50 shades of sadness

March 4th, 2015

Recently my girlfriend Kalie and I jumped on the cultural bandwagon and went to see "50 Shades of Grey." We had no burning desire to see the film, nor had we read any of the novels, but in the week following Valentine’s Day I found my classroom filled with sophomore girls raving about the romantic event of the season. As a high school Theology teacher — especially one who teaches an elective course on Christianity and Popular Culture — I’ve always felt compelled to be aware of what is engaging my students. And, sadly, they are presently enamored by "50 Shades of Grey" — even sneaking in to see it.

Inspired by E.L. James’ bestselling novel and sold as the romantic experience of Valentine’s Day weekend, it opened to the largest February gross of any film ever. When we saw the film, on Friday the 20th, we found ourselves in a sold-out theatre with a crowd laughing, gasping, and swooning in unison. That reaction was certainly not universal. As we left the theatre, all I could feel was sadness. Kalie and I spent much of the night discussing the distressing reality of the film.  

Far from a depiction of love or romance, "50 Shades of Grey" is a story of abuse. The film’s story makes clear (even if this reality is never explored with any depth in the plot) that Christian Grey was sexually and emotionally abused by a friend of his mother’s beginning when he was fifteen. Tragically, he grows up to become an abuser himself. "50 Shades of Grey" is then the story of the emotionally abusive relationship he enters into with Anastasia Steele.

To be clear, it is not my intention here to critique the BDSM community, which is presented inaccurately in the film. Speaking of the novel in 2012, Susan Quilliam, a relationship psychologist and sex advice columnist told ABCNews that, “Fifty Shades has been roundly criticized by the BDSM community and its depiction of the lifestyle is inaccurate. Christian Grey’s initial seduction of Anastasia breaks every rule in the BDSM book… [the relationship is] exploitive on both sides and therefore emotionally unsafe and not sane.” My comments here are not in any way directed at the world of BDSM. Rather, this is only a discussion of the story of Christian and Anastasia’s relationship as presented in the film. 

What the film depicts is neither loving nor healthy. To list only a few examples, Christian is excessively possessive of Anastasia, demanding she leave a bar she’s at with her friends when she calls him and being more than a little upset when she schedules a trip to go and visit her mom without asking him first. He goes to the bar to forcibly take her home and also shows up, unexpectedly and uninvited, when she is out of town with her mother. He demands she sign his contract — something she is clearly uncomfortable with on more than one level — and hounds her until she does. His desire for her body only increases when he learns she’s a virgin. He wants her, and takes her sexually, but refuses any intimacy or emotional connection. He won’t sleep in the same bed with her nor will he go out on traditional dates.

As a couple, they are to be together from Friday night through Sunday evening, and she is to live in a spare room at his place during that time. Eventually Christian offers her one traditional date night a week, a movie or dinner, if she agrees to (and follows) his rules. He even clearly states that the outing is a reward for her behavior. The audience in our screening giggled and gasped with delight while the story unfolded. Yet in more than one scene Anastasia is seen crying, trying to reconcile her feelings for this man with the nature of their “relationship.” It’s clear she cares for Christian but struggles with those feelings in light of how he hurts her emotionally. She is trapped in an abusive relationship.

Watching the film was a difficult experience for me. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it, but I certainly wasn’t ready for how it would unnerve me. This is the film my students are in love with? This is the film our country is in love with? Not only was it a disturbing depiction of abuse, it romanticized that abuse.  Their relationship was presented as one to envy. The pain and abusive nature of Christian and Anastasia’s relationship was never addressed, much less condemned. Rather it was depicted as sexy, amorous and desirable. 

It troubles me to consider how watching a film like this can warp my students’ understanding of what love is and what relationships should be — especially at a time in their lives when those ideas are forming. I also felt an overpowering sadness when I thought of what watching this film, which unabashedly romanticizes emotional abuse, would do to a woman trapped in an abusive relationship, struggling to find the strength to leave. These questions have haunted me daily since we saw the film.

The film disturbed me in many ways — as a teacher, as a man, as someone in a loving relationship — but it particularly disturbed me as a Christian. To be a Christian, to live our faith, means following in the footsteps of Jesus. Jesus was a prophet of the Kingdom of God who preached a world radically transformed in the Image of God. The Gospels make clear that the weapon of Jesus’ revolution, the tool of transformation, is love. With that in mind, there can be no question of greater importance in our lives than, “What is love?” 

"50 Shades of Grey" offers a dangerous answer to that question. But it is an answer we cannot accept.  Love should characterize everything in our lives. Love should fill and form our relationships with family, friends, significant others, ourselves, what we do (if we’re lucky) and of course with God. In loving and being loved we find our lives’ greatest meaning and purpose. But the "50 Shades" vision of love harms instead of heals. The truth of love is important. As Victor Hugo beautifully writes in "Les Miserables," “To love another person is to see the face of God.” When you have truly seen God in that way … it changes everything. That is what must be sought! That is what must be desired! What do we do then with a film, with a cultural phenomenon, that presents emotional abuse as sexy, desirable and — worst of all — love?     

I’d argue we can’t sit quietly. We must speak up and act out. We must follow in Jesus’ footsteps as prophets of the Kingdom of God, as prophets of love. In the words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” We answer a film like "50 Shades of Grey" by authentically loving. That is the vision my students need to see. That’s what our world needs to see. We, as Christians, must express the transforming love of God in all facets of our lives, teaching real love by beautiful example. Films like "50 Shades of Grey" dangerously warp our understanding of love. We can’t simply sit by and accept that. Rather, we are called to show the world what true love can do. Love has the power to transform everything. May God give us the courage to love like that.  

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