Explaining Fifty Shades of Grey With Our Anonymous Panel of Experts

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It seemed to dissipate for a while but then, with news of the casting of its film version, that Trojan gift to literature Fifty Shades of Grey was back on our pop culture consciousness with a vengeance. (Latest news: The Sons of Anarchy star Charlie Hunman is out and Once Upon a Time actor Jamie Dornan is in as spank happy Christian Grey.)

Like the Highlander or the herp, Fifty Shades never really goes away.

For those of you blissfully unaware of the housewife friendly BDSM phenom, KQED Pop enlisted a panel of closet Fifty Shadies (a new term we just invented for fans of the trilogy) to explain to us some of the very basics of the "novels," their reaction to casting news and whether or not Grey is destined to become trash for the ages.



P1: 29-years-old, works in the fashion industry. Generally reads classic literature with a few palette cleansing forays into trash between excursions into Victor Hugo

P2: 23-years-old, newly engaged college student. Tastes range from waiting in line for comic book film adaptions to big budget musicals and all manner of sports viewing.

P3: 37-years-old, former tech executive, current stay-at-home-mom and member of several ladies auxiliaries. Loves classic punk rock, early Tex Avery cartoons and subscribes to The New Yorker.

KQED: Hi panelists. Thanks for talking to us. As promised your identities will be protected. First and foremost, in words that people who don't care can understand, what are the Fifty Shades of Grey? Do they start with sort of a battleship and go all the way to charcoal?

P1: Haha. No.

P2: I'd summarize the books with this: a sex crazed billionaire who gets everything he wants when he wants it by any means necessary is forced to learn patience and trust when he meets a special lady.

P3: Just say "a journey of self discovery and boundary pushing sexually and emotionally" yada yada blah.

KQED: What are your credentials for explaining this "literature": i.e. what other "literature" have you read?

P1: I assume when you say "literature" with those air quotes you mean "trash."

P3: I read my share of early Anne Rice and romance novels growing up.

P2: I buzzed through the Twilight series when I had mono.

P1: I prefer the classics: Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls, Marjory Morningstar.

KQED: Who are the major characters?

P2: Sexy, kinky billionaire Christian "50 Shades" Grey and Anastasia Steele, English lit major with some hang-ups, are the primaries.

P1: Secondarily we have Ana's best friend and roommate Katherine (Kate) Kavanagh, Anastasia's photographer friend Jose (who's in love with her), Christian's brother Elliot Grey (love interest of Kate), Mia Grey (Christian's sister), Ethan Kavanagh (Kate's bro and Mia's love interest), Jack Hyde (Ana's boss) and Elena Lincoln (Mrs. Robinson) Christian's friend/business partner and the woman who introduced him to BDSM at the age of 15.

KQED: Now that we know who they are, what's wrong with these people?

P1: Anastasia is beautiful, but unaware of it, and thinks she's not attractive enough for Christian. She's also uncomfortable with his wealth and it is often a source of discord between them.

P3: Christian was abused as a child by his prostitute mother's pimp and adopted/rescued when he was 4 by his adoptive parents the Greys

KQED: Let's just cut to the chase: talk about the hitting.

P2: As a result of how he was treated as a child, Christian had anger issues and lashed out at school and home. At 15 one of his mother's friends decided she knew a way to channel his anger, and she becomes his dominant and introduces him to BDSM. Eventually he decided he wanted to be dominant and leaves the "relationship"

KQED: At 15?

P1: It's very The Reader.

KQED: So, apparently it's three books? Why in God's name is it three books?

P3: Yes! Fifty Shades, Fifty Shades: Darker and Fifty Shades: Freed.

P2: The first book sets up the relationship with Ana and Christian: their meeting, dating (or whatever you can call it), hooking up "vanilla style", then not so vanilla. She wants to know how spicy it can get, he shows her, she can't deal with it and it ends with them breaking up.

P1 In the second book Ana gets her first job out of college, becomes an assistant to Jack Hyde at a publishing company, reunites with Fifty (after he makes some concessions). Then Ana meets Mrs. Robinson, and gets stalked by one of Fifty's old subs. Christian, being the jealous, over-protective and the controlling megalomaniac that he is, decides to buy the company that Ana works for. Ana's boss Jack makes very forceful unwanted sexual advances towards her, she tells Christian and he fires him when he takes over the company. It ends at a party at Christian's parents house, where he announces he and Ana are engaged while Jack lurks outside, plotting.

P3: The third book is...honeymoon meow...the boss trying to extract revenge...Ana finally getting through to Christian about how Mrs. Robinson is not really his friend, she's a child molester who took advantage of him and despite all her protests to the contrary actually wants Christian back. Phew, drama! Ana gets preggo, Fifty takes some convincing on the future parent front, for obvious reasons, and evil Jack gets served! They move into a house Fifty designed for them and have another baby. They live happily ever after (whip cracking sound).

P1: Shoot! I forgot the red room of pain, the plane crash, the shooting and the fire!!!!

