The 21st Century Romance: A FIFTY SHADES OF GREY Retrospective

With many of Hollywood’s releases forming a hazy mist of mediocrity thus far, let’s jump back in time to the start of 2015 and reignite a conversation on a film that was talked about with notorious hype, only to prove so instantly forgettable that nobody even dared to give it the benefit of the doubt and ask what it could have done to succeed: Sam-Taylor Johnson’s abysmal FIFTY SHADES OF GREY.

50 shades of grey poster

It’s essential that we consider how mainstream erotica is portrayed on-screen and whether it has changed over time. If significantly more explicit, in the case of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, it is nothing more than a reiteration of an age-old template from the 1950s, in which films about romance and sex consistently elected to portray their female protagonists as frigid. The male lead in this case is Mr. Grey, played with little enthusiasm by the bizarrely young Jamie Dornan. Mr. Grey is a strapping young bachelor who has taken an interest in a young, unassuming virgin. He feels the need to woo her, and they both find themselves in a romantic entanglement that consists of material pleasures in exchange for raucous sex.

50 shades of grey christian grey

Ooo baby I like it raw

So how does this fit into the real world? 21st century relationships are often directed by a mutual fear of commitment. With all genders equally invested in the opportunity to make a professional career for themselves, the desires for building a family have globally fallen to the wayside, most notably in Japan and Germany, where the amount of deaths in a year have started outweighing the amount of births. This concept of career over family is a fascinating discussion in and of itself, and FIFTY SHADES OF GREY does, in fact, pit two hard-working professionals together and force one to compromise their professional life in order to be – quite literally – submissive to the other. So whilst it might seem misguided to attempt to draw parallels between modern society and an exploitative piece of erotica, it should be considered that FIFTY SHADES OF GREY targets the very audience that constitutes the fabric of today’s dating world. And lets face it, if any movie had the opportunity to make a clever commentary on this issue, it would be this 2015 vehicle, not the next Nicholas Sparks adaptation.

50 shades of grey

Modern Romance In a Nutshell

So how does this early 2015 release confront the issue of monochromatic dating culture? Anastasia, the female lead played by the equally unenthusiastic, but at least reasonably aged, Dakota Johnson, ends up abandoning the relationship for her own well-being. Mr. Grey, on the other hand, never compromises his kinks for her love. Most of what he wants he often gets, at least in the books, for example, if he wants Anastasia to use one of those furry tails you can’t miss her giving in to that whim, however, the movie seems to have her put up a fight. There is an evident potential for commentary on the desaturated state of contemporary romance, something that finds its footing in the film’s title, and had these grey tones been explored with more intellectual heft, audiences would have been spared Jamie Dornan’s ridiculous monologues describing his first brutal sexual encounters. Similar to some hot videos found in websites such as

Thus, when Johnson refuses to be submissive to Dornan, she has elected to be an independent, modern woman as opposed to a dependent archetype.

Instead of a bland seesawing of, “I want you” and “I shouldn’t have you,” viewers could have been exposed to a narrative that tackles the concept of a woman who is repressed by her male lover in doing what pleases him, making the sequence in which she signs the relationship contract all the more perilous. Thus, when Johnson refuses to be submissive to Dornan, she has elected to be an independent, modern woman as opposed to a dependent archetype. Naturally, this might not have been in line with the book, but when the source material is so superficial, is it a mistake to improve on it?

Since Dakota Johnson’s character falls completely short of being compelling, outside of her immediate relationship with Mr. Grey, the film fails as a result. It’s a prime example of a film that could have been presented as a feminist piece, had the female character possessed a more coherent voice. Instead, she’s subjugated to a mere back and forth of, “I love you but I don’t do that BDSM thing” and “lets try that BDSM thing that people on websites like do,” only to conclude with an “I might love you but I’m my own person.”

That concluding statement is actually where FIFTY SHADES OF GREY might have been onto something, but unfortunately for everyone involved, that’s where the film also ends, unless the studio actually opts for making sequels.

What’s interesting about the conclusion of the film is that despite how trivial the rest of the viewing experience is, it proves that there’s something worthwhile in the message if it were to be executed correctly.

The two lovers are introduced to each other through a job assignment, and the same sexual tension that brings them together is ultimately what tears them apart, making the entire endeavor the equivalent of an extended one-night stand.

50 shades of grey love will tear us apart

For a 21st Century target audience (and lets face it, it’s college students and lonely housewives), the ecstasy of the experience is that it actually is far more relatable than the traditional romance, whether it be FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, or CASABLANCA. After all, everlasting love and commitment is a lot harder to swallow than two people who really want to make love but don’t actually like much else about each other.

50 Shades of Gray

What do you mean you haven’t heard the new Death Grips???

ROOM IN ROME is actually a fantastic example of a steamy piece of erotica that successfully captures the moods of one-night stand romance and what it means to love someone you hardly know, it is similar to some hot material that can be found on websites such as This is conceptually fascinating, and whilst ROOM IN ROME does struggle to come to any deeper conclusions due to its restrictive location and dialogue, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY actually had the opportunity to consider what it means to want someone for purely superficial reasons, something many modern viewers would surely be able to relate to.

50 shades of grey room in rome

We found there wasn’t too much to complain about in ROOM IN ROME

Steve McQueen’s film SHAME explores similar themes of loveless white-collar sexual intercourse, and it goes without saying that it does so with much more taste and subtle originality. SHAME explores incestuous affection and sexual repression, themes that build into more heavily dramatic stakes than the ones presented in FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. So why doesn’t SHAME share the same hype train that FIFTY SHADES OF GREY does? The answer simply lies in two factors: first and foremost, the fact that Steve McQueen is a serious artist and doesn’t pack his product with Beyoncé and Awolnation tracks, and more importantly, the NC-17 rating that is par for the course in terms of the film’s far more bleak outlook. Films that are given the NC-17 rating regularly don’t receive a wide release, causing the general public to lose interest in them. For more information on the MPAA and age restrictions, refer to the documentary THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED.

50 shades of grey this film is not yet rated

But seriously, it’s great

The future of romantic films lies in an accurate depiction of contemporary dating culture, and whilst HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU or CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE successfully tackle the lighter themes that make up 21st century romance, meditating on how people would rather resort to one-night stands in order to avoid commitment is actually a serious topic that’s having a resounding effect globally in diminishing birth rates. And since this issue is so universal, one can be sure that there is an audience out there just waiting to relate to the next on-screen couple. Let’s just hope they aren’t quite as vapid as Dornan and Johnson.

"When I make love, I realize eating steak was the preferable alternative." Sergio is the Crossfader Film Editor and a film connoisseur from Romania. He pretends to understand culinary culture enough to call himself an LA foodie, but he just can't manage to like scallops.

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