To Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, the kink-happy romantic leads of the epochal Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, sex is everything. It’s a life force, the flame that keeps a relationship going and whose eventual extinguishment represents the death of romance. They treat their elaborate bondage sessions as therapeutic mediation, channeling their frustrations and desires into rewards and punishments. The strict compartmentalizations of the dominant-submissive relationship enable Christian to keep his women at arm’s length, and eventually provide Ana with an avenue into his heart. In these movies, sex is everywhere and in everything, but the Fifty Shades series is not about sex. It’s not even about the more abstract forces for which sex acts as a vessel — power, self-loathing, what have you.
Fifty Shades of Grey is, first and foremost, a subtle elegy to a print-media industry in its final death throes.
The newly released final installment, Fifty Shades Freed, finds our gal Anastasia reaffirming herself as more than Mrs. Grey. Because she isn’t just a willing receptacle for her billionaire beau’s exotic erotic aggressions; Anastasia Steele, we are repeatedly told, is a woman of letters. She begins the first film as an English lit major soon to graduate magna cum laude from an esteemed Vancouver college. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson introduces Ana on her way to cover for her roommate and best friend, who’s too sick to interview Christian for the university paper. When her friend expresses a bit of consternation about everything going smoothly, Ana reassures her, “I’ve got a 4.0 GPA and a GPS. I think I can handle this.”
Ana cannot handle this. The meet-cute between Christian and Ana (henceforth referred to for convenience’s sake by the celebrity portmanteau “Chrana”) also holds the distinction of being the single most painful interview ever conducted within the confines of a silver screen. I cannot deny that I’ve been on the business end of quite a few Q&As I wish I could take back, but never in my life have I bungled a simple informational sit-down with the exquisite cocktail of unprofessionalism and rank incompetence that Ana brings to her assignment. Journalism is all about the five W’s: who, what, when, where, why. Ana is too distracted by the comfortingly square-faced hunk of marble sitting across from her to follow basic protocols of journalistic rigor.
All that, not to mention the gross ethical violations inherent to her getting involved with a subject. In her brief window as a substitute writer, Ana has opened her college newspaper to a potentially crippling malpractice suit and a massive scandal. The legal fees alone would be enough to shutter an operation that’s undoubtedly scraping along as is, if they’re not found guilty in what’s pretty much an open-and-shut case. In her wake, Ana leaves a trail of empty copywriter desks.
Yet Ana continues to fail upward, a living illustration of the nepotism that has contributed to a larger mass of ills for the publishing industry. The business of getting novels made and sold has grown into an insular club for the connected and wealthy, and Ana’s a clear beneficiary of her boyfriend’s status. At the start of Fifty Shades Darker, Ana has landed a new gig as the assistant to a high-powered editor at a publishing house in Seattle. He regularly berates her for being bad at her job, and though we learn that he’s only doing that to break down her confidence before he makes an unwanted advance, the film never mounts a convincing case that she’s very good at it, either. She signs the hilariously named Boyce Fox for his fantasy novel Purgatory in the Inferno series, an outrage by anyone’s measure.
Almost as if in spite of her most determined efforts, Ana continues to rise at the elite Seattle International Publishing in Fifty Shades Freed. After taking time off from work for her wedding and a lavish honeymoon through France, Ana returns to SIP to find that, much to her surprise, she’s been promoted! At the ripe old age of 22, she’s been appointed head of fiction acquisitions, a contrast wryly noted by one of her co-workers in the film’s lone gasp of reason. Ana’s not totally naïve, though, even though being naïve is kind of her thing. She knows that people are going to trace a line between Christian Grey’s recent acquisition of SIP and his exceptionally young girlfriend’s rapid ascent in his company. When she voices these concerns to Christian, he comforts her by telling her that she didn’t sleep her way to the middle, that she got here because of “hard work and talent.” This is a strong contender for the most outlandish line across the 300-plus minutes of these films.
Ana is hardly ever in the office, providing the leadership and directional vision that a good editor needs to foster a cohesive slate of releases. In her most purposeful contribution shown onscreen, she tells an underling to “increase that font size by two points” and a best seller is born. She’s always galavanting off somewhere or other, taking untold days off to jet-set to a secluded palatial cabin, then further shirking her duties just because her psycho stalker kidnapped her sister-in-law Rita Ora. (The last half of this thing really picks up.) It’s no wonder that book sales are in a nosedive, when the key executive shot-callers keep storming out of the office to go get their buttocks pulverized.
In one of his first overtures to win her affection, Christian buys Ana a “first-edition” copy of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. (Shades of the part in The Boy Next Door when the evil sexy teen buys J.Lo a first-edition copy of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, ostensibly from ancient Greece.) Ana’s immediately taken with this gift, and in that moment, we see her as she truly is. She’s always been more enamored of the idea of literature than its hard nuts and bolts. The work of an editor can be thankless, unglamorous, menial, and highly technical, often reliant more upon keen analytical and organizational skills than a sixth sense for great undiscovered artists. Just as they left her newspaper in a shambles, so too will Ana’s constant absenteeism and lack of editorial experience be SIP’s undoing. There are too many naked scenes for anyone to notice, but by the end of the franchise, Ana Steele has single-handedly dismantled the entire literary scene of the Pacific Northwest.
E.L. James’s word-of-mouth sensation could not have come to pass in an ink-and-paper marketplace. Because America is a nation descended from thoroughly vanilla Pilgrims, some stigmas are still attached to reading salacious prose in public, so the e-reader was a godsend to the nation’s friskier moms. With this in mind, it starts to add up that Ana would inadvertently destroy the culture of print from the inside out. Why should she, or James, need it? Her books are a product of the internet’s untamed wilds, where gatekeepers in implausibly telegenic exposed-brick offices don’t decide who gets rich and who doesn’t. The ultimate dream in this medley of fantasies is a world where there’s no one to say no to Fifty Shades of Grey. Whether she’s writing on sex or slackened editorial standards, James wants yes after yes.