“Why?” It’s a question toddlers teach us to ask over and over again. I found myself asking that question as movie theatres prepare to roll out 50 Shades of Grey: Why have more than 100 million copies been sold? Why have presumably 100 million women read this particular story? Why is it so magnetic? So I messaged a friend of mine, whose Facebook wall has been filled with a countdown for the film—was she willing to share her perspective? She said she’d call in 15 minutes.
What she told me was not what I was expecting. She focused very little on the kind of sex in the story that is the focus of so many articles critiquing the tale. Instead, she started off by telling me that the main character, Christian Grey, was horrifically abused as a child. That his mother beat him, starved him, and did all kinds of other despicable things to him. He was adopted at the age of 8, but by then untold abuse had been inflicted on this vulnerable child.
His victimization worsened. When he was 15, his adopted mother’s friend convinced him to have sex with her, in what became an adult woman dominating and beating this teenage boy in multiple sexual encounters.
From a psychology perspective, it’s not surprising that as he became an adult, Christian pursued women who looked like his mother and then engaged in violent sex where he had control and enjoyed beating them—doing to them the violence he presumably wished he could have done to his mother when she hurt him so horrifically as a child.
And so the old adage is true: hurting people hurt people. But if we want to help hurting people become healthy people, we don’t let them hurt others. What if Christian’s mother was just acting out on him an abuse that had been done to her? Would we think that okay? What if the adopted mother’s friend was just acting out on Christian something that had been done to her? Would we think that acceptable? Then why would our culture think it okay for Christian to act out on women the domination that had been inflicted on him?
Just because we can understand why people do what they do, it doesn’t mean we tolerate what they do. Consider lawyer David Dow’s TED Talk: One of his clients, Will, was executed for committing murder. Setting aside the death penalty debate, what is heartbreaking about Will’s story is that his life, from its beginnings, was fraught with horror: His father abandoned his mom when she was pregnant with Will. His mom, who had paranoid schizophrenia, tried to kill Will when he was five. He lived with his brother until that brother committed suicide. He was bounced between relatives’ homes until he lived on his own—at the age of 9. Knowing all this can make us feel empathy for Will. But it doesn’t take away the wrongness of what Will did by committing murder.
We don’t have control about whether we are victims. But we do have control about whether we become victimizers. Unfortunately Will was both victim and victimizer. So was Christian Grey. Neither man should be glorified in their role as victimizers just because they should be sympathized in their role as victims.
Yet the temptation is strong perhaps because, as my friend informed me, the story wrestles with topics so near and dear to women’s hearts: self-worth, acceptance, woundedness, and unconditional love. My friend even noted, “Millionaire, good looking man who wants to be with me.” It touches on the desire to be provided for, the desire to be accepted. It touches even on a woman’s desire to nurture (my friend informed me that Ana loved Christian more when she learned of him being abused), but it’s vital this not be overlooked: Christian Grey needed a proper counselor and spiritual healing, not a human to use as a sex toy. Until he had worked through his woundedness—which is possible—he was incapable of being in an interdependent, life-giving, loving, romantic relationship. In his unhealed state, he was employing the manipulation and domination characteristic of people who hurt others—and that is not love; it is not a relationship to be admired or desired (As director of the National Center of Sexual Exploitation points out here).
So when 50 Shades of Grey arouses in women desires in the feminine heart, but gives a response that is the dysfunction of Christian and Ana’s relationship, it provides a counterfeit. Some may think it is love, (just as someone with a counterfeit bill may think it is real) but ultimately their relationship doesn’t coincide with love’s true meaning, which St. Thomas Aquinas so beautifully defined as “to will the good of another.” If we do not will the good of another, then we will use. If we do not will the good of another, then we will abuse.
