Fifty Shades of Grey and Deployment of Genre

There is a tendency to compare films to their apparently obvious genres. 50 Shades of Grey is an unsuccessful and unethical film because it misrepresents an ideal, narrativized pornography with the theme of BDSM.

What we fail to realize is that genre films don’t play so readily into simple categories, nor are they produced according to the genre classification of spectators alone. It is uninteresting, in fact, to point out the film’s unethical or narrative flaws. The better question to ask is why was the film made in 2014 and released in 2015, how it makes use of the generic codes that immediately preceded it, and what producers learned from the successes of prior films that then made them realize, “Now is the time to adapt 50 Shades to the screen.”

The answer, hopefully to be pursued by someone soon, is that the film is not a love story or a sex story or, according to some right wing groups, a work of a pornography. Rather, isn’t it more productive to discuss the film in light of its even more obvious genre, call it perhaps, “rich white man does whatever he wants and [maybe] suffers the consequences,” or “high finance drama in late capitalist times.” The successes of American Psycho to The Wolf of Wall Street seems to suggest that 50 Shades belongs here and now.

This is not an apology for the film (I’ve yet to see it [update: seen and perhaps ag). But in our extended and tireless efforts to make politically correct conclusions (“Consent is important!” Of course it is, we’re not stupid. Now let’s discuss the film…) we forget to ask more fundamental questions about the object under investigation, namely, why was this film made now and what factors contributed to its production. Put differently, how is it that WE are in fact responsible, through out consumption of films such as The Wolf of Wall Street, for the making and exhibition of the film.

Hollywood attempts to gather together as many genres as they can when they produce and market a film. I’m not doubting 50 Shades‘s attempt at being a romance. The release on Valentine’s brings in more viewers – those who are both ready to see an apparently romantic film and those that are keen on the high finance drama. Coincidentally: Generically, a date movie for the heterosexual couple? This has been Hollywood’s tactic for decades; throw in a little something for everyone.

So maybe I’d say it is being marketing as both. Compare the high finance aesthetic (there’s a similar poster for Mad Men):



to the sexual aesthetic:


The protest or rage against 50 Shades, then, really would need to have started some years ago with a number of other films. But, on the plus side, maybe the rage will shift producers’ perception of their consumers.

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