Last week I took part in a radio discussion about the impending cinematic release of 50 Shades of Grey. I was not an obvious candidate. I haven’t read the books (I like my erotica Nancy Friday style) and find the cultural hysteria around them and the film unsettling, even depressing on a bad day. The subsequent chat would not have been out of place in an episode of that famed Irish documentary series Father Ted, part ‘careful now, down with this sort of thing, wink, wink’, part ‘Jesus Jim, we can’t be going to that – what will the neighbours say? We’ll get the DVD instead.’ I used the term ‘dirty film’ far too many times. I felt like I was trapped in a Carry On nightmare of crass innuendo to which I unthinkingly contributed ten-fold by blurting out, ‘well, this will be massive exposure for Dornan, in terms of his career.’
Scanning Irish news sites afterwards I realised this tittering-school-kid tone is almost ubiquitous wherever 50 Shades is mentioned. The troubling facets of Anastasia Steele’s and Christian Grey’s relationship (and there are many) are rarely referenced but whips, handcuffs and naked male torsos sure are. On the other hand, the lusty Irish women who are supposedly responsible for pre booking 55,000 tickets are treated with a patronising sneer that is as snide as it is snobbish. Crap films get released every week but a potentially-crap film aimed at female audiences? Well, that’s the absolute worst.
Our childish frenzy over such a notoriously sex-centred popular phenomenon says a lot about Ireland’s relationship to sexuality, none of it inspiring. Despite the long shadow cast by Catholicism, our culture today is sex-saturated. We watch it, read about it, we talk about BDSM and vibrators on morning radio. But unlike so many other countries in the West and elsewhere, we lack the basic maturity and yes, backbone, to treat the messy, unpredictable consequences of human sexuality the compassion and nuance they demand.
Newspaper pages away from the 50 Shades coverage are the latest reports about the on-going heartache and irreversible damage being caused to Irish women and those who love them by the 8th Amendment. We giggle about 50 Shades, then look the other way when someone raises the unforgivable lack of sex education in our schools. We raise our little girls on fairy tales in which a handsome prince saves the princess, making her his forever and ever. Then we ridicule grown women for being drawn toward what they’ve always been told to be, towards the floaty white dresses, towards the beauty that never fits quite right or lasts like you’d like it to, towards the man who loves her so much he could kill her.
I won’t be going to see 50 Shades in the cinema (surprise, surprise) but I know I’ll still hear about it, in crushing, minute detail, especially the ‘wild’ sex scenes. ‘What does this film’s massive popularity say about Irish women?’ the media will ask and hordes will rush to answer. You see, in Ireland we can talk for as long as you like, as openly as you like, about dirty films but not our ‘dirty’ secrets. When all the smut and stifled giggles are pushed aside, therein lies the real shame.