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Fifty Shades of Grey is the first book in an erotic fiction trilogy by author E.L. James about the romantic relationship between characters Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. Originally written as a fanfiction series inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling Twilight saga, the story became notorious on the Internet in 2011 due to its description of sexually explicit imageries and dramatic readings by various celebrities.
The Fifty Shades trilogy is based on a Twilight fanfiction titled Master of the Universe, which E.L. James (whose real name is Erika Leonard) uploaded to the website FanFiction.net under the pseudonym “Snowqueens Icedragon” where it had more than 37,000 reviews. After fanfiction.net editors had James remove the story due to its racy content, the original story was rehosted on James’ personal website 50Shades.com in December of 2010. Though its current publisher, Vintage, asserts that Fifty Shades of Grey and Master of the Universe are “distinctly separate pieces of work,” processing the two as student papers on the plagiarism verification site Turn It In yields an 89% similarity index.
The first novel in the series, Fifty Shades of Grey, was released on May 25th, 2011 by independent publishing house The Writer’s Coffee Shop as an e-book and print-on-demand paperback. The sequel Fifty Shades Darker was released on September 15th, 2011, followed by the final book in the series Fifty Shades Freed, published on January 17th, 2012. The first book was named a New York Times bestseller in March 2012 with a sales record of approximately ten million copies and publishing rights in 37 countries. By July 2012, the series had sold 20 million copies in the United States and 31 English-language copies globally. It was also the first e-book to sell more than 1 million copies on the Kindle.
By early March 2012, the book had been reviewed by USA Today, The Inquisitr, Glamour Magazine, Slate and the New York Times. On March 12th,, the viral content site BuzzFeed posted “The 15 Best/Worst Lines From Erotic Bestseller ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’” which paired several stock photo images with quotes from the novel.
On May 5th, the sketch comedy television show Saturday Night Live aired a parody commercial for the online retailer Amazon, in which several mothers are walked in on by their families while masturbating to the novel.
On May 8th, the What Should We Call Me-style Tumblr blog “50 Shades of BS” was launched, which featured animated GIF reactions to events in the trilogy. On May 21st, 2012, the New York Times published an article titled “Libraries Debate Stocking ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Trilogy,” which reported that the Brevard County Public Library in Florida removed copies of the novels from the library when county officials decided they were not appropriate for the public. On May 22nd, Funny Or Die released a parody reading video featuring singer Selena Gomez and comedian Nick Kroll.
Real Life Fifty Shades Experiences
On May 22nd, 2012, the New Yorker published an article titled “‘Fifty Shades of Grey’: The How-To Class”, which noted that the New York erotic boutique Babeland had started giving classes on how to perform the sex acts described in the trilogy. Later that month, the Heathman Hotel in Portland, Oregon, which is named in the book, began offering Fifty Shades-themed packages, ranging from one that simply includes a bottle of wine and a gray tie to a helicopter ride and dinner for six. In June, The Edgewater Hotel in Seattle began offering similar experiences. By the end of July, a hotel in northwestern England, the Damson Dene, had replaced all of the Bibles in its rooms with copies of James’ first novel.
In early June, the New York Post reported that during the first six months of 2012, New York City area hardware stores noticed a large jump in rope sales, especially to women. The same article noted that Babeland had seen a 30% increase in their sales, with an 81% increase of traffic to the bondage section of their website.
On June 7th, 2012, celebrity gossip news site Deadline reported on an unverified rumor about Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie discussing the lead role for a film adaptation of the novel with Universal Pictures studio Focus Features. The article quickly spread across the blogosphere and Twitter overnight, though it was dismissed by Jolie’s representatives on the following day. However, the rumor about a Hollywood film adaptation continued throughout the week as celebrity news blogs like CelebBuzz and VanityFair published articles speculating other potential candidates for the lead roles. That August, YouTubers MVPleez, Monica West and Valentine Bureau, recorded a song (shown below) fantasizing over which actor should be chosen for the role of Christian Grey.
On June 9th, 2012, American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis tweeted his thoughts (shown below) on a “Fifty Shades” film, calling Christian Grey “a writer’s dream.” He later suggested actor Ryan Gosling as a perfect fit for the character. On June 10th, Ellis noted on Twitter that he would be approaching a studio about adapting the film. The movie rights, which are owned by Universal and Focus Features, were purchased in March 2012. In October, Universal announced that the film had a screenwriter and two producers on board, but no actors had been chosen.
