Brow Beat

A Book Club Book Club

Four Fifty Shades of Grey readers discuss how seriously (or not) the new rom-com takes E.L. James’ series.

Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen in the movie Book Club.
Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen in the movie Book Club.
Melinda Sue Gordon - © 2018 Paramount Pictures

You certainly don’t have to be a Fifty Shades of Grey fan to enjoy Book Club, the new romantic comedy that stars Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen. But the movie, in which four women’s lives are forever changed by reading E.L. James’ infamous series, is bound to appeal to people who have already read the books, especially since the characters’ romances are intermixed with discussions about Christian Grey’s merits as a leading man and digs at James’ style of writing. (“Inner goddess doing the merengue my ass” complains Bergen’s character at one point.)

Since half the fun of reading Fifty Shades is talking to other people who have read Fifty Shades, we convened a book club of our very own, made up of skeptics and superfans alike, to discuss how Book Club uses James’ books and their reputation to achieve its own ends. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation, which took place over Slack, is below.

This conversation contains spoilers for Book Club.

Marissa Martinelli: OK, ladies. Who’s ready for some white wine and puns?

Lili Loofbourow: Ready.

Lena Wilson: So ready.

Rachelle Hampton: My inner goddess is dancing.

Martinelli: Let’s start with an easy question: Did you think Book Club had too much Fifty Shades of Grey, too little, or just enough?

Wilson: Not even close to enough. The trailers promised me way more Fifty Shades than I received.

Hampton: I want to say too little because nothing ever really has enough Fifty Shades for me, but in reality I think it had just the right amount.

Loofbourow: Just enough. I feel like Fifty Shades in practice serves a more, um, catalytic function—and that’s exactly what it does here.

Martinelli: We should establish our Fifty Shades credentials. It’s Jane Fonda’s character, Vivian, who suggests that her book club read Fifty Shades of Grey, and she’s met with skepticism from the rest of the group. When did you first read Fifty Shades, and what were your expectations going in?

I remember exactly where I was when I first started reading—still in high school, working at the local public library. I had heard a couple of the librarians talking about it (this was just after Vintage Books had republished it) so I very discreetly grabbed a copy and kept sneaking peeks at it while I worked. And let me tell you, I was scandalized, but also pretty amused.

Hampton: I hope my mom doesn’t read this, because I read it the summer before my senior year of high school. The girl who always gave me rides to school, because I to this day do not have a driver’s license, told me to read them and so I read all three of them in about two days.

Wilson: Oh my God, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to interact with these while I was still in high school. They became big in my world during my first year of college, and since I was at Smith with a bunch of #woke #feminists, they pretty much immediately became a meme. I saw the movie before I read the book (!) so I didn’t read the book until about a year ago. Morbid curiosity got the best of me. But it was every bit as bad and amazing and not at all sexy as I’d been promised.

Loofbourow: My first major theoretical exposure to Fifty Shades was thanks to a group of ladies in my family who are roughly in the age group of the ladies here—though not great readers, they were all reading it with enormous interest and discussing it. I only read it last year, with (full disclosure) enormous skepticism. But I ended up really “getting” why it’s as popular as it is. I think it’s setting out and explicitly exploring a lot of secret compromises plenty of women live with.

Martinelli: Yeah, I think those compromises are definitely at the heart of Book Club, and probably why the filmmakers chose to center the story around Fifty Shades in the first place. I mean, it’s not a coincidence that this book was chosen for a movie about women who are in their 60s and 70s, right? “Mommy porn,” etc. etc.

Loofbourow: Right! And I think one of the things Book Club really does is theorize one of the functions of a typical book club, which isn’t necessarily literary. It’s social, right? A constant working-out of the problems presented in books.

Wilson: What do you mean by “secret compromises,” Lili?

