Fifty Shades of Things People Don't Want to Face (But Should)

I was initially not going to go anywhere near the Fifty Shades of Grey frenzy. But a dear friend, who is also a survivor of domestic violence (DV), asked me to consider it on behalf of women DV survivors. So I read the first book and watched the movie over the weekend, thoughtfully processing both with domestic violence issues as a part of my filter. Here are my thoughts as a result:

What I care most about is something that is, admittedly, much clearer in the book than in the movie, and that is how terribly unsettling it is to see a "mercurial" jealous control freak depicted so clearly. I began to wonder if E.L. James had read up on the topic. Though the movie easily leaves out three-quarters of the relevant material (according to the tally I kept as I read), there was still enough to have the couple next to me in the theatre commenting loudly, "He's so controlling!"

The reason this element concerns me is pretty simple: control and jealousy form the bedrock of abusive relationships. The fact that Christian Gray may change his ways by the end of the series is truly fantasy, and on that level concerns me even more. What people who have not experienced an abusive relationship do not understand is that E.L. James depicts a manipulative man grooming a woman into submission, and it can be horrifying for those in the know.

Christian Gray is described from the very get-go as someone who desires to control everything and everyone around him. He even says it, himself. If that doesn't evoke concern from you, then congratulations on not having encountered such people in your life, thus far. The most relevant part is that, as Anastasia consistently reflects, this kind of a person keeps you constantly worrying about their mood and uncertain of where you stand with them. "Walking on eggshells" does not do the dynamic justice, and I'd like you to think about how all parts of a person's life would be effected, when living in constant fear or intimidation.

Anastasia Steele is depicted from the very get-go as a childish, deeply lacking-in-self-esteem, naïve young woman. In the book she does not yet know enough to respect her intuition, which consistently tells her to flee from this man (!), and she does not put two and two together when she consistently feels a relief when not around him. In the book and the movie it is the sexual aspect that keeps her going back to him. On one hand this piece is understandable, since Gray is the first man she has felt this way about. But on the other, even as both characters admit, Gray uses his knowledge of the erotic as a weapon to get her to comply with a "relationship" as he likes it.

I must highlight the relief she feels when not around him. This is real. Whatever enticement she may feel compelled by, when around Christian Grey, it goes hand-in-hand with something deep within that tells her to run far, far away. This element plays out for abusers, in their favor. Though there is something frightening about them, there is also an allure that is somehow stronger or exciting enough to keep the victim still engaged. The allure is an important part of what makes the grooming process possible.

For women in or familiar with situations of domestic violence, the control and ownership elements of this book and movie can jump off the page or the screen. Whatever the reasons for him "being that way," they do not justify him controlling another person.

The "if you love me you'll do this for me" piece is all over their interactions in the book, and that - not the BDSM -- is the part that made my skin crawl every time. That she does end up enjoying the bondage and being a Submissive for a time is what has made writing this piece so challenging. This is where fantasy and reality need to be held up for scrutiny. I do think that it is best not to judge what turns people on. If it doesn't work for you, then don't do it. You get no points in my book for ridiculing someone else's source of pleasure.

On a frighteningly related note, as The Rachel Maddow Show playfully highlighted for us, the movie seems to be most popular in the "Bible Belt." Many people have suggested that the correlation is due to the "most repressed, most obsessed" element. If that is the case, what does it say that people assume that Christians who read the Bible faithfully are also sexually repressed?

I think that the connection is perhaps also due to what people have been told to believe about God. If you tell people to love and even worship a God who even in the "ten commandments" claims to be a jealous God (in God's defense, creating a monotheistic tradition turned out to be pretty difficult; Ex. 20:5; see also Ex. 34:14; Deut. 4:24, 5:9, 6:15, 32:21; Joshua 24:19; Ezekiel 36:5; Nahum 1:12; James 4:5), then it perhaps makes it easier to read right past the jealousy bit in Grey's character. I'm not sure. But why is it that what reads and looks like rather sketchy behavior from Grey - quick to jealousy and anger at the idea that other men like Ana, stalking her, telling her that every part of her pleasure belongs to him - is somehow justifiable from God (Isaiah 43:1; Lev. 25:55)?

Or, to put it a different way, a DV survivor has noted that Psalm 139:1-10 does not sound so lovely when read through her experiences. The control aspect of her abuser meant that he knew every step, every single thing she did, all day (139:1-3). Being hemmed in, behind and before (139:5), is what she experienced at the hand of her abuser. It is often nearly impossible for a victim to safely escape her abuser (139:7-9). And though in the Psalm it is meant to be reassuring and a source of comfort when in reference to God, the idea of an abuser's hand leading, holding fast his victim (139:10) sounds more like a threat and a reminder of who is in control. By the way, this also describes the way Christian Grey behaves toward Anastasia when they are not physically engaged.

I have seen and heard a great deal of what one could almost call panic about this movie from members of the conservative Christian community. This image somewhat sums up the sentiment. It juxtaposes an image of the Fifty Shades tie with one of the Bible, and has a heading, "Which book would you rather guide your daughter's life choices?"

What I don't think people understand is that at least the first book in the Fifty Shades series could actually serve a young woman better than the Bible, relationally, since at the end she does walk away from an emotionally controlling person for her own well-being, and she has learned a great deal about herself in the meantime. The Bible, on the other hand, tells women to stay in abusive relationships (1 Peter 3:1-6, some people say Genesis 16:7-10 does this, too) and talks about women as property of men, from beginning to end. Biblically speaking sex is the prerogative of men, not something women get a say in, except for the brief reference in 1 Corinthians 7 (which is a passage I rarely hear Christians using in discussions about relationships, oddly enough).

I do not think that I can overstate this aspect about the Bible and why it matters, still, today. What is most offensive to me from the book is the element of control and ownership that Grey wishes to have over Steele. These are elements of the precise mentality that men are taught to have towards women if they take the Bible seriously.

Biblically speaking, women are property of men. They are told to be submissive to their husbands, in all things. Ephesians 5:21-33, wherein a woman is to submit to her husband as she does to the Lord, gets a lot of air time in this conversation. The writer of Ephesians sets up a parallel: just as Christ is head of the Church, so too the husband is head over his wife. Without discrediting those couples for whom this dynamic works just fine, I would also like to suggest that insisting on it as proof of one's faithfulness to God borders on abuse and emotional control of women.

Defining a wife's role this way can and has led to a great deal of suffering and abuse for many women. But it goes beyond that, too. The gender inequality that we see in our society is strongly maintained, in part, by religious traditions that require it in the home. What a woman is told or "allowed" to do in the home will define how she "can" interact in the outside world.

If someone wants to say that Ana as an obedient Submissive is problematic (though I think the only problematic part is that she was manipulated into trying it), then please have some integrity and own that same element within your own sacred texts.

There is a reason that I got permission to quote from Alanis Morissette's "Versions of Violence" for my first book. In it she discusses various forms of violence that happen in everyday relationships - withholding, coercing, leaving, shutting down or punishing, explaining and controlling, "the sting I've been ignoring, I feel it way down, way down." It seems to me that she describes the effect of 1 Peter 3:1-6 when it plays out in people's lives. And I shudder at how well Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele's relationship (not sexual encounters) embodies these lyrics.