Over the past month, Fifty Shades of Grey has gone from a passé novel described as the “eighth-grade gurglings” of a horny housewife to a movie production anticipated mostly by dread and boredom and preceded by a self-undermining press tour to an actual movie that actual people are seeing in historic droves—the biggest February movie in American history. And it’s even getting applauded, in part because the move to screen excised most of E L James’s excruciating prose. The entire 500-page book takes place within Anastasia Steele’s internal monologue—it’s sort of the Ulysses of lovestruck virgins—but the movie has no narration.
But Ana’s neurotic stream-of-consciousness was the only thing I liked about the books—to the point that I skipped most of the sex scenes. Truth is, Fifty Shades is a horrible book about sex. But it’s a great book about dating, and the way that early-stage romance turns you into a self-conscious, self-doubting internal Greek chorus. After Christian and Ana, the two most significant characters are Ana’s anthropomorphized superego and id. The superego, referred to as “my subconscious,” is a sour-faced underminer who rolls her eyes, purses her lips, and critiques Ana’s feelings. The id, referred to as “my inner goddess,” cheers every time Christian unbuttons his pants. (Fifty Shades hate-bloggers often mistake “inner goddess” for a euphemism for “vagina,” owing to the inner goddess’s tendency to “do the merengue” at moments of arousal.) Even assuming you can get over the bad prose, a task like acclimating to a bad smell, the book is a slog, because every plot point comes packaged with surreal fights between Anastasia and her psychic apparatuses. And yet, as a portrayal of the hesitations and anxieties of dating, Fifty Shades is genuinely engrossing.
If dating’s endgame is the procurement of a single suitable mate, then its central task is measuring both the desirability and the practicality of a suitor. You place yourself in someone else’s context, then ask, “Do I like this? Can I live with that? Do I like this enough to live with that?” This exact negotiation drives Fifty Shades: Anastasia loves Christian, but does she love him enough to endure pain? Wait—what if Ana likes pain? How much pain? Is her pain threshold compatible with Christian’s desires? Since relationship demands this sexy are relatively rare, imagine, for a moment, that the secret hiding in Christian’s apartment is not a sex dungeon but that he lives with his mother. Anastasia’s dilemma remains roughly the same: Does she like his mom? Can she live with his mom? Does she love Christian enough to put up with his mom? How much mom is too much mom? What is Ana’s hard limit for mom involvement, and is it compatible with Christian’s need for her?
“All of dating is just, ‘How much of a freak is this guy, and am I okay with it?’ ” my friend Holly observed. “Then you’re like, ‘Double crap! Total freak!’—until you either break up or move in together.” Or, as Ana frets after reading Christian’s BDSM contract, “What am I going to do? I want him, but on his terms? I just don’t know. Perhaps I should negotiate what I want. Go through that ridiculous contract line by line and say what is acceptable and what isn’t. Am I prepared to give him that? Am I even capable?”
And since everyone has their own line, each relationship is a new negotiation. When I asked people about the “shades of grey” negotiations in their relationships, they cited spending habits, sleeping habits, texting speed, privacy, talking during movies, relative need for attention, and relative tolerance for children and pets. When a friend realized her fiancé’s family was racist, she was fine with it—as long as she never had to spend more than 24 hours with them. They stayed together. When another friend’s boyfriend couldn’t afford his half of the rent, she thought she was fine paying more—until he pointed out she was using this disparity as a trump card in fights. They broke up.
“For me, it’s tidiness,” a real-life friend named Christian said at a recent dinner in Chinatown. How many shades of messiness could he endure if his boyfriend, Brian, moved in permanently? “Or maybe your boyfriend walks really slowly, and if he goes any slower you’ll break up with him,” Brian retorted. “Or he picks fights about nostalgia,” Christian snapped back. At the end of Fifty Shades of Grey, I inform them, Anastasia asks (fictional) Christian to inflict the worst pain he can. “Punish me. I want to know how bad it can get,” she whispers. “And you and I will know, once and for all, if I can do this.” Maybe after dinner, I suggest, real-life Christian should walk as slowly as possible while Brian ridicules his nostalgia. If they make it home without breaking up, they’ll know their love is real. Boring stories in the cold could be their version of ritualized torture at the hands of a loved one.
Of course, there’s nothing sexy about discussing nostalgia in the cold. Discussing sex, though, is inherently sexy, which explains why Fifty Shades fans seem to enjoy even the 3,000-word mock legal contract that takes up an entire chapter of this book. E L James’s fantasy appeals not only to BDSM fetishes but also to a sort of modern fetish for communication. Christian and Ana spend more time negotiating sex than actually having it. The negotiations themselves account for a huge portion of the relationship—they’re trapped in a metarelationship, a never-ending session of couple’s therapy. And when they do have sex, the supposedly red-hot action is strangely disengaged: “Has any woman ever been less generous in the bedroom, to greater result, than Anastasia Steele?” Vox’s Amanda Taub asks, pointing out that Ana literally just lies there for most of the movie’s sex scenes.
Part of the Fifty Shades fantasy is that merely articulating a problem can fix it. As in a fairy tale, the sheer force of Ana’s longing seems to transform Christian from a priapic sadist who hates being touched into a gentle boyfriend who likes being the big spoon. But Ana barely registers the romantic triumph; she’s too absorbed in her own self-doubt. When Christian fails to make eye contact during a public event, Anastasia approaches insanity: “Why won’t he look at me? Perhaps he’s changed his mind? A wave of unease washes over me. Perhaps walking out on him last night was the end for him, too. He’s bored of waiting for me to make up my mind. Oh, no, I could have completely blown it. I remember his e-mail last night. Maybe he’s mad that I haven’t replied.” And yet I have to admit that, in my bleakest romantic moments, I have probably reached this level of obsession.
In reality, relationship negotiations are often worse than the problem itself. “I once dated a guy who decided to go vegan,” my friend Helen recalled. “I really had to wrestle with that. I love meat so much.” Compromising was painful: “One day, he said, ‘You wanna get barbecue?’ And I spent hours dreaming of brisket. Then we arrive at this vegan barbecue, and I was so mad. I made him take me to In-N-Out on the way home.” What’s more, while his body was adapting to the new diet, he became extremely gassy. Going out was an affront to her taste buds; staying in was an affront to her nose. The breaking point came the day he cooked chorizo tacos for her. “I was like, ‘Yes! The veganism is over.’ I ate three, and then he laughed and said, ‘It was soy chorizo. You couldn’t even tell.’ ” But wasn’t that a sign that veganism was tolerable, I asked? “No. He deceived me. I had assumed he was a shitty cook, which I could live with. But he’d made a fool of me.” Bad taste is manageable, she reasoned. But betrayal is unforgivable.
The weekend of the movie’s premiere, a female friend told me that the guy she’d been seeing texted at 8:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day to see if she felt like going on a date. He hadn’t mentioned Valentine’s Day before that moment, an omission that irritated her. “This is your shade of grey!” I cried. “You need more predictability than he is currently offering.” After a pause, she informed me that my interest in Fifty Shades had perhaps gone too far. But how much Fifty Shades is too much Fifty Shades? Surely there is room for negotiation? Is likening your BFF’s feelings to Fifty Shades of Grey the hard limit of female friendship? “You are obsessed,” she said. And while my subconscious hid her face in shame, my inner goddess polished her reading glasses.
*This article appears in the February 23, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.