Dreading the emotional roller coaster of Valentine's Day on Saturday? Dread some more, because Friday is rolling out an even bigger mind game. "Fifty Shades of Grey," the film version of one of the bestselling and (by enough accounts to make it unequivocally true) one of the worst-written books in the history of the English language, is opening on about 5 billion screens nationwide.
There's not much use in pointing out everything that's wrong with the "Fifty Shades" book, film or the phenomenon as a whole, which has a bit of a David and Goliath subtext because the book originated as a self-published, print-on-demand title whose cult following got it snapped up by a big publisher. Yes, it's a literary train wreck — the heroine's "inner goddess" is known to "sway in a victorious gentle samba" — and, yes, the sexual politics are fraught. The eponymous billionaire Christian Grey, who enlists virginal college student Ana as, essentially, his sex slave, has drawn fire from feminists, religious conservatives and the BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism) community.
Groups such as the American Family Assn. have joined with grass-roots domestic violence prevention groups to urge would-be moviegoers to forgo the movie and donate to battered-women's shelters instead. "#50DollarsNot50Shades" is trending on Twitter.
But it doesn't really matter what the tastemakers and do-gooders say. The public has spoken. And apparently the public likes the idea of being tied up and flogged with a riding crop (or doing the tying and flogging).
Counting all the volumes in the "Fifty Shades" trilogy, which includes "Fifty Shades Darker" and "Fifty Shades Freed," more than 100 million copies have been sold worldwide. This month, retailers are attaching themselves to the franchise any way they can, with Amazon offering "Fifty Shades"-themed sex products and Vermont Teddy Bear selling a stuffed bear in a suit, holding a blindfold and handcuffs. Wal-Mart has a $69.99 gift basket that contains the normal items — chocolate, cookies, bubble bath — plus "chrome-plated metal double lock handcuffs with key."
Now the media are clucking, often rather condescendingly, over reports that advance ticket sales for the movie are highest in southern states like Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, deep in the Bible belt, a correlation that some want to link to higher-than-average levels of sexual repression, among other qualities.
"I don't even read very many books, but I read that one," said an Arkansas waitress quoted in the Daily Beast. The article went on to describe the Republican South as something of a secret den of ill repute, a place where "dance studios double as hardcore bondage clubs after midnight" and "PTA moms secretly work as strippers."
The question of whether the South is kinkier than the rest of the country is not one for which there's a great deal of hard data. But we do know it's the poorest region in the nation, with Mississippi and Arkansas consistently ranking at the bottom.
More important, though, readers of "Fifty Shades of Grey" (as opposed to those who comment without reading, which admittedly was me until recently) know that for all the libidinous hype, the book is ultimately less about sex and power than about money and power. For every reference to handcuffs and inner goddesses, there are even more nods to Christian's incalculable wealth.
Christian gives a lot of spankings, but he also gives his submissive lady love a MacBook computer, rides on his private jet and several cars. For his part, when he's not being chauffeured in an Audi Q7 SUV, he's driving his Audi R8 Spyder or squiring Ana around in his helicopter. Oh, and we're told he earns $100,000 per hour. Which at this point may put him in the ballpark of the book's author, E.L. James.
Are you aroused yet? If you already have an Audi — or any reasonable hope of someday acquiring one — it's easy to roll your eyes. But if you're a PTA mom moonlighting as a stripper, you might be downright weak in the knees by now. Because if there's anything the inner goddess craves more than a victorious gentle samba, it's reliable transportation.