I’ve been sitting back, surveying the blogosphere from a number of angles, since Fifty Shades took off running. For one, it has a number of traits interesting only to people in publishing.
It’s Twilight fan fiction in an erotic “alternate universe” setting. That means it could have fallen in a grey area with copyright infringement if the adaptation were not original enough. (Apparently it is, and that horse isn’t running news-wise.)
It started out small, first on a free online forum, then with a small Australian publisher, and became big, finally signing on at Knopf. There’s a lot of attention on this reverse route to traditional publishing right now, as self-publishers are making readership connections that large houses aren’t well-adapted to achieve with their business model.
And of course, people are arguing about it. What’s somewhat surprising is who, and how.
Religious and Secular Objections Intersect
Over at TrueWoman.com, Dannah Gresh took a shredding from religious readers defending Fifty Shades. More on that in a minute.
What’s interesting to me is that where a religious writer uses the descriptive term “sin,” intelligent secular contacts–women who gave the book a chance on friends’ recommendations–use the descriptive term a work of woman-hating misogyny perpetrated by one of our own.
I’m paraphrasing from something on a personal social media feed here. In the discussion that ensued, I saw a remark (and I’ve seen similar in blog comments also) that the book is not true to the BDSM paradigm because of its dysfunctional portrayal of sex and power. The Fifty Shades story is not, they say, a true consensual relationship as they understand such things, and it presents a dangerous example of sexual and psychological abuse.
With fair warning for foul language and/or explicit subject matter, more on this at:
Since I’m against porn in an absolutist way, both because I was raised on secular feminism and because I later became part of a redemptive faith community, I’m tackling this without apology for my presuppositional bias. This is not me being a church girl. This is not me being a feminazi. This is me being a girl who cares about stuff that isn’t good for people in the bigger picture.
Without picking on any one commenter or blogger in particular, I will now proceed to pick on the general ideas which have been put forth publicly by the public. You can feel free to Google around and locate those arguments for yourself, for the most part. Any blog post questioning Fifty Shades will almost certainly have at least some of the following in the comments.
1. You Can’t Critique It If You Haven’t Read It
Let’s talk about a little thing called “independent verification by contemporary sources.” It’s used to determine the context and reliability of ancient writings. One of the strongest points of verification is when dissenting viewpoints present the same analysis of a work’s content. Famously, this has been used to defend the historicity of the Bible during time periods when the prevailing writers of history referenced it and events surrounding it in giving their reasons for disapprobation of Christian beliefs.
Much less eternally, we have that on Fifty Shades. As previously noted, thinking people across a spectrum of lifestyles and beliefs are challenging the books’ negative message about women and their sexuality.
2. Who Cares, It’s Just a Book
This objection flies in the face of both art and science.
I mentioned in a moms’ forum discussion that, as a fiction editor, most everything I do is about teaching writers to create a vicarious experience in the reader’s mind. And that the brain processes the imagined experience in a way that mirrors how it processes real-life experiences.
3. Stop Judging Me, You Judgmental Judger
The flaws with this one should be obvious. First: it’s ineffective reasoning to bait-and-switch a person for an idea, an ethic or an opinion. Second: log, eye, pot, kettle, et cetera.
4. It Helped My Marriage
What helped the marriage? The gist I’ve encountered is that women actually talked to their husbands about sex, when they hadn’t before. Sometimes because they read the book(s) alone, sometimes because they read them together.
In that case, my dear, the book didn’t help your marriage. You did. And it doesn’t require any book for you to do so. Not torture porn, not holy-toned religious self-help. All it takes is honesty.
You can communicate anytime you choose. And if you did, that’s your success to claim. Stop handing your personal power away to a novel.
5. It’s Not About the Sex, It’s About the Power of Loooove
And men read Playboy for the articles. But no, wait, let’s examine this notion.
Under no circumstances is it acceptable to manipulate and abuse another in order to “work out one’s issues.” Two wrongs don’t make a right.
As others have pointed out, to believe that someone who chooses to abuse will heal if only they are loved enough, or the right way, or unconditionally, perpetuates a dangerous state of denial common to abuse victims.
Let’s put that together with the aforementioned science on reading and “experience-taking.” Is that toxic fantasy and denial what we want to perpetuate? Is it what we wish on our daughters? Our friends?
This, more than anything, concerns me about the response from professedly religious readers of the books. There seems to be little to no discernment on the issue of unhealthy submission in women. I’m left wondering how these readers can stand blind to the misogynistic issues readily perceived by thoughtful secular women.
The Odd Phenomenon of Religious Readers
The first I read anything related to BDSM, it had cropped up as a potential intersecting influence in the No Greater Joy child abuse travesties of 2010-2011 (see WhyNotTrainAChild.com for a wide variety of online commentary and resources). It showed up under the moniker of “Christian Domestic Discipline,” a mentally sick practice of wife-dominance outlined on several websites and merely a hop, skip and jump by the hyperlinks to the BDSM community.
The attitudes sported by BDSM roleplaying (“I need him to control me and I feel righter when I submit”) are in fact taught and caught in a very serious sense in the hyper-patriarchal movement, and also–so I am given to understand by other reviewers–in the Pearls’ marriage literature. In some communities, they are a matter of religious requirement as much as or more than sexual lifestyle preference.
Does that seem right to you?
This leaves me to question how much and how often the doctrines of complementarianism are shifted off their biblical basis and used to justify Victorianism, misogyny, and outright abuse.
Karen at ThatMom has some insight on that.
An Untrustworthy Failure of Understanding
What drives us to participate in the betrayal of fellow womankind’s human worth for the sake of our gratuitous titillation? What drives us to vicariously betray ourselves in this way? How did we get to here:
And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper…without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. (Rom. 1:28-2:1)
Has the faith community so badly dropped the ball in discipling women on their God-given dignity and value? Or have we simply dropped the ball on discipleship as a lifestyle practice?
Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women… (Titus 2:3-4a)
More than any opinion–yours, mine or the mom next door’s–I believe we have an opportunity and responsibility to make a careful examination of the discussion generated by this topic, and re-ask these questions about how we in the Christian faith communicate and advocate human sanctity to women.