Loofbourow: I mean marriage. :)

The book pretty explicitly lays out the ways that the “contract” between Christian and Ana might be more fair—and grants more actual agency, and discussion and negotiation of thorny issues—than the slippery traditions of the marriage contract, which women entered into long before they actually had legal agency.

The sex stuff might be the most unsayable part of most marriages—especially for women in this demographic. Never mind the particulars!

Hampton: I did find the instant backlash against the idea of the contract really interesting when the books first came out, because as Lili said, there were aspects of it that were more fair than the unspoken contracts of relationships today.

Martinelli: You really see that play out in Carol’s [Mary Steenburgen] plotline too. It’s actually not bondage or BDSM that livens up her marriage, as you might expect from a sex comedy centered around Fifty Shades. In fact, most of that stuff, like when she tries to entice her husband into tying her up with zip ties, is played for laughs, because he’s just not having it. It’s more the line of communication that opens up, when she finally becomes comfortable bringing up their sex life after reading Fifty Shades, that rescues their lackluster relationship.

Wilson: Well, she doesn’t exactly feel comfortable bringing it up until after she drugs her husband.

Loofbourow: One of the things that struck me about this movie was how it took a lot of rom-com tropes and gave them an extra unexpected twist. I’d expect the episode in which Carol drugs Bruce with Viagra to play exclusively for (pretty ill-conceived) laughs. And look: The movie really does—this is one big visual joke—but to me, the surprise twist is how, rather than remain in that cringey slapstick mode, it also pretty carefully validates Bruce’s outrage at having his body violated.

The next beat of that storyline does something sort of similar: His explanation in the middle of the night is pretty believable and genuine, even moving. I’d have expected that to be the Big Breakthrough Reconciliation scene; usually, when the big guy starts communicating with his wife and shares his feelings is when the wife melts in gratitude. But that’s not actually what Carol wants—she’s longing for physical as well as psychological connection—so the way she receives Bruce’s hurt, pained monologue about life after retirement is sad and sympathetic, but the distance between them doesn’t resolve.

Hampton: Yeah, Lili, this movie very sensitively portrayed people and moments that are normally played for laughs, which I really appreciated.

Wilson: That’s very true! Maybe that’s why I was a little bored by the movie—it didn’t feed me what I’m used to being fed. And it also was very, very much not made for me. I mean, I’m a huge romantic who loves rom-coms, so I think I was expecting bigger beats here. But the movie also does a lot to distance itself from any kind of gay reading. During their first date, Diane and Mitchell talk about their first kisses, and Mitchell asks Diane if hers was with a girl. She splutters and cries, “No!”

Admittedly, that’s a somewhat subversive moment in and of itself, because you don’t often see women asserting their straightness in the defensive way men do, and in that interaction, Mitchell was more chill than you might expect the average male baby boomer to be. Still, the movie was very explicitly tailored toward heterosexuality in a way that, at least to me, somehow felt more rigid than other rom-coms.

But I mean, I’m into Fifty Shades because I was introduced to it as a misogynistic, hyperhetero nightmare and I was morbidly curious. So there are layers!

Martinelli: That rigid heterosexuality is pretty true to the Fifty Shades series itself. When Ana and Christian Grey first meet, her asking if he’s gay, and his denial, is a pretty major inciting moment for them as a couple, so this was an interesting gender reversal of those roles.

Also, Lena, I think it’s also fair to say that you’re the biggest Fifty Shades skeptic among us.

Wilson: That appears to be the case, yes!

Hampton: I think there are shades (LOL) that Book Club picked up on from the series that I wish it had dispensed with, the hyperstraightness and, for me, the overwhelming whiteness of the entire movie really struck me.

Loofbourow: So white.

Wilson: Are there any nonwhite characters like, at all?

Hampton: I mean, does Andy Garcia count?

Martinelli: The most “Christian Grey” of the men in this movie! As in, he’s wealthy, he’s a pilot, he’s pretty pushy about what he wants.

Loofbourow: Such a Grey stand-in. I think that whitens him somewhat.

