50 shades of moral decay

The controversial film “Fifty Shades of Grey” hit theaters across the country on Valentine’s Day weekend, and Americans flocked to see it. According to the ticketing service corporation Fandango, the film was the “fastest selling R-rated title” in the company’s history, even “outpacing other R-rated hits such as the second and third ‘Hangover’ films and ‘Gone Girl.'” The movie has scored over $230 million at the box office worldwide, and been pirated online over 450,000 times.
Additionally, the film has become a cultural icon, sparking discussion around the country about issues of gender, sex, power and exploitation.
The Record spoke to associate professor of theology Beth Jones about the film, discussing her work on the popular romance series “Twilight,” “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and the cultural implications they yield. Dr. Jones has written the book “Touched by a Vampire: Discovering the hidden messages in the Twilight saga,” and is currently working on a review of “Fifty Shades of Grey” for “The Christian Century.”
Record: What first got you interested in the “Twilight” series? What is the connection between “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades of Grey?”
Beth Jones: I’m a reader. I read everything. I switch between popular stuff and classic stuff, and if something is as popular as Twilight, I want to know what’s going on. When I read the last book in the Twilight series, I got frustrated with some of the things that were going on, particularly as they relate to how young women –all women– are being encouraged to think about their identities through that narrative. So I happened to write a blog piece about it, which led to this book. I never thought I would sit down and write a book about Twilight, but I was asked to, and it gave me a chance to talk about things I really care about: sex, gender, family, marriage and love and how all those things affect us as disciples. So the themes were things I wanted to talk about. My colleagues still tease me about the vampires.
When I first heard about Shades of Grey I laughed because I never would have thought of it in a million years — the idea of domination fan fiction — but when somebody mentioned it to me, I thought, “of course. That’s exactly what Twilight is. It’s about a controlling relationship where the girl gives up her whole life and identity in order to be with the dangerous boy who is going to destroy her.” Strangely enough, Fifty Shades is a faithful translation of Twilight in lots of ways. There are similar relationships. For instance, both of the female characters are really clumsy, which is really the only thing to say about them. They’re these clumsy girls who are pretty, but they don’t think they’re pretty, and they trip over their own feet a lot. The big picture is that sex, romance and love is a danger to women and destroys who they are. Of course in Shades of Grey it’s pornified and eroticized in a way that it’s not in Twilight, although I think the wedding night scene in Twilight might do more damage to marriages than Fifty Shades of Grey in certain ways. The idea is the same: “Sex is dangerous. You wake up with bruises.” It’s really horrifying.
Why do you think “Fifty Shades” has become so popular in the cultural sphere?
BJ: It’s interesting, I read a Salon piece this week that said something to the effect of: “I’ve never agreed with crazy, fundamentalist Christians before, but I do about this.” So there are some unexpected allies on the topic. However, I also think that we live in a misogynistic culture. We’re all socialized, at least on some level, to eroticize violence. So somehow this movie strikes a chord with all of that. It’s not as though there are these good people who don’t find violence erotic, and bad people who do. I think our whole society finds violence erotic. And the film plays on that.
Do you see this film as playing into a larger conversation about issues of sexual assault, misogyny, patriarchy, etc.?
BJ: Absolutely. It’s one of the ironies of our sinful world that at the same time we’re trying to raise awareness about sexual assault, we have this “violence against women fantasy” selling hundreds of millions of copies. The culture in which we need to become aware of consent is the same culture that sells this sick fantasy.
What would you say to students who are thinking about seeing Fifty Shades of Grey, or whose interests have been sparked?
BJ: Honestly, I think the trailer sparks all of our interests, because we’re shaped by a sinful world. I would counsel against seeing it. Even though it’s related to things I write about in my professional life, I’ve also chosen not to see it. Once you have an image of something like that in your head, it sticks. Our sexual imaginations continue to be trained by what we take in and see. So if we can be aware that we’re all interested, but also be aware that that’s a bad idea, then we can take some responsibility for training our imaginations by avoiding certain types of content. I don’t think anyone should feel guilty about that spark of interest. But I think we have to recognize it for what it is, which is interest in a type of sexuality that is not God’s interest for us. That is not about the type of relationship described in Ephesians 5 where someone loves their wife as much as their own body. If we can raise an antenna, it can help us to make good choices.
You just mentioned Ephesians 5. Are there any other passages that you think we could frame the context of this movie in theologically?
BJ: I think about the whole story of Scripture in which we see that God is the lover and we are the beloved. We learn from that story what love is supposed to look like. It doesn’t look like hitting women with riding crops. I think of Paul’s discussion of sex in 1 Corinthians 7, particularly where he counsels married couples not to deprive each other because their bodies aren’t their own. In the Greco-Roman context everyone assumed that the wife’s body was not her own–and maybe in our context too if Fifty Shades of Grey is this popular–but for Paul to say the husband’s body is not his own is really startling. It implies a mutuality and a give-and-take, and real togetherness that this kind of domination fantasy is the direct opposite of.
The movie also seems to muddle the concepts of consent and abuse. How do we think through those issues?
BJ: It’s really important. It does muddle the concept of consent. In the part of the book I read, the man is always stressing that this is consensual. But consent means to really work together, to be together, to want together, and that is clearly not what is going on in 50 Shades. This is one of the reasons that Christians understand that sex belongs in marriage, because marriage is a kind of public, communal context for consent where you’re not just alone trying to decide whether to do something someone wants you to do in order to make that person love you. Instead, you’ve stood up in front of your church and in front of your community and said we’re in this really intimate, really vulnerable, possibly (because we’re sinners) really dangerous relationship with each other, and we need a communal accountability structure to help us through. I don’t think consent can be confidential. I don’t buy it.
Do you have any other comments?
BJ: I think consent really is a fundamentally Christian idea. I think Christians invented consensual sex. But the way our culture uses the idea is not Christian at all because it’s individualized and it’s reduced to what I want, what you want, and it’s not put into the context of God’s bigger plan.

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