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Fifty Shades, Passion Parties and a Road Trip to Paramus

After a routine, reportedly pain-free tooth cleaning, my husband was slipped a post-it with a date and a phone number.

“If your wife would like to see a sneak peak of Fifty Shades of Grey,” she whispered, “have her call me.”

The dentist’s perky, pint-sized front desk assistant, Heather — who, when she’s not charging me for left quadrant tooth scaling — runs a side business called “Heather’s Little Pleasures,” her self-branded, New Jersey edition of a Passion Party. For the uninitiated, Passion Parties are like the Avon Ladies of fuzzy handcuffs and pink dildos.

The screening she was hosting was in Paramus, New Jersey, a good 25 miles from my home in Brooklyn, and she promised swag bags, hot pink wristbands, free popcorn and…

“Your dental hygienist Norma will be there.”

Who could pass this up? Plus, there was something strangely apropos about the most sadistic of doctors being associated with such an event.

To be clear, I’m no fan of the book. In fact, when I first tried to read it, I got about 10 pages in before skipping to “the good parts” and getting furious. Why was this barely readable writing so popular? How could anyone get past this goofy, lip-biting heroine and lines like “Laters, baby.” There are plenty of high-quality erotica writers, like our own contributor Rachel Kramer Bussel, who can whip out zesty prose better than this dreck. And the fact that it gained such incredible popularity with women prompted theories, doctoral theses,  fan fiction and feminist critique alike.

For that angle, read this amazing Leslie Bennetts long-form piece in Entertainment Weekly.

This is not that angle.

This is about three hard-working professional women who decided to hop in a car to see one of the biggest cinematic and movie marketing teases of all time.

Even though none of us could get through the book.

In fact, Sehreen, who graciously offered to drive us in her 2001 Lexus, didn’t know the first thing about the phenomenon. For her, this was just a precious night out away from her 18-month old. “Do you know where the baby’s food is?” she called her husband from the road. “Do you know what you’re going to feed her?”

Kate, a little more familiar with these sorts of things, gave us the lowdown on the alt lifestyle, the intimate, consensual relationship between a submissive and dominant and then somehow we wound up discussing the kinkiness of dressage. It got deep. What else were we going to do stuck in Manhattan traffic?

One hour later, we Google-mapped our way around traffic circles and into the AMC Paramus. Or was this Paterson. We couldn’t be sure.

Once inside, a kindly usher directed us to one of two possible lines, both filled with women wearing pink boas, a few in tiaras, a few in fishnets, and duck boots. (It’s still slushy out there.) No one quite knew where to stand or if they needed to be checked in somewhere and a few line crashers were read the riot act. “UH-UH! NO!” They were reprimanded.

Kate noted the fascinating socio-economic clash of it all and we were just happy to have a free coupon for popcorn and soda.

Soon we were handed goodie bags that contained: Passion Parties pomegranate bath soak, little key chain handcuffs, exactly two Hershey’s kisses and dozens of coupons for all manner of multi-level marketing products: the Pampered Chef, Arbonne, Initials.

A quick trip through Facebook, and you can see that these Fifty Shades preview events have been popping up all over the country, loosely tied to Passion Parties. However the events are not directly affiliated with Universal, the movie’s production company. (Attempts to reach Universal were unsuccessful). According to Heather (of Little Pleasures), Universal asked the public events to take down their marketing, and only allowed the private parties to continue — so as not to interrupt the promise of opening day. So Heather and her friends, “independent consultants” at these various franchise, Tupperware-structured businesses, decided to join forces, rent out an AMC in Paramus and host their own private event.

“This is kind of amazing,” said Sehreen as we nestled into our cushy, sprawlingly suburban theater seats, “These women have a real business going and are creating a pretty impressive community.”

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Heather of Heather’s Little Pleasures, center (Photo: TueNight)

Jackie, who introduced herself as a sex consultant, welcomed the audience by extoling the virtues of orgasm, toys and lubricant. She prepped us for a “hot” “erotic” film.

“Look ladies, I’m not responsible if you get pregnant tonight.”

Lights down. Movie on. Here we go.

I had very low expectations. We all did. So when the movie turned out to be watchable — and even, as Jackie predicted, “hot,” it was nothing short of a miracle. Dakota Johnson’s performance as Anastasia Steele was nuanced and clever, as she toggled between a skinny-jeaned shy student to an assertive, bad-ass in the (naughty) boardroom. She turned ridiculous lines from the book into laugh-out loud moments. And that Jamie Dornan is pretty easy on the eyes. The character of Ana, abhorrently childish in the book, is written with a slightly (slightly) more feminist edge.

Sure the plot is preposterous, and we have no idea what the hell Christian Grey does for a living exactly, or what “Grey House” is, and the whole movie is a giant content marketing vehicle for Apple, but still, it was a saucy ride.

Our audience here in Paramus was a vocal bunch, collectively “mm-hmm”ing at lines they knew from the book. They made their displeasure known when Christian sniffed a pair of undies (“EW!”) and when the camera panned over a forested nether region. To which Kate tweeted, “Bush is back!”

One woman a few rows back from me was most fascinated with Ana’s choice of flats. She loudly scolded, “Take off those DAMN.UGLY. SHOES.” every time the pointy things made an appearance…Then when Christian asks Ana to remove her shoes, she cheered. But then,  “Ew your feet are ugly…. Put those damn shoes back on.”

SPOILER ALERT….

The last few brutal scenes are sure to be debated, the audience gasped as Christian took it to Ana’s backside with full force. Ana’s consent seemed questionable — or at least confused. And then it ends, abruptly. At which point the audience either groaned or bust out laughing (as our three did). Appears we’ll have to come back for the next installment.

After the film ended, there was a raffle for various vibrators and kitchen items, but we had to skeedaddle back to the city.

As we snuck out, Heather spotted me and yelled, “Margit what if I call your name and you win?”

I shouted back, “Bring it to my next cleaning!”

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