13 February 2015
50 Shades: testing our Grey matter
By now you may be a bit sick of hearing all the news and views about Fifty Shades of Grey. Is it erotic mummy porn? Is it abusive? Is bondage domination sadism and masochism (BDSM) compatible with a healthy relationship?
The film based on the books is being released tomorrow - Valentine's Day – but, I assume, without the appalling writing that the books contain. There is a certain amount of irony of releasing the film on the day to celebrate love when the principle character, Christian Grey, himself declares: "I don't make love." Wow, what a Prince Charming. Not quite the 'you had me at hello' statement of a romantic lead in films.
If you've managed to avoid the numerous news stories and blogs so far (well done), the story of Fifty Shades involves the two principle characters of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. He is an attractive, billionaire businessman and Ana a student with a part-time job. Christian defines the nature of their relationship via a contract with Ana, which she never ends up signing. Who said romance was dead, eh?
Rather rapidly the story focusses on the sexual nature of the relationship, specifically the BDSM aspects that Christian prefers. While BDSM relationships are supposed to be based on clear mutual consent, right from the start of this relationship the power base is unequal.
Ana's placed at a disadvantage in negotiating safe, sensual and consensual sex. She is a virgin when she meets Christian and he treats her virginity as something to be dealt with. Rather than honouring Ana's innocence in the bedroom he sees it as a problem to overcome. Christian informs Ana that he wants to discipline her and train her to please him and in that she will find joy: he as the Dominant, and she as the Submissive. While the language of 'Dominant' and 'Submissive' is normal terminology used in the BDSM community, the concern here is that this is not a normal BDSM relationship.
There are multiple sex scenes within and without the "red room of pain" that Christian uses to play out his sexual fantasies. The best description I read on these scenes is that they very quickly become like reading a set of council car parking instructions –dry, boring, rigid and predictable.
Many have said there isn't a problem with a consensual BDSM relationship. I, however, do have an issue with sadism. I find it difficult to reconcile doing something deliberately to hurt, inflict pain or degrade another human being and a loving, healthy relationship where each individual is respected as made in the image of God. How can sadism be a part of the kingdom of God where this is no more pain or crying? A kingdom that we seek to bring here on earth.
The story lends itself to an adult Disney of Prince Charming rescuing the hapless princess, except with abuse and sex thrown in. Think Las Vegas on heroin, sparkly façade with dark undertones. We start to see chinks in the armour from the start of their interaction. Christian wants 'control in everything'. Control in an adult relationship is a clear sign of abuse. We cannot 'control' individuals. It is in complete contrast to the love and freedom that Jesus brings. Jesus gives us the ultimate choice in the context of love –choose life, life that cost Jesus his sacrifice.
Throughout the story we see emotional abuse, coercion, sexual and physical abuse, psychological abuse all thrown together and often justified in terms of the choices that Ana supposedly makes. Christian uses the different types of power he holds (structural, financial, emotional, sexual, to name a few) to coerce, control, manipulate, demean and intimidate Ana into doing what he wants. At one point he even goads Ana that she "didn't call the cops" when he hit her, therefore suggesting she must have liked it. This completely plays into the myth that someone who is experiencing abuse a) knows what is happening to them and b) is capable of doing something about it.
It seems we still wrestle with the issue that power and money can cloud our vision. It harps back to a time when a woman had very little power and marrying well was the escape from ruin and poverty. If we changed the character of Christian Grey to one with less power and money, say a traffic warden, then we might see his actions in a different light. Ana herself describes Christian as "a stalker", "control freak" and as "wanting to inflict pain". If Christian had a normal job would we see his actions differently?
Fifty Shades distorts the concept of a relationship from something that should be equal, loving, giving, mutually supporting and for the benefit of one another to a needy focus on self;sexual gratification the basis of a so-called relationship. Fifty Shades of Grey is not a romantic love story, it's abuse.
Mandy Marshall is co-director of Restored, an international Christian Alliance to transform relationships and end violence against women