Okay. Today the team has been briefed and we will be approaching the studio this week about BEE adapting “Fifty Shades of Grey” into a film.— Bret Easton Ellis (@BretEastonEllis) June 10, 2012
On July 24th, 2014, the Fifty Shades of Grey YouTube channel released the first official trailer for the film. Within a week the video gained over 13.2 million views. During a fan screening for the film held on February 6th, director Sam Taylor-Johnson revealed that book sequels Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed would be adapted to film as well. On February 11th, the film premiered at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival in Germany, Two days later, the film had a wide release in the United States and other countries.
In January 2015, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation called for a boycott of the film, claiming that it was “really about sexual abuse and violence against women.” Within one month, a petition against the film had accumulated more than 108,000 signatures (shown below).
The film was commercial success following its wide release on February 13th, 2015. Within 72 hours, the film grossed more than $94 million in North America and $172 million in other countries with a worldwide total of $239 million, setting a new record for the biggest Valentine’s Day weekend gross and the 22nd biggest opening of all time. Despite its commercial success, the film was largely met by negative reviews from critics, receiving an average score of 47 out of 100 on the review aggregation website Metacritic and a 26% on the review site Rotten Tomatoes the first week. On February 12th, the cohost of the Australian morning talk show Today Lisa Wilkinson delivered a scathing review of the film, calling it “the worst movie I’ve ever seen” (shown below, left). The same day, The Onion posted a satirical review of the film by movie critic Peter K. Rosenthal (shown below, right).
On May 9th, 2012, YouTuber Barely Political uploaded a video titled “Fifty Shade of Grey Parody.” As of July 2014, the video has gained over 1.6 million views. On July 7th, 2012, YouTuber AVbyte  uploaded a video titled “50 Shades of Grey – THE MUSICAL.” As of July 2014, the video has gained over 1.5 million views.
On August 24th, 2012, YouTuber WhatTheBuckShow uploaded a video titled “Taylor Swift Reads 50 Shades of Grey” which featured the YouTuber impersonating the singer as he read the book. As of July 2014, the video has gained over 50,000 views. On July 24th, 2014, YouTuber TimmyFellDownTheWell uploaded a video titled “Fifty Shades Of Grey – Trailer PARODY” which features him acting out the trailer in an exaggerated way playing both parts. Within a week the video gained over 32,000 views.
Excerpts from the trilogy have been read aloud in dramatic readings by a wide range of celebrities. On April 25th, 2012, the talk show host Ellen DeGeneres read a selection from Fifty Shades of Grey in a video (shown below, left) for The Ellen Show. On May 21st, actresses Kirsten Stewart and Charlize Theron read portions of the novel in an interview with Josh Horowitz on the show MTV After Hours (shown below, right).
On May 22nd, the humor site Jest published a video of the comedian Gilbert Gottfried reading the novel in a parody commercial for the audio book service Audible. Within two days, the video had received more than 28,000 shares on Facebook.
The celebrity participation continued in June with actor Ed Helms’ piano performance of a song called “Ode To Fifty Shades of Grey” at the Guys Choice Award on June 8th, followed by Neil Patrick Harris’s quip “Fifty Shades of Gay” at the 66th Annual American Theatre Wing’s Tony Awards on June 9th. Many YouTubers have also uploaded their own videos, with more than 300 results for the search term “fifty shades dramatic reading” as of October 2012.
Cover Art Parodies
On April 18th, 2012, the website FiftyShadesMeme was launched to curate image macros with captions based on the snowclone template “Fifty Shades of X.”
On July 3rd, 2012, Canvas user metaknight submitted a thread titled “FTFY Shades of Ray”, which included an animated GIF of the musician Ray Charles (shown below, left). On July 12th, an anonymous user uploaded a template image of the Fifty Shades of Grey book cover, encouraging other users to make their own exploitables. Within 2 days, the thread accumulated over 50 responses.
My Interests Are Very Singular
After the first trailer for the film was released on July 24th, 2014, a meme featuring a series of stills from a scene which leads up to Grey revealing his room full of whips and restraints began to spread through Tumblr. The screen shot series ends with Grey saying “My interests are very singular,” with Steele responding “enlighten me.” While the following image should be Grey’s restraint room, within the meme it is replaced with something very geeky or fandom based, like a room covered in anime characters.
New York Times – Libraries Debate Stocking Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy
Wall Street Journal – 20 Million Shades of Green: Racy Book Hits Milestone
Business Insider – BY THE NUMBERS: The ‘50 Shades Of Grey’ Phenomenon
The Inquisitr – ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Novel Entrancing Nation’s Housewives
New York Times – Discreetly Digital, Erotic Novel Sets American Women Abuzz