Fifty Shades of Greige in 21st Century Hollywood

Curator's Note

Between April and August of 2012, author Erica Leonard (E. L. James) sold over 20-million copies of her debut novel series, the Fifty Shades Trilogy. What started as Twilight fan-fiction became a global phenomenon and now, a film franchise from Focus and Universal—the first installment of which is in pre-production.

Edward Cullen went from a tortured 100-year old monster with a soul, to Christian Grey, a tortured billionaire in his late 20’s haunted by an abusive past. Awkward and naïve high-schooler, Isabella (Bella) Swan, became virginal Anastasia (Ana) Steele, a 21-year old inexperienced college graduate. The six-year age difference in Fifty Shades is far less alarming than the 60 between Edward and Bella. Unlike Bella, Ana has no interest in dying. But Christian, despite his power, wealth and good looks, has similar self-esteem issues to Edward—the ultimate reason he finds an awkward, inexperienced girl like Ana attractive.

Amidst the popularity of the BDSM-driven plot in the Fifty Shades Trilogy and soon-to-be Hollywood blockbuster, is there reason for concern? Has Fifty Shades of Grey further muddled the line between feminine empowerment and female submission to patriarchy?

The Bechdel Test was created to help determine a more balanced approach to women’s roles in Hollywood. Will Fifty Shades of Grey pass once it hits the silver screen? Unfortunately, though written by a woman and featuring a strong female protagonist, the story itself exists because of Ana’s connection to a man. She allows this man to dominate her, sexually and socially—even letting him “spank” her. Despite the naughty implications, the scene was more akin to sadistic slapping, making Ana’s bottom bright red and ringing in pain. Her “inner goddess,” referred to throughout the Trilogy, wasn’t exactly doing back-flips then.

The grey-area uncovered by Fifty Shades is more akin to greige in the color-spectrum. Ana’s ultimate success pivots on how being a “good girl,” or loyal and obedient to a man, leads to a happy ending. Is there a strange shade of truth to this grey-eyed fiction? Time, and the audience, will tell.


How fascinating to see what the reaction is to this trilogy when it's up there in technicolor... I, personally need nothing more than Ellen's reactions to content of the first novel. Sigh. Can we call her a "strong" protagonist once she's willingly bound and handcuffed? Having not read a single shade (and only learning of the existence of "greige" after reading your post!) I suppose I shouldn't judge. But that doesn't stop me from pondering. I hope others are too. Thank you, Rebecca!

Ana is surprisingly strong in the books; the fantasy of having a man (who is really a woman--EL James) know exactly where and how to touch you and never betray your trust or take advantage of your vulnerability is too good to be true in real life, but if Focus and Universal do it right, this film can really break all kinds of gender boundaries. The books have been sensationalized as "mommy porn" but I don't find them to be dirty; they actually make sex fun again--and not for the men, but for women. A refreshing change. Funny what you said about "greige"; I'm in love with all the fifty shades out there now in things like nail polish. Fun to see the written word influence our world in both big and small ways. Kind of hopeful.... Best wishes! Thanks, again!

Not everyone has read the Trilogy but it has broken sales records, surpassing all of Rowling's seven books combined in world-wide sales and breaking NYTimes Bestseller list records by monopolizing the top three spots for a solid 20 weeks. I started the series as a skeptical scholar and by the end of the second book, began to feel like this woman, Erica Leonard, was fifty shades of brilliant more than anything else. I do love Ellen's bit about the books--she's very funny. And it conveyed that sense of uncertainty surrounding the books and upcoming film. Thanks, again, for your great comment. Best wishes--

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