Film essays · Religion

A balanced perspective on Fifty Shades of Grey.

"I'm just going to sit here and watch you as you read. 'Cos I'm creepy."
“I’m just going to sit here and watch you as you read. ‘Cos I’m creepy.”

Judging from some of the outraged reactions Christians have been having towards the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, released on Valentine’s Day, you’d be forgiven for thinking it signals the end of wholesome cinema (such a thing never existed) and/ or will somehow lead all females everywhere to actively seek out abusive relationships (just as certain video games actively encourage little boys to be violent, right?) – and most of all, is a terrible way for couples to use their day of ‘celebrating love’ if they should go and see it.

Wait a minute… I’m pretty sure Christians have traditionally degraded that last one because of the commercially driven way in which Valentine’s Day is typically viewed. Or does this secular ‘celebration of love’ (kept alive mainly by the outlets that want you to buy their flowers and chocolates) suddenly become your best friend when you have something more negative to compare it to?

Now, I could have written a number of different pieces on the topic here. I could have dissected not only the above points, but also discussed how, no, there doesn’t exist any evidence to suggest that abusive relationships have suddenly risen in the past few years since the Fifty Shades of Grey novels first appeared on the market.

Even if abusive relationships had risen in this time, correlation does not equal causation. What I mean by that is: just because a woman who may have read these books also happens to be in an abusive relationship, does not automatically mean the two are directly linked, or that one caused the other. While I can understand why you’d be eager to make this link (after all, abusive relationships are a horrible thing and you may feel emotionally charged about the subject to the point where you’ll look to find the nearest possible cause to blame), that’s a very big jump to assume.

I’d hope most people can see that, but it seems many don’t, including this article. Some would look at that situation and say such a conclusion is ‘so obvious’ that you have to either ‘be completely blind’ or ‘living on another planet’ not to see it. Actual evidence usually has little effect on such a closed mindset.

Those who are genuinely concerned about the kind of message these novels give, along with its subsequent film adaptation, understand that I’m right there with you on that. I don’t think the books had any great literary value and the film, while I likely won’t be giving it my money, is apparently, according to early reviews, actually an improvement on them. In fact, if anything I’d daresay it lessens the worrying tone of the books that came before it. Take this quote from Total Film’s review of the film, which it awarded with a distinctly dull two stars:

“What makes Fifty Shades so anticlimactic is that it actually starts promisingly: the light-touch first half is actually pretty funny, to the extent that it feels like a good movie-within-a-movie, a smart parody of the source material. It wills you to laugh at some of the dialogue and scenarios the book wants you to take seriously: a line like “I don’t make love – I fuck. Hard.” was surely designed for ironic whoops rather than genuine cooing.”

This film is not promotional material; it’s not something that’s going to lead every female watching to think the kind of sexual bondage it features is some dreamy thing to actively go out and seek; it doesn’t portray itself as taking any moral high ground. It sounds rather more like some kind of caricature of our society’s fascination with sex. And all Christians have that fascination as well. Don’t pretend you do not. You may approach it differently, you may contextualise it differently, but sex is a natural human instinct, important to all of us in some way whether we’re abstaining from it or actively enjoying it.

That’s the heart of the real frustration here for some people: the fact that others have different tastes to them. Believe it or not there are people out there who do find the bondage thing genuinely kind of sexy. There are many women who love the idea of a ‘bad boy’, if not the reality of him. It is these individual preferences to which this film (very clearly a fiction narrative) primarily appeals, and that it has reached such a large audience should tell you there’s a lot of them out there. Yes, even among Christians; hence why the more conservative see this text as such a danger. They don’t think these individual tastes are things other people should have.

Again, I reiterate that underneath the exterior, I don’t think the Fifty Shades story carries positive undertones for men, women, or storytelling in general. It pained me that the books became so profitable, and it pains me further still that the film gets a big Hollywood release. Even more, it pains me that everyone is giving it the attention it wants by talking about it. I debated whether I should do so myself, wary of giving the film extra publicity that it could really do without. As I have also mentioned before: the best way to prevent others becoming more interested in a particular film, book or video game (if this is truly what you want) is simply to starve it of your attention. For many things that rely on making a profit, this is the best way to stop supporting it.

However, that’s not really my point here. The reason I’m not going to write a fully detailed piece on this whole affair is because I’ve coincidentally already covered everything I have to say in a previous article: my piece about freedom of expression, which I posted just over a week ago. In that I also touched on how and why violence in video games is not in any way related to violence in real life (despite what American sensationalist media has tried to spoon-feed its society); there is quite simply no existing evidence to support such an audacious claim.

But now, some are latching onto Fifty Shades of Grey in the same way. Now they’re going beyond saying “I wouldn’t recommend you see this movie for these reasons” to saying “this movie is a downright evil piece of trash that sets out to destroy the lives of all women”. I’m sorry, I can’t agree with you there. Any criticism of the movie should be made with integrity at least, and from all reasonable accounts, it doesn’t come with ulterior motives to win innocent girls round to its seductive ways. It is instead, from what I’ve heard, rather dull. Though from the point of view of some critics, that makes it worse than the somewhat tempting, sensual piece some of you would prefer it to be.

So what do I consider a reasonable account? One that is balanced, for starters, one that looks at both sides and takes more things into account than just “I think this and am going to win others over with passionate words”. A good article is one that shows it has been researched, that its facts and arguments have foundation outside of the whims of its author. Passion is great, but not more important than truth. And I’m afraid a great many of you often use the former to exaggerate or even fabricate the latter.

My final point is simple, and it is pertinent to those Christians who misinterpret this movie as another form of ‘us against secular society’. Actually, there are a great number of negative reactions to the whole Fifty Shades saga from that end as well. This is generally considered a ‘lowbrow’ story, and isn’t exactly being celebrated by secular critics. It is quite far from a broad secular attack against Christianity or sexual values (which, despite your feelings to the contrary, are subjective to each individual) and, frankly, would have been a more interesting film if it were.

Short of asking you to be more tolerant of other people’s opinions and possibly, even for a moment, expand your horizons beyond your own individual tastes, I don’t know how much clearer I can say it… Though I’ll try simplifying the dilemma for those who may be confused by the stance I’m taking on it:

If you’re a Christian, there are some who recommend you don’t go to watch Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m one of them. I don’t think you’ll enjoy it – in fact I don’t think many people in general will enjoy it – and you’ll have to deal with the derogatory looks and comments you may be on the receiving end of from certain other members of your congregation next time you’re in church. But ultimately I would also say, if you were overly curious to see what all the hype is about, then it’s fine for you to go to watch this movie. You have a choice, and it’s your own personal responsibility to ensure it’s an informed one. This film’s not out to destroy your soul, or force you into the type of relationship you’d otherwise be uncomfortable with.

Not enjoying it really is the worst thing that can happen in this case. Nothing more, nothing less. Though as it is an 18-rated film (at least here in the UK), I trust you won’t be taking your young sons and daughters along.


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