Popular but problematic

Fifty Shades of Grey – the phenomenon

I have to begin this piece with a couple of confessions. The first is that I have not yet read Fifty Shades of Grey, the bestseller that “everybody” is talking about. The second is that I have no intention whatsoever of doing so. The downright tawdriness of it all just doesn’t appeal.

Now, as everyone knows, it is bad form to review a book that one has not read so rather than fail miserably in the attempt, my aim is simply to look at the Fifty Shades phenomenon through a Christian worldview lens. If you are wondering why we even have to consider this sort of thing, the answer is simply this: the walls of the church and of families are probably more porous than they have ever been, and rather than light pouring out from them into the surrounding culture, the traffic is largely the other way. Stuff is getting in, much of which is not good. Pretending it doesn’t exist is not an answer.

Even Christians are reading books like this, which is obviously not good, but even if they weren’t touching it, the influence of such stuff would still manage to find its way into Christian families and churches as once cultural taboos become cultural norms. The only way to stop its pernicious effects is to know what it is we are dealing with and to be fully persuaded that we have the antidote.

What is it?

Just in case you have managed to remain blissfully unaware of its existence, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey is the biggest selling book in the world right now, having sold somewhere in the region of 40 million copies. It is also reputed to be the fastest selling paperback of all time, knocking J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series off the top spot.

The plot centers on the “relationship” between a naïve 22-year-old woman, Ana Steele, and Christian Grey, a successful 27-year-old businessman whom she meets when interviewing him for a college paper. She is attracted to him and hopes for a romance, but it soon becomes clear that he is not the “flowers and chocolates sort” and the only kind of relationship he is interested in is a purely sexual one involving BDSM (bondage, dominance, sado-masochism). I won’t bore you with any more of the tacky details, suffice it to say that the rest of the book is littered with scenes that would find a comfortable home in any “hardcore” pornographic magazine.

Why feminists love/hate it

The most interesting thing about the Fifty Shades phenomenon is that the overwhelming majority of its readers are women. Why interesting? Well here we are half-a-century after the apparent emancipation of women, and millions of women are eagerly lapping up a pornographic book about a girl who submits to an overbearing, domineering deviant and lets him do pretty much whatever he wants to her. How empowering! How emancipating!

Feminism can be mighty confusing to those of us outside the loop. Do feminists approve of pornography or do they condemn it? Is it a liberating and empowering force in the hands of women, or is it a demeaning and oppressive tool in the hands of men? Well that all depends on which feminists you happen to be speaking with. During the late 70s and early 80s a schism opened up amongst what were known as the Second-Wave Feminists, and in the ensuing Feminist Sex Wars two groups emerged, both using the term “feminists” to describe themselves, yet managing to come up with diametrically opposite views on issues such as pornography.

A quick search of the web reveals precisely this divide over Fifty Shades of Grey. For instance, over on Feministing.com are the “Fifty Shades is liberation” sisters who speak in gushing terms about how refreshing it is for women to be able to read such apparently enlightened literature without feeling ashamed. One commentator says,

“To me, the popularity of Fifty Shades is evidence that, at the very least, women like reading about many kinds of sex – and people should probably try doing all of them, because they all seem really great.”

Meanwhile over on Hercirclezine.com, the “Fifty Shades is oppression” sisters stand aghast wondering how on earth their fellow feminists could possibly endorse such a book. As one commentator says,

“These books tell women that they want not only to be objectified … but also that they want to be dominated – in the bedroom and outside of it. It’s pornography in its purest form, and pornography thrives because men demand it.”

I must admit that if I have to stand with one group, I come down fairly and squarely on the “Fifty Shades is oppression” side. Of course pornography turns women into objects – that is the entire point of it. It is specifically and intentionally anti-relational. Fifty Shades of Grey is no different, and if the “Fifty Shades is liberation” sisters really believe that books such as these will not do their bit to further chip away at what is left of honor and kindness between the sexes then they need to do three things:

  1. Get with the real world;
  2. Study the statistics on the increase in sexual and violent crimes over the last 50 years and set them next to some figures charting the explosion in pornography;
  3. Go figure.

