And now for something completely safe.
Like with most cultural trends, I eventually had to know what Fifty Shades of Grey was all about. Though, also like most cultural trends, I was fairly late to the game. However, unlike a response of feverish obsession tinged with guilt for not having discovered it sooner, as with, say Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, or Bruce Springsteen, after getting about 20% into Fifty Shades on my Kindle, all I felt was guilt – for wasting time on bad writing first, an even worse plot, and shame, for the millions of women who are captivated by this story. I don’t think this story is an isolated instance of bad culture. I think it’s evidence of the destructive and abusive messages we are sold, and sometimes buy, and call them harmless beach reads.
A while back Rachel Held Evans held the week of mutuality on her blog, as a way to encourage a plurality of voices on mutuality in marriage and relationships, particularly in a Christian context. It is already a theme about which she writes with great frequency and tremendous beauty. So, while, I’m a little late to the blog-party (what else is new) regarding that topic, I think this Fifty Shades phenomenon connects to the conversation about mutuality vs. complementarianism, from a church and theological point of view.
One of the loudest voices against which Held Evans writes is John Piper, a popular writer, theologian, and Baptist pastor. He said, earlier this year, at a Pastor’s conference: “Now, from all of that I conclude that God has given Christianity a masculine feel.” Women can, of course, experience God, but they face a decidedly secondary position, and males have priority in God’s masculine-ordered world. I could write more just on this dangerous kind of thinking alone. But lots of people already have.
Suffice it to say, I don’t like Piper’s interpretation of Christianity or a strictly, exclusively masculine God. And I don’t like Fifty Shades of Grey. I think both are dangerous. I see a strange and perverse parallel between our fixation on pastors who are overbearing, harsh, loud, judgmental, and their messages harping on “masculine” Christianity and women’s submission, and the general American, white woman’s fixation with Fifty Shades of Grey. When I’ve heard people attempt to explain the popularity of the novel, they talk about all the responsibilities women bear in their daily lives – keeping up the house, taking care of children, running errands, feeding their families, and (sometimes) jobs outside the home. A story like Fifty Shades is appealing because it offers escape of the most extreme sort.
The story is about an almost-college graduate who, by chance, meets and becomes seduced by Christian Grey (hence the title; clever, right?). His life is a life of financial privilege, and sexual escapades of the S&M, domination sort. The young woman, Ana, must sign a contract, which includes clauses related to her physical fitness and diet; in order to enter into a sexual ‘relationship,’ she must sign away rights to her own time and maintain a lifestyle so she will be an acceptable “submissive” in Christian’s eyes. What I find particularly troubling about the set-up and plot of the story is that relationship has almost negative space in the story. Over and over again Christian tells her how anti-relationship he is. They will have sex. They will have lots of sex, but she will be forbidden from looking him in the eye and saying anything to him, and when it is all said and done, they will sleep in separate beds. This is sex at its most carnal, devoid of love, care, and intimacy – at least of the emotional and spiritual sort.
So women are reading this book because it tells a story of submission and a complete giving up of control. They read it because it represents their ultimate psychological (and maybe physical?) fantasy: domination and some strange “release” from obligation, responsibility, control. But what it turns into is abuse, oppression and being gagged. It all stems from some cultural message that our voices are best when they are quiet, boundaried or kept silent.
Clearly this story troubles me on a spiritual and emotional level. (And here let me be clear: I have not read the entire first book. I made it more than halfway through, but could not bring myself to finish it. Even if the plot did some kind of wild reversal, the beginning offers enough of this perversion, not to mention horrific writing, that I felt ashamed at spending my time this way. I’d rather go watch some Kardashian nonsense.) The story presents an older man in the role, quite explicitly of domination. For the duration of their contract, he will maintain say over every detail of her life – what she eats, how often she works out, who else she has sex with (which, I will also say, the one glimmer of decency, is that at least this guy is a serial monogamist). Her title – once she signs the contract, she is robbed of her name – is “submissive”. She, quite literally, functions as his fantasy body, not a person with a distinct identity, since she cannot speak or even look him in the eye.
Tell me where is the edifying message in that? Even if women do need to relinquish control in their lives, how is this an appropriate story to give oneself over to in fantasy?
Perhaps the female audience, who are in charge of so many things – domestic chores, childrearing, husband-pleasing – need a message of mutuality in the home. I don’t believe Fifty Shades of Grey is really about sex at all, at least not healthy sex. Healthy sex is for the benefit of both partners, and is an expression of a deeper intimacy, care, love and support. Healthy sex should be about covenant, not contract. Healthy sex should not demonstrate the unequal models of Piper’s masculine theology – because it seems the outgrowth (maybe extreme, but logical nonetheless) is the subjectification and submission of one partner’s desires and identity to appease the raw desires of the other.
The link between Piper’s masculine Christianity and E.L. James fantasy of submission and domination is that it sends a message to women that ask us to be beholden to our weakness. The messages tell us that our strength is really perversion and our desires are sinful and we ought to be grateful for strong men to take control of our needs and desires. It is all sick. And none of it has its roots in love.