Pulp inequality: How popular culture exhibits the class divide

The breathless, prurient flutter that accompanied the release of Fifty Shades of Grey scarcely suggested the dark truth: this is one of the most brazen depictions of glassware in the history of cinema. Anastasia Steele’s unlikely journey takes her from sad schoolgirl teacups of graduation champagne to the elegant stemware of the upper crust, all filmed with loving, almost leering attention.

The movie, an adaptation of E. L. James’s publishing mega­hit, is about more than drinking glasses, of course. It is also about consumer aircraft. Sadomasochism figures as a plot element as well. Steele, filling in for a sick roommate, meets and interviews the titular Christian Grey, who has amassed billions running a telecom something-or-other. She is quickly swept up in his world of luxury accoutrements and marginal sex practices, protesting all the way. “What would I get out of this?” she asks, after learning of his exacting requirements for an intimate partner. “Me,” he replies.

You get me. In a cynical world and a cynical film, it’s a moment of seemingly genuine naïveté. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig of the New Republic writes that Fifty Shades is at heart a film about negotiating our acceptance of dramatic economic inequality. That’s an enduring, if submerged, theme in Ameri­can film, from high-society romantic comedies like Holiday to hard-bitten noirs like The Big Sleep. But this story is different. Erotic flogging was never part of the deal for Katharine Hepburn or Humphrey Bogart. We have entered an age of pulp inequality.