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Fifty Shades of Grey: a primer for aliens

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Explaining the phenomenon based on a phenomenon, wrapped in an enigma, chained to the bedpost

Focus Features

If aliens landed on Earth tomorrow and found America plastered with promotional materials for Fifty Shades of Grey, explaining it would be a pretty good exercise in examining how stories become sensations in 2015.

"Well you see, there was a book called Twilight. Many humans liked this book — a book, you know, pretend-words. There were four books, and they all got made into movies."

The alien tilts her head, her four brains pulsating furiously as she processes this.

"Oh, sorry, movies are a thing we humans make when books and comic books make lots of money, but not enough money. They are kind of like promotions for books."

"Can movies be made without being books or comic books first?"

You hesitate. "Yeah, but..." you shrug, gesturing vaguely, indicating a line of inquiry that is of little real import.

"So anyway, some of the humans liked Twilight so much that they made their own pretend-words about Twilight."

"Did they make money off of it?" asks the alien, who is clearly a quick study.

"In most cases, no. But in one particular —"

"Why would you write a pretend-words without the intention of making money?"

You pause, shrug, and pat the alien on her translucent skull. "Love."

Some of the humans liked Twilight so much that they made their own pretend Twilight

Clearing your throat, you continue: "One of these pretend-pretend-words became very popular, even though it was not really a Twilight book. It became so popular and made enough money that it had to be made into a movie so that it could keep making money."

Then you make the alien read all of the Twilight books and all of Fifty Shades of Grey. The alien reads very fast, because she has four brains and also 32 eyes. Her first question is, naturally, why the characters have completely different names and appear to have little relation to each other. And is she to assume that Christian Grey is still a vampire — he's just not making as big of a deal of it this time? Here's where you may hit a wall. You may just have to send the alien to the "Twilight: All Human" board on fanfiction.net and let her figure it out for herself.

"I don't understand," the alien says, a few hours later. "Why would you write pretend-pretend-words about Twilight if you don't even want to use the same characters? Is it illegal to write pretend-words that are not based on Twilight?"

"No, but I suppose it is more inviting and easy to read and write something that begins with a familiar element."

"So most stories are based on Twilight."

"No, there are lots of stories that are not based on Twilight. The Hunger Games, for instance."

The alien narrows her large, obsidian eyes suspiciously. "How do you know that this Hunger Games is not based on Twilight?"

It's a good question. "Well," you finally say, hedging a bit, "all pretend-words are sort of based on each other, in some way or another."

Then you and the alien hit the movie theater. "So this is not a Twilight movie," she asks as the lights go down, just to be certain. You shake your head no. The alien smiles as if she's got the hang of this, "But all movies are Twilight movies, when it comes down to it."

You nod, just to shut her up, as the opening credits roll.

Movies are so much fun!

As you leave the theater, the alien is naturally giddy, having just seen her first movie. "Movies are so much fun!" she says. "I mean, I didn't have much use for that Christian Grey — what a creep — Anastasia deserves better!"

"Jamie Dornan was a little leaden," you agree.

"They had no chemistry. But that's not really the point, is it?" asks the alien. "He's a conduit for a fantasy. It's more important that Anastasia register as human, because ultimately we experience her attraction to him through her, not him."

You nod. "Dakota Johnson deserves some kind of medal for that performance."

"She is not the audience surrogate this movie deserved, but the one it needed," says the alien, who must have Google searched for Batman quotes while she was in the bathroom. "She conveys lust in a very relatable way. And she clearly has a sense of humor, which makes less of the film itself outright mockable. It's in on a lot of the joke, but not in a cynical way."

Under the flashing lights of the theater marquee, as your fellow filmgoers flood outside, you begin laughing about riding crops and peacock feathers. "I will need to investigate this BDSM," the alien murmurs. "It's something that only dysfunctional children of drug addicts gravitate toward?"

I will need to investigate this BDSM

"No, no, no," you say hurriedly.

"Only the extremely wealthy?"

You shake your head emphatically. "Not at all."

"People into gadgets?"

You make a noncommittal "eh" sound. "Maybe you should forget everything Fifty Shades of Grey says about BDSM and do some of your own research if you're really interested." You pat her shoulder encouragingly. "Just like in the movie!"

"Just like in the movie!" she repeats, her eyes lighting up.

As you walk, she gazes at the row of coming attractions posters outside the theater.

"No, seriously though," she says, "I like how these movies of yours visually take on the point of view of female characters, both in terms of camera angle and editing. I enjoy identifying with their emotional processes as they think about sex and romance. I like how your human forms of entertainment seem to be made for women," she says with a little nostalgic sigh, "just like on my home planet."

"Well —"

I would like to see more movies of humans having sex

She tugs on your sleeve excitedly. "I would like to see more movies of humans having sex. Perhaps, with any luck, one that is 'good.'" She looks up at you with uncertainty. "Because, I know I'm an alien from another planet, but that movie was not very good, was it?"

You shrug. "The soundtrack was pretty tight."

The alien nods in agreement. "I must investigate this Beyoncé," she says, before returning to the matter at hand. "Please, let's watch another movie! I cannot wait to see more pretend human women having and thinking about sex in a variety of complex and nuanced ways! I cannot wait to see more stories for women!"

You look down at her, not sure how to break it to her, as an ad for Hot Tub Time Machine 2 illuminates her wide, twinkling black eyes.

The two of you take the train home and watch Twilight: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 on Netflix.