So there I was sitting in the living room with some of my children when a bus went past the window. On the side was an advert for the film, Fifty Shades Darker. Oh great. How happy I am to be living in a society where my five-year-old gets to see such things on buses! Thankfully she didn’t ask any questions.
Although I refrained from reading the first instalment of the Fifty Shades saga, I read enough reviews to be able to say with confidence that it is worthy of Ambrose Bierce’s observation: “The covers of this book are too far apart” (About 380 pages too far apart, since you ask.) Of course, everyone knows that 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 put the whole phenomenon into some sort of cultural perspective.
When I first read those reviews, I was somewhat confused to find that they all said the overwhelming majority of the book’s readers were women. Why the confusion? Well, half-a-century or so after the apparent emancipation of women, here were millions of women eagerly lapping up a book about a girl who submits to an overbearing, domineering deviant and lets him do pretty much whatever he wants to her. This is what empowerment and emancipation look like? Huh?
Actually, to those of us outside the loop, feminist attitudes to pornography are more than a tad baffling. Do they approve of it 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 1970s and early 1980s, a schism opened up amongst what were known as the Second-Wave Feminists. In the ensuing Feminist Sex Wars two groups emerged, both using the term “feminists” to describe themselves, yet managing to come up with diametrically opposed views on issues such as pornography.
After reading those reviews, I then did a little research on websites that billed themselves as feminist. What I discovered was a striking divide over Fifty Shades of Grey. For instance, over on a site called feministing.com there were the “Fifty Shades is Liberation” sisters, who spoke in gushing terms about how “refreshing it was for women to be able to read such apparently enlightened literature without feeling ashamed.”
Meanwhile, over on Hercirclezine.com the “Fifty Shades is Oppression” sisters stood aghast, wondering how on earth their fellow feminists could possibly endorse a book which, in the words of one commentator, “tells women that they want not only to be objectified … but also that they want to be dominated—in the bedroom and outside of it.”
I admit that I stand squarely with the sisters on Hercirclezine.com on that one. Of course pornography turns women into objects — that is the entire point of it (well perhaps after the desire to make money). 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 and films such as these do not do their bit to further chip away at what is left of honour and kindness between the sexes, then they should perhaps make it a priority to study statistics on the increase in sexual and violent crimes over the past 50 years and then set them next to some figures charting the explosion in pornography.
Yet, 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 was seen very clearly in a comment posted on Hercirclezine.com, reacting to the news that the Anglican Diocese of Sydney was 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 — based on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians — is related to the kind of submissiveness being portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey. This is what Winnie-the-Pooh might have called A Very Big Misunderstanding. You see, Fifty Shades of Grey did not come out of a Christian culture, nor could it have come out of a Christian culture. It came out of a secular humanist culture which puts individualism and the “right” to sexual deviancy on a par with the liberties granted in the Bill of Rights.
But for such people, there are only two possible types of submissiveness in male/female relations: Islamist-style chattel slavery, where the woman is nothing but a drudge, emptied of any thoughts of her own; or sexual-chattel submissiveness, where the woman is a mere slave to the demands of some overbearing deviant. So when Paul writes that women should submit to their husbands, he must be urging either Islamist-style submission, or sexual deviance submission. Or both. Right?
Er no. The type of submissiveness envisaged by Paul does not remotely resemble the relationship of shoe to doormat seen in some Islamic countries, nor the relationship of a sex master to sex object, increasingly seen in our own culture. Rather, it envisages a wife lovingly submitting herself to the leadership of her husband, and a husband “loving his wife as Christ loves the church and gave Himself for it” (Ephesians 5:22,25). It is highly self-sacrificial, on both sides, and when it happens the results are beautiful and lovely, with the honour and respect with which they treat one another obvious to all.
Of course it will be objected that many women aren’t married to such selfless men. True, but then many men are not married to such self-sacrificial women. But really the 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 honour, nor 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 in the hierarchy established by God, it is simply that the man bears ultimate responsibility for the direction and decisions taken in the family, and it is the man who will have to give an account for what went on in it.
The Fifty Shades saga will no doubt continue to give the millions of women reading it and watching it a false sense that it is something to do with female emancipation. To such women, please know that it is not emancipation, but the opposite. It further objectifies you, freeing men of the responsibility to love and cherish women, and so gets us further away from the day when men will once again give real honour to the opposite sex.
But to those feminists who do realise how destructive this is, but have trouble telling the difference between the teaching of E.L. James and the Apostle Paul, there is this: much as you might loathe Fifty Shades of Grey, and I agree with you, it didn’t come to you from my worldview. It came to you from yours — a worldview that specifically rejects Christianity and all it has to say on male/female relations.