I can see why Fifty Shades of Grey has enamored grown women everywhere. The story of recent college graduate Anastasia Steele’s dark and sexually charged relationship with extremely wealthy, dashingly handsome Christian Grey has only one hitch- Grey’s kinky, S&M fetishes are non-negotiable if Ana wants to be his girlfriend. Christian is as deviant as Ana is chaste, yet Ana must decide whether to go to the dark side or stay true to her own convictions. This is no otherworldly vampire book or farfetched tale about kids forced to kill one another like the other recent megahits Twilight and The Hunger Games. This book is much more dangerous in the hands of young readers it’s trickling down to because it exploits something very real- love and commitment, and what young people should expect they deserve when navigating their first romantic feelings or relationships.
Fifty Shades of Grey depicts the train wreck sort of relationship many young people experience in their teens and 20s but it goes one step further. It’s the classic story of a good girl desperately trying to reach a bad boy, to be the only one who can ultimately save him with the power of her love alone. Most of us know how this ends- plenty of heartbreak is a given and good is usually corrupted. At worst, the good girl becomes jaded to trust and commitment. Even if bad boy Christian is miraculously reformed, it sends the wrong, misguided message that men like him can be “saved-” just what young girls are hoping to hear.
For women in healthy marriages 50 Shades offers a voyeuristic peek (no S&M pun initially intended) into a relationship anyone with real life experience knows is doomed. Though this is what keeps us reading, we can’t take our eyes off the train wreck even though we know we should really look away.
However, an ordinary character like Ana also normalizes the deviance of the S&M world, while sex is characterized as demented, lonely, and free from respect or commitment. Again, that might not be so troubling for the swarms of married ladies giggling over this book in their book clubs. What does concern me is the thought of high school girls getting their hands on it- making the fringe lifestyle of bondage, whips, and sexual torture commonplace, warping their thinking at a very impressionable age.
Many young people want to read the book simply because they’re watching their mothers read it now. It’s no different than some kids bragging they’d seen 9 ½ Weeks when I was a kid because we’d all heard the buzz about it on the schoolyard. My son recently begged me to read The Hunger Games for much of this past school year to no avail. He didn’t even know what it’s about, but he did hear lots of kids talking about it at school. Many of his 4th grade classmates then watched the PG-13 movie (which is even more violent than the book). Kids just aren’t as experienced in deciphering such heavy ideas as we are.
The fact that the franchise has spawned a return to hair braids in young girls’ fashion is proof that The Hunger Games has trickled down to kids. My 10-year-old niece recently attended a Hunger Games-inspired archery birthday party. After learning more about the plot, my sister was the only mom who didn’t also let her daughter attend the movie afterwards.
Today many girls in 9th and 10th grade identify as “cougars,” going after younger, less experienced middle school boys. The term became popular with Sex and the City, a show that is now rerun on cable television and heralded by a new generation of young fans. The prequel to Carrie Bradshaw’s story, set during her teenage years, is set to hit the big screen soon. Who do you think the target audience will be?
With this current trend, I cringe to think “whips,” “chains,” and “bondage” will soon become conversational terms in high school cafeterias across America.
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