What biblical submission isn’t

But much as I am with the “Fifty Shades is oppression” sisters in their criticisms of the book, this is as far as any alliance can go. They are right in-spite of their worldview not because of it. This is seen in the following comment posted on Hercirclezine.com, reacting to the news that the Anglican diocese of Sydney is about to include a pledge by the bride to “love and submit” to her husband:

What I find especially disturbing is this new trend happening in Sydney in which women have adopted a trend from Fifty Shades of Grey. Their wedding vows includes [sic] a submission contract. This is degrading and is a giant leap backwards. All of these women who revel in being submissive are pathetic sheep stuck in a different time era (or possibly need psychological help).

Somehow this lady and many others like her, seem to believe that the kind of submissiveness being vowed in the Sydney marriage service – lifted from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians – is the same as the kind of submissiveness being portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey. For such folks, there are only two possible types of submissiveness in male/female relations:

  • Islamist-style, where the woman is nothing but a drudge, emptied of any thoughts of her own and made to walk behind her husband dressed in something resembling a bat costume,
  • or sexual-chattel submissiveness, where the woman is a mere slave to the demands of some overbearing deviant.

And so when Paul writes that women must submit to their husbands, he must be urging either Islamist-style submission, or sexual deviance submission. Or both. Right?

Well, not quite. This is what Winnie-the-Pooh might have called A Very Big Misunderstanding. Let me put it like this: Fifty Shades of Grey did not come out of a Christian culture. Nor could it have come out of a Christian culture. The culture it came out of is a secular humanist one which puts sex and the right to an orgasm on a par with the liberties granted in the Bill of Rights. So to the feminists who confuse the Apostle Paul with E.L. James: much as you might loathe Fifty Shades of Grey, you didn’t get it from my worldview, you got it from yours – a worldview that specifically rejects Christianity and all it has to say on male/female relations.

What it is

For the record, the type of submissiveness envisaged by Paul does not resemble the relationship of shoe to doormat, nor the relationship of pimp to prostitute (see Hebrews 13:4), but rather a wife submitting herself to a husband who “loves his wife as Christ loves the church and gave himself for it” (Ephesians 5:22,25). Of course it will be objected that many women aren’t married to such selfless men and so how can they be expected to submit. True enough, but Paul is writing to Christians within the context of the New Covenant, and so if any husband behaves in such a way as to make it just about impossible for her to submit to his headship, then as a last resort she has every right to go to the elders of the church, and they have every obligation to deal with it.

At the same time, such an objection is a red-herring. For the feminist rejection of Paul’s teaching is not that a woman might have to submit to a lousy skunk, but that she has to submit to anyone – even to a self-sacrificing, loving husband. What they simply don’t get is this: the Christian woman’s submission is not a sign of inferiority. It does not mean that she is in any way beneath her husband in dignity or honor, or that her opinions and desires are of any less worth than his. On the contrary, she is his equal in every respect – the glory of her husband as Paul makes clear elsewhere – but with one exception: in the hierarchy established by God it is the husband that is the “family CEO.” He is the one who bears responsibility for its direction and he is the one who will have to give an account for what went on in it.

Fifty Shades of Grey will no doubt continue to draw in its millions, and in so doing will give the hordes of women reading it a false sense that what they are reading is female emancipation. It is not. Neither is female emancipation to be found in first rejecting a Fifty Shades type of submission and then rejecting an Ephesians kind of submission because you can’t tell the difference. The truly emancipated woman is one who first trusts in Jesus Christ and then seeks a man who strives to resemble Him. Submitting to that kind of man will be her glory and her delight.

This article first appeared in an edited form for Samaritan Ministries International.

Fifty Shades of Grey – the phenomenon
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