If we do not will the good of another, and if we were made to will the good of another—if we were made to love and be loved—then we will experience the destructive consequences that flow from going against this nature (should we then be surprised that “According to research from Michigan State University, young women who read Fifty Shades of Grey are more likely than nonreaders to exhibit signs of eating disorders and have a verbally abusive partner. Beyond that, women who’ve read all three of the books in the series were more likely to binge drink and have multiple sexual partners—all of which are behaviors commonly exhibited by women in abusive relationships”)
In light of that, let’s consider, for a moment, what we would do if we had a $100 bill and was informed by a cashier it was a counterfeit. Would we keep it? Would we give it away to others? Or would we throw it out? If 50 Shades is a counterfeit of what real love is and we throw it away, what do we replace it with? First, we find our identity in Christ, our Creator, knowing that He loved us so much He willed us into existence and He died for us. He accepts us. He loves us unconditionally. He heals our wounds. He desires our good. Then, we follow in Christ’s footsteps and we live authentic love.
What does that look like? Dietrich von Hildebrand so beautifully declared, “In the case of truly being in love…I become more sensitive and more reverent.” Consider beautiful, fragile, and valuable things in our world—how do we treat them? How do we handle 100-year-old, million dollar pieces of art? What do we do when the sky is suddenly and dramatically painted with brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows as the sun sets? What happens when we are hiking and come upon a waterfall cascading down a mountain with wild flowers growing in the lush meadow?
In these moments do we seek to disturb? To destroy? To disfigure? Or do we step back with caution and care, in order to marvel? If we love these things, we will respect them. If we love these things, we will preserve them. If we love these things, we will pause with awe and silence and behold their wonder.
If that is how we would respond to something in creation, how much more should we have reverence for creatures, for the human person who is more beautiful and more valuable than any created object? The thought of Christian Grey desecrating the artwork or destroying the beautiful scene with his rough and dehumanizing behaviors is stomach-churning. How much more, then, should we be pained that he do that to a woman—that he desecrate, defile, and despoil an individual who is unrepeatable, irreplaceable, and breathtakingly beautiful.
Consider for a moment what fairy tales we tell our children—they are stories of love, sacrifice, heroic virtue, of using power responsibly, and of focusing on the good of the other. Sexual intimacy should be a manifestation of this kind of beautiful love, while 50 Shades is the exact opposite.
Consider more of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s words that we should aspire to in our relationships:
“The mark of being in love is the clearest antithesis to sex appeal, to mere sexual attraction. Regarding the other only as sexually fascinating and experiencing an isolated sensual desire represents a phenomenon radically different from the true state of being in love. In this state, the beloved stands before us as something immeasurably precious, whose beauty awakens reverence in us…A man who is truly in love gazes upon his beloved with the awareness that ‘I am not worthy of her,’ although with his whole heart he hopes that his love may be requited.
“In the case of isolated sensual desire, where I find someone merely enticing, I am drawn into the periphery. I even become less sensitive, less reverent. In the true state of being in love, the beloved stands before me as a person in a unique way. I take him fully seriously as a person. In a mere sexual attraction, the partner is an object for my satisfaction. In the case of truly being in love, the whole charm of the other sex is embodied in the one beloved person, whereas in sensual desire the other is just one good representation of the other sex among many…
“How much more noble and reverent, more aware, and consequently more lovable is a man made by love! How much richer the cosmos becomes for him and how he is led even to a greater religious depth! For one truly in love, the sun shines more brightly, nature becomes more beautiful, and his entire life is elevated to a higher plane.”
So, as we embrace this vision of authentic love, let us reject its counterfeit like 50 Shades. As the movie comes out this weekend, let’s make a commitment to not only refuse to watch it, but to also boycott theaters that run it by not giving them business the whole time 50 Shades is out. In fact, my boyfriend and I were going to go to a movie tonight, but because that same theater is also playing 50 Shades, we refuse to give the theater our business and will be explaining why to the manager. It is important we send a clear message that this kind of harmful treatment of other humans is not to be glorified and celebrated and that, instead, the alternative—willing the other’s good—is the life-giving example to follow.