50 Shades of Grey: was Walter Lippmann right all along?

With the recent release of Fifty Shades of Grey in theatres a couple of weeks ago (and our recent class discussion about feeling publics in the Public Texts core course), there has been a ton of media hype for the film, and even more backlash against the risqué content and its perverse messages. So this got me thinking about how much influence a public text, such as this one, can have on the public at large.

For those of you who do not know, Fifty Shades of Grey began as a BDSM fanfiction for the notorious teen romance novel, Twilight. Fifty Shades of Grey, the novel, features a sexual relationship between a young, female college student and a wealthy, handsome older man. Their relationship quickly becomes disturbingly abusive, as the sexually alluring older man begins to ignore his partner’s wishes, making sex without consent out to be “sexy.” The fanfiction became such a popular text, that it was published as an e-book and then as a paperback novel. It was because of the public’s overwhelmingly positive response to this text, despite its controversial content, that made it so popular. Walter Lippmann would say that this kind of culture, which is produced commercially for mass consumption purposes, caters to the lowbrow tastes of the mass public, instead of trying to make real, sophisticated literature a part of popular culture.

Now, if Twilight didn’t get enough bad press from its film adaptations, this version of Fifty Shades of Grey is definitely getting much more. Not only has the movie received a sea of bad reviews, rated only one star by some critics, it has also attracted a following of copycat “Mr. Greys.” In this article by the Chicago Tribune, a young, male college student was charged with sexually assaulting a female student, claiming he was acting out scenes from Fifty Shades of Grey. He was apparently “shocked” to hear that he would be charged for his actions.

This disturbing article got me thinking about the messages that are disseminated through public texts and how they impact the public opinion. In a society attempting to educate people about the importance of consent (as the Ministry of Education’s new sex-ed curriculum attempts to do), how does a text such as this one become so popular? And since the public – which originally inspired its paperback publication and the movie – affirms this text, what does that say about the public’s view of consent?

Has Walter Lippmann been right all along? Should we really be relying on a select few who dictate the kind of cultural products we should consume? Is there danger in allowing cultural content to be produced based on popularity, like Fifty Shades of Grey, in the future? Post your thoughts below!

About dontpanictrent

DON'T PANIC: A Trent Graduate Student Blog

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