If you are accustomed to watching the TODAY show while you’re getting your kids ready for school in the morning, you got a heavy dose of BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism, Masochism) with your Wheaties last week.
50 Shades of Grey is opening in theaters this weekend. It is the story of Christian Grey, a powerful businessman who engages in a sadistic sexual relationship with Ana, a mousy and immature young college student who becomes his submissive, and TODAY has been heavily promoting the film on its morning show and on its website. Not because it’s news or because there is substantial market research showing that TODAY viewers are especially interested in the film’s release, but because 50 Shades is a sponsor, and the production company that’s releasing the film is owned by the same parent company, NBC Universal.
Last week viewers were given “exclusive” previews and 50 Shades-inspired segments and web features like “what to do when the kids find your ‘adult’ toys.”
Anyone can understand that studios want to market their film in order to get people to come to the theater, but there is something distasteful and disturbing about the way 50 Shades has been marketed. Ads for the movie ran during the Super Bowl (the most-watched television event of the year, and one of the most-watched by families), after the Golden Globes, during prime time, and during the TODAY show. We’ve heard complaints from parents about billboards for the movie cropping up near their kids’ schools. The Vermont Teddy Bear company is selling a Christian Grey teddy bear that comes with a mask and a pair of handcuffs. And outraged parents are fuming that a “50 Shades” line of sex toys can be found in their local Target store right next to the kids’ toothbrushes.
NBCUniversal’s efforts to market 50 Shades is pushing BDSM into the mainstream, and even making it accessible and normative to kids. It also encourages them to view sexual relations in the context of a loving, committed, long-term relationship as boring or unfulfilling.
In a 2008 study, the Parents Television Council found that references to unusual or “kinky” sexual behaviors, including bondage or threesomes, outnumbered references to married sex by 2:1. If anything, the TV landscape has only gotten worse since then.
At the end of this month, WE tv will be debuting Sex Box, a reality series in which couples will have sex on stage inside a sound-proof box, then come out and discuss their relationship problems afterward. One of the featured couples, WE tv tells us, are in “an open relationship with one partner wanting to make their sex life even racier, including S&M.” (You can sign the PTC’s national petition calling on WE tv to “Stop ‘Sex Box’” here.)
Today more than ever teens are exposed to a host of once-taboo sexual behaviors including kinky or fetishistic behaviors. Behaviors that were once seen as fringe, immoral, or socially destructive have been given the imprimatur of acceptability by the television industry – and children are absorbing those messages and, if recent survey data is to be believed, imitating that behavior. But tragically, most real-life Anas, as Gail Dines points out, would end up in battered women’s shelters, the hospital, or even the morgue. Something to think about the next time Today breathlessly teases yet another “steamy” 50 Shades trailer.