HOLLYWOOD — Back in 2012, when Fifty Shades of Grey — a trilogy that depicts a sadomasochistic relationship with a “happily ever after” ending — became a global bestseller, a feminist New York Times columnist struggled to explain the phenomenon.
“In a season when Rick Santorum and other conservatives are on a tear trying to debase women, it’s natural to wonder why women are thronging to the story of an innocent who jumps into the arms of a Seattle sadist,” sniped Maureen Dowd, a Times columnist who regularly flaunts her hostility toward the Catholic faith of her childhood.
Dowd turned for an explanation to authors like Anne Rice, whom she described as “the godmother of vampire and S&M fantasies,” before offering absolution to the women who shared her politics and were shamed by their obsession with the book.
Wrote Dowd, “Rice agrees that submission fantasies are no big deal: ‘A woman has the right to pretend she’s being raped by a pirate if that’s what she wants to pretend. Very few people act out their fantasies, except in Northern California.’”
Almost three years later, such reassurance has soothed the consciences of the trilogy’s many readers, who often consume the books on Kindle without the knowledge of family and friends. No doubt, it has also smoothed the launch of the film and related merchandise at Target and other major department stores.
“The coming attraction for the erotic drama based on the hit E.L. James novel notched more than 36 million YouTube views in its first week,” confirmed The Hollywood Reporter. That news should come as no surprise, given that an estimated 100 million copies of the books have been sold.
But Catholic leaders and mental-health professionals, domestic-violence shelters and victims of sexual abuse have challenged Fifty Shades’ fairy-tale ending.
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has called for a boycott of the film, and using the hashtag #50dollarsnot50shades, a coalition of groups has asked the public to stay home and give the money they would have spent on a movie date to a domestic-violence shelter. Critics have launched petitions calling for theater chains to avoid screening the film and busiesses to bar merchandise tied to the film.
“We are making violence sexy. The message is that it is sexually arousing for a woman to be beaten, chained and whipped,” Mary Anne Layden, a psychotherapist and the director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, told the Register.
Normalizing Destructive Behavior
Researchers studying the impact of such films, said Layden, have confirmed their dangerous power to normalize behavior that destroys individual lives and families.
The glamorization of sexual violence gives “men the message that women like to be hurt,” Layden said. And this “permission-giving” triggers a range of behaviors, from abusive relationships and engaging in extramarital affairs to seeking out prostitutes and increased use of pornography.
In her professional practice, Layden treats victims and perpetrators of sexual violence. The road to recovery is not easy, she said, but the film, which ends with the couple getting married, suggests a very dangerous course of treatment: “Though Grey is a psychopath, she loves him and that cures him.”
“It was that easy: They beat you up, and you love them in return,” she observed with dismay.
Amid an era marked by increased awareness of sexual assaults on college campuses and the sexual trafficking of women in the United States and across the globe, Layden and other experts said the film appears to rationalize, rather than condemn, such activity.
Dr. Miriam Grossman, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who has seen her blog “A Parent’s Survival Guide to Fifty Shades of Grey” go viral on the Internet, argues that the film will sow confusion about what constitutes a morally sound, emotionally healthy sexual relationship.
“The title, Fifty Shades of Grey, says it all: It suggests everything in relationships is grey, instead of certain things being black and white,” Grossman told the Register.
“All the behaviors of Christian Grey are, in one form or another, abusive, controlling and manipulative. But the movie and the books suggest that there are times when this is okay; there are people who do this who are good,” she added, echoing the message of her letter to young people about the dangers the film poses to their well-being.
While the sadomasochistic encounters depicted in the film are rare in general society, she noted, the film plants a “seed of doubt” about whether women should resist more common forms of abusive behavior, like domestic and intimate-partner violence.
Bishops Speak Out
A number of U.S. bishops have also targeted the film’s glossy portrait of sexual deviancy and asked why Americans aren't pushing back.
"I wonder what our decision to objectify women in situations of sexual violence — and to support the industry which fuels it — says about us and about our society?" asked Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Va., in a post on First Things that reflected on his efforts to counsel men dealing with pornography addiction.
"Though by the entertainment industry’s standards, this movie is not classified as pornographic, it normalizes the intertwining of sex and violence, that old pornographic standby."
