After months and years of foreplay, the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey has finally arrived. Starting Friday, the fans who snapped up more than 100 million copies of E. L. James’s BDSM-themed trilogy will flock to theaters around the world to watch Christian Grey (played by Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) engage in as much kinky sex as an R rating will allow.
The film is predicted to take in as much as $100 million worldwide this weekend. And judging by the early reviews, it seems as if those who have been tittering over each racy piece of gossip about the film (It received an R rating for “unusual behavior!” A full 20% of the film is sex scenes!), will leave the theater satisfied. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “Although the book’s soft-X explicitness has been toned down to a hard R, this is the first studio film in many years to gaze directly at the Medusa of sex—and unlike such male-leer predecessors as 9½ Weeks, it does so from a woman’s perspective.”
While that might sound like cause for celebration, it’s also old hat to viewers of shows like Starz’s Outlander, which have beat Christian and Anastasia to the punch (or is that paddle?) when it come to embracing and depicting sex in all manner of fascinating, and electrifying, ways. Sorry, Fifty Shades of Grey, but the steamiest sex in mainsteam entertainment fare can now found on television, not in theaters.
Like Fifty Shades, Outlander is also adapted from a popular book series (in this case, the romance/historical fiction novels from Diana Gabaldon). An entire episode last September was devoted to a just-married Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser consummating their relationship, over three increasingly intimate sexual encounters. “It depicted physical and emotional intimacy developing in real time, and it was dead sexy,” wrote The Huffington Post’s television critic Mo Ryan.
There’s plenty more where that came from. Across cable and internet outlets, an increasing number of series—including Masters of Sex, Girls, Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, Transparent and The Americans—routinely delve into the frank explorations of sexuality that have vanished from mainstream films. Even broadcast shows have been pushing the envelope: September’s season premiere of How to Get Away With Murder, which was watched by more than 21 million in the US, including a scene involving anilingus between two men.
In contrast, R-rated movies have become almost puritanical when it comes to depicting sex. Gone are the years when multiplexes routinely offered scorching films like Body Heat, Basic Instinct or the aforementioned 9 ½ Weeks. As Hollywood turned away from that adult audience and almost exclusively towards franchise films aimed at teenagers—coupled with the ubiquity of porn, which is now only as far away as one’s smartphone—those movies simply stopped being made.
That’s a shame, in part because films like Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal often helped spark intriguing national discussions about sex and sexuality. Compare that to last year, when the biggest conversation involving sex in movies surrounded Ben Affleck’s blink-and-you-missed-it full-frontal flash in Gone Girl.
Of course, nothing upends conventional Hollywood thinking like a hit movie. So perhaps the impending success of Fifty Shades will jumpstart the genre the same way that Basic Instinct did two decades ago.
But for now, as you take in Fifty Shades of Grey and peek into Christian’s Red Room of Pain this weekend, don’t forget: you’re missing the real action, back at home on TV.