KQED: Clarification: when you say "Mrs. Robinson" do you mean the lady from The Graduate and when you say "Fifty" do people actually call him that, like 50 Cent?

P2: Kind of.

KQED: So, on a scale of V.C. Andrews (high) to Stephanie Meyer (low), how trashy is it?

P1: Twilight wasn't trashy at all, at least not by Harlequin standards: there's really only one descriptive sex scene and it's obviously written by a Mormon. I never read Flowers in the Attic or other V.C. Andrews books: I was too busy reading trashy predictable Harlequin "romances" and actual works of literature. I hope I don't lose my street cred with that admission.

P2: It's somewhere between later V.C. Andrews and early erotica Anne Rice.

P3: Agreed.

KQED: As fans, do you think Fifty Shades of Grey can really be filmed?

P2: Honestly, we will see.

P1: You could make an okay film with all the non-sexual drama in the book, there's lots of action.

P3: In actuality the main focus of the book is their relationship, and how it evolves physically and emotionally: physically being the key word. A main point of contention between them is him thinking he needs the BDSM and her struggle to understand/accept that and learn her boundaries, while also pushing his.

P2: Leaving out the sex in the movie version would be like leaving out a number in an equation.

KQED: What do you think of the film casting?

P2: I like it for the most part. I'm happy with the Christian change.

P1: Dornan physically looks more like Christian as described in the books. Luke Grimes as Elliot is perfect: I totally see him as an approachable, laid back, ladies man.

P3: I don't know how I feel about Jennifer Ehle playing Ana's mom Carla: she's Lizzy Bennet to me. My poor brain, Pride and Prejudice mixing with Fifty Shades. Jane Austin is harrumphing in Mr. Darcy's grave I bet.

KQED: Is there an ideal Christian among you?

P3: We all agree on Matt Bomer: hair, eyes, body, perfect.

P2: 2nd place, Ian Somerhalder. He's got the smoldering introspection down!

KQED: And an ideal Anastasia?

P2: Dakota Johnson looks more like a Kate: confident, poised, blond and traditionally beautiful, Alexis Bledel would be a better Ana, reserved, unknowingly beautiful, convincingly naive, shy, and a little clumsy.

KQED: How much longer do you think I'm going to hear about this? Is it trash for the ages?

P1: Until something "better" comes along. Part of why I think people are so fascinated is you can spend hours debating whether it's a detriment or asset to feminism.

KQED: Honestly: have you been inspired to hit anyone during the act since you read the books?

P1: No but a good spanking never hurt anyone.

P2: A little.

P3: Yes, but only in anger and only because he deserved it. I'm kidding. No.

KQED:If you were going to make a comedy parody who would you cast?

(The following have been agreed upon by all three panelists)

Seth Myers as Fifty
Tina Fey as Ana
Amy Poehler as Kate
Skinny Seth Rogan as Elliot Grey
Zach Galifianakis as Jose
Sarah Jessica Parker as Mrs Robinson

KQED: In conclusion, you're all smart, well-balanced ladies with fantastic taste in all other areas. Why do you like this book?

P3: Besides the mommy porn?

P1 Well, forgetting that it's not actually well-written, I like that Christian and Ana struggle, that they have depth and a hint of layers, especially compared with other "romance" novel characters. I like men that know themselves and what they want, who take charge, and get things done. It' sexy. And I think a lot of woman feel this way.

P2: Because women are problem solvers, who doesn't like a fixer upper in the guise of a grown man who can't be touched and has trust issues? We feel guilty; our feminists fore-mothers are shaming us from the grave. He takes over her life, I can hear them saying, "he's demanding, over bearing, bossy, stalky and micro-managy," which isn't a word, whatever, and he is all those things! And she fights it, and embraces it at the same time. I think women have a similar struggle: we want someone to be that "into" us, to consume us, while still keeping our identities. Ana often enjoys relinquishing control to him, like a weight has been lifted. Again, I hear them groaning, threatening to come at me with pitchforks.

P3: At first glance it's so predictable... attractive, broody, emotionally aloof billionaire whisks hardworking, poor girl off her feet. It's a rescue fantasy, white knight included, what we all secretly wish for and are embarrassed by. I know I'm supposed to be a strong independent woman, but sometimes you just want someone else to pay the bills and make the decisions.

P2: Just deal with it Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and shove that down your PANTS Betty Friedan! Sorry, that was too far, where was I... oh yes, here's where the fairytale and Fifty Shades diverge... Cinderella never got flogged, or spanked, never got silver balls put up her princess parts, never enjoyed getting an A+ in you-know-what jobs 101, and Prince Charming didn't have a bondage room in the castle and a non-disclosure agreement to keep Cinderella from blabbing to the tabloids.


P1: I think Fifty Shades "secretly" lets woman indulge in a fantasy of submission that we are supposed to be embarrassed/repelled/angered by. And while Christian Grey is an extremely exaggerated version of that fantasy, it exists none-the-less.