Hampton: Everyone in this movie was also so wealthy, which kinda removed one of the more enjoyable elements of the Fifty Shades series, which was the aspirational wealth. At least with Fifty Shades I can semirelate to Dakota Johnson because she’s theoretically a broke millennial creative. It felt like watching a Nancy Meyers movie, where it was enjoyable, but like Lena said, it definitely wasn’t for me.

Loofbourow: It’s definitely not for that age group—the daughters are so awful.

Wilson: What is up with them?! Why doesn’t Alicia Silverstone have her own place?

Hampton: They are terrible.

Loofbourow: Also, sorry if this is wrong, but I definitely thought their husbands were having a relationship. I was excited there was a gay couple and then the shot widened and the daughters were there. That first shot of them felt very intimate before it widened out. But that shoe never dropped.

Martinelli: What a twist that would have been. But much like Book Club itself does, we are starting to get away from our central premise: Fifty Shades!

Loofbourow: You’re right! I mean, the movie just doesn’t deal, really, with Fifty Shades main “radical” hypothesis, which is that women really want to lose control.

Its main takeaway from the books seems to be that, yes, arousal is possible for women.

Martinelli: That’s interesting, Lili. How much do we think this movie was really about Fifty Shades, in particular, as opposed to romance as a genre, more generally? I often felt like the movie was less about Fifty Shades and more about what it has come to represent for an audience who doesn’t read romance, as the Uber Romance Novel, a stand-in for any book that’s embarrassing to be caught reading in public but delightful to discuss with other readers.

Wilson: I feel like that’s what all romance novels or fan fiction (and Fifty Shades is a hybrid of the two) are to first-time readers: symbolic realization that female desire exists and isn’t shameful.

Loofbourow: Has it come to serve the “girlfriend gets friend a dildo” function?

Hampton: Yeah, I feel like the movie dealt more with the broad-strokes conversation about Fifty Shades than the actual novels. It felt like a movie predicated on the lede of a piece about “mommy porn.”

Martinelli: In the third act, when they finally remember that this movie’s title is Book Club and they are supposed to be talking about the books, they really boil it down to “a love story,” which is awfully generic for a book with such a specific flavor.

Hampton: I also found the lack of conversation around BDSM really strange. There were visual references and then there was the zip ties scene but that’s it.

Wilson: Right. BDSM is, after all, a huge part of it.

Loofbourow: I suppose we should recognize that it organized its three acts around the trilogy. They’re excited after reading Book 1, disappointed and crushed after Book 2, into it after Book 3. Book 3 is the sanitizer, after all, that renders the whole thing respectable rather than misguided. The marriage plot lives!

Martinelli: Lena, to your point: BDSM practitioners might disagree!

Wilson: Because it’s not “real” BDSM? God, let’s not go there.

Martinelli: I mean more because of what Lili is saying. In Fifty Shades, Christian’s predilection for BDSM is kind of portrayed as the problem that needs to be fixed.

Hampton: Yeah, it’s a product of his 50 shades of fucked-up-ness.

Loofbourow: Right, one reading of Fifty Shades is that it’s about turning literal whips and chains into the, um, metaphorical whips and chains of marriage.

Martinelli: (This conversation brought to you by The Institution of Marriage.)

Wilson: That is where the Twilight fan fiction trappings become really apparent. BDSM is vampirism. I think Fifty Shades is so important and interesting to me as a cultural object in part because I devoured the Twilight novels several times over in middle school and beyond, so it’s impossible for me to untangle the two. And I think that Christian, as the Edward Cullen stand-in, needed a deeply unsubtle “darkness” to him that, since Fifty Shades is based in “reality,” couldn’t be supernatural vampirism. The whole appeal of Edward Cullen is that he’s damaged and Bella can “fix” him. Seem similar?

Hampton: Ooh Lena, I figured the “darkness” was Christian’s childhood, but then again that’s inextricably connected to his BDSM.

