scorecardHere's why 100 million people have gone nuts over 'Fifty Shades of Grey'
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Here's why 100 million people have gone nuts over 'Fifty Shades of Grey'

Here's why 100 million people have gone nuts over 'Fifty Shades of Grey'
StrategyStrategy4 min read

anastasia steele fifty shades of grey.JPG

Universal Pictures/Focus Features

Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele.

The "Fifty Shades of Grey" movie made $81.7 million on its opening weekend, making it the most successful Presidents Day weekend debut in history and one of the biggest debuts for an R-rated movie.

Released in 2011, the first book became the fastest-selling novel written for adults of all time, and the three-part trilogy sold more than 100 million copies, putting it in the same class as the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" series and making its author, E.L. James, over $90 million in one year.

This is quizzical, given that the critical consensus is that both the books and the movie are pretty terrible.

Why have so many people become obsessed with "Fifty Shades" in print and on the screen?

To untangle that knot, we've gathered possible explanations from a range of reporters, critics, and academics:

While appearing new and divisive, "Fifty Shades" is an old, beloved story.

If you cut away the light bondage, "Fifty Shades" is the same story as "Beauty and the Beast," which was originally a French fairy tale first published in 1756 before becoming a blockbuster Disney feature.

So it's kinky, yet familiar.

"Fifty Shades" fits "the time-honored trope: innocent girl falls for troubled man, endures his anti-social behavior out of belief in his ultimate goodness, and eventually teaches him to be a sociable, polite member of society," writes blogger Joe Bunting.

That same "tame-the-ruffian" plot has been endlessly re-fashioned, from "Pretty Woman" to "My Fair Lady" to "Taming of the Shrew" to "10 Things I Hate About You."

New technology made the book accessible - and hideable.

"Fifty Shades" started as an e-book sensation, which may have helped give it an initial lift.

"People who like to trace all new trends back to new technology have offered this explanation - that women who wouldn't be seen dead reading smut on the tube could read it on their Kindle, and this launched a whole world of sales," argues Guardian columnist Zoe Williams.

It did. While e-books usually account for 20% of Random House's sales, 50% of "Fifty Shades" sales were digital.

Anti-fans couldn't stop talking about it.

People love to hate "Fifty Shades," argue British feminist lit scholars Sarah Harman and Bethan Jones in a 2013 article for the journal Sexualities, and that's a big reason that the series has swelled in popularity.

"We suggest that 'Fifty Shades' has ... generated an ironic, even guilty, fandom in which readers and viewers bemoan the series' ?aws, while enjoying (sometimes furtively) the texts," they write.

In this way, "hate reading" the books is a way of deeply engaging with them, as well as telling everybody about your taste. While the haters might dismiss the books as "bad literature," "popular," and "drivel," they're still talking about the books with their friends - making everybody more curious about what's inside.

It worked for the movie, too. MSNBC editor Adam Howard has said that "Fifty Shades" is a zeitgeist-capturing conversation-driver like another big 2015 release - "American Sniper."

"These are films that become events because of the 'controversy' they generate as well as their box office numbers (which becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy)," Howard writes. "They drive audiences into pro- or con- camps that often have little do with a film's merits and much more to do with what they represent for their fans or detractors."

The movie was incredibly well-timed.

Universal was originally going to release the "Fifty Shades" movie in October 2014, but saved it for the Valentine's Day and Presidents Day combo weekend, usually a time reserved for family-friendly romantic comedies.

"Fifty Shades" is anything but family friendly.

"The gamble paid off," analyst Phil Contrino tells Variety. "It flies in the face of what you'd expect to be released on that day. It's usually safe and non-offensive dramas and comedies."

The sex is good.

Most sex scenes in books are terrible, says Williams, the Guardian columnist. That's why the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award exists - for authors that describe sex with awkward metaphors and excruciatingly awkward sex scenes, which are often disconnected from the plot.

Then there's "Fifty Shades."

"James' sex scenes are not incidental; they are the meat of the plot, the crux of the conflict, the key to at least one of and possibly both the central characters," she says. "It is a sex book."

In this way, "Fifty Shades" captures something that serious fiction misses: sexuality. As New York Times critic A. O. Scott says, the novel "trashily" and "triumphantly" succeeded in being something that there's a proven market for: pornography.

The film - in fitting snugly within the R-rating - is much less explicit than the book, but surprisingly relatable.

"The sex scenes are closer to actual sex between two people who like each other than almost anything I've ever seen in a theater," wrote Business Insider's Shane Ferro. "They're not even really that good, but they are better than the male-centric sexual cliché that Hollywood usually churns out."