The summer that Fifty Shades of Grey came out, I passed by a group of women sprawled on outdoor chaise lounges, reading E.L. James’ bestseller while their kids splashed in the shallow pool. I couldn’t tell what they were thinking behind their sunglasses, only that they turned the page with an obsessed, mechanical rhythm.
A few years later, I read the entire trilogy during my freshman orientation of college, because I figured if I was going to learn about the world, I might as well learn about the whole world. As in, I might as well understand what compelled so many women to read a book about a controlling businessman, his naive girlfriend and their BDSM relationship. Whether one approaches the book with a smug grin of superiority, unabashed enthusiasm, guilty titillation or something else, reading Fifty Shades of Grey is an undeniable rite of passage. And it’s one that the four women in Book Club, out May 18, finally get around to doing in their 60s and 70s.
The book club members, Diane (Diane Keaton), Vivian (Jane Fonda), Sharon (Candice Bergen), and Carol (Mary Steenburgen), have been talking about books and drinking wine (lots and lots of wine) for decades. They’ve talked their way through lost loves, long marriages, kids, and frankly incredible career trajectories – Sharon is a federal judge, and Vivian owns a lavish hotel. Now senior citizens, the women are confronted with new set of challenges. Diane’s a new widow whose controlling daughters want her to move to Arizona. Sharon hasn’t dated since her divorce 20 years ago. Carol’s husband, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), isn’t himself lately. And when her childhood sweetheart stays in her hotel unexpectedly, Vivian imagines what her life might’ve been like if they'd stayed together.
The women hadn't quite faced their situations until Vivian, who relishes her sexually liberated, no-strings-attached lifestyle (you go, Jane Fonda), selects Fifty Shades of Grey for their book club pick. All debates about Fifty Shades' literary merits aside, the book functions as a clever plot device, becoming a lens through which the women can explore their own sexuality.
The reading montage is particularly telling of Book Club's message. When Carol reads Fifty Shades, she enters into a manic, buzzing trance. After 35 years with her husband, to discover that such experimental, thrilling sex is even an option is almost too much for her to process. She's thrilled by the possibility, and dismayed by her husband’s lack of enthusiasm. Diane, skeptical and goofy, is less enthralled by Christian Grey’s tactics — but, thanks to the book she's carrying, she ends up flirting with her dashing seatmate, Mitchell (Andy Garcia), on a plane. (Sidenote: Diane and Mitchell's chemistry could carry its own movie. Please make that happen.)
This saccharine, occasionally cheesy and often raunchy movie is notable, in part, because it explores a topic nearly taboo in pop culture; The sexual lives of senior citizen-age women. Just the act of reading a book about sex makes them think, more seriously, about their erotic selves — and when they can expect from them. So Book Club isn't a movie about Fifty Shades of Grey. Rather, James' book, with all its luridness, inadvertently makes the women reconsider the notion that maybe, their sexual and romantic lives aren’t over yet. That's right: Even if the prevailing romantic narratives in pop culture tend to focus on slim young women finding partners, even if stories like theirs are hardly represented, these women are still worthy of love, fulfilment and kinky sex. Or, if they're Diane, they're worthy of making out with a hot foreign pilot atop a floating swan in a pool (it happens, and it's amazing).
That said, Book Club falls into the same trap as Grace and Frankie, a Netflix show similarly about sexually liberated older women (and also starring Fonda, this time opposite Lily Tomlin). Both (incredibly charming!) works centre on extremely successful, extremely privileged white women who live in beautiful houses designed in the Nancy Meyers mould. The women do not suffer from severe health or money problems. They can focus, instead, on finding love (Book Club) or designing vibrators for arthritic women (Grace and Frankie).
Despite glossing over the more serious aspects of ageing, it’s heartening to see works of pop culture that take women seriously. Book Club is a movie in which older women aren’t wiped of complexity and turned into angelic or tragic grandmas. Instead, at the start of the movie, we see the four women morph from young versions of themselves into the women they are now. The women are older, sure, but they are also who they always were: Complicated people with complicated needs that can, and should, be met.