Looking For Stories To Challenge Taboos? Forget 'Fifty Shades' : Monkey See For all the fuss, Fifty Shades Of Grey is actually pretty unambitious in its ideas about sex compared to, for instance, Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien.
NPR logo Looking For Stories To Challenge Taboos? Forget 'Fifty Shades'

Looking For Stories To Challenge Taboos? Forget 'Fifty Shades'

Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey. Universal Pictures and Focus Features /AP hide caption

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Universal Pictures and Focus Features /AP

Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey.

Universal Pictures and Focus Features /AP

As Fifty Shades of Grey continues to stretch out its shelf life with a roundly panned film adaptation, it's hard not to notice how much attention (as in pieces like this one, which is Not Safe For Work) has been given to how the film deals with the book's infamously explicit sex scenes. While the film is opening just this weekend, it's safe to assume its scenes aren't as explicit as what's in the book, given its R rating. But while the book is explicit, certainly, what it isn't is daring.

It's pretty old news by now that many are wearied of Fifty Shades and the mainstream attention it and its movie adaptation have received, legitimizing one of the most unreadable stories in recent memory. By this point, even its biggest opponents can hardly respond to the erotic phenomenon with much more than a wearied, "Not tonight."

And yet, the giddy, sometimes nervous laughter is impossible to ignore. From the time the film was announced, arguments about the story's inaccurate depictions of BDSM and mental health popped up once again, while the series' fans worried about getting a tamer or "safe" film adaptation. The word "safe," actually used in the conversation amongst fans, is telling. It suggests the taboos that fans of the book Fifty Shades would argue it challenged. But did it? Despite support even from esteemed voices like Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Fifty Shades (the book) isn't opening windows with its sexual fantasy – it's popcorn, check-your-brain-at-the-door fantasy. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with pure entertainment, but it's strange to see quite so much read into the sex-for-sex's-sake Fifty Shades. Ignoring it is one thing, but wouldn't it be nicer if the discussion of sexual taboo in entertainment were centered on something... worth it?

Consider a film that really did challenge sexual taboos, but, instead of igniting risqué hysteria like Fifty Shades of Grey, only ever reached "controversial": Alfonso Cuarón's 2001 film Y Tu Mamá También. While he's better known now for the acclaimed and Academy Award-nominated Gravity, Cuarón's early film was a Mexican comedy-drama telling the story of two adolescent boys who go on a road trip with an attractive older woman, Luisa. The two boys each fantasize about seducing her without really thinking through how awkward that would be (which, amazingly, actually becomes the plot). Unbeknownst to them, Luisa has recently been diagnosed with cancer and confronted her dissatisfaction with her mundane life. With the time she has left, she decides to take them up on their transparent joke road trip offer.

From that simplified description, the plot sounds like little more than "Stacy's Mom" on steroids, and the respective ages of the characters are certainly enough to give not-insignificant pause. But this thirteen-year-old film helps tease out what is, in fact, so safe about the world of Fifty Shades. Y Tu Mamá También actually breaks sexual taboos in mainstream entertainment as a vehicle to thoughtfully study both the act of sex itself and how sexuality is socially constructed. The source material for Fifty Shades doesn't ask you to think about why there's explicit sex; it's the sexual taboo edition of "there is no there there."

Y Tu Mamá También uses its sex scenes and their explicitness purposefully to comment on sexual culture, and specifically the notion of machismo — a sense of pride in one's masculinity, linguistically linked with Latin American culture. The two young male characters' projected bravado is betrayed by sex scenes that reveal their attempts at sexual pride to be little more than jealousy or insecurity. Despite their prideful boasts about the women they've slept with and their code of sexual ethics (which feels like a precursor to what's now often tagged as bro code), Luisa has to walk them through every sexual activity they fumblingly attempt.

As the road trip goes on and the two try to live up to their projected sexual selves, they only become more fragile, scared, and envious of each other's activity with Luisa, diminishing returns and all. The explicit sex scenes contrast their machismo in theory with their ineptitude in fact, adding a painful layer of reality to the film's criticism of the social constructs of sexuality that only hurt the boys who tried to fulfill them.

This is all assuming, of course, you could even see these scenes. While critically acclaimed, the film was unrated for its U.S. release because it was impossible for the original cut to avoid an NC-17 rating. An R-rated cut exists, but not only does the removal of the sex scenes dull the impact, but it actually ruins the clarity of the narrative. The film's climax (sorry) results in a threesome where the two male characters, who have spent the entire movie boasting of their machismo, drunkenly kiss. This moment takes place inside of an explicit sex scene and was therefore cut, which makes the boys' subsequent falling out over the remainder of the movie make much less sense. The kiss could have happened outside of a sexually explicit scene, certainly, but limiting the avenues through which a story can explore its themes is unavoidably limiting to that story.

The film was not unsuccessful. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay — people took notice. But its impact was muted by the same barriers no one particularly minds if Fifty Shades crosses. Rather than the greater mark being left by the thoughtful take on how we think about sexuality and how that affects how people develop, it's left by the book whose sex scenes reliably describe a woman's orgasm as an explosion that happens when a man tells her to experience it. And elements of the popular media jump up and holler, "Why, those are the explicit, taboo-breaking sex scenes that strike our fancy!" It's as if the taboo isn't worth breaking if it isn't already fantastically distorted.

It's not that low art is a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with depicting something — including sex — as pure entertainment, so long as it isn't at the cost of contrastingly meaningful depictions of that same thing. But it can feel that way: an NC-17 cut of Fifty Shades won't reach theater audiences, but the film's marketing of its own daring will. When Y Tu Mamá También breaks sexual taboos to study them, why is Fifty Shades the type of story that gets to actually get away with it?

It's because Fifty Shades is the easy way out. It's because as supposedly risqué as it is with its sexual content, ultimately reading Fifty Shades of Grey doesn't challenge anything. It's easier to let it sell itself as pushing the limits, because it only barely does. Although the book certainly says quite a lot about antiquated gender norms and emotionally abusive relationships, the sex itself has no meaning. With its unchallenging nature, it hardly breaks sexual taboos at all, which is maybe why it's found so much popular acceptance. It's easier to accept a broken taboo when you don't really have to think about it.