Wilson: But in the end, Bella just ends up playing into his hand—she becomes a vampire, and is in fact more interested in becoming a vampire than Edward is in having her become one! I get the critique that Fifty Shades tries to sanitize BDSM, but I would say it goes down a similar path. Ana thinks she has the power, but I don’t think she does, yet a big part of selling her story to the readers is maintaining that illusion. Like the women of Book Club, Ana and Bella have to get a little “bad” and stop being such compartmentalizing fixers to get the sweeping romance they so desire.

Loofbourow: I think its function is repackaging that surrender as a source of unbelievable pleasure.

Wilson: Yes, absolutely! While I agree that Bruce was a sympathetic character, I do think it was unfair that Carol had to work so hard to get him to even participate in their marriage. And you see that same dynamic played out over and over again in Twilight and Fifty Shades.

Martinelli: It’s interesting that that kind of relationship draws a line through all three cultural properties, but for different ages: Twilight for preteens and teenagers; Fifty Shades for adults, Book Club for seniors.

Hampton: Even when romance seems to try to subvert that trope, it ends up doubling down on it.

Loofbourow: Are you thinking about Jane Fonda’s final surrender? The journey from rearranging the flowers in the lobby just so and having perfect makeup to the final mess running out without shoes—yes.

Hampton: Yep, she gives up her independence, something she’s so proud of! And Ana and Bella both give up their independence. I think that that’s what’s so noxious about the Twilight series since it’s marketed to teens, which is that if you give up something fundamental, you’ll eventually find love.

Wilson: Also, why is it considered so fine that Diane gives up this entire circle of friends—a circle that the movie uses to create a foundation of emotional resonance?

Martinelli: Because Andy Garcia has a plane and a pool, Lena.

Wilson: Who needs friends when you’ve got floatie make-outs?

Loofbourow: Structurally, they obviously want it to be that she moves for herself, not for her daughters, and it just happened to work out (and bros before hos is not a mantra exclusive to men). But I agree that it feels totally undercooked and deeply sad. Their last Book Club.

Martinelli: Am I wrong in thinking, though, that this movie really captured the primal, female bonding of discussing a book like Fifty Shades? We’re having a grand old time doing exactly that right now. There is such a difference between four women who have read Fifty Shades analyzing and even making fun of it than the mockery the series gets from people who have never even read it.

Wilson: That’s the grand irony of these books, isn’t it? They preach prioritizing men in your life above all else, but that exact message is something only (heterosexual) women can bond over.

Loofbourow: Well, yes, actually, I think so: So much of the movie’s pleasure is built into those scenes of them together. And then it has to make breaking them up the right answer.

Hampton: Yeah, I think the most enjoyable plot points were them together discussing this book, which is what I thought the entire movie was going to be.

Martinelli: More wine and puns.

Hampton: Exactly! I wanted a movie entirely predicated on white wine and dick jokes.

Loofbourow: Yes! And instead the movie was really so shy about saying the words out loud. Even that scene where someone was reading aloud alone was played for deep embarrassment.

Hampton: I wanted a buddy flick, and I ended up leaving thinking the same thing I always leave romance movies thinking: Damn, I’m still alone.

Martinelli: I was sitting right next to her!!!! Kidding. (But I was.)

Hampton: See, if the movie was subversive, Marissa sitting next to me would’ve been fine because platonic love is just as important! But that’s not what the movie did!

Loofbourow: How does a movie called Book Club end without one?

Wilson: I do think that, as a lesbian, Fifty Shades will always be somewhat of a meme to me. But as someone who centers women in my politics and is very interested in the strictures of marriage culture, this movie brings up some questions that I think are integral to modern discussions about heterosexual female self-empowerment. The trouble is, it’s ultimately too chicken to answer them.

Martinelli: I’ll raise a glass of white wine to that.

Loofbourow: Clink clink.