The Morality of Chinese Handcuffs

The numbers are in.  Variety reports that ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ has set new records for the highest-grossing Presidents Day holiday opener of all time bringing in $237.7 million globally, ranking among the biggest R-rated debuts in American history. The film is hot.  Red hot.

Of course, there are those keen film-goers who will point out that FSOG is hardly groundbreaking in its taboo subject-matter. reports that there have been over 20 non-porn, major film releases, dating back to 1933, that have dealt with some kind of taboo sexual material (

What is different about FSOG, though, is just how popular it has become, how ‘out-in-the-open’ both the book and the film have been.  Most films of this type open in art house cinemas, to limited release, winding up as expensive Criterion collection DVD sets.  In contrast, Fortune magazine reports that the film is ‘bigger than Jesus’ blowing away Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Passion grossed $83.9 million on Ash Wednesday 2004.  It too had an R-rating for its intense (and some say gratuitous and sadistic) violence.

The attention has been brewing.  CNN reported on the book version of FSOG’s wild popularity way back in 2012.  CNN says that its success was: one part good timing, another part good marketing (the covers of the books were smartly discreet) and another part content with a focus on female desire, which has been largely untapped in the mainstream.

Not everyone sees it that way.  British Parliament Member, Joy Smith, proposes a boycott of the film on the grounds that it portrays violence against women.  She says, “True BDSM whipping is only ever done for the sake of pleasure, with the whip-wielder’s focus remaining entirely on whether or not the pain is pleasurable to the receiver. For some of us, it truly can be, but that comes out of a place of mutual trust and respect. In the movie, it was him acting in anger and her willingly taking abuse out of fear and a misplaced attempt to manipulate him.”

Interestingly, the focus here is that FSOG does not depict ‘true BDSM’.  Others push this anti-FSOG momentum, though with different reasoning.  Self-proclaimed virgin and World Champion hurdler Lolo Jones, also warns against the film. According to that bastion of quality journalism, TMZ, Lolo believes sexual pleasure should not be used to ‘medicate’ against emotional pain and therefore everyone should just ‘watch another movie’.  Lolo also believes FSOG glamorizes ‘unholy sex.’  Meanwhile, her boyfriend, Super Bowl runner-up Russel Wilson thinks the movie is just great.  He also likes ‘Scarface’.

There is good and bad art.  What makes the art good or bad falls to individual taste. Controversial art seems to divide populations into more or less predictable camps.  There are the libertines who express disdain for the Puritanical viewpoint.  Then there are the moral majority types who use the art as a helpful scapegoat for one or more of society’s ills.  Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer, was heavily into pornography, the reports say, and now we get the causation that people who watch porn are clearly going to wind up on a killing spree one of these days.

Yet Dahmer also liked Star Wars.  Nobody, though, hints that we need to be wary of people who enjoy space opera.  Nobody I know has made the slightest peep about Showtime’s Dexter, a show whose hero is… wait for it… an actual serial killer.  That show ran from 2006 until 2013.  Are fans of the show destined to become serial killers as well? Seems like there would be more of a direct correlation.  Yet few called for a boycott.

The fact that FSOG has garnered so much free publicity from those trying to avoid it suggests an interesting psychology phenomenon:  that which becomes taboo becomes irresistible. There is something about creating negative energy around something that forms a fascination.  The more that fascination festers in someone’s awareness, the more tempting it becomes.  The idea of ‘religious purity‘ from the Christian faith used to castigate bits of culture tends to amplify the very thing needing to be expunged.  I liken this to Chinese handcuffs.  When you put your fingers in, the more you struggle the more difficult it becomes to escape.  Yet, if you just slowly ease your fingers out of them, they simply fall off.

Oh, and if you want an actual review of the film by someone who has seen it – I recommend the New Yorker’s.

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