. The fact that differences exist is less a problem than how they are dealt with. Ambivalence can be sexy. There can be growth and an integration of styles---or the dynamic can cause harm. It's hard to make a blanket generalization. It's best to take a conscious approach to making decisions about sexual relationships. It's not always bad and it's not always good; rather something to explore and reflect upon.
3. Navigating your own desires and reactions. Anastasia's constant internal dialogue and questioning was annoying to read, but in reality, women should ask questions. Why does he want to do this? Where is it coming from? How do I feel about it? From a psychological point of view, Christian's rigidity (meaning lack of flexibility to do other things) and his obsessive need to only do sadistic acts is suggestive of his psychological material. He is acting out -- or what analysts call "repetition compulsion" -- a trauma from his past. Should he be projecting this stuff on to Anastasia? It's an important question. Should a girl be down for anything or should she ask smart questions of him -- and herself -- about how acting this stuff out can be healing or hurtful. During the showing I went to, when Mr. Grey revealed that his mother was a crack addict, a woman in the audience shouted "red flag." I agree, his intention doesn't appear to be about healing.
4. Negotiating masculinity. S&M was just a pretext for presenting old dynamics that reliably turn women on. The man demonstrates ravenous desire yet remains emotionally unavailable. Eventually, he falls in love with her. She is the victor (or in psychspeak, making our emotionally unavailable fathers realize that we are princesses that deserve attention and adoration). This archetype women love is dangerous, yet nurturing. He is dominant -- yet his aim is to please her. In most media, men are the recipients of pleasure, women the givers. In Fifty Shades of Grey, we have a man who knows how to build sexual tension in a woman, who doesn't have sex until she's begging for it. He understands how desire works. Men should pay attention to this.
5. Negotiating power. One reason this movie is such a hot topic is that the idea of S&M, challenges us all about power. Anastasia being told to keep her eyes down, sit on the floor with her palms up or succumbing to lashes -- taps into women's feelings about our tenuous sense of power in the world. Why would a woman want to cede power? Why would that be sexy to so many women? Have we not learned to eroticize our egalitarian or more powerful role? Many sexperts say that women have so many responsibilities that they want a man to take charge in the bedroom. Yet, this is not the case for Anastasia. She isn't a true submissive. Women who participate in the BDSM community, give enthusiastic consent. It turns them on. That's not what this story is about. Anastasia doesn't want to follow Christians demands and the fight she gives him about it -- is the real source of sexual tension. It would have been boring if she easily had agreed and followed his demands. This story isn't about a woman's deep desire to cede control and responsibility. It is about what women want -- and that's passion -- and passion requires two strong people -- not one strong person and one wet noodle.
What does Fifty Shades of Grey reveal that women really want? The movie isn't about women loving rich guys or stalkers or wanting abuse or even S&M. These features are exaggerations of common, deep-seated wishes for security, danger, excitement, adventure. To enjoy male muscularity, both his body and his ability to take charge. To enjoy a confident man who knows what he wants. Women want to enjoy f**king. And to be pampered, nurtured and pleasured. It's also about women finding these qualities in themselves.