The 50 Shades Fallacy: A Homily for St Hallmark’s (I Mean Valentine’s) Day

50 Shades of kicking American Sniper’s $#^. That’s what’s on tap for this weekend. This is[1] the weekend in which America’s female stand up and take revenge for having been dragged to American Sniper.[2] The prognosticators are not sure but cautiously predicting a big weekend for the you-so-naughty[3] 50 Shades of Mediocre Writing / Bad Actor Chemistry.  To be sure if pre-sales are any indication, the film will make some green this weekend. Pre-ticket sales are above average almost everywhere; especially here in the Bible Belt. [4] All this for a film with many a person debating the merits of watching.

This has led to much discussion on the nets about the reasons for this. It’s not that the film is an instant classic featuring brilliant writing, complex characters, surprisingly twisty drama,[5] or virtuoso acting. The previews have been mostly bland– I mean to the point that you almost wonder if casting Kevin Costner and Kristin Stewart might have led to more facial expressions and emotive acting from the leads. The publicity tour has been a train wreck watching two people that obviously don’t like each other try to sit in a room together in front of a dozen people and pretend they care (have we mentioned the George Lucas levels of emotive acting on display, yet). The lead actor Jamie Dornan even went so far as to compare the popularity of his film to that of Hitler.[6] The lead actress Dakota Johnson has seen a great will-she-won’t-she over whether she will allow her parents (normally averse to gag producing material- see Don Johnson on that show with Cheech for example). Never have two leads sold their movies better.

Some have said it is the sex. Others have said it’s not the sex. There have been discussions of wish fulfillment, female empowerment (really…), abuse (yeah…), and escapism on note. Multiple pastor friends have taken unusual steps taking to social media asking their congregation not to see it (which may be better advertising for the film than the actors did in the film tour).

But as all this comes on St Valentine’s Weekend, one is left wondering about what this might say for our peculiar culture at this time. Now. Let me say here that I would normally try not to seriously harp on anyone’s escapism. We all need things to take our minds off life for a while, and veg. I use Star Wars and comic books (don’t laugh). They allow me a moment to leave the confines of the South and flee to a time long ago. Escapism can be healthy, fun, and fiction works do have an advantage in that they allow you to build empathy.

Yet I wonder what our Rom-Com says about us?[7] One of the words that always come up when discussing 50 Shades is porn. To be sure the book is correctly placed in store’s erotica section. There are sex scenes that would make your momma blush-[8] no matter how poorly written- there are there. For me, I can’t get behind the troubling characters, for the record I also have the same hang-up with the source material.[9] I spent almost five years working in bookstores and had the most trouble with many of the romance books, for this same reason: what we tell males about porn. Read any article written to males about porn and you will find a question: what would your (closest female presence) think about their portrayal in these films and how are they dealing with the wronged assumptions you are making about them due to this consumption. Whenever I read an essay about porn, this comes up. Use of porn will influence my views of women (or whatever it is supposed the reader is looking at for sexual gratification). I think there is something to this argument. I am concerned about sexual objectification. I think it is real and it is damaging.[10]

Yet in a good for the goose way, I think a similar concern might be raised for some romance materials.[11] I might ask when you pick up an erotica novel such as 50 Shades, a romance in what I will call the Handsome Rogue category, or even a teen novel such as Twilight; and rave about your love for Bella or Ana, I wonder what the (closest male presence) in your life is to think. Just as porn inevitably creates women as sexpots with only a utility to serve men in a specific way; many of these lost boys (I refuse to call them men) are rude, crude, rich, powerful, charmed, pushy, and vain. If I were to treat a real-life woman the way that Edward or Christian does, I wonder how soon the restraining order is placed. It seems so frustrating, really, are we to be pushy or appropriate?

Just as I worry about all the boys sitting around their mom’s basements being taught to believe that women were put here to meet their sexual needs. I worry about the girls sitting around the couches of Starbucks being taught to believe that Edward or Christian the alpha, the thing to sought to fulfill your desires for relevance and / or bad sex. I feel for the women that can’t walk through New York without being barraged by male privilege; but also worry about the frustrations of the men sitting at home paying the bills, taking care of the children, and being real; while their wives dream of being swept off their feet by a charming billionaire with a penchant for risqué sex. In both incidences we are idealized the other into oblivion. In the one instance[12] the viewer learns that the other is a sex object (their importance drives from the ability to provide sexual release); in the other, the viewer learns that the other is an emotional accessory (their importance drives from the ability to overwhelm and emotively move).

This is not to oversimplify. Complexity is often good and people are complex beings. We say this is what we want and then when given the choice choose the opposite. As with anything the problem is not the thing itself, per se; but the diminishment of everything else to the expense of the one dimension.

As the furthest thing from a bad boy, I have been raised on a diet of bad boys get the girls books (but told this is not real); yet struggles in the dating world seem to come. I wonder how am I to be your Edward (not that I want to). I wonder what a male raised to have a high view of females, and trained to be kind, gentle, and nice is to do. Do you want to be loved or degraded? Is being in love having to deal with the abstractions of the rich, powerful, charming, but not always there bad boy just the price of love?

Or is there another way? And if there is would you take or will you continue to search for your Prince Charming?[13] If we truly want to find love and that everlasting, I propose we will need more than a one-dimensional being to do so. Yet with any real person there are trade-offs and setbacks. Just as the boy in the basement needs to learn that perhaps the frustrating perplexity of a real woman is worth it; so we need to see that the real men should be more than just something to give you the feels.

[1] Possibly.

[2] Maybe.

[3] You pinkie must be in your mouth as you say this in your best Southern drawl.

[4] If you know what I mean.

[5] Well…

[6] I mean normally only political partisans compare things (loved by the other side of the debate) to Hitler. I mean, they can’t even follow internet protocols for busting on something.

[7] And before anyone gets upset, I think these questions can be asked about Marvel Universe or Star Wars.

[8] She may be reading it for that purpose.

[9] I mean Twilight of course.

[10] A piece today in the NYT discussed a troubling relationship between a Stanford student and mentor with troubling undercurrents. See here: .

[11] For the record I like a good rom-com as much as the next; but again believe in considering what I am viewing.

[12] And forgive me for making this a male –female thing. The situations could very well be reversed. Women need sex. Men need relevance. It’s not a black or white thing- there are greys (maybe even 50 shades of it).

[13] In the vein of the Prince in Bill Willingham’s Fables telling.


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