In 2005, Stephenie Meyer wrote a book about a love triangle between a girl, a vampire and a werewolf. Twilight quickly spun out of control, spiraling from this basic premise into a complicated, multi-part treatise on abstinence and morality. Edward and Bella became props in a pro-life PSA, and the bestsellers launched a series of spectacularly bad films, which launched the careers of two major stars, whose subsequent relationship our future president Donald Trump tweeted about not once, but eleven times.
Now, thirteen years after a Mormon woman wrote some abstinence porn about a teen and an immortal who couldn’t do it, Fifty Shades of Grey, the Bella and Edward fan fiction turned literary phenomenon turned series of spectacularly bad films, just released its final installment—a movie about billionaire newlyweds who use butt plugs. Because, in the end, we all get what we deserve: a movie in which two clearly disassociated actors painstakingly lick drizzled ice cream off of each other’s genitals.
Thanks to Twilight, a generation of tweens and adolescents grew up with a preternatural desire for cursed, forbidden love and Robert Pattinson. In 2010, the series’ peak year, author Stephenie Meyer came in 59th on Forbes’ annual celebrity 100, with earnings of $40 million. In 2012, the year of the final installment, the Twilight film franchise had already raked in $2.5 billion at the global box office. Of course, a beloved YA series turned profitable film franchise is a classic equation, like Robert Pattinson plus painted-on abs or Taylor Lautner subtracting his shirt to reveal his natural abs. The success of Fifty Shades—a trilogy about a virgin who falls in love with a handsome, complicated, BDSM-loving billionaire—was a bit less expected.
E.L. James’ risqué series was credited with “transforming” the way that women consume erotica, becoming the first book to sell more than one million copies on Kindle. The trilogy also sparked a 25% boost in adult fiction sales, topped the New York Times’ best-sellers list for 30 weeks, and made James the highest-paid author of the year. In addition to making James richer than a fictional Seattle billionaire, Fifty Shades sparked a million knowing glances between subway Kindle readers and countless uncomfortable conversations. Suddenly, your mom wanted to talk to you about spanking and your partner was sending you Amazon links for Ben Wa balls.
When Universal Studies and Focus Features shelled out a reported $5 million for Fifty Shades’ film adaptation rights, they probably envisioned their own piece of a cultural phenomenon. By that measure, the movies—Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed—have been a complete disappointment. The film franchise has gotten more buzz for this Taylor Swift and Zayn Malik music video than for any singular installment. For a few years, Fifty Shades would show up at movie theaters around Valentine’s Day and offer a sort-of-appealing option for diehard franchise fans and large packs of drunk singles. I have never been to a Fifty Shades screening where the movie itself was funnier or more compelling than the audience’s heckles.
Of course, those of us who saw every installment were only subjected to around 6 hours of senseless dialogue—imagine the hell of being trapped inside of that franchise for years, storyboarding endless sex positions and racking your brain for some new way to use Rita Ora.
The franchise’s first two offerings, Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker, have been described as “boring”, “embarrassing”, “abysmally bad”, and “excessively stupid”. Writing on its final bow, Fifty Shades Freed, Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan correctly noted that, “No five-minute section in Fifty Shades Freed has any relation to the five minutes before it; the film just starts over. It’s Memento, but with butt plugs.” Emily Yoshida summed up the entire oeuvre as “a trilogy about a charming, intelligent young woman with just the right amount of self-awareness and sense of humor about herself, who happens to have a twisted kink for monogamy with the most boring man in the world.”
While difficult, it is not impossible to draw larger themes out of this random-ass franchise. As other critics have noted, Fifty Shades is just as horny for fancy apartments and luxury vehicles as it is for Jamie Dornan’s butt. The would-be feminist BDSM flicks are less about the female gaze and more about the realtor’s. So while the basic concept of the books and the films—crazy, kinky sex—is somewhat radical (or at least, not the subject of all too many mainstream blockbusters), the final result is heterosexual capitalist propaganda. Christian and Ana’s happy ending is affluent monogamy, just with a bunch of BDSM-related websites bookmarked on their shared penthouse iMac.
For two people who have very publicly failed at convincingly portraying the dynamics of a BDSM relationship, stars Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson are clearly masochistic. Rumors have long held that the couple at the center of the franchise truly hate each other, and it’s a hatred that neither of them seem to even be attempting to hide on screen. Instead of the best-case scenario, in which this friction results in some great hate sex, their interpersonal iciness manifests itself in two stilted, chemistry-less performances. In addition to a truly dreadful script, I believe that this is the main reason a franchise about two hot kinky people feels more like an hours-long car commercial.
Fifty Shades’ legacy will most likely be how the franchise managed to take good things (kinky sex, hot naked people, obscene wealth, books, Seattle) and make them mediocre. Christian is an unconvincing dom, Ana is a shitty sub, and apparently the cool-sounding gig of fiction editor at an indie publishing house consists entirely of adjusting font sizes. Even objectively thrilling moments—attempted murders, orgasms, saving Rita Ora—are made insignificant either through repetition or a complete lack of buildup and context. I’ve never sat in a beautiful Seattle office making a bunch of fonts bigger and then smaller, but I imagine it is exactly as exciting as any five minutes of Fifty Shades Darker.
The franchise’s total inability to leave a lasting impression is, in its own way, a strength. While James’ series was initially praised for starting a wider conversation about kink, it was also widely criticized by people who actually know a thing or two about BDSM.
In 2015, The Atlantic helpfully summarized, “As several experienced BDSM practitioners emphasized to me, there are healthy, ethical ways to consensually combine sex and pain. All of them require self-knowledge, communication skills, and emotional maturity in order to make the sex safe and mutually gratifying. The problem is that Fifty Shades casually associates hot sex with violence, but without any of this context. Sometimes, Ana says yes to sex she’s uncomfortable with because she’s too shy to speak her mind, or because she’s afraid of losing Christian; she gives consent when he wants to inflict pain, yet that doesn’t prevent her from being harmed.”
The article continued, “For all the talk of nipple clamps and butt plugs, BDSM is actually presented as a pathology, not a path to pleasure. Toward the middle of the first book, when Christian hands Ana a list of possible activities they might partake in, she reacts with shock—and, to an extent, a disgust that she never gets over. As Ana takes her first tour through the Red Room of Pain, she thinks to herself: ‘He likes to hurt women. The thought depresses me.’”
Fifty Shades is about a woman who feels she needs to endure certain sexual predilections in order to sleep with and ultimately save the man of her dreams. Consent is quite muddled, Christian is disturbingly controlling, and, as The Atlantic article notes, Grey’s “unhealthy” desire to dom is ultimately overcome with the help of monogamy, therapy, and true love. While the Fifty Shades films can’t help but reproduce some of these harmful narratives—they are, after all, the entire plot of the series—it feels more funny than insidious. By the time we get to Fifty Shades Freed, everyone seems to know that Christian is a needlessly neurotic human ankle monitor, and no one seems all too scared or shocked. Rather than submitting to certain sex acts in order to keep her husband happy, Ana doesn’t seem to take Christian’s various orders or warnings all too seriously.
Whereas the books set up a certain kind of controlling partner as the height of sex appeal, the movies inadvertently seem to be mocking this brand of hypermasculinity. In one particularly funny scene, Christian storms into Ana’s office to ask her why she didn’t immediately change her email address to Anastasia Grey. Christian’s opening lines—“I tried emailing you. It bounced. There’s no Anastasia Grey at this IP”—got some of the biggest laughs of the entire movie. Ana quickly gives Christian the slip, because his anger is unwarranted and she has lots of fonts she needs to attend to.
In a franchise full of good and so-bad-it’s-good asides, Fifty Shades Freed’s last line is in a league of its own. After resolving some heavy plot lines, Ana leads Christian to their playroom, leading him to remark, “You’re topping from the bottom, Mrs. Grey. But I can live with that.” It’s a perfect ending, as well as a glimpse into how good these movies could have been with some research, respectable dialogue, and just an iota of sexual chemistry. Instead, we got the Fifty Shades franchise we deserve: lots of joyless fucking, the occasionally great one-liner, and some really beautiful shots of Seattle real estate. I can live with that.