By A. C. Rose
Fans have been going crazy since Charlie Hunam ditched the role of Christian Grey, and they had plenty to say before that happened. There is a great sense of disappointment and even abandonment, and also a worry that the Fifty Shades of Grey film will never get made. Or it will be made with a star who is not right for the role.
The character of Christian Grey demands someone who can portray a gorgeous, hot, tall, built, dominant, elegant, troubled, brilliant, skilled, sexy billionaire whose pants hang off his hips in “that way.” And since beauty truly is in the eyes of the beholder, every fans has their own idea of who this (fictional man) is and which actor should play him.
The internet age has made “fan casting” a favorite sport on social media, and fans have happily played along and fantasized about their favorite stars playing their beloved fictional character, Mr. Grey. But the realities of casting a male lead in a super sexy but relatively low budget film are not the stuff that fantasies are made of and many fans have shuddered at the sight of some of the new names that are emerging as possibilities for the role.
Why are we so attached to our favorite fictional characters, and, specifically, Mr. Christian Grey?
I spoke to Barna William Donovan, PhD, chair of the Department of Communication at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, N.J., and an expert on fan behavior, about why we get so involved with favorite fictional characters and how it can lead to strong public reactions to movie casting decisions.
“The internet has made fandom both more enjoyable and has made fans more powerful,” said Dr. Donovan, who is also author of several books on the topic fandom, including Blood, Guns, and Testosterone: Action Films, Audiences, and a Thirst for Violence and Conspiracy Films: A Tour of Dark Places in the American Conscious. “Fandom has always been a communal activity. Fans like to get together with other fans and like to discuss the entertainment they love so much. However, the Internet also lets them organize and express their anger when they don’t like something about the direction of their favorite entertainment.”
Here’s our interview on the allure and appeal of Christian Grey, and why we get attached to fictional men:
Charlotte Rose: Why do you think the character of Christian Grey strikes such a chord in women?
Dr. Barna William Donovan: Christian Grey is a safe fantasy of a strong, aggressive, and dangerous lover. There has been a lot of controversy about whether or not this character is really abusive and whether the books are glamorizing an abusive and controlling relationship. But when women read a book, they can safely indulge in a fantasy of danger; they can get a cathartic enjoyment out of imagining themselves in a relationship they would probably not want to be in real life.
So, we appreciate our alpha male rule breakers… from a distance.
In a world that has gotten as politically correct as ours, where culture and entertainment has been pressuring men to tone down the Alfa male aggressiveness for decades now, Christian Grey is a rebel. He breaks the rules and behaves in a way and treats women in a way that men are always told they’re not supposed to. Rebellion is always very alluring. Breaking rules and norms and expectations of polite society can be very sexy. When we live in a world where we have so many rules and regulations telling people what they’re not supposed to do, trying to control pleasure and trying to tell us how to have fun and how not to have fun, it can be entertaining to read about the kind of character who lives exactly on his own terms.
Is the kind of devotion and obsession we see for Christian Grey anything new?
In romance literature the dangerous leading man who plays by his own rules and aggressively pursues and dominates women has always been very popular. In the classical romance novel, this model of the male hero, in fact, has been the standard. Only for the last decade or so, with the rise of the “chick lit” fiction, about more empowered female characters, has this kind of character declined somewhat in popularity. But that might be the very reason for Christian Grey’s success now. He merely reaffirms the attractiveness of danger and rebellion.
It seems like ancient history now, but wasn’t there a similar fan excitement for the character of Edward Cullen in Twilight?
Yes, I think the two characters are very similar, although aimed at different audiences. They are both strong and potentially aggressive. Since the Twilight books are aimed at a younger audience, largely the young adult audience and even the teen audience, those books highlight Edward’s “potential” danger. He’s a good vampire who tries to control his domineering and deadly impulses around the girl he loves, but the danger is still there, lurking beneath the surface.
Didn’t this kind of fan devotion exist, say, for Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind?
Yes, Clark Gable is a good example of an early sex symbol women obsessed over. In his day, he was called the “King of Hollywood,” the sexiest and most desirable actor in films. A more Christian Grey-like actor, though, was Errol Flynn, the star of the original Robin Hood. He had a much rougher and dangerous image in Hollywood and was well known for his hard living, drinking, and preference for young girls. He used to say “I like my whiskey old and my women young.” In 1942 he was arrested and tried for statutory rape, but eventually acquitted by a majority female jury. In a time when other stars’ careers would have been ruined by the scandal, Flynn was completely unscathed and his popularity with women did not suffer at all. In fact, his acquittal inspired the phrase “In like Flynn,” about being able to break the rules and getting away with it. I would also compare the appeal of rebellious male rock stars to the Christian Grey phenomenon. Rock stars, from Elvis to Mick Jagger, to punk rockers or heavy metal and gangsta rap stars, always imply that they live above the rules, they do as they please, they pursue women and sex as they like, and they can get away with it.
Why do think readers get so attached to WHO will portray their favorite characters?
When someone reads a book, they become the director of the movie version of the book playing out in their heads. They imagine who would be so perfectly cast as a character. But when the actual movie comes along, the real thing shatters the fantasy in the mind of the fan. This can be very frustrating if the actual cast is radically different from what the reader imagined in her mind for such a long time.
How would you explain the “personal” relationship we have with our favorite character?
The relationship we have with our favorite character is always one where the fictional character in some way reflects values that we already have. This is why I don’t think the relationship is as simple as a powerful media inspiring people to become obsessed fans. People become obsessed fans of certain types of characters they feel reflect values they already have. For example, Star Trek fans say they already have certain beliefs about what the future should look like and how people should live together. Star Trek merely came along and happened to have the same sort of values that a big enough sector of the audience already had. It’s the same way with Fifty Shades of Grey. I believe that the connection between the avid fan and Christian Grey is this same kind of fulfillment of an already existing wish. There are some women who already find a Christian Grey-type character attractive or find his qualities important in a man and now they will become fans of this particular series of books because they speak to the fan’s existing values.
An earlier version of this blog originally published on The Three Tomatoes.