While critiquing the film's mssage, the bishops have also offered a contrasting vision of conjugal union that offers love, fulfillment and healing to couples, rather than brutalizing them.
“We need to inform our people about the destructive message of this movie and to highlight the beauty of God's design for loving relationships between a husband and wife," Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati wrote in a Feb. 4 letter to local Catholics.
The archbishop’s letter sparked headlines, and a Cincinnati paper asked readers — and singled out Catholics — to “vote” on whether they still planned to watch the movie. The majority of Catholics and others who responded said they would avoid the film.
Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver used his critique of the film as an opportunity to contrast the violent sexual encounters it celebrates with a reverential treatment of the body that arises from a respect for the human person’s inalienable dignity.
The film promotes “the idea that mutual physical, emotional and psychological exploitation is acceptable,” wrote Archbishop Aquila, who then presented St. John Paul II’s theology of the body as an antidote to such thinking.
“God desires each of us to be loved and to give love, not to victimize one another. This truth is so fundamental to our nature that he designed our bodies to communicate it through our actions,” wrote Archbishop Aquila.
“Every person, Catholic or not, should learn about the theology of the body, because it offers the antidote to the degraded sexuality the secular culture is promoting and raises people to their true dignity.”
Why Are Some Women Attracted?
Yet the tsunami of publicity and hype stirred by the film’s arrival in movie theaters across the country has also prompted commentators to consider why it appears to be tapping into some deep desire by some women to engage in fantasies that present male domination, often in abusive and violent forms, as sexy.
In a Feb. 10 commentary posted for First Things, Joseph Heschmeyer, a student at the North American College in Rome, ventured to offer a partial explanation for this provoking turn of events.
“[T]here’s a hunger that’s not being satisfied: namely, for men who are unabashedly masculine, who aren’t afraid to take control and to lead,” wrote Heschmeyer.
The “modern crusade for ‘genderlessness’” has discouraged men from embracing their traditional role of protector and defender, he noted. Yet social researchers have found that the “more traditional the division of labor” among married couples, the greater the “wife’s reported sexual satisfaction.”
“Understood in this way, the Fifty Shades series is just one part of a broader cultural pushback against the war on gender, but the reaction, at least in the form of films romanticizing a psychopathic control freak like Christian Grey, will do little to address the underlying pain and confusion.”
“Having repressed healthy masculinity, what bubbles up through the cracks is a crude distortion of the real thing,” Heschmeyer concluded, “and our enjoyment of it is confined to the level of fantasy.”
In the weeks ahead, the film will likely provoke a wealth of cultural analysis that probes the disquieting contradiction of Hollywood, news media and the academy expressing alarm at the level of sexual assaults on campus but promoting or shrugging off a film that glamorizes such behavior.
On the surface, at least, the movie industry, women’s magazines and sectors of the business community seem unfazed by a movie’s seductive treatment of a toxic relationship. Target offers a Fifty Shades’ massage candle, and Nordstrom features a lingerie line inspired by the story.
Meanwhile, EWTN Radio host Teresa Tomeo said she is dismayed that many Catholics have read the book and plan to see the film.
“People are taken aback when I say, ‘Do you know what the Church says about pornography?’” Tomeo told the Register, noting that she has raised the subject repeatedly on her radio show and in speaking engagements in the lead-up to the film.
Tomeo recalled that, after one speaking engagement, during which she criticized Fifty Shades, she learned that Catholics had expressed remorse for reading the books during confessions that took place after her address.
Dawn Eden, a Catholic author who has published a book about her experience of child sexual abuse, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds With the Help of the Saints, and another on chastity, The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition), called on Catholic women to deepen their appreciation of the Church’s vision of sexual complementarity and married love.
At the same time, she added, they should discard the confused, dangerous message of the story — including when an influential columnist like Maureen Dowd promotes the message.
“Maureen Dowd’s sex-positive feminism sees sex as a tool for both power and pleasure,” Eden told the Register.
“But I don’t see how anyone can honestly write that a story like this is empowering. If it feels empowering, then it does so in the same way that taking cocaine feels empowering.
“Real power, as defined in Latin, is virtus — the power of virtue — being able to devote your entire self to seek the truth that makes you truly happy.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.