FiftyBy now we know that a movie based on a bestselling book series about kinky sex dominated the box office this weekend. Much handwringing and analysis greeted the wild success of the Fifty Shades of Grey novels upon their serial release, and the cacophony has only grown with the release of the movie. An interesting aspect of this pop culture phenomenon is that there is so much disagreement as to exactly what it means. Is this the end of civilization as we know it? Harmless fun? Feminism’s demise? Allison Elliott at National Review Online does a good job capturing the variety of opinions:

Though written at a grade-school reading level, [the book] was interpreted and theorized like a graduate literature assignment. How could that many people buy something without it saying something about society?

But no one could agree on what. Feminists complained that the series was little more than a sexed-up Disney princess movie where the young, virginal heroine wins the high-standing, wealthy male. They cringed at charges that the series showed women were “tired” of feminism and needed a man to rescue them. Cultural conservatives said it revealed women’s desire for men of strength and determination. Christians worried that women’s sexual fantasies could be as damaging to relationships, souls, and psyches as pornography viewing was for males, though with results less violent and law-break-y. Activists against domestic violence warned that it glorified abusive relationships, making women even more vulnerable to male predation and cruelty. It was really a social-climbing story about our desire to be members of the One Percent, some said. Even BDSM practitioners complained that it wasn’t an accurate representation of their practice and that the controlling and sadistic Christian Grey in no way represented their dear old Dominants.

Say what you will about twenty-first century American culture, it can’t be said that it is monochromatic, something the book’s title obviously points to. Interestingly, the title says more about the current cultural zeitgeist than the book’s content. We know, or so we’re constantly told, that there is no such thing as black and white, no definitive notions about right and wrong, especially as it relates to sexual morality, but who knew there were actually fifty shades of gray involved?

The problem with such ambiguity, or moral relativism, is that it is disorienting. As Elliot points out, “Everyone who talks about 50 Shades of Grey sounds bewildered.” When a novel about sadomasochistic sex sells in the millions, especially to women, and the movie breaks box office records, of course everyone wants to know why. The simple answer is probably that it means many things at the same time, and only time will tell which meanings get closest to the current state of American